Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 51

They were ready for anything . . .

Except for a very beautiful young woman, riding tandem, with a young head lolling sideways behind her.

A woman who managed to control her horse, and to get a bow into her hand and an arrow on the string faster than Erik would have believed possible. Then it seemed as if she saw enough to dip that arrow-point, pull her pony to a halt — and still stay on it, bow in hand. It was a superb display of horsemanship as well as quick wittedness.

Just behind her, a second rider and a third horse came to halt. This rider, in rough homespun, showed no skill at all, unless it was in the speed with which he departed from the saddle.

In the stress of the moment Erik grasped for words. He’d never been too good at talking to girls, and in a foreign language . . .

Too late he realized what he’d said. That first carefully memorized sentence. He fumbled for the words to apologize, while turning puce with embarrassment.

As the man in homespun got to his feet, she started to laugh. It looked like she might just laugh herself out of the saddle too.

The boy up behind her needed help. Behind them, Erik heard the clink and clatter of the rest of the knights. His Mongol companion started to speak. Well, to do his best, between snorts of laughter. She replied to him.

He bowed deeply.

“The very people we are looking for,” he said.

Just then another group of riders came around the bend. Also Mongols. They yelled when they saw the woman, spurred their horses, and dropped their lance-tips.

There was a sudden double boom. In the narrow defile, the sound echoed very loudly. The riders began frantically pulling their horses around. The shots in a place for an ambush might have been the cause. Or it could have been the solid mass of armor visible less than a hundred yards further back down the trail.

Erik reflected that there was a certain inevitability about all of this. Firstly, he’d accidentally insulted this woman. Fortunately, she did not seem to take offence. Then she turned out to be from the clan that they were looking for. Then some other Mongols came around the corner intent on murder, which Kari and his too ready pistols had stopped. Now . . .

There were more Mongols coming around the corner. And the body of the knights was coming up, the weight of their great-horses and armor gathering momentum.

He finally got it all together. “Lady,” he said, “can I offer you shelter?”

* * *

Since the events of the kurultai, Bortai had at least known what to expect of events. Yes, there had been a few surprises, such as Ion and the slave’s courage and bowmanship. But here, when she thought that luck had finally run out for her and Kildai, it would seem that the spirits had taken a hand — although in a way no-one could expect.

The foreign knight telling her that her mother was a tortoise — plainly a fumbling attempt her language — had been so incongruous and funny that in spite of the desperate circumstances she could not help but laugh.

Now he had just proposed marriage. Offered her his ger.

There was no doubt that the tengeri had a sense of humor. An odd sense of humor.

But it would seem that her latest suitor had a lot of knights to prevent anyone killing her or her brother first. And in close, tight quarters like this, the greater maneuverability of the Mongol horsemen counted for little.

* * *

In a chaotic mass the Mongol turned and rode away. That was one of the actions that they were famous for. Some foolish enemies had mistaken such retreats for cowardice and panic.

Erik was not among them. He signaled a halt, and as the charge had not yet built full momentum, the knights slowed to a walk by the time they had reached him.

“Did you have to start a war?” demanded Manfred, who had somehow contrived to get among the van.

“As yet, hopefully not,” said Erik. “Usually someone has to get killed for that. And I didn’t see anyone go down when Kari loosed off those pistols of his.”

Kari shook his head regretfully. “No. They’re not as accurate as I’d like them to be. I think I may have winged the one.”

“Then what in the name of all the saints happened?” asked Falkenberg.

“And just what should we do now?” added Von Gherens. “Retreat on the river?”

“I think that would be wise,” said Erik. “There were some grounds for a misunderstanding.”

“Like Kari shooting at them,” said Manfred.

“To be fair, he only did that because they were heading for us full tilt with their lances out,” said Erik. “It could have been nasty, otherwise. I think we’d better do a systematic retreat now while we can. They’ll send an emissary down shortly, I should think.”

Manfred nodded. “And who’s the wench? There you are, on a barren mountainside, which I thought had a female sheep at best, and some beautiful girl comes out of the woods to find you. Why am I not this lucky?”

“I don’t know. But Tulkun said that she is from the clan we’re looking for.”

“I admit that makes a pleasant change,” said Manfred, turning his horse as Falkenberg gave orders. “Mostly girls just stare besottedly at you. This one at least has the common sense to laugh at you instead, even in the middle of a cavalry charge.”

Erik blushed a dull red. “I may have greeted her incorrectly, in the stress of the moment. And her companion appears to be injured. We’d better see what help we can give.”

Manfred raised his eyebrows. “Just what did you say to her?”

“I think you have enough to mock me about,” said Erik severely. “Kari, you and the horse boy get on top of that rock. Everyone else is wearing armor, which doesn’t help with climbing. Fire a shot if you see any sign of them coming back down the slope. And don’t fire at them. Fire in the air, and then mount up and get down there. And come running anyway when you see us on the far side of the river.”

He turned to the young woman with the boy on her back, whose eyes were open now but distinctly out of focus. In his rudimentary Mongol, Erik said: “If you will come with us. It looks as if the boy needs some help. We have those among us with some skill in healing.”

She smiled at him. She had one of those smiles that ran all the way to her eyes, and dimpled her cheeks. “Thank you. You are offering your protection to him too?”

At least that is what Erik thought she was saying. So he nodded.

“The clan of the Hawk is glad to accept.” She was obviously stifling a gurgle of laughter.

He wondered quite what he’d said this time.

“Come on, Ritter Hakkonsen. Lead out!” yelled Falkenberg. As the man who had fallen off had remounted, they all rode back to the river.