Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 58

Chapter 31

Erik had noticed that the Ilkhan hunkered down on their haunches to talk. So he did the same next to the girl and her brother. Struggling to express himself in a language he barely had a handle on, he gestured quite a lot. “I have given the order. A thing to carry him on will be made for the boy. We have to travel. We look after you.”

She stared at him, wide eyed. And responded with a high-speed chatter of which he understood only one word in three. It was not easy to string those words into anything coherent. How did he say “slow down?” The best he could manage was “do not gallop.”

She looked at him, puzzled. And then started to laugh. That hadn’t been quite the reaction he’d been looking for, but she did have one of those infectious laughs.

He saw that the pestilential horse boy had gotten back. “You. David. Come help to translate. And none of your silly tricks.”

* * *

Bortai had wondered just what she would do next. There was a little church and village up the slope. But it would offer at best temporary shelter. Given the numbers that now hunted for them, such a little village could not protect them, even were its people willing. And the foreign knight had said that Kildai should not ride any further.

She was rather puzzled when the tall blonde foreign knight came and squatted next to them as if he were from the steppes himself. His accent was as strange as his words were limited. But there was no mistaking the kindness behind the words. It made her eyelids prick with tears, tears that she was determined not to show. He gave orders. He must command these mercenaries. It was odd that Ilkhan should resort to using a mercenary escort. But she could think of no other reason for these knights to be accompanying a tarkhan’s party. Given the fact that they were coming from the west, either the Ilkhan had vastly increased their territories, or these knights had been hired to see them across lands not under Mongol control, lands where the locals were so ignorant that they would dare to attack a Mongol envoy. It was unlikely that either the Illyrians or Bulgars would have dreamed of it; they had had contact with the Golden Horde. But perhaps there were other tribes and kingdoms further west with less respect. The heyday of Mongol power, Bortai knew, had passed.

Nevertheless, they were still a force to be reckoned with.

Then she got the actual meaning of what he was trying to say. He had ordered a litter to be made for them to carry Kildai in. And he made no mention of consulting the tarkhan. Well, perhaps that was just his lack of skill at her language.

She was a princess of the Hawk clan and she recognized his honorable conduct. He might be a foreigner, a sell-sword, but his behavior was far better than that manifested recently by many Mongols. Her reply, a little embarrassed, was perhaps voiced faster than it would otherwise have been.

By his puzzled look, she realized that she must be speaking too fast. And then he told her to stop galloping. It was so earnestly said that she had to laugh. She was behaving like a hysterical girl, and part of her was embarrassed by her own reaction.

He did smile when she laughed, though.

* * *

David looked at the Mongol woman. He was a Jerusalem born thief. He had lived under the shadow of the Ilkhan all of his life. He was good at spotting details. Her clothing might be travel-stained, and torn, but it had been some of the finest weave. Her accent and tone reflected the same reality. This was one of their highborn, the kind that he avoided with as much care as possible. One step out of line and there would be no leniency. His first reaction was that he ought to back off and get lost. But he had learned by now that Erik’s orders were to be obeyed, so he came forward and bowed very low, no matter how much his feet wanted to run in the other direction.

“She doesn’t seem to understand what I’m trying to say,” said Erik. “Explain to her that I’m having a stretcher made. I’ll detail a few men to carry the boy. He’ll get jolted around much less like that. We really need a well sprung cart, but that doesn’t seem possible. Tell her we’ll get her back to her clan. I daresay somebody will be pleased to see her. The two of them seem to be good, ordinary people.”

Unholy glee stirred in David’s breast. Erik plainly did not realize that this was a high-ranking woman. Direct tricks, like the one that had nearly had him killed in the terrible criminal haven Corfu, were out. But he could certainly let the knight talk himself into a tricky position. And he would have grounds to claim complete innocence! Oh, bliss. It would serve them right for bringing him so far from Jerusalem. And it would be funny.

He would have to be careful, though. Stay close to the exact meaning. But Erik was going to be very embarrassed when it turned out that this was a very high muckety-muck, and he’d been treating her as if she were a commoner. Mind you, David had noticed that the Ritter treated Prince Manfred in much the same fashion. He knew that Erik was no noble. He’d asked Kari. But while he was at it he could tell her that Erik was of great rank. That meant a lot among the Ilkhan Mongol.

And then David realized that she was looking at him very strangely. Well, one of his ancestors somewhere had been one of the conquerors. He did have the eyes. In Jerusalem that was not uncommon. Looking like a Mongol had not stopped the local constabulary from watching him, unfortunately. He didn’t have the forelock. That was strictly forbidden to lesser people, at least among the Ilkhan.

“Lady,” he said in a tone of deep respect, “my master, the noble Ritter Erik Hakkonsen, says that he has ordered them to make a litter to carry your brother.”

“I understood that.” She looked at him strangely again. “How old are you?”

David wondered what on earth set her off on this tangent? What did it have to do with her? He was a little small perhaps. But he would swear that he had grown a good hand since leaving Jerusalem. His breeches bore testimony to that. “I am sixteen, lady.”

“You look to be a little younger.”

Well, he could be. Birthdays were not as religiously observed as they might be. He simply knew that he’d been born some time around the ascension of the new Ilkhan. But it was not a comment he appreciated.

“Sixteen,” he repeated firmly.

“Tell your master that we appreciate his kindness. But we do not need to accept such charity.”

“It is best for the boy,” said Erik in his best Mongol, putting a neat end to David’s plans for a flowery and mildly insulting translation. “We honor our promises.”

* * *

Bortai had wrestled with the best. It was expected of a noble Mongol lady. Seldom, however had she been thrown as hard as this, and then as neatly pinned. First, a boy who could be Kildai’s twin brother — dressed like a peasant. Could she possibly have got things wrong? It had been a few years since there had been much contact between the Golden Horde and the Ilkhan. But there was almost no imaginable way that the Ilkhan would be subservient to these Franks. If she recalled her histories correctly, the Franks had been among the allies of Ilkhan against the Baitini. They had fallen out over one of the battles, where the Franks and their allies had failed, and the Ilkhan had been defeated. When the Ilkhan returned in force, the Franks too had been evicted from their holdings in Asia Minor. But that was all centuries ago. It still did not explain why this boy who was by all appearances as much of a son of the Hawk clan as Kildai, was doing as a serf. And, to make things even more difficult she was afraid that what this Erik said was true: she had to do what was best for Kildai.

Then the ridiculous side of it struck her. This foreign knight had proposed marriage to her. And in the jest of it all, she had accepted. And now he was saying that he honored his promises.

* * *

“Why does she keep laughing at me?” asked Erik plaintively.

Just at that point, a pair of men carrying a lance with the blue truce flag emerged from the woods on the far side of the braided stream. Erik looked up. “Hell’s teeth,” he said. “I’d better mount up and see what is going on. David, find Kari. I’m going to need someone else who is not in armor to help carry. In fact you will need at least four of them, to take it in shifts. Get Falkenberg to sort it out.”

* * *

The boy ran off. He even ran like Kildai, Bortai noticed. The armored Erik got into the saddle with graceful ease and cantered off. Bortai was left sitting next to her brother. She had spent much of her life telling others what to do. Her mother had died in childbirth when she was just eleven. Much of Kildai’s rearing had fallen on her shoulders. Yes, there had been many other older women to help with the practical day to day tasks, and her aunts had seen to her own very traditional upbringing . . . But she was still her mother’s daughter. She had the final responsibility. She was accustomed to a role in the clan decisions. Now she watched as others dealt with their fate. She really did not like it. She could see no easy way of changing the situation, but it irked her.

* * *

Erik rode forward, escorting one of the Mongol, not Tulkun, whom he was developing something of a friendship with, but one of the others, to meet the Golden Horde envoy on a gravel bank in the middle of the braided stream. Erik could not really follow the entire discussion between the men. He did get some of the formalities, and some references to ‘Franks’. At length the Golden Horde man saluted respectfully, and turned his pony and rode away back into the woods on the opposite side of the stream. Erik wished that he knew exactly what was going to happen — but did not appear too threatening. This was something of a relief. By the way they rode, he really had a feeling they’d be tough opponents, especially on broken terrain.