The escape from Verkanta was not quite as simple as Kráva hoped, but she and her company did manage to find horses and supplies, and flee to the West Gate ahead of the invading army.
It helped that the Men of Iron lost all discipline, the moment they broke into the town and defeated the loyal guards at the North Gate. The Angvírai immediately turned to burn, pillage, rape and slaughter, and the High Grove men under Betráxa’s command had no way to prevent them. It was almost an hour before Betráxa and his closest followers could climb the hill, to find the place empty except for Múrvira’s abandoned body and the smoldering ruins of Mednákalë. By then, Kráva and her people were long gone.
There were fourteen in her company: Kráva herself, Drúthan and Lóka, and eleven Sun-clan warriors who had been captured after the battle at the gate. All these last had been seen to by healer-vaitai, so despite their ordeal they were hale enough to ride. Kráva led in her chariot, with Lóka standing beside her, while the others followed on horseback. Drúthan had even managed to visit the empty Sun-clan hall and recover one of the Raven banners to carry, once more acting as Kráva’s herald.
They came to the West Gate and found it open and abandoned, and some of the townsfolk already fleeing out into the countryside. “Make way! Make way!” Kráva shouted, and men and women on foot sprang aside to let the Sun-clan warriors pass.
They turned right once they were past the walls, to take a packed-dirt road north and west, following the course of the Red River. Before long they had outpaced the townsfolk on foot, and Kráva could shout to her horses for extra speed. Privately, she worried that Betráxa or the Men of Iron might have sent warriors ahead, to cut off anyone fleeing toward the Iron Hills. Yet they saw no sign of ambush or pursuit, and after a while she decided that the coup had not been all that well-organized.
All that afternoon, they rode into the teeth of a cold breeze, under a heavy overcast sky in which the clouds scudded into the east. Behind them, a dense column of smoke rose from doomed Verkanta, growing heavier and taller as the time passed, only to be torn and scattered in the winds on high.
In the gloom of an overcast evening, Kráva’s company rode into the village of Konvetha, a little more than twelve miles from the capital, built on a low bluff overlooking the Red River. All of them were exhausted, but the villagers were quick to offer aid in exchange for a few silver pennies. They saw to the company’s horses, brought the travelers beer and hot food, and listened wide-eyed to stories of events in the royal town. Kráva soon felt safe enough to let her guard down. It helped that the village belonged to one of the lesser clans, not likely to be caught up in whatever corruption had overtaken High Grove.
After nightfall, once all her people were settled, she half-lay on a pile of furs in the village headman’s round-house. She stared stoically into a fire, while Lóka carefully cleaned the wound on her face. Lóka’s touch was as gentle as he could manage, but the process still hurt like blazes. That entire side of her face was hot and very tender, and Lóka felt the need to wash the wound out with vinegar mixed with boiled water.
“You should have let me look at this hours ago,” he told her.
“There wasn’t time,” she murmured, concentrating on not crying out with the pain.
Lóka shook his head ruefully. “Some infection has already set in. Even with healing spell-craft, this is going to scar.”
Drúthan stirred, where he sat a few feet away. “Kráva . . .”
“Scars are a reminder,” she said firmly. “Múrvira and I should never have permitted matters to go as far as they did. If either of us had shown a little wisdom, the tribe would still be whole and strong. He is no longer in a position to benefit from the lesson, but I intend to do better next time.”
“That’s good,” said Lóka softly, never pausing in his delicate work. “Although you shouldn’t castigate yourself too much. I’ve been thinking about everything that happened, and I believe I understand much now that I did not before.”
“Good,” said Kráva. “Tell us about it.” Anything to keep my mind off what you’re doing, she thought and did not say.
“Well.” Lóka glanced at his work, and then shifted his hands slightly to address another part of the wound. “Let us assume that Kúndan and Vevára were both in the service of the foreign god, this Excellent One as he calls himself. Assume that they both hoped to weaken the tribe and divide it against its foes. Then a great deal becomes clear. For example, Kúndan knew the identity of your sword, and some of its history, the same day we learned of it.”
“Because you told him,” said Drúthan, accusingly.
“Well, yes, but none of us had any reason to suspect him at the time.” Lóka took a cup of water-and-vinegar and carefully began to irrigate the wound once more. “Kúndan would have known a little about the sword’s history, the curse that lies upon it. Vevára might have known a great deal more, either out of his own lore, or from the foreign god’s teaching.”
“They knew more than that,” said Kráva. “Tarankláva came to me in the hand of a skátë. The woman who shot at us from atop Mednákalë, and who attacked the Sun-clan at the gate, she carried another sword like mine. I think this foreign g...