Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 50

But it was best not to take such a chance. At least Kildai was willing to let them tie his hands together, around her waist. Ion mounted clumsily — he had hardly ever been in the saddle. Leading the other horse which was laden with such supplies as it could carry, they rode out, keeping under the trees, working their way ever upward.

As she had feared, the last section of the slope offered no cover at all. It was just bare sheetrock with scattered tufts of grass. Looking back, she could see dust that had to be a large party of riders. There might be smaller groups trailing them also.

They simply couldn’t afford to wait for nightfall. So she rode her mount out under the trees and onto a rough trail. As she had guessed would happen, she heard a distant yell and someone sounding a horn. She urged her horse into a canter. They’d save the galloping for later. Anyway, it was very likely that Ion would fall out of the saddle when they tried.

Coming over the ridge, she looked back again. The dust cloud had grown considerably. They were pushing those horses. And then, she heard a sound that she would have never have thought could be so sweet. It was a bell. She’d heard them before from one of the churches of the Vlachs who lived higher up in the Carpathians. No wonder they were hunting her hard. There must be a Bulgar village close by.

Crossing into Bulgar lands wouldn’t stop the pursuit. But it did mean that someone — besides her — might just be shooting at them. If she could find some place to hide . . .

She wished that she knew more about the Bulgars and the border area. But her clan’s holdings were far to the north. She’d never been down here and never had much interest before. The situation was complicated, if she recalled correctly. There were several conflicting peoples in the area. Bulgars, Illyrians, Hungarians. Bortai didn’t really care. She just hoped that they would be furious with a raiding party and so busy fighting them that they wouldn’t notice three riders fleeing.

* * *

Erik had missed his guess slightly. They were ready in the woods on the far side of the river when the terce bell rang out from the little white chapel in the village in the mountain-fold.

The Illyrians wasted no time, and engaged in no great formalities at their border. Iskander Beg simply rode up to Manfred, Eberhart and Erik. “Our mutual friend,” he said, “has asked that you send word back, if you can, as to what is happening here. Of course he also wants to know what is happening further north.”

He grinned through his mustache. “He never asks for too much. There will be some men and good horses waiting in the village.” He pointed to the little place they had just left. “In case you or a message want to return the same way.”

“Our mutual friend, Benito Valdosta,” said Manfred smiling. “If you knew him as well as we do, you would know that he always asks too much — and then usually gets it. Our thanks to you, Lord of the Mountains. Benito said that you took your honor very seriously here in the mountains. I take mine seriously too, and I realize that you have paid us a rare honor. The Holy Roman Empire is in your debt.”

Iskander bowed his head slightly. “I hope that I will have no occasion to wish to collect,” he said, still smiling. “I hear a horn. It would seem that the Golden Horde are already aware of your presence. I think we will remove ourselves a little. Relations have not been of the best at times. I would prefer it if you met them somewhere close to the ridge. The land between it and the river is something of no man’s land. We’d like to keep it like that.”

In close formation, once the scouts were across, the knights clattered across the braided gravel of the border river, and into the woods. There was a faint trail, but it was obvious that it was rarely used. Erik, Kari and Tulkun the rotund Mongol rode ahead.

“Now, for heavens sake, Kari. Don’t shoot the first thing you see that moves.”

“It’s best that way,” said Kari. “Really, Erik. It avoids so many problems later.” He was grinning as he said that, and Erik could only hope that he was joking. With Kari he never could tell. He always had at least four wheel-lock pistols secreted about his person. They were apparently not yet very common in Vinland and he had a fascination with the weapons.

* * *

Bortai felt her little brother slumping against her, but there was no way they could stop now. They needed to get somewhere closer to those bells, or else where they stopped would be where they died. She could hear a second horn being sounded. Their pursuers must be over the ridge by now.

The trail, faint though it was, did make travel faster. It zig-zagged down the slope between some large boulders, each the size of a couple of gers. It was a good place for an ambush, and she might have considered the possibility, had there only been three or four enemies in pursuit of them. But she would guess by the dust that thirty or even forty was closer to the number. Only speed could help now. Fortunately, even two up, they probably weighed less than most warriors, especially this late in summer. Summer was drinking and feasting time.

That same speed nearly had them ride into the people coming up the trail. For a moment, seeing just the scale mail and forelock of a Mongol warrior, she snatched at her bow. But then she noticed two other things. One was the man who was riding just ahead of the Mongol, in spiky, angular armor, on a truly magnificent piece of horseflesh. His visor was open. He had a chiseled face, and fine, almost white-blond hair. Obviously he was not a Mongol. In fact, he didn’t look like he belonged to any people Bortai knew.

The other thing that really struck home was the sky blue truce flag on the lance of the Mongol. Then she saw more subtle differences. She’d never seen scale armor quite like that worn by this Mongol, and his tack was arranged slightly differently. The silver inset on his saddle was also something that she’d never seen before, as was the device on his shield.

But she knew what it represented. She’d heard of the Bear clan. They were part of the Red Horde. The Ilkhan. Not seen in Golden Horde lands for many years. Almost a thing out of legend.

Her frozen moment was interrupted by Ion falling off his horse.

* * *

Erik had heard them coming. Two or three horses, ridden hard. So, by the way he had drawn two pistols, had Kari. The Vinlander refused to wear much in the way of armor. He felt it slowed him down, which Erik had to admit was probably true. There was unfortunately nowhere to get off the trail. The path passed just between two of the huge boulders, leaving a space barely wide enough for four to ride abreast. Kari sidled up to a twisted tree that grew out of a crack and waited. Erik and Tulkun took firmer grips on their weapons, Erik dropping the point of the lance with its blue pennant to just above head height. Tulkun did the same with his spear.