Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 36

Chapter 19

Bortai heard his voice then, sounding just a little arrogant — something she wouldn’t have thought the slave capable of. “What do you want here?” he asked. “My master is away, and the young master is asleep. Go before you wake him.” He spoke as if he had been a family retainer for fifty years, confident in his value to the clan.

Bortai was surprised to hear the strange voices modulate. “We just want to know what you are doing on our lands,” said one.

“When the kurultai broke up, we were separated from our clan,” said the slave. “We are returning to them. We merely travel through. That is permitted.”

“We are looking for a woman…” That was a different voice.

“There are no women here,” said the slave in a tone of some shock and disgust. He did it well, as if they had suggested that the cart was some kind of cheap brothel in one of the small settlements. “Even my master’s wife is three years dead.”

“We must look,” said the first of the strange voices. “Stand aside, slave.”

Bortai rolled quietly to the far side of the cart and drew her knife. Up to that moment, there had been some chance that the interrogators might back off. But they would see Kildai. They would find some of her things in the cart. The runaway slave could hardly stop them.

“No,” Ion said. The slave’s voice shook, but he did the unthinkable. She could see them now, two ordinary warriors from one of the poor clans from the south that had allied itself to Gatu. One had dismounted and had stopped just short of the slave, an incredulous look on his face. His hand rested on his sword hilt. But he faced just a solitary slave. He was hardly expecting trouble, even if Bortai could see that the slave had a stout stick in his hand.

While one man remained mounted they were in grave danger. But he was relaxed, slouched in the saddle. She measured the distance with her eye. She could throw a knife fairly well, but doing so would leave her unarmed. Still, she saw no alternative.

And then, once again, the slave’s precipitous and unexpected actions affected her aim. He hit out at the warrior with his cudgel, dividing her attention for a moment. She was too late to stop the throw, although she did pull back from the intended force of it. As a result, she did what no good Mongol would ever do. She hit the flank of his horse instead of him. At least the weakened throw meant that the knife did not sink itself to the haft as she had intended.

But as far as the horse was concerned, a giant and vicious horsefly had just bitten it. It screamed, reared, turned and tried to bite the spot. Not surprisingly, the horseman lost his seat.

Ion almost lost his head. His blow with the cudgel, while unexpected, was hardly the most effective blow ever struck. The warrior barely staggered, and an instant later had drawn his sword and struck back. But sheer fury made him clumsy with his stroke, so that the slave was able to block it with his cudgel. The cudgel lost the top hand-length, and, almost dropping it, Ion stumbled back. He would have died seconds later if Bortai had not kicked the warrior’s legs out from under him.

The warrior still had his sword, but not for long. As he rose, Ion stepped forward and managed another wild swing with the truncated cudgel. That hit the warrior on the forearm just short of his elbow. The sword flew out of his hand and embedded itself in the wood of the cart. Bortai was on to him before he could draw a knife.

Wrestling was one of the noble arts, one in which she might not exceed the skills of the legendary princess Khutulun, but was easily a match for some poor ordinary warrior. However, there was still the other man, who had gotten to his feet, drawn his sword and was running towards them.

Ion turned tail and ran. Bortai knew now that she had little choice. She had to kill the first man very quickly. They had staggered to their feet. She did not wish to throw him and lose grip. Instead she swung him between herself and the second man and he took the sword thrust intended for her. His companion’s own fury made him clumsy also.

A moment later, Ion made sure that the other warrior had no opportunity to strike again. Ion’s crudely made arrow skewered the man just as effectively as it had the doe.

The warrior screamed, staggered and fell as she pushed his blood-gushing companion away from her. Ion advanced slowly, another one of his home-made arrows on the string.

Bortai did what every good Mongol woman would do in such circumstances. She picked up a knife and cut their throats, neatly.

Ion dropped his bow, and stood there, holding on to the edge of the cart. His face was white and his teeth chattered. He looked to her as if he would fall over at any moment.

But they were more urgent things to be done. One of the Mongol horses stood, as Mongol horses had been trained to stand when their riders alit. The other…

She would need to see how far it had run. “We will need to saddle up. No, I will just take this horse. But you had better yoke the ox.” She was already in the saddle, and looking to see if she could see any sign of the other horse.

“Lady Bortai, we must flee,” he said, his eyes wild with fear again.

“If we can’t catch the horse, we’ll have to. Whatever happens, we are going to have to take steps not to be tracked. Or not to be tracked too easily. Within the next day they’ll start looking for these two. If I can find the horse, we’ll have to bury the bodies.”

She put her heels to the pony’s sides. Fortunately, she did not have far to go before she found the other horse. Her first thought was for the injury that she had caused. It was a nasty wound, but probably not serious. She led the horse back, looking for her knife, which had obviously fallen out. But she found no sign of it. That in itself was irritating. There had been a good stone on the pommel.

When she got back, the cart had been hitched up but there was no sign of Ion. He might have run off, but she would give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Last time that she had assumed that he’d run off he had used that bow of his to good effect. It wasn’t lying in the cart or on the ground. So it was a safe assumption that he’d at least taken that with him.

Bortai hitched the horses and began to unsaddle them. Sure enough, Ion appeared warily from behind a tree and began to help. He was still obviously very afraid.

“You did well back there,” she said.

He shuddered. “I did not actually know what to do,” he admitted.

“Hit much harder,” said Bortai gruffly, some level of combat aftershock beginning to take hold. It was better just to keep doing things.

A slave was not supposed to take up arms. But if he had not done so, she would probably have been dead and Kildai would have been killed no long afterward. It would seem to her that Nogay had wasted a very loyal servitor — but then perhaps that was why he had been entrusted with following her.

“We need to do something with these bodies,” she said. “And maybe move just a little bit.”

The slave looked at the bodies and shuddered again. “We could take them to the edge of the stream where there is a steep bank. We could cave it in on top of them.”

She made a face. That was too close to the water. Disrespectful of it. But they had to do something, or the carrion birds would show others just where these two had met their demise. “Not in the water,” she said.

He shook his head. “Well clear. There was a little hollow that I was hoping to hide in myself, Lady Bortai.”

So, once they had looted the bodies of anything useful, between them they dragged the corpses to the undercut bank. Sooner or later, unless they had rain, someone would probably track the missing two warriors. They would find the spot where the killing had happened. It was very possible that they would find the bodies too. Hopefully the cart would be a few days away before that happened.

A little later, they moved the cart and the horses. As they were unhitching it again, Kildai gave a weak moan. His eyes opened wide, and then closed again. Bortai dropped the yoke and ran to him. But it did not appear that he was going to do any further waking up just yet. She hoped, desperately, that he would stir soon. They had three horses now. Once he could ride they could abandon this cart.

She was not going to abandon the slave. If he was caught he would be killed. The man had risked a great deal to save her and Bortai, and behaved with rare courage too. Such loyalty had to be respected.

She wondered if he could ride. In the meanwhile, she must see to that poor horse. It would need to be stitched and poulticed. Fortunately, she knew how to do both. She felt scant sympathy for the clansmen that had hunted for her. They would have killed her and Kildai, and taken their severed heads as proof. But horses were different. A horse did not choose the use it was put to.

At dusk they must travel on again. They would seek to mingle their trail with that of other bullock carts. But never again would she allow exhaustion to override her caution. They could take turns to sleep. Ion might not be as keen eared as a sentry, but she would teach him to watch the horses. A horse was more keen-eared than any human, especially for the sounds of other horses. If whoever was not on watch slept a little distance away with a bow, they could wreak havoc on any enemy. They could certainly deal with foes in ones and twos.

There was nothing like victory, no matter how unlikely, and how much by the favor of the spirits, to dispel fear and despair. With Kildai stirring, she almost dared to let herself hope that they could survive.