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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 25

While the king prepared to fight, Drúthan leaned close to Kráva. “Are you sure about this? Isn’t this just what that sword in your hand would want?”

“What the sword wants doesn’t matter,” Kráva told him, never glancing away from the king. “I owe that man for my father, my uncle, and my kinsmen. He would rather burn you and Lóka alive in wicker cages than deal with the tribe’s real enemies. I am out of patience with him. He needs to be gone, and trouble us no more.”

“So that you can take his place?” Lóka murmured.

“Gods above, I hope not,” said Kráva sincerely. “I’m not High Grove anyway.” A thought came to her, and she finally turned her hot stare away from Múrvira, to glance at her Wolf-clan friends. “No matter how this turns out, you had better be ready to fight your way out of here. If I lose, Múrvira will try to arrest everyone he doesn’t trust, and that means almost everyone here. Even if I win, High Grove will never stand for it.”

Lóka frowned. “She’s right, Drúthan. Come on. We need to make sure Wolf and Sun, at least, are ready for anything.”

They left her alone then, to stare at the king. Múrvira had stripped to the waist, wearing nothing but a pair of light trousers, and the elaborate tattoos that twined and curled about his chest and arms. In his left hand he bore a tall infantry shield, one that would cover him from neck to ankles, painted with a silver tree upon a green background. His royal sword was perhaps a finger’s breadth shorter than Tarankláva, of sound iron and very good quality. As a backup weapon, he had a large knife on his belt.

Once the king was ready, Kráva meticulously placed herself on an equal footing with him. She stripped off her own cloak and tunic, leaving only her own trousers and boots. This had the effect of revealing the extent of her healing injuries, which caused a ripple of comment out in the hall. Her own shield was shorter but wider than the king’s, nearly circular in shape, with her Raven painted on it. Tarankláva was already naked in her hand, shining in the growing gloom.

They stood, facing each other across the width of the hall, at the foot of the king’s high seat. Aside from the almost continuous rumble of thunder outside, there was a tense silence.

“Is there no way that the two of you may reconcile your disputes?” asked Vevára.

“Give this up, Kráva,” said the king. “You can’t have my throne, Sky Father’s blood or no.”

Kráva shook her head. “I don’t want your throne, snake. Neither I nor any of my friends has ever wanted it. I only want you off it, and someone in your place who will give the tribe better rule.”

Vevára sighed, and stepped back. “I will take that as a no. Then fight, and may heaven and earth alike have mercy on us all.”

Almost before the vaita had finished speaking, Kráva shouted and leaped to the attack. She brought Tarankláva around in a sweeping cut, almost too fast to see, and Múrvira was hard-pressed to parry it in time. The blades rang, and the king was forced to take a step back before he could respond. His own blow fell on her shield and rebounded.

Kráva smiled to herself. He’s reluctant to use his shield. He fears I can batter him to death straight through it.

He may be right about that, given what happened to Kórlo.

Exchange after exchange followed, so quickly the watchers gasped. The king kept Tarankláva at bay with quick footwork and a brilliant sequence of parries, seeming to ignore the shield he held at his left. His own responses slammed home on Kráva’s shield, slowly obliterating the painted Raven design.

Then Kráva learned why he had bothered with a shield at all. Suddenly he shouted and bashed at her with it, the blow slamming into her own shield with a hollow

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