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The Curse of Steel
by John Alleyn

In one fateful day, Kráva comes into possession of a sword of legendary power, and is claimed by the gods as a hero. She soon learns that there are problems she can't just cut her way through. Not to mention that the lives of the gods' favored are often exciting, glorious, and very short ... "Sounds interesting!"

Chapter 1

Deep in the night, Kráva sensed a presence. She snapped awake, one hand already gripping the knife beside her on the pallet. Then a familiar shape and scent put her at ease for a moment.

“What is it, father?” she murmured.

Derga grunted. “Some trouble outside. Arm yourself, and come.”

He withdrew. Now Kráva could hear voices and movement, from elsewhere in the hall. The Wolf-clan and their guests were beginning to stir. Men and women rose from sleep, seized the...

Chapter 2

Morning found Kráva sitting outdoors, sitting on a low bench with her back to a round-house wall.

Anyone watching her would see a young woman, perhaps of twenty summers, her skin a warm tawny-brown, her close-cropped hair as black as the raven for which she was named. She had a strong jaw, an aquiline nose, and sharp brown eyes. Men of the distant cities would not have considered her a beauty; she was too tall and lean, too strong, with little softness about her. Her own people appreciated her wel...

Chapter 3

Múrvira, king of the Ravatheni tribe, was a liar.

Kráva was not at all certain how she knew this. She had never met the man before, not in the year since he had been elevated to the kingship. She had heard few rumors of him, and Derga had always spoken cautiously of him in her presence. Now that she had seen him, she thought he certainly looked the part of the Tremára warrior-king: handsome, strong, confident, and brave. Part of her wondered what he might be like in the privacy of a dar...

Chapter 4

The Wolf-clan’s chieftain had seen many summers. He had silver hair, a long beard, and eyes that had gone weak with time. His chest was still broad, his arms still strong enough to wield spear and sword. Tonight, he wore a tunic in the Wolf-clan’s blue and green, and a heavy brown cloak over his shoulders. Kráva had known him all her life, and knew him to be a quiet and thoughtful man, for all his ferocity in the line of battle. He looked up and gave her a gentle smile, while his son took st...

Chapter 5

Three of them slipped out of the gate of Taimar Velkari a little before midnight, each of them leading a pair of horses. Kráva glanced down the slope, but she could not see the place where the king’s men had camped, east around the shoulder of the great hill. Not likely that any of the king’s men can see us, she thought with satisfaction. Then she turned away, moving silently into the night.

They walked at first, Drúthan breaking trail since he knew the country intimately. Th...

Chapter 6

Kráva yelped in startlement, and drew Tarankláva out of sheer reflex. Strangely, neither Drúthan nor Lóka stirred at the sudden noise.

“No need for that,” said the stranger, in a deep, pleasant voice. “Come, sit with me. We have things to discuss.”

She stood moveless, the sword still in her hand, and stared at him. She saw a tall man, tawny-skinned like any of the Tremára, strongly built, wearing simple hunter’s clothes covered by a rough wolf-skin cloak. Hi...

Chapter 7

Drúthan stirred when the morning sun shone in his face. He rose, going to the stream to splash water over his head and refill his waterskin. By the time he returned, Lóka had arisen as well, and was eating a bit of trail-bread from his pack. Through all this, Kráva stood still, leaning against the back wall of the rock shelter, lost in thought.

Drúthan must have seen something in her face. He stopped on the way over to check on the horses, and stared at her for a moment. “Something happen...

Chapter 8

“Lóka! Lóka!”

The vaita came at Kráva’s call, slowly since he was shepherding three children across the fields. When he arrived, he glanced down at the skátë’s unmoving form and shook his head. “I’m flattered at your estimate of my abilities, but I’m afraid this one is beyond my help.”

“You’re right, I apologize.” Kráva glanced at Lóka’s charges: two boys and a girl, the youngest perhaps ...

Chapter 9

The skátoi began their attack in the deep night. Sky Father’s star and the moon shone brightly down from their stations in opposite quarters of the sky, as if their gods leaned close to watch the battle. There had been hours of shouted taunts and blowing of horns, to keep the Red Deer folk awake and fearful. Now archers moved up, firing to clear defenders from the walls, sending fire-arrows on a high arc to come down inside the village.

The raika had a ditch and a log palis...

Chapter 10

Kráva managed to catch about two hours of sleep, once the skátoi had been put to flight. At sunrise, she rose to a quick meal of bread and cheese, washed down with a mug of sour ale. Then she and her companions went out to the stables, to prepare their horses for a fast ride. She barely noticed when a shadow fell across the doorway.

“Why are you in such a hurry to leave?” Kesdan stood at the entrance to the stable, his arms folded, watching the three of them. “You&rsquo...

Chapter 11

They set out for Verkanta later in the morning, three hundred of them or more, keeping to a leisurely pace that footmen could follow. A small range of hills stretched westward from Red Deer village, marking part of the boundary with the Mírsari tribe. The company skirted these hills at first, moving through green woodlands and golden meadows, crossing small streams that ran southward across their path, passing the occasional farmstead or village. For all that the land had been under skátoi rai...

Chapter 12

That evening, the company made camp near an outlying village of the Wolf-clan. The villagers had seen none of the skátoi, and had plenty with which to feast the king and his following. Kráva sat with Drúthan beneath a great oak tree, and they stuffed themselves with fresh bread, salt pork, and apples, washing it all down with mugs of exceptionally fine beer. They watched the sun set across fields of wheat and barley, and Kráva felt something like contentment.

Kráva wasn’t certai...

Chapter 13

The next day, Lóka seemed his usual self once more, waving away Kráva’s attempt to apologize once more. He spent most of the day riding in Kráva’s chariot, talking with her and with Drúthan.

The day itself was cloudy and cool, unusual for high summer in the heart of Tremára lands. A light rain began just before noon, but Múrvira held everyone to their course, not wanting to camp in the open country. He led the company onto a well-beaten track, which proved a little less muddy than...

Chapter 14

More rain came on the following day, enough to turn the road into a sea of mud and dampen everyone’s spirits. Travel was slow, and it was very late in the afternoon before the king’s company reached Verkanta.

The Kanta River flowed through the heart of Ravatheni land. Indeed, the tribal territories could almost be defined as a section of the Kanta valley, meandering over a hundred miles west-to-east, from the edge of the Silent Forest to the confluence with the Súnda River. About in th...

Chapter 15

Out in the countryside, and in the hill-forts, most Tremára lived in round-houses: a single floor built on a circular plan, with stone or wattle-and-daub walls and steep thatched roofs. Within the ramparts of Verkanta, though, most houses were in a newer style: rectangular halls or long-houses, or rows of square wooden-frame houses, all of them with pitched roofs covered with shingles, many of them with two floors and a loft.

Kráva found the new style strange, but she had reason to appr...

Chapter 16

The royal residence was Mednákalë, a grand mead-hall, widely known as the largest and finest in all the Tremára lands. It had been built at the very highest point of Verkanta’s hill, its wooden doors facing to the southwest. Its outer walls were rich with carvings and paint: horses seemed to run along the stone foundation, birds flew above, and serpents coiled around every post. Its thatch roof shone like gold in sunlight, and could be seen for miles in every direction. Everything about...

Chapter 17

For a few days, a guarded peace held in Verkanta. Kráva made excuses to avoid the king's hall, not wanting to be the object of Múrvira's attention, but otherwise she was free of the town.

She spent more of her time at the Sun-clan hall than she had expected.

The Tremára system of leadership, organized by family, clan, and tribe, was quite informal. Accomplishment mattered more than birth. The son of a long line of clan chieftains would count for nothing, if no one respected his strength or...

Chapter 18

Two evenings later, the Sun-clan climbed the long path up the hill of Verkanta, to reach the front doors of Mednákalë. Resavíra was there, and his grown sons Rótrena and Várdan, and Kráva to represent her branch of the chieftain’s family. Twenty more followed, warriors, shield-women, and vaitai, to make a show of Sun-clan strength and power; Dánia and Mírsetha were among these. Four more warriors trailed behind, escorting and protecting Galadan, in case he should be called on durin...

Chapter 19

After all that, the feast itself felt almost like anticlimax. Kráva sat at her place at the Sun-clan’s table, and smiled when others praised her, and tried to eat and drink as if she still had an appetite.

Killing skátoi was one thing. Killing a human enemy in the heat of battle, when he had come at her with violence in his eyes and a weapon in his hands, was one thing. Killing another member of her own tribe in cold blood, someone who spoke the same language and followed the same ...

Chapter 20

Morning came, and with it the dull pain that came of far too much beer and wine the night before. Kráva rose from her cold cot, pulled on her third-best tunic, and emerged from the tiny chamber where she had slept since Resavíra’s arrival.

She leaned over the railing and looked out over the main floor of the hall, and saw most of the warriors already up and moving. Resavíra sat with Lóka and Drúthan at a table near the head of the hall, all three looking indecently awake and cheerful. Si...

Chapter 21

Verkanta’s drill field was a wide space in the southern quarter of the town, kept empty of buildings, open to the sun and the wind. There warriors would go to exercise and keep up their weapons-practice, at least those styles that were used on foot. Horseback riding and charioteering practice took place in the nákorë, the hippodrome, a long oval track marked out beyond the walls. Kráva tried to go to one or the other at least every other day, if the weather wasn’t foul.

Two ...

Chapter 22

Kráva floated toward consciousness out of a deep sleep, somehow certain that someone had called her name. She woke, still wrapped in the darkness of her tiny sleeping chamber, feeling a sense of urgency that only grew stronger, despite the near-silence of the hall. She rose to her feet, reaching for her cloak and Tarankláva, wondering what had awakened her. Then she heard the commotion in the hall outside her door.

She stepped out of her room to lean over the railing, peering out into the hall in...

Chapter 23

Kráva woke briefly when they raised her off the ground, onto a makeshift stretcher made of cloaks folded over two spears. She growled and cursed at them, reaching for Tarankláva and not finding it, ready to leap up and sell her life dearly. Then the pain hit her, astonishing, worse than she had ever known in her life. It felt as if every bone and joint in her body had been smashed with a club. Even the simple act of breathing gave rise to stabbing pain. She knew she was among enemies, so she locked her...

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 bod...

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 tr...

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!”


Chapter 27

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...

Chapter 28

“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, Drútha...

Chapter 29

Kráva pulled up and dismounted from her chariot in front of the chieftain’s hall, surrounded by clansmen eager for news. Then someone came at her from the side, and she suddenly found herself wrapped in a fierce hug. Lips pressed hers for a moment, then Dánia stepped back with a breathless smile of welcome on her face. On all sides, the clansmen grinned with delight.

“I was sure we had lost you, in the battle at the gate,” said Dánia.

“Very nearly,” Kráva agr...

Chapter 30

The enemy began their assault in the late afternoon, after a few straggling bands of skátoi arrived from the sack of outlying farmsteads.

The skátoi led the attack, advancing toward the walls of the fortress in well-disciplined squads, until they could easily sweep the top of the walls with flights of arrows. They were at a disadvantage, firing uphill and into the afternoon sunlight, but what they lacked in accuracy they more than made up in numbers. For their part, the Angvíra...

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