Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 30

They carried the doe back to where she had hidden the cart, pausing to collect his makeshift bow. She had to shake her head at the thing. It was just a yew bough with a string, made, by the looks of it, from flax. What could he be able to do with a real composite bow?

They hung the carcass in a tree to flense it. Then, abruptly, the slave sat down. He tried to stand up again, but failed.

“When last did you eat?” asked Bortai, looking at him, sitting and swaying.

“Not for some days, lady,” said the man, trying to rise again.

“Sit,” she said firmly. “I have one unconscious man on my hands. I do not need a second.” She dug in the captargac. Mixed up some of the grut and ground millet with some water in the bark bowl she had contrived. “Here,” she said. “Eat that.”

He took it, confusion and gratitude vying for space on his face. He had plainly had the kind of master who would never have given food to his slaves with his own hands. There were some like that. “Thank you, lady,” he said. “I thought you would beat me.”

“For falling down from hunger? No wonder you ran away.”

He looked at her with very frightened eyes. So he might, since the penalty for running away was death. But that was likely to be her own reward if Gatu or Nogay and his men caught up with them. Of course they would probably amuse themselves with her first. Try, at least. She would have to see how many of them she could kill. It was more honorable to die in combat.

“You will not send me back? Please, lady.” His voice was shaking.

“With whom?” She pointed at the cart. “With my brother?” She knew in a way that she was being foolish, telling him that she was alone. But he was so afraid, and so weak. She took out her knife, and began to cut open the doe’s belly. He staggered to his feet, and began to help to haul the intestines out. “If I am caught…” he said quietly.

She interrupted. “They will kill you. Do you think they would treat me any differently?”

“Oh.” He was silent as this sank in. He hauled the liver out. “Can I set this aside, lady?”

She nodded.

“It does not keep very well,” he explained. “We can dry some of the meat, but we must eat the organ-meats soon.”

It appeared that the runaway slave had thrown his lot in with her. In a way, a small way, that was comforting. “I know that much. What is your name?”

He looked startled anew. “Ion, lady.”

She had never introduced herself to a slave before. They all just knew who she was. Presumably they found out from other slaves.

But she saw no reason to go into detail. What he did not know, he could not betray. “I am Bortai.” It was a common enough name.

He bowed awkwardly, plainly as unfamiliar with this situation as she was. “I know. Princess Bortai of Hawk clan.”

So much for keeping her identity a secret. “And how do you know so much?”

He looked warily at her again, as if afraid that she would hit him. “It was my task,” he said. “I was supposed to follow you. To tell my master where you went.”

She looked at him. He was just such an ordinary looking slave. Of course they weren’t supposed to bring spies to the kurultai. But many people did. Would she have noticed anyone following her? Anyone as unobtrusive as this? Now that she thought about it, she could see where slaves would make excellent spies, if they were capable and bold enough. That was a lesson to be remembered.

“Who was your master?”

His terror returned full force. “You will not send me back? I will be a good slave to you.” His eyes were as wild as when she had first encountered him.

“Don’t be more foolish than you have to be,” she said tersely. “I just want to know by whom and when you were ordered to follow me.”

“Lord Nogay. He showed you to me at the start of the kurultai, High Lady.”

Nogay was one of Okagu’s followers. “And where did you lose track of me?”

“At the ger of Parki Shaman. I saw Lord Nogay’s men go inside. I heard… But when I dared look you had gone. There were only the dead. I was very much afraid. I ran to Lord Nogay. It took me too long to find him. I did not know he was with the soldiers watching the Hawk clan’s gers. He was very angry. He took most of the men from the watch and went looking for you. When he and his Jaghun came back from looking for you, the fight with Hawk clan had already broken out, and they had fled.”

That meant that at least some of her clan had escaped.

“Lord Nogay began to beat me. I knew that he would not stop until I died. But he did stop, when someone brought him news that a sentry had been found dead. He let go of me, and I ran.”

No wonder he had looked at her with such terror.

“I did not know where to run, but the camp was in uproar. There was much fighting. Many clans fleeing. Much chaos in the dark. Some fires had broken out. I ran. I hid. The next night, I ran again.”

“Where did you think you were going?”

“To the mountains. I came from there.”

He should have been going west, then, not south. Bortai suspected that the direction that he had been traveling in was merely away. Her own decision had been slightly more logical, at least in the short term. She’d gone the opposite direction from that which any logical person would have thought: toward the lands of the Hawk Clan. That was direction in which the greatest search would have been instituted.

The direction she’d taken instead would hopefully throw off the pursuit, at least for a short time. It was also the shortest distance to the security of the Bulgar hills.

Dubious security, to be sure. She had a good chance of being enslaved, just like Ion, or merely raped and killed by the Bulgars. Relations varied. In some places, border clans had peaceful arrangements. In others, more commonly, raiding continued both ways.

She might be lucky, she might not. But at least there would be no systematic search for her and Kildai in Bulgar tribal lands.

Between her and Ion they lifted Kildai up a little, and gently spooned small quantities of broth into his mouth. The quantities had to be very small, or he simply coughed and spluttered. Bortai was not too sure how much of it was actually getting into him., but he did seem to be swallowing something.

Looking at him, Bortai felt very alone and very afraid. A warrior Princess like Khutulun should be ready to deal with usurping orkhans. But the clans of Golden Horde always insisted on a male khan, except as a temporary regent for an underage heir. Ulaghchi the Great had left a legacy of deep reverence for Mongol tradition. That could work both for and against them. Many of the clans would support Kildai because of that tradition. Though young, he was still of age. But they would not support her, while he was unconscious.

She refused to let her mind even think about her little brother being dead.

That night they moved on again. Of course, any decent herdsman could have tracked them. But the land hereabouts was riven with tracks, mostly recent. It was, Bortai admitted to herself, very much easier to break camp and to yolk the ox with help. And now she could ride and scout while Ion drove the cart. That was a great deal better and safer than driving the cart blindly.

They still traveled only a league or so that night, but she was able to find a good patch of woodland to hide in. In this area the wooded steppe was more wood than steppe. That was good for hiding, and bad for traveling fast.

This was a better sited hiding place, and there were two of them. That still should not have meant that she could sleep so deeply. But two nights of fear and stress and traveling, compounded by wary and uneasy sleep during the day, had taken their toll.

She had not even realized that she had fallen asleep. She had just meant to lie down for a few minutes in the shade under the cart. She was awakened by the sound of voices. Unfamiliar voices, and harsh ones.

Her first thought was that the runaway slave must have betrayed her.