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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 20

Morning came, and with it the dull pain that came of far too much beer and wine the night before. Kráva rose from her cold cot, pulled on her third-best tunic, and emerged from the tiny chamber where she had slept since Resavíra’s arrival.

She leaned over the railing and looked out over the main floor of the hall, and saw most of the warriors already up and moving. Resavíra sat with Lóka and Drúthan at a table near the head of the hall, all three looking indecently awake and cheerful. Sighing and muttering to herself, she climbed down the ladder and went to join them.

“There she is at last,” said Resavíra as she approached.

“Good morning, Kráva,” said Drúthan, smiling wryly at her.

“Beware, Drúthan. As you can see, mornings are not our Kráva’s best friend. Take heed, if you plan to share many of them with her.”

“That is a vile slander,” said Kráva. “I am very fond of most mornings. Mornings after a night of violence and hard drinking? That is a different matter.”

Still, she managed to smile at the woman slave who hurried up to her with a platter of bread and honeycomb, and a clay cup of peppermint tea. After a few sips had settled her stomach, she began to eat with something approaching an appetite.

“So,” she said at last. “There is to be no war, I have doubtless earned the hatred of half of High Grove clan, and Múrvira surely knows by now that I have no interest in marrying him. Meanwhile, my friends and I are being shot at by unknown parties. Can anything else go amiss?”

“The day is young,” Lóka murmured.

Kráva snorted in disgust. “Uncle, I am beginning to wonder whether it would be best for us to pack up and return home to Taimar Nár.”

“The thought had occurred to me,” Resavíra admitted. “Am I correct in my guess that you and Drúthan are likely to . . . become more than friends, as soon as the winter solstice is past?”

She glanced at Drúthan and caught him watching her, calmly, without expectations. She considered the wording of Vevára’s geas, and chose her words carefully. “Yes, I would say that is very likely.”

“So be it. You are your father’s only heir, so you stand to inherit wide lands in the Iron Hills. The people there know you, but not as their liege, and they know Drúthan not at all. It might be well for the two of you to take up residence in your father’s hall – your hall now – for a few months before your situation changes.” Resavíra gave them an uncharacteristic grin. “Unless you think that would be too strong a temptation to break the geas and your oath.”

“If all else fails, they can sleep with Tarankláva on the bed between them,” suggested Lóka, with a wicked gleam in his eye.

Drúthan shuddered for a moment, and it wasn’t clear whether he was fooling. “I have to admit, that would be rather intimidating.”

“We’ll take it one step at a time. Would your father be willing to let you stay with me?” Kráva asked.

“Are you joking?” Drúthan laughed for a moment, a deep belly-laugh that Kráva had never heard before. She decided she liked it. “Not that my father has been trying to get rid of me, but he’s been in favor of this match since long before either of us thought of it. The moment I mention the idea to him, he’ll have everything I own packed up and ready to travel.”

“Then shall we leave Verkanta?” asked Kráva, feeling almost eager at the prospect.

“Not just yet,” said Resavíra. “Matters are still uncertain. It might be worth remaining here for a few days, in case the king needs us. That might also give us a chance to repair our good relations with him.”

“For that, it might be better if I stayed well away from him.” Just then, movement by the entrance to the hall caught Kráva’s eye. She frowned. “Who is that?”

The others turned to look, just as Dánia approached their table, leading someone Kráva did not recognize. It was a woman, but an unusually small one, very slender and coming up only to Dánia’s shoulders. She wore a close-fitted tunic and leather breeches, leather boots, kidskin gloves, and a hooded cloak that concealed most of her face, all of the finest quality. Kráva saw a gleam at the woman’s throat, most likely a noble’s silver torc, peeking out from behind her cloak.

Across the table, Lóka suddenly tensed, staring at the newcomer intently.

Arai, this one came to the door and asked to see you, and Kráva as well.” Dánia’s eyes were wide with surprise. “I think you will want to speak to her.”

Resavíra rose and gave the stranger a courteous nod. “Please, be seated. Will you take a cup of wine with us?”

“Thank you,” she said, and her voice was astonishing, a low soprano full of strange music. She raised her hands to lift the hood away from her face, and Kráva’s breath caught.

For all that the stranger looked nothing like a woman of the Tremára, she was possibly the most beautiful creature Kráva had ever seen. Pale skin, the color of cream with a hint of rose in it. A short cap of hair, curled in tight ringlets, of a fire-golden color that shone in the dim light. An exotic face, with high cheekbones, a snub nose, a wide, sensuous mouth, and a delicately tapered jaw with no chin. Bright jade-green eyes, seeming enormous in that elegant face, tilted upward at the outer corners. A definite brow-ridge above the eyes, making them appear deep and shadowed, set off with thick golden eyebrows.

Resavíra hesitated, and then he bowed to the stranger, a deeper gesture of respect than Kráva had ever seen him give before. “My apologies, my lady. We so rarely see your people in our lands.”

Lóka had also risen to bow, and he stared at the strange woman as if he wanted to devour her with his eyes. “My lady,” he murmured.

Drúthan and Kráva rose as well, confused, but they each bowed.

The stranger shook her head, making a deferential gesture with one hand. “Please. You do me far too much honor.”

“Who . . .” Kráva began, and then trailed off, unsure what to think.

“This is one of the sanadmára,” said Lóka. “The ancient ...

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