Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 29

Chapter 16

“In the 58th year since the Khagan Temujin, the Princess Khutulun wrestled with Khan Ulaghchi. As was the custom, one hundred horses were bet upon the outcome,” sang Bortai, softly, as she gathered berries. “But the great khan bet a thousand horses.”

She faltered briefly. A thousand horses! She traced her lineage directly to Khan Ulaghchi, the greatest and most powerful of the khans of the Golden Horde, whose dominion had extended across all the Cuman Khanates, the Volga Bulgars, the Bashkir lands — from the Carpathians in the west to the Alatau Mountains in the east, and across the limitless steppe between. He had drawn tribute from the Kievan Rus princes and been visited by delegations from across the world. He had had a thousand horses to gamble. But he too had barely survived fleeing his uncle Berke, with no one but his warrior bride beside him.

Ulaghchi had survived. Had then conquered. But had he ever had only one horse? There was no doubt that that period of hardship had shaped Ulaghchi and his loyal Khutulun. That was what had made him determined to keep the Mongol people true to their traditions, no matter what other tribes they assimilated. Ulaghchi’s rule had lasted for over half a century, and his influence was still felt now, hundreds of years later. He had set out the rules of conduct that still governed the noble houses, enforcing Chinggis’s rules on drunkenness, drawing back to the shamanistic roots of their faith. Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam were tolerated, but they were for non-Mongols. The Mongols were above these things, true only to the everlasting blue sky, guided by the spirits.

Ulaghchi’s was a great dream to follow. But with only one horse, and an unconscious brother, the clan scattered and possibly destroyed, it also seemed a very far-off dream. As much of a dream as getting Kildai to Kaltegg Shaman, whom Parki Shaman had recommended before he was killed.

Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a movement in the shrubbery on the far side of the little stream. She tensed, staying absolutely still herself. Then, after waiting far too many heartbeats, she slowly turned her head, making no sudden movements. There was a roe-deer doe there, barely thirty paces away. A big step from any other game she’d seen so far. There had been a rabbit that she’d bagged yesterday. She had chopped it finely, cooked it into a broth with some millet and salt and herbs. But that deer would be enough food for days… If she could get a clear shot at it. What an idiot she was. A few moments ago she’d been singing, quietly, it was true, but still behaving as if she were safe in clan-lands and not on the run from their enemies.

She strung the bow and selected an arrow, being careful not to make any sudden movements. She took careful aim. She was not as good a shot as her little brother was, or even as her older brother had been. And missing was not an option. That was enough food to see that they could stay hidden all day for a while, and only move at night.

She gave thanks both to the spirits of the wood and the deer. And then swore, as the deer crashed forward. She shot anyway, and fought her way forward through the blackberries, knowing that she was tearing her deel, but too angry to care. Now she might lose an arrow as well. And then she stopped dead.

For there, not forty paces away was someone else, doing exactly the same thing. He had caught sight of her and froze, just like a deer that hopes you have not seen it. Just as she was doing.

His clothes were more ragged than hers — and that thing could hardly be called a bow. And he was tow-headed, and plainly terrified.

What was a slave doing here, with a weapon? That was something a slave would be killed for, even now. Realistically, everyone knew that slaves did a little poaching, trapping small game, using a shepherd’s bow or spears that were little more than sharpened sticks. But this slave — with that bow, and having slain a deer…

He had to be a runaway. No wonder he was so scared. Bortai had instinctively put another arrow to her bowstring, after launching the first. He was going to break and run any moment now. She could see the way his eyes darted, looking for cover, looking for the best way out.

“Stand,” she said.

He didn’t. He fell to his knees instead, his eyes wide and wild. A week ago she would hardly have noticed. But now… she could hardly help but be aware of some fellow feeling, if not sympathy. The Vlachs was young and gaunt to the edge of starvation. It was a pity he’d cost her a clean shot at the doe, but perhaps he could be of some use. There was, to be honest, much that a slave would know that she as a Mongol princess did not. Things which would be useful in helping both her and Kildai to survive.

“Spare me, noble lady,” he said tremulously. “I was just so hungry.”

“So was I,” she said crossly, “and now you have cost us both our dinner. I suppose the beast is a good league off by now.”

He shook his head and pointed with a shaking hand. “No, lady. You dropped it.”

Well, that put a very different complexion on the matter. She felt almost inclined to let him run, as a reward. But she could ill afford him being caught and telling someone about her.

The best thing would be just to kill him, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. “Well, then, you’d better come and carry it back to the cart.”

He blinked. Then a lifetime of obedience took over. “Thank you, lady.” He set down his crudely made bow down and began walking into the thicket. For a moment, Bortai wondered if he would bolt. She would have as soon as she had cover. But then, she had not been a slave all her life. The Vlachs seemed to accept that he was back in servitude. Oddly, his face, so terrified a few minutes before, had eased into an expression of relief.

That made sense, in a way. Slaves did not make decisions. Slaves simply did what they were told. They were fed, and housed, perhaps no better than a dog, but that was the owner’s problem and prerogative. The runaway might have lost his freedom, but he had also been freed from responsibility that he had no idea how to deal with.

And she might as well be killed for stealing a slave as far stealing a horse. She’d taken the horse in fair combat, but she doubted if the orkhan would accept that.

The doe had managed to stagger on a little way before it fell, but had not gone too far. Looking at it, honesty forced Bortai to admit that it was the slave’s heavy crude arrow that had pierced its eye and killed the beast. Her arrow was merely lodged in the hind flank.

“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” she asked suspiciously.

He looked at her with frightened eyes. “I think I was just lucky, lady.” He hesitated. “I did shoot… when I was a little boy. Before…” his voice trickled off.

That did explain it, partially. Those born into slavery were more docile than those taken on raids. Raiding deep into the mountains did yield some new slaves. It was not something her clan had had much part in. Ancient law forbade the holding of Mongol slaves, or even those of part Mongol blood. With their territory being in the north, the Hawk clan had mostly clashed with other clans further north, those now under the sway of minor khans who owed allegiance to the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Other clans might hold the law in scant regard. But the Hawk clan was rigid about such things. That made them respected, certainly. But Bortai suspected they were also regarded as thinking themselves a little too good for everyone else.

The slave could be lying about the luck. Slaves did lie. Honor did not have to be their path. Either way, they would need to pick up that bow of his. She might need him to use it again, no matter whether he was supposed to or not.

It was a good-sized mature doe. “Take the hindquarters,” she said, “we’ll clean it back at the cart.” The carcass would draw flies, but she wanted to be close to Kildai, just in case he woke.