“Kráva.” Rána came forward, not quite within range of Tarankláva, and stared up at her. “Is it true? Múrvira is dead, and by your hand?”
She never saw the sanatha woman move. One instant Rána was standing at a safe distance, the next instant she was pressed close as a lover, her strange pale eyes staring into Kráva’s from inches away, a cold and infinitely narrow line placed across Kráva’s throat.
Behind her, Drúthan made an abortive movement to intervene, and then stood very still. “You had best consider very carefully,” he said, his voice as cold as Kráva had ever heard it. “Use that blade, and I will end you.”
Rána snorted, not looking away from Kráva’s eyes. “You don’t have the capacity.”
“He would not be alone,” said Lóka.
Rána stood motionless for a long moment. “You seem to inspire a great deal of loyalty,” she observed at last. “Arrogant, hot-tempered, short-sighted, murderously violent, and yet others would lay down their lives for you. I wonder how you manage that?”
“I earn loyalty by offering it,” Kráva said, holding herself perfectly still, wondering when the cold line would turn into flame and the spilling of her life’s blood.
“You owed Múrvira your loyalty,” Rána whispered.
“He showed no loyalty to me, or to my friends, or to my clan,” Kráva told her. “Even so, it was his choice, and a fair fight.”
“A fair fight, against a god-touched hero?” Rána stared at her face, and then nodded slightly. “Well, he does seem to have marked you, at least.”
“In more ways than one,” Kráva agreed.
Slowly, Rána drew back and put away the bronze knife that she had held to Kráva’s throat. “Still, I suppose you do put your finger on it. In the end, Múrvira was loyal to his own kingship, but to nothing and no one else. Not to you, not even to me.”
Kráva relaxed, and took her own hands away from her weapons. “For what it’s worth, I regret what happened. If he and I could have understood one another . . .”
“You mortals never take the time to understand one another.” Rána spat in disgust. “That is why you shall always be little people, foolish people, savage and cruel.”
“Perhaps. Did you come riding hard across the land in order to insult us, or did you have some other purpose in mind?”
Rána shook her head, but it seemed a gesture of impatience with herself as much as disgust for the follies of human-kind. “I went north, three days ago, to see if I could find Betráxa and discover what he was doing. I found an army, High Grove men and Angvírai, and skátoi as well.”
“Skátoi?” Lóka stepped forward, staring at Rána. “There were no skátoi at Verkanta.”
“Most likely because Betráxa, and Pelkóra King, wanted to conquer Verkanta, not burn it to the ground,” said Rána. “Not that they were gentle with the townsfolk, once they were inside the gates. No, the skátoi were sent west, with some more of the Men of Iron. They have come to ravage the Sun-clan’s lands, and to take Taimar Nár if they can.”
“How many?” demanded Lóka.
“About six hundred,” said Rána. “One-third Angvírai, two-thirds skátoi. They have at least one nórden mórë with them. They are camped not five miles from here, and intend to sack this place in the morning.”
Kráva frowned. “That’s not a large enough force to take Taimar Nár, especially if the Sun-clan muster is called up to defend it. This village alone can’t stand against them.”
“Will the Sun-clan muster have been called?” asked Drúthan.
“I can tell you that,” said the village headman, an older man named Galakóra. “Our warriors joined arai Várdan’s company when he came through yesterday, and he sent out riders to warn the other villages and steadings nearby. All were to report to Taimar Nár by tomorrow evening. I think he suspected there would be some trouble.”
“Not to mention, the clan will need to elect a new chieftain,” said Kráva slowly. “Várdan would be careful about that. He and I aren’t the only candidates, there are a few second cousins who could make a case for themselves.”
“This is not a good time for your clan to be leaderless,” said Lóka.
“No.” Kráva turned to Galakóra. “At the moment, the most important thing is to keep your people safe. The skátoi won’t leave anything here but corpses and a charred ruin. I want you to gather the village and be ready for a night march. We can be across the river ford and reach Taimar Nár before sunrise, if we hurry.”
The headman nodded and hurried away.
“I thank you for the warning,” Kráva said to Rána. “I’m surprised you came to give it.”
The sanatha woman shrugged. “It will be long before I can forgive you for what happened to Múrvira,” she said, “but even now I understand you were not entirely to blame. He should not have alienated and antagonized your friends and your clan. Nor did he reckon with the effect that sword would have upon you, although I warned him about it more than once.”
“Did you encourage him to antagonize my friends and my clan?”
Rána cocked her head in confusion, an oddly alien gesture. “I don’t follow.”
“The evidence that convinced Múrvira of our supposed trea...