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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 21

Verkanta’s drill field was a wide space in the southern quarter of the town, kept empty of buildings, open to the sun and the wind. There warriors would go to exercise and keep up their weapons-practice, at least those styles that were used on foot. Horseback riding and charioteering practice took place in the nákorë, the hippodrome, a long oval track marked out beyond the walls. Kráva tried to go to one or the other at least every other day, if the weather wasn’t foul.

Two days after the king’s feast, she rose just before dawn, stowing Tarankláva safely away in her uncle’s lock-box. Then she went alone to the drill field, her ravens flying in the pearlescent sky overhead. Once she arrived, she stripped down to a breech-clout and a wrap around her breasts, and then set out to run eight times around the outside of the field. By the time she was done, the summer sun had risen, and other men and women had come to use the field.

She went to the archery range, and loosed about a hundred arrows with a borrowed war-bow. She threw javelins and heavy stones. She partnered with a burly male warrior, tossing a heavy stuffed animal skin back and forth. Then she picked up a shield and a wooden practice sword, and sparred with other warriors for over an hour.

Sometime in the middle of her drill, she became aware of Drúthan on the field as well, following his own training routine. He pretended to pay her no special attention, but from that point on, it became a game of stolen glances and subtle display across half the field. Kráva knew it was foolish of her, but her eyes kept wandering in that direction, taking in the sight of him.

He’s not like the king, she decided. Múrvira is like a big cat, arrogant, slow and thoughtful until he needs to move, and then quick as lightning. Drúthan is more like a bull, strong and tough, watchful and silent, but fierce in the defense of those he loves. Not that he’s slow. Gods above, he moved fast the other night, shield out to stop that arrow with almost no warning.

Then her sparring partner got through her guard and laid a stinging blow along her ribs, hard enough to bruise. She returned her attention to what she was doing. For a few moments, at any rate.

A few exchanges later, her partner stepped back with a raised hand to ask for a break. He glanced across the field to see what had distracted her, and then turned back with an amused grin. “I should be so lucky,” he commented.

“Heaven and earth, I should be ashamed to be so inattentive,” she muttered. “I haven’t done the like since I was still in my aregbana training.”

“You paid for it,” he said. He extended a hand for her to grasp. “I’m Trenkáma. My clan is High Grove.”

Despite herself, Kráva chuckled as she took his hand for a moment. “Mighty Hand, is it? I should know that for the truth,” she said, patting her bruised ribs with a wince. “Although I didn’t think I had High Grove’s favor these days.”

“The gods favor you, and that’s enough for me.” He began to collect their practice gear, to return it to the wagon where such things were stored. “Are you worried about Kórlo? Don’t be. Aside from his own close kin, I don’t think anyone in the clan liked the old bastard much. If anyone else is to blame for him eating your sword, it’s Múrvira. That was not well done.”

“He’s your clansman, and your king,” she objected.

“He certainly is, and if you were an enemy of his, I would be the first to stand at his side against you. That doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything he does.”

For a moment, Kráva wished she had her sword in hand, so she could read something about Trenkáma. She settled for a guarded nod. “Thank you. Also, for the bout. That will teach me not to be distracted.”

“A few bruises and training scars are always the best teacher,” he agreed, and turned away with a wave.

Kráva thought about continuing, but after the past few hours she felt enough fatigue to decide she had done her duty for the day. She recovered her clothes, throwing a light cloak over her training wear, and tucking the rest under her arm in a neat package.

She thought to go and watch Drúthan at his own drill, but then she saw something unusual at the edge of the field. Lóka leaned against a post-and-rail fence, a short, slender figure standing beside him, both watching the warriors at work.

As Kráva approached, she caught a little of their talk, a rapid-flowing, musical language, of which she recognized not a single word. From Rána, the foreign speech sounded easy and natural, suited to the tones of her soprano voice. Somehow Kráva was not at all surprised to hear Lóka respond fluently, with none of the pauses or catches one would expect from someone speaking a foreign tongue.

“Hello, Kráva,” the sanatha called, in the Tremára speech.

Kráva waved as she came within easy conversation. “Is that the sanatha language I hear?”

“One of three,” said Lóka, giving Rána a warm smile. “The High Tongue, it’s called. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak it, with such an charming interlocutor.”

Rána cocked one golden eyebrow at him, but let the flattery pass. “Kráva, how old is our vaita friend?”

Kráva thought back, counting in her head. “He’s seen twenty-four summers, I think.”

“This summer would be twenty-five,” Lóka corrected her easily.

“Then I take back my suspicions of him,” said Rána. “I can imagine a man of the Tremára who had hidden connections, learning the daharim tongue, the better to communicate with those who wish us all evil. It would not be easy, it would take many months of time, but it seems possible. There is no chance that any man could become so adept i...

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