Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 13

Her heart was in her mouth as she felt for her fur muff that she’d left the rest of her jewelry in. It wasn’t there!

Anger blossomed like fire in her. What had they come to, the great Golden Horde? She assumed that someone had thought the boy drunk, maybe a thief himself, and had robbed him. She cursed furiously. Kicked something. It was the muff… but there was no jewelry in it.

Feeling around she found a solitary bangle that the thief must have dropped. Maybe there was more, but time conspired against her. She slipped the bracelet onto her wrist, carried Kildai to the cart, loaded him into it, and led it off. There would still be sentries to pass. But discipline was fairly lax. She’d planned to bribe a night-watch sentry. Now… she might have to kill one.

She made her way to the edge of the vast encampment. Once outside those limits, the rules of conduct for the kulurtai would no longer apply. She could see a sentry on horseback, silhouetted against the night sky. There might be foot patrols, as well. It had not occurred to her to find out before the kulurtai. Like the problem of how to deal with a mounted guard, that had not been something she had ever given any thought to.

The sentry was mounted, and had a lance, a bow, a sword. She had a knife and a bullock-cart.

And he was not going away.

She led the cart forward. Sometimes boldness was the only approach.

The guard rode over. “Where are you going, woman?”

She bowed. “Greetings.”

“I asked you a question.” He leaned over and grabbed her by the hair.

She grabbed his wrist and jumped, and then hung. “Hellcat!” he swore, struggling to keep his balance. But he was a Mongol horseman, not easily dislodged from the saddle. She kicked off two footed from the pony he was riding. It whinnied in protest, and he lost his grip on her hair — well, mostly; some stayed in his hand — as she fell free. She rolled under the cart.

Then the fool committed the cardinal sin of any cavalryman in combat. He dismounted. And fortune, or the tengeri, favored her. He dived under the cart too, to try and catch her, startling the ill-trained young bullock. She rolled out of under the far side of the cart while the heavy wheel rode over his arm. He screamed, but she already had her foot in the stirrup, and swung up onto the pony. She had the advantage now, as he staggered to his feet, clutching his arm.

Mongols train their horses to be weapons too. And the guard had much that she and her brother would need to survive. She rode him down. Then she used his own lance, which had been strapped to the saddle, to make sure that he was dead. Only when she was certain did she dismount, tie a rope to him and drag him to the cart. That took nearly all of her strength to get him onto it, to lie next to her stentorianly breathing little brother.

She tied the pony to the tail of the cart, and then led the bullock off into the darkness, following the heavily worn and rutted track to the southwest, away from the lands of the White Horde and the Hawk clan. In short, away from the direction of safety — but that was also where Gatu’s men would search first. By mingling her tracks with those of the other clans who had come from the southwest she would make it harder for them to track her.

A bullock cart could not move very fast or very far. And they only had one pony. A family needed at least ten, and a hundred sheep, just to survive. They would have to eat plants. The thought was enough to make her blench, despite all she had been through that night. The shame and disgust would simply have to be borne.

It was a long night. When she stopped to rest and water the bullock and the pony at a copse next to a small stream, she had time to check on her brother, and to examine the dead man.

He carried the typical gear of an ordinary horseman. Knife, sword, a small hatchet and a leather surcoat, varnished and sewed with iron bosses. His captargac had some boiled horsemeat, a small bag of millet, a small clay pignate and grut — four or five days food for them before she would have to resort to roots, berries and leaves, and whatever game she could kill.

She left the body in the copse, covered with leaf litter. She would have given him a better burial, but time pressed. A bullock-cart does not move very fast and distance was her only friend, tonight. In the morning — or sooner — the body of the shaman Parki would be discovered. Then there would be a hue and cry. Gatu’s men too would be out looking for both her and Kildai.

Thinking about it now, she was sure it had been Gatu’s intention to present the murdered bodies of both her and Kildai and a couple of dead scapegoat killers, to the clan. With no leadership the Hawks and their adherents, would have fallen in behind Gatu. Now… his plans too were awry. The death of shaman Parki added to that. Many had fallen from the old religion, but shamans were still revered and respected.

It was possible that the great kulurtai might break up, with no decision on the khanship reached, and with clan fighting clan. She could only hope the Hawk clan survived. The clan was in a very poor position — without leadership, the subclans might desert to join others. There were some cousins with a claim to the clan-head, but, thought Bortai, none whom would do more than to enable the Hawk clan to survive, at best.

In the pale light of dawn, Bortai found a small fold in the landscape and hid the cart in among the scrub oak. She tethered the ox and pony where they could graze and reach the stream. Then, too exhausted to do more, she lay down next to her younger brother. His face was pale, but he was still breathing. She put an arm around him, and she slept.

She woke briefly as a party of horsemen rode past on the lip of the hill. She could hear their voices carried on the breeze. They were angry voices, but the words were indistinct. She held the hatchet, and waited. One whicker from the pony and they were lost.

But the riders rode on, and lady sun shone down from father blue sky.