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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 18

Two evenings later, the Sun-clan climbed the long path up the hill of Verkanta, to reach the front doors of Mednákalë. Resavíra was there, and his grown sons Rótrena and Várdan, and Kráva to represent her branch of the chieftain’s family. Twenty more followed, warriors, shield-women, and vaitai, to make a show of Sun-clan strength and power; Dánia and Mírsetha were among these. Four more warriors trailed behind, escorting and protecting Galadan, in case he should be called on during the assembly.

As with all the others, Kráva had taken care to dress well and prepare her gear. She was in her finest tunic and breeches, a new cloak streaming in the breeze behind her, all of it trimmed with gold thread and raven’s feathers. Her boots had been polished until they shone. Tarankláva rode at her hip, the new sword-belt and scabbard rich with knot-work incised into the leather. She wore a band of gold about her right arm, Múrvira’s gift, and a new silver torc rested around her neck. She bore her new shield, painted with a Raven on a green field.

The path leading up to the king’s mead-hall was lit by many torches, and the open ground before the great doors was ablaze with firelight. Already over a hundred others had come, and some of them still lingered outside to talk under the last light of the fading day. Kráva saw none of the Wolf-clan, and decided they must have already gone inside to find their seats. She did see men of the Black Boar clan, under their chieftain Betrósa, whom she and her father had met earlier that summer. Aside from the great clans – High Grove, Sun, Wolf, and Black Boar – she saw men and women she recognized from several of the lesser. Kesdan stood there, looking pugnacious and ill-at-ease as usual, with a single Red Deer warrior to guard him.

“Come,” commanded Resavíra, and he forged ahead through the crowd, leading his people into the hall.

As soon as the Sun-clan entered, a squadron of slaves appeared, bowing to Resavíra and offering to guide them around the outside of the hall. They soon found that the king had awarded them seats at the table immediately to his right, even displacing some of his own High Grove clansmen.

Kráva wasn’t sure how she felt about that honor. She worried that Múrvira might be about to make an announcement that she did not want made. Still, she sat down in her place to Resavíra’s immediate left, which set her uncomfortably close to the king’s table. Dánia took Kráva’s shield and hung it on the wall behind her, before finding her own place much further down.

Once Kráva had a chance to look around the hall, she finally saw the Wolf-clan: old Dúvelka, Várkora just arrived from the eastern marches, Drúthan looking somber as always, Kúndan and Lóka in their white vaita’s robes, and a few others that she knew. They were all seated along the far side of the hall, to the king’s left and about halfway to the doors. Not a bad position if one wanted to see and hear what was going on, but not a place of honor for one of the great clans. She could see that Dúvelka was as calm and impassive as ever, but Várkora looked as if he wanted to be angry but didn’t quite dare. Kráva frowned to herself, wondering if Múrvira was sending a message.

The last of those lingering outside came into the hall and found their places. The roar of conversation peaked, then began to decline. Finally, Múrvira appeared from his private quarters in the back of the hall, striding over to his place at the foremost table.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Vevára had risen to his feet, and now pounded upon the floor with the full weight of his heavy staff. “All attend to the king!” he shouted, his voice loud enough to cut through the last of the company’s rumble. All fell silent at once.

“I welcome all of you to this feast,” Múrvira declaimed. “We have weighty matters to discuss this night, upon which all the future of our tribe must depend. Yet that can wait until after we eat and drink to our heart’s content. Therefore, I present to you the aremdavam, the hero’s portion!”

On cue, the king’s slaves began to emerge from the kitchens, bearing an astonishing array of food. First came four brawny male slaves, carrying a massive wooden platter on two sturdy poles, on which rested the roasted carcass of an entire wild boar. This was followed by two more slaves carrying a heavy bronze cauldron full of wine, and then still more bearing baked honey-cakes on wooden trays. All of this was piled up on a table in the center of the hall, while all the onlooking warriors stomped and bellowed their approval of the king’s generosity.

Once the slaves had finished setting down their burdens, the king rapped on the table before him with the hilt of a dagger, calling all attention to himself once more. He smirked maliciously as he scanned the eager ranks of his nobles and warriors.

“As to the name of the champion who has richly earned this honor? I give you Kráva, called the Swift, child of Derga and Tívetha, whose clan is Sun!”

Kráva sat stock-still, taken by surprise, her mind working fast.

Even before the king finished speaking, the mood of the hall changed dramatically. Some shouted in approval: the Sun-clan folk near Kráva, the Wolf-clan across the hall, Red Deer clan from their place by the doors, a few of the young warriors she had spent time with in the past few days. Yet many were confused at best, actively outraged at worst, and among these none were more vocal than a knot of High Grove clansmen to the king’s left.

One of these rose and strode forward, a burly man with a shaven...

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