Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 49

Chapter 27

Erik and the Illyrian captain stood on the wall of the little fortified village, looking down on the braided river below. “That is the edge of our territory,” said the Illyrian captain. He pointed. “Over that ridge are the lands of the Golden Horde. They will have seen us by now. They keep a watch higher up. Across that mountain, are the Bulgars. There is usually someone up there too. I feel sorry for them in winter.”

Erik nodded. “Our thanks, Captain. It occurs to me that I’ve yet to hear your name. I would like to tell my young friend, Benito Valdosta, how carefully you have watched over us. I do realize that you have dealt with two other groups of attackers, after the first incident on that pass. If we could formally introduce ourselves? I realize that it is late, but as they say, better late than never.”

The mustachioed captain smiled. “In some cases, knowing could make you late, Ritter Hakkonsen. Benito already knows who I am. But as we part ways here, you may as well know my name. In these mountains I am called Iskander. And now, I see your men are readying themselves to ride. We will scout as far as the river bank. It is easy to ford at this time of year.”

He turned and left the parapet. Erik went down to join the other knights. Manfred greeted him with a wave. Then frowned, seeing Erik’s expression.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said Erik. “We’ve just been hoodwinked a bit. Not that it did us any harm, I suppose. But Benito might’ve told us.”

“I so love it when you speak in riddles,” grumbled Manfred. “I suppose I should be grateful for the mental exercise.”

“I mean that the Illyrian captain of our escort was none other than the Lord of the Mountains himself. Iskander Beg.”

Manfred raised his eyebrows, and whistled. “No wonder his nose was out of joint when we were attacked. Eberhart is going to be sorely disappointed that he missed the opportunity to do some more politicking.” Manfred smiled. “There is a rose in every patch of thorns. I’ll save pretending that I knew until I need to irritate him about something. Still, we’ve got a day or two, surely.”

“No. More like until Terce bell, if they have such a thing in these mountains. The river down there is the border, and our Captain Iskander has gone out scouting.”

“Well, whatever happens we have learned a bit about him,” said Manfred. “His logistics and staff work are far too good for some tribal chieftain lost somewhere in the middle of the mountains. My uncle would love to employ him.”

Erik nodded. “True, although that’s hardly a good thing for us to tell the overlord of these tribes. The Illyrians might be as poor as Shetlanders, but they are just as proud of their independence.”

“I suppose so. Francesca tried to teach me the fine art of tact and sensibility, but I mostly failed at it.” Manfred mounted up, grinning. “Fortunately, from my experience, it is something that translators do for you. So how ready are you with the Mongol tongue?”

“Far from ready to act as an official interpreter,” said Erik, tightening a cinch before mounting up. “My understanding is getting much better. But as for the speaking, I really think that I need a better teacher.”

“But then our horse boy would have no practice in getting faster reflexes.”

Erik jibbed his horse forward, “Knights!” He raised his voice to address all of them. “We are now on the borderline between Illyria and the lands of the Golden Horde. Our Illyrian escort will leave us at the river. From there, until we meet the Golden Horde, we will be taking full escort duty. Falkenberg, you will organize the prince’s personal guard. Von Gherens, you will take the van. Proctor Kalb will take the rearguard. Knights Von Diderik, Kirsten, Von Taub and Wellmans, Hunsen, Dader, pair off. You will be scouting ahead. Kari, you are with me.”

He and Kari would be even further ahead, riding point.

Two of the Mongols, the rotund Tulkun and his sharp-eyed friend Matu, came up with their ponies. “We riding, scout. Meet Horde.” He held a bunch of sky blue pennants in one arm and waved them about. “Put on, how you say, spear. Truce. Mother sun, father sky.”

That would certainly ease any confusion arising from seeing a large party of foreign armored horsemen moving into their territory.

* * *

David had learned a fair amount since the incident on the pass. One of the things he’d learned was to look out for signs that the knights were expecting trouble. Even with the new sky blue pennants affixed to their lances, there was a sense of heightened awareness in the column. He, along with the baggage train, rode near the back, behind Manfred and his escort. By now he’d worked out that it was no use just wishing that he was riding even further back, preferably on the way to Jerusalem. He looked and listened hard. There was entirely too much silence in these places. He was sure that any enemy could hear the passage of the knights from a good half a league away. In a nice crowded noisy city there were other noises to hide behind.

He’d never realized just how much he appreciated Jerusalem’s Mongol overlords, until they were no longer around.

* * *

The country was more rugged here, along the borderland with the Bulgars. Bortai knew that was a blessing more than a curse. The terrain had provided the cover that had let them avoid an arban that had plainly been out looking for someone. Now she prayed to the spirits of the land, to the tengeri, to the eternal blue sky, that they would not have to break cover to get over the next ridge. And they had to get over it and soon. She’d been scouting and spotted two arban of search parties. One to the west and the other to further east. The only way out was over the ridge.

Otherwise — had the pursuit not been getting closer — she would have been terribly happy. Kildai had awakened. He was confused, true. But two days ago she’d been less than sure that he would ever wake again.

Unfortunately, there was no way they could get the cart over that ridge. And she was not at all sure how he could ride. He seemed to think that she was his mother, dead five years now, rather than his older sister.

They had tethered the ox where it could graze reasonably well, and hidden the cart. With any luck those who were following them would lose a little time searching the area for them, not knowing that they’d moved on. Now it was a question of whether Kildai could stay in the saddle. She and Ion helped him into it. Surely, someone whose balance was that bad would fall? She thought they would probably have to tie him into the saddle.

But instincts honed by a lifetime spent riding came to Kildai’s rescue. Even just sitting there, he’d put a foot into the far stirrup without any help from them. She had planned to ride on the same horse, in front of him. Now she wondered if he could stay in the saddle by himself.