Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 43

Chapter 24

“This,” said Falkenberg, “is not the kind of country you want to have to cross with siege cannon.”

Erik looked at the mountainside and the trail that had wound its way up. It was beautiful country, in a stark kind of way. “It’s certainly not the kind of place you’d want to try and cross if there were hostiles ready to ambush you.”

Falkenberg nodded. “Even with a lot of light cavalry scouting for you. There are too many good spots to drop arrows or rocks onto the trail.”

“It’s a good thing that we have the locals scouting for us.” Manfred pointed to two of the Illyrian escorts on the upper arm of the hairpin bend. “Although it does raise the question of why they should feel the need to.”

Erik shrugged. “It’s a bit like the feuding tribes and clans in the mountains in Vinland. Most of them have some kind of grudge with their neighbors, usually so long ago that they’ve forgotten quite what it was about. They’ll come together to fight a common enemy, or to raid a profitable target, but the rest of the time they fight each other. Just to keep in practice.”

“I’d rather that they fought with each other than with us. They’ve got no armor to speak of, but this is good country for archery and ambushes.” Falkenberg surveyed the slope with a professional eye. “Still, I will grant that whoever this Iskander Beg friend of Benito’s is, he can organize. We are making better time than I’d expected.”

* * *

David rode close behind the three Knights, listening. He was scared half out of his wits. He had thought that he was adapting to the strangeness. But that had been in the closed confines of the ship, where he’d still been his normal confident self. He’d recaptured that confidence quickly enough once he got over the initial shocks, and had done some learning: basic things like how to muck out well, and how not to try anything clever on Kari.

That hadn’t stopped him taking enormous delight in setting up the tall blonde Ritter with the Mongol lessons. On thinking about it, though, that had probably been quite stupid. Kari, who in David’s opinion would pick a fight for fun with a dragon, treated Erik with serious deference. But David had really thought that in among the rubes in the tiny town on that godforsaken island, that he would be cock-of the-whoop. Then that old woman had caught him. He’d been pathetically grateful at being rescued by what passed as the local police! If word of that ever got back to Jerusalem he’d probably have to stay away for ever.

And then there was the very young man that they called — so respectfully — Milor’ Valdosta. He’d been laughing at Jerusalem’s finest, David was sure. Well, he was sure of it now. At the time he’d been terrified. He’d been, David had to admit, nauseatingly grateful to see Kari and Erik. Even if they were going to beat him. Which they hadn’t, oddly enough.

And then, just when he thought he could reassert his self-confidence with yet another neatly placed language trap, Erik had set him up. Thank God that he had made him use the phrase on Lord Tulkun. The Mongol was too plump and too good-humored to take it the wrong way. Besides he understood far more Frankish than he ever let on. But Erik now seemed onto his tricks.

And Erik and Tulkun were clumsily talking. David had resolved to be a lot more careful in the future. He was going to listen and learn a little before he tried anything.

He was so busy listening and learning that he nearly got himself killed when things next went wrong.

“Scatter!” yelled Erik.

David blinked. What was “scatter”? Some kind of wild animal? Then, as the column of knights divided and spread, putting their heels into their huge mounts with the calm skill of professional soldiers, who know when to obey orders, he realized that what Erik meant. Scatter because someone is shooting at us, and there are a lot of arrows in the air . . .

The knights were armored. He wasn’t.

Both the Mongol party and their Illyrian escort had drawn bows. The difference was that the Mongols were already riding hell for leather and the Illyrians were trying to still their horses. Several bangs and puffs of smoke testified to wheel-lock pistols being used.

David’s horse did not like the noise. It was not a warhorse and had not been training for battle. Ironically, that probably saved his life. The horse reared, and David fell off.

A black-fletched arrow cut into his shoulder as he sat up, just as Kari galloped past and snatched him off the ground. “You damn fool! Didn’t you hear Erik? Pamolai’s claws! How badly are you hit?”

Almost fainting with pain, David tugged at the arrow. “Leave it. It’ll have to be pushed through,” Kari said, pulling his horse up behind a huge boulder. Somehow he managed to dismount, still holding David in one arm. “Erik said that he wanted you to be a lesson to me,” said Kari grimly. “The first bit of decent action we’ve seen, and I’m babysitting. Now let’s see that arrow.”

He tore aside the cloth of David’s cotte and shirt. “You’re a lucky brat. It’ll have to wait a few minutes but you’ll be fine. Those Mongols are the finest horse archers I’ve ever seen. Better even that the skraelings on Vinland’s plains. I think there are some very surprised and very dead Illyrians.”

* * *

The knights had divided neatly, according to their training. Manfred’s bodyguard kept in tight formation around him. The rest of the heavy horses thundered up the pass. Their attackers had hidden in some rocks where they had thought that they could escape up the next hairpin zigzag. What they hadn’t anticipated was just how fast the knights’ horses could gallop once they got moving. They also hadn’t anticipated just how agile the ponies of the Mongols could be. The Mongols had not stuck to the trail — and they were capable of shooting very accurately from the back of a cantering horse.

The panicked ambushers tried to flee. But the knights were less than a hundred yards off by then. That was not enough time to get their own mounts up to full speed. The rushing wall of lance points caught up with them and swept them off their horses.

There was little for the Illyrian escort to do, except dismount and cut throats, which they seemed to do with great relish. In the meanwhile, the Mongol were scouring the mountainside. The entire ambush had resulted in one dead packhorse and one injured horse boy — and fifteen dead bandits.

“We were supposed to panic, and flee, and then they’d loot the pack-train,” said the Illyrian captain, kicking one of the bodies. “It’s a favorite trick around here. What gave you warning, Lord?” He asked Erik curiously.

“I heard the arrows coming,” said Erik. “One of them had a loose fletching. It makes a characteristic noise.”

The Illyrian looked at him with wary respect.

Erik too had learned something in the ambush. He had heard just how well the Mongol could shoot from a moving horse, and now he had seen proof of it. That, and the agility of the men and their ponies had probably made a good few of the knights of the Holy Trinity reassess them. Admittedly, this was a hand-picked and elite group, both of Mongols and of Knights.

He turned to Kari. “You’d better start teaching that hell-born brat some basic military discipline and skills. I’ll not have his death on my hands and conscience, just because he sits around going ‘huh?’ when he’s told to move. I’m surprised he didn’t try to argue about it.”

“The very thought that had gone through my mind,” said Kari, swatting David relatively gently on the uninjured shoulder. “Mind you, we could just use him for target practice. That way he would at least die for a purpose.”

Erik favored both of them with twisted half smile. “On second thoughts, let Von Gherens and Falkenberg train him. They have not enough work to do. They normally instruct novices.”

* * *

Iskander Beg, masquerading as the captain of the party’s Illyrian escort, watched and listened. He had been somewhat embarrassed by the ambush that his men had missed. Fortunately, it had failed spectacularly, and he’d learned a little more about the two parties he was escorting. Enough to realize that there was a large difference in quality between these Knights of the Holy Trinity and King Emeric’s heavy Magyar cavalry. The spiky armor might look archaic, but there was nothing archaic about their drill. He had noticed that, even though they were on the march, they still practiced every morning. The fact that they, and not a pack of servants, tended the horses was interesting. Benito had said they were a monastic order, but still . . .

He was glad that they were mostly engaged in combat in the far north.

The Mongols were less of a surprise. In the uncertain border region near the Danube, where you could as easily encounter Bulgars, Hungarian patrols, and the occasional Golden Horde Mongol, the Illyrians had had first hand experience of Mongol horsemanship and archery. It would appear that, despite differences in dress and appearance, these Ilkhan were much the same as their cousins in the Golden Horde. Iskander did not think that he would like them for southern neighbors. Better that the Byzantine Empire remained as a buffer between him and them. He had a feeling that they would be intolerant about raids and far better at dealing with steep hill country than the Byzantines.

Still, best to be shot of the lot of them. This had been, in terms of gold, a profitable exercise. Benito had been quite right about that. But there was also something to be said for keeping them out of the heartland of his people. Although that that could just be prejudice. And a little embarrassment.