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from The Curse of Steel by John Alleyn

Copyright © 2019–2021 John Alleyn

Chapter 26

Shouts of anger and outrage, shouts of vehement support, half a dozen long-standing disputes breaking out all at once. Chaos.

“She’s not High Grove!”

“Look where rule by High Grove has gotten us! At least she’s a proven warrior!”

“The gods are angry at her. Listen to that thunder.”

“She’s Sky Father’s own blood, you fool!”

“I should be king.”

“No, I should be king!”

“High Grove!” “Wolf!” “Black Boar!” “Sun!” “The Raven! The Raven!”

All around the hall, light began to gleam on the edges of drawn knives, swords, axes. Men and women began to eye one another, tense, waiting for the unspoken signal to begin a brawl. At the far end of the building, men pulled the doors open, and some of the lesser clans began to hurry out of the hall before they could be caught in a battle. Kráva looked around, uncertain, wondering whether her voice could calm the crowd, or whether she would simply incite a riot the moment she spoke.

Lóka raised his hands and murmured, “Medkenë.”

On the other side of the hall, something responded. A leather satchel stirred by itself, its top flap opened, and a shape arose into the air from inside. It was Lóka’s harp, suddenly hovering in mid-air as if invisible hands raised it. The High Grove warrior assigned to guard Lóka’s possessions saw this and gaped in astonishment, then moved as if to capture the instrument. It dodged, sweeping at his head, forcing him to throw himself flat to avoid being brained by the harp’s sound-box. Then the harp flew across the room, to settle in Lóka’s waiting hands.

Unfortunately, Lóka didn’t get the chance to see what his music and poetry might have done. A knot of High Grove warriors worked up the nerve to take matters into their own hands. They turned, weapons raised, and charged the high seat.

Kráva had just enough time to take a step back and raise Tarankláva, and then she was hotly engaged against two High Grove warriors at once. Drúthan ducked under a man’s wild swing, then stunned him with a solid blow to his midsection, and neatly relieved him of his sword as he fell. Lóka backed away, muttering a charm that created a burst of flames in the faces of two more High Grove warriors.

Out in the hall, Dúvelka lifted his face and gave his clan’s howling war-cry, as his people stormed the flank of the High Grove position. The freed Sun-clan warriors charged in as well, unarmed but dauntlessly brave, ready to take weapons from their fallen foes if they could.

Then Sky Father made his own opinion clear.

There was a flash of light, blinding even inside the hall, and an instantaneous crack of thunder that deafened everyone and brought an immediate halt to the battle. Then again, and again, and again, a continuous barrage of lightning, every bolt striking the peaked roof of Mednákalë.

Kráva found herself bent low, Tarankláva forgotten in her right hand, her left trying vainly to defend her ears from the onslaught. In that moment, any one of the High Grove men could have killed her, but none of them were in any better condition.

When Kráva glanced upward, she saw the roof dissolve into a sheet of flame. Still the lightning glared, and the thunder cannoned, and it seemed that the gods were intent on blasting the great mead-hall off the face of the earth.

She stood straight under the heavenly bombardment, looked around the hall and saw nothing but chaos. Here and there, a few men were still trying to menace each other with weapons, but most were simply cowering in mortal terror. Shouts of anger and battle-rage had been replaced by screams of fear, the assembled chieftains and warriors not sure whether to cower inside the hall or to flee out into the storm.

“Everyone out!” she screamed. “Out of the hall!”

She wasn’t sure whether anyone heard her, but something changed in the crowd of terrified tribesmen. Starting close to the doors, then further back in the hall, they turned and began to move, pushing and shoving in their eagerness to escape. Men who had been fighting one another bitterly a few moments before now ignored each other, their hatreds forgotten in their terror of the gods’ wrath.

Kráva almost moved to follow them, but then a thought came to her, and she turned away.

“Kráva! We have to get out of here now!” Drúthan shouted.

Múrvira’s body lay forgotten in the confusion, looking somehow small and pathetic in the ruin of his home. Kráva took a moment to recover her helmet and thrust Tarankláva through her belt. Her Raven shield, she gave up as a lost cause. Then she bent to tenderly pick up the king’s body. Only then did she turn to leave the hall, with Drúthan about two steps ahead of her the whole way. Not a moment too soon, as the roof began to collapse entirely, burning thatch and wood cascading down to set everything ablaze.

Kráva emerged into a bitter wind, still cradling Múrvira in her arms. With Drúthan and Lóka by her side, she hurried to cross the forecourt and get as far away from Mednákalë as she could. Once she had reached safety, she bent to carefully lay the king down in the lee of a standing stone.

Only then did ...

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