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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 24

In the morning, Kráva rose with the sun. She submitted to the examination of a healer-vaita, who removed most of her bandages and gave her warnings she had no intention of obeying. She polished her boots, her sword-belt, and Tarankláva’s sheath until they all shone. She dressed in the best clothes she could find, including her cloak with the raven feathers woven into it. She put on her silver torc, and the gold arm-band Múrvira had given her. She ate a light meal, enough to fuel her body, not enough to weigh her down. She checked her gear and weapons one last time, and armed herself.

Someone had left a helmet sitting on a table on the main floor of the hall, made of dark bronze in the Sea Kingdom style, with a nasal bar and broad cheek-pieces to cover most of the wearer’s face. It had a high crest, made of black horse-hair that trailed down behind. It seemed like a most unlikely thing to find among vaitai. When Kráva asked, no one knew whose it was, nor did anyone admit to having seen it left there. It seemed to have simply appeared when no one was looking. She picked it up and tried it for size, and discovered that it fit her perfectly. She decided to keep it, and when she saw the faces of the vaitai around her, she knew it was a good choice. The narrow openings for her eyes and mouth transformed her appearance, made her look fierce and intimidating.

“Thank you, grandsire,” she murmured.

The king’s assembly had been called for an hour past sunrise. Dúvelka, Vevára, and all the others had long since left for Mednákalë, before Kráva first emerged from the vaita hall to prepare her horses and chariot. She was engaging in a fine bit of guesswork. She had no interest in being punctual, but she also did not want Múrvira to have enough time to become irritated with her absence and send men to bring her by force. There was a bit of theater to be managed, and it required careful timing.

It was perhaps a few minutes after the appointed time, when Kráva drove out of the forecourt and onto the street. She stood tall and proud in the box of her chariot, managing her horses with easy competence. Her ravens accompanied her, the smaller one riding upon her shoulder, the larger flying overhead with an occasional harsh cry. She drove through the streets of the town, and people stood back and stared as she passed.

It was a dark morning, the sky full of fast-moving clouds that threatened storm. Far away, she could hear the faint rumble of thunder.

She turned onto the winding path that led up to Mednákalë, driving slowly and carefully, certain now that she would arrive unheralded. Sure enough, when she emerged onto the open ground before the hall’s doors, no one seemed to have expected her. Only a few men and women lounged about or sat upon the ground, common warriors without the rank to attend the assembly.

Kráva pulled up before the doors of the hall and dismounted, handing the reins to the first warrior who hurried up. She took her Raven shield and put it on her arm, as if going to a fight. Then she strode toward the doors, and two door-wardens who looked more apprehensive by the moment.

“The tribe is in assembly,” said one of them. “The king has ordered the doors barred.”

“By what right does Múrvira King begin the tribal assembly, without the Sun-clan in attendance?” she demanded, her voice pitched high to carry through the oaken doors.

“Please, my lady, we have our orders . . .”

Stand aside.”

Thunder rumbled, a little closer than before. The raven on Kráva’s shoulder cawed mockingly.

The two men exchanged a glance, and then stepped aside, leaving the doors unguarded.

Kráva stepped up, taking a moment to estimate the position of the bar behind the doors, and then she kicked.

The doors resounded like a roll of thunder. Beneath that sound, she could hear splintering wood, and the sudden shouts of surprised men inside the hall.

Again, she kicked, and then a third time, and the bar finally broke in two. The doors flew wide on their hinges, slamming back against the walls to either side. Kráva strode into Mednákalë, her ravens flying ahead and a hundred wide eyes upon her.

A quick scan of the hall told her how things had changed. High Grove clan had been moved to the king’s right, their usual place. Betrósa and his Black Boar clan had moved up to sit at the king’s left. Wolf-clan sat to the king’s right this time, behind High Grove, although their ranks were much depleted. Only a half-dozen warriors sat in attendance around Dúvelka. Naturally, Sun-clan was nowhere to be seen among the guest-tables. The assembly seemed a thin and uncertain thing, after the feast a few days before.

On the floor in the center of the hall, a dozen men and women knelt in bonds. Kráva saw Lóka at the front of this group, apparently the focus of everyone’s attention. Drúthan was just behind him to one side, and then the rest were Sun-clan, male warriors and a single aregbana, all of whom must have been wounded and captured in the fight. Warriors of High Grove stood nearby, watching over the prisoners.

There, standing at the foot of his high seat, Múrvira stood looming over Lóka. He stared down at Kráva, his face full of surprise, anger, and calculation.

Kráva began to stride up the hall, ignoring the cries of astonishment and outrage from either side. She held Múrvira’s gaze through the eye-openings of her helmet, her lips set in lines of grim determination, and she hoped she looked the part of a young war-goddess on the march. As she approached the first of the Sun-clan captives, she drew Tarankláva, and the hall went suddenly very quiet.

Outside the hall, distant thunder rumbled.

One by one, she raised her clansmen to their feet, and used ...

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