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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 23

Kráva woke briefly when they raised her off the ground, onto a makeshift stretcher made of cloaks folded over two spears. She growled and cursed at them, reaching for Tarankláva and not finding it, ready to leap up and sell her life dearly. Then the pain hit her, astonishing, worse than she had ever known in her life. It felt as if every bone and joint in her body had been smashed with a club. Even the simple act of breathing gave rise to stabbing pain. She knew she was among enemies, so she locked her jaw against the scream she badly wanted to let out. There was no one close by that she was willing to show her suffering.

Then cool fingers touched her forehead, dry and papery, an old man’s fingers. A kindly voice said, “Sleep.”

She slept.


When Kráva woke again, it was quiet, and she had no idea where she was. She lay still, her eyes closed, and took inventory of her situation.

She could feel a straw mattress under her back, and a light blanket over her, but most of her clothes were gone. Bandages were wrapped tightly around her torso, supporting her ribs. Other bandages covered the places she had been wounded. She could feel her fingers and toes, and they responded when she cautiously gave them a command to move. Her ribs ached, especially on the left side, but her breathing came easily, with no stabbing pain. She had a few other aches, strong but dull, like the echoes of serious injury, but none of them seemed crippling.

Someone has been working the healing arts on me. That seems promising.

Maybe that only means they haven’t decided what to do with me yet.

She heard men’s voices in conversation, some distance off, muffled as if behind a door hanging. Something about the resonance of the sound told her she was in a hall, probably in a room on the upper floor. She took a cautious breath, and smelled humans, roasted meat, polished wood, and . . .

Lavender and rosemary, and a hint of other dried herbs, she thought. I’m in a guest room, in the hall of the vaitai.

She decided that was better than being in the king’s hall, or in a cage. Then she remembered the suspicions she and Lóka had shared about the vaitai.

Then she heard movement from very close by, as if someone had shifted his weight in a wooden chair, causing it to creak. She froze for a moment, and then forced herself to relax. Slowly, she turned her head in that direction, and opened her eyes to slits.

Warm lamp-light, in a small room that was otherwise dark. A small window in the wall, darkness outside. Wooden rafters and a thatched roof, not far above. She wasn’t simply lying on a mattress, but in a well-made bed. Dúvelka sat a few feet away, half-dozing in a chair, watching over her while she rested.

Kráva needed a moment to think about that. She closed her eyes again, so the old man wouldn’t notice she was awake just yet.

The king sent men to arrest some of the Wolf-clan, but Dúvelka is here and apparently free. Who was arrested, and why would Dúvelka tolerate that? Why is he here in the hall of the vaitai, watching over me, rather than with his own people?

Where are Drúthan and Lóka?

She saw only one way to get answers. She deliberately stirred again, opened her eyes as if just waking up, and whispered, “I’m thirsty.”

Dúvelka snapped fully awake, leaning over her with a look of gentle concern in his face. “Lie still, child, and I’ll get you something.”

He vanished for a moment, then returned with a wooden cup half-full of heavily watered wine. For all her misgivings, Kráva appreciated the gesture. Her throat was very dry.

When she was done drinking, she lay back on the bed and gave Dúvelka a frank stare. “Thank you. How long have I been here?”

Dúvelka sat back down in his chair, the cup forgotten in his hand, and stared back at her. For the first time since she had known him, he looked aged and unsure of himself. “It is the evening of the day after the battle at the gate,” he said at last. “You have been sleeping under healing charms and potions for most of the day. How are you feeling?”

“I feel nearly ready to go out and get vengeance against whoever did this to me and my kinsmen,” she grated. “Will you tell me what is happening?”

 “I don’t understand most of it myself,” he admitted, his voice low and quavering a little. “To think that Lóka could betray us all so badly . . .”


Dúvelka sighed. “I’m sorry, child. The king moved because he had discovered evidence against Lóka. It seems that Lóka has conspired with the Men of Iron to bring the skátoi into Ravatheni land, and open the door for some foreign god. He seems to have swayed your father, at least, maybe your uncle as well. Drúthan too. My own son.”

Kráva stared at him, and her voice went very cold. “What evidence could the king have produced to convince you of such foolishness?”

Dúvelka shook his head wearily. “I’m sorry, Kráva, but there are letters in Lóka’s own hand. He wrote to your father, asking Derga to bring you when he came to visit. Then he promised the servants of this foreign god that if they came, if they delivered that damnable sword into his hands, he would provide them someone of Sky Father’s blood to serve as a puppet ruler for the tribe. It was Lóka who set up the skátoi raid that killed your father and many of my people. Lóka who made certain you would keep the sword. Lóka who encouraged you to accept a hero’s destiny. Everything that has happened has been at his hands.”

Kráva only shook her head, over and over, denying that such words could possibly be spoken aloud.

“Didn’t he know all about your sword, the moment he saw it?” Dúvelka pressed her. “Didn’t he know you carried a god’s blood, even before you did? Didn’t he set poems in motion about you, so that half the tribe is praising your name? He did not do these things because he loved you, Kráva. He did them because he planned to use you, to become the man behind your legend, the advisor who would make of you a tool for this foreign god. Doesn’t he speak the language this god’s servants speak?”

Slowly, driven by simmering anger, Kráva pushed back the blanket and rolled to a sitting position at the edge of the bed. Then she stood, swaying slightly, testi...

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