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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019 John Alleyn

Chapter 19

After all that, the feast itself felt almost like anticlimax. Kráva sat at her place at the Sun-clan’s table, and smiled when others praised her, and tried to eat and drink as if she still had an appetite.

Killing skátoi was one thing. Killing a human enemy in the heat of battle, when he had come at her with violence in his eyes and a weapon in his hands, was one thing. Killing another member of her own tribe in cold blood, someone who spoke the same language and followed the same gods, that was another matter entirely. Especially when she knew that all had been at Múrvira’s will. That she had been the instrument of kingly murder, as surely as if he had wielded the blade himself.

She kept seeing that moment, that shift in Kórlo’s face when he realized how profound a mistake he had made. That moment when he realized his kinsman, his king had thrown him to the wolves. Just before Tarankláva had severed his spine. She kept feeling that small crunch in her wrist, when his life had ended.

“Not hungry?” murmured Resavíra in her ear.

She shook her head, swallowed her misgivings, and forced herself to take a hearty bite of roast pork and a swig of the excellent wine. “I’ll be all right.”

“I understand,” he said, and she heard surprising sympathy in his voice. “It’s our way, Kráva. It’s how we choose our champions, the boldest and the bravest among us, the ones most favored by the gods. It’s how we resolve the disputes that can’t otherwise be resolved.”

“I know. It still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.”

“Better that, than your head rolling in the dust.”

Kráva gave him a sharp glance. “That business with Vevára, and the geas he placed on me. Was that your doing?”

Resavíra smiled slightly, taking a sip of his own wine. “I had a word with the vaita yesterday, in private. I think he would approve of your marriage to Múrvira, but he agreed to remove any pressure on you to give him an answer, at least until any war that takes place this summer is over.”

“Did you tell him how I feel about Múrvira?” she asked, lowering her voice still more.

“Certainly not. I’m still hoping to convince you to change your mind about that.”

Kráva glanced over to where the king sat, laughing and feasting, apparently without a care in the world. She still felt that knot of ice-cold hatred, buried deep in her belly. “Don’t raise your hopes too high, Uncle.”

---

Once most of the food was gone, and Múrvira himself had finished his meal, he rose from his seat and rapped on the table with his dagger-hilt once more. It took a little longer for the hall to quiet this time, but before long he had everyone’s attention. Then, when he spoke, he projected his voice to fill the hall, even to the far end and the great closed doors.

“We have already seen great deeds done here this evening. Yet there is still much that must be said, much that all here must know, and weighty redes to take before the night ends.” He paused, slowly looking around the hall. “Before we begin: I am Múrvira, called the Crafty, child of Kórsarem and Róthania. My clan is High Grove, my tribe is Ravatheni, and by Sky Father’s favor and the fair election of my peers, I am king of this tribe. Does anyone challenge my right to preside over this assembly?”

There was deathly silence, all around the hall. If anyone might have thought to speak up in challenge, Kórlo’s death had put a chill down their backs and doubt in their hearts. Kráva’s hand tightened for a moment on the hilt of her sword, but she neither moved nor spoke otherwise.

“Then I call upon Vevára to testify first,” said the king, resuming his seat.

The senior vaita rose from his place, leaning on his heavy staff and looking older and more tired than usual. At least his tenor voice still carried, holding the attention of every man and woman in the hall. “Fifteen days ago,” he said, “the king and I were at Stántari Mórë, preparing for the observances at the summer solstice. That evening, while I slept, the gods showed me a vision of foes striking across the eastern borders of our land, looting and killing. I saw Taimar Velkari in danger of fire. When I awoke, I went at once to Múrvira King and warned him of what I had seen.”

“I spent much of that night organizing an expedition,” said the king, picking up the thread. “As soon as we had witnessed sunrise over the stones, I led a hundred of my warriors eastward. We moved as quickly as we could, but we did not arrive at Taimar Velkari until the morning of the second day. We found that the Wolf-clan had already fought a battle against skátoi the night before.”

That provoked a low rumble of talk, although little of it was surprised. Word of the skátoi attack had already spread widely.

When called upon, Dúvelka rose at his place to tell the story of the attack on Tamar Velkari. Várkora and Drúthan both provided details. Kráva was also called to rise and tell of her father’s fight against the enemy chieftain, and how she had avenged him in the end.

“This was when the sword you now bear came to you?” asked a bass voice from Kráva’s right. She turned a little, to see Betrósa, the chieftain of Black Boar clan, standing at his place. “You did not have it when Derga visited our taimar, two hands of days before.”

“That is so, arai,” she told him. “The skátë chieftain wielded it against my father, and so he was slain. Then I slew the skátë, and took the blade from it as man-price for Derga.”

“You stood against that sword?” Betrósa demanded, looking skeptical.

“The foe had already been hurt, by my father’s blade and by my own arrows, before I engaged it,” Kráva said calmly. “After which I had a great deal of good fortune, or perhaps the favor of Sky Father.”

Slowly, Betrósa nodded. “That, I can well believe. Thank you, Kráva.”

“I am confused by one matter,” asked another, an older warrior in High Grove colors, sitting almost directly across from Kráva. “At this time, you did not know you were of the blood of the gods?”

“No,” Kráva answered. “I was never told of the possibility while my father still lived. That knowledge came to me later.”

Resavíra spoke up from beside Kráva. “Derga and I, and Tívetha while she still lived, we all agreed that Kráva should not be told unless Sky Father plainly made a claim upon her. She would doubtless have heard the truth eventually, but as of this summer she remained ignorant of her descent.”

The High Grove warrior nodded, and waved a hand to show he was done.

“The next part of the tale will answer these questions,” said Múrvira. “I fear that while I stayed at Taimar Velkari the next day, while we gave the Wolf-clan dead and Derga the Mighty honorable burial, Kráva discovered good reason to mistrust me and my men. She left the taimar under cover of night, planning to return to Taimar Nár, but she never arrived there.”

Kráva took a deep breath, and then launched into this part of her story. The hall grew silent, as all listened to the tale of her flight from Taimar Velkari, the visitation from Sky Father, the turn northward, the battles against the skátoi at the farmstead and the Red Deer village. She told the story simply, like a soldier delivering a report, without any of the flourishes or rhetorical tricks that the...






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