Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 59

A little later a party of four reappeared, still carrying the truce lance and Erik found himself riding out again. The new party from the Golden Horde was headed by a harder-faced individual, and as was protocol, two knights and two of the Ilkhan men rode out to meet them. This time Erik’s party included Tulkun. Once again, Erik had great difficulty in following what was obviously a very polite . . . . but more insistent discussion. The one word that seemed to be being repeated quite often was ‘Bortai’ with several gestures.

Tulkun held out his hands, pointed to Erik with a thumb, and, grinning like a cheerful bear, sounded off at great length. The hard-faced individual peered at Erik then spouted at some more length. The only word Erik understood was ‘foreigner’.

Tulkun replied. This time the only word Erik got was envoy. At least that’s what he thought it meant.

The four turned and rode off again. “What was all that about?” demanded Von Gherens. “Are you selling them Erik?”

Tulkun grinned. “They want young lady from Hawk clan. I explain she under clan protection of him. Officer cross. Try to say that envoy-truce does not apply to foreigners. I have to explain to him that even our Tarkhan is not Mongol, but still under protection of Ilkhan. There is nothing they can do. But he does not like it.” That idea plainly amused the rotund Mongol. They did seem to like laughing at these sort of things, Erik noted.

A further half hour later a plainly still more senior commander came down — amid worrying reports from the scouts that there were riders moving in the forest on the far side of the river, spreading out as if to flank them.

This time the tarkhan himself rode forward to treat with them. Erik would have loved to know just what he said, but he told the escort to back off. It must have been pretty impressive and effective however. He rode back smiling calmly. “They will escort us to the camp of the Orkhan. Prepare to ride.”

* * *

Bortai found herself being carried along by the tide of events. It was not entirely a bad direction to be carried in, but it would require care and careful steering to survive. She wondered just how deep the honor of her new protector ran. She got the feeling that it might be very deep indeed, despite his being a foreigner. On the other hand the honor of Gatu Orkhan could hardly be very much shallower than it already was. She could expect treachery and they would be heading back into the heartland of his support. It would also take them closer to her own people. Somewhere, somehow, she must seize the opportune moment to rejoin their clan. If Kildai recovered enough for them to ride it might be possible. Her thoughts also turned to the possibilities of using this serf David. The sight of him in the saddle would certainly upset rumors that Kildai was dead — if she could stop Kildai being seen by any others, while he was carried on litter.

And how was she to do that? She noticed the boy, David, hanging around as two of the foreign Knights loaded Kildai gently onto a stretcher made from two strong poles and a piece of canvas. She called him over. He was visibly nervous. Good. “I do not know how to tell you this, boy, but do you own a hood? Something to hide or change your face perhaps?”

He looked even more alarmed. “I have a hooded cloak, great lady.” He paused. Then curiosity and fear got the better of him. “Why?”

“You look like someone. Someone they would like to catch over there,” she pointed across the ridge.

He looked very much as if he want to turn and run right then. “But I have never ever been there before.”

“Yes, but you look very much like someone that the Raven clan want dead. I would wear the hooded cloak and keep out of sight as much as possible.”

He bowed hastily and ran off. Bortai saw him rummaging in a pack a little later.

The Ritter Erik came back from the third parlay. He too bowed, but it was an easy, friendly bow. He was plainly unaware of her status, or else so highborn himself that he made little or nothing of it. “We explain you part of my clan. Protection of Tarkhan,” he said in his awkward Mongol.

Bortai was uncertain quite whether he meant that they were under the protection of the envoy, or that he was there to protect the envoy. But whichever one it was, it plainly extended to providing for them. “I have asked Ritter Von Stael to see that you and your man are brought some food and drink. While we find out quite what is happening. Tulkun believes it will be no problem.”

Bortai believed that at least on the surface General Okagu of the Raven clan would have to go along with the pretense that she and Kildai were protected. She was also sure that they would make a serious attempt to murder them. Of course, it would all be done under the cover of a polite fiction — if they were killed some ‘renegade’ would be caught and executed, and humble apologies conveyed. The killing would never happen in the public eye. But they would watch like a lynx in the forest, stalking a doe with a fawn, looking for the slightest opportunity to strike. She was sure right now that several of Okagu’s officers were pointing out that at least they knew where she was now, and would be able to find a suitable opportunity somewhere. She would have to be as wary as that lynx-stalked doe. And when they got the chance, run for it.

She was also surprised by the thoughtfulness of her accidental protector. She had seen that he was a very busy commander, and yet he had found the time to consider their needs. She’d noted that he had ordered scouts deployed both up and down stream, and on a high point behind them, as well as forming the knights up in the defensive square. For a barbarian, he was a good Orkhan.

A little later, as she had expected, an honor guard rode down. Bortai found herself moving off at a walk, in the tail end of the column. Next to her two knights carried Kildai. His eyes were open again. He seemed, in her judgment, to be little less confused this time. He had at least called her by her own name. And while she was in sight he seemed content to lie still.

* * *

Erik rode close to Manfred. Yes, they were all in full armor. Yes, his charge was in the midst of a body of some of the finest knights in Christendom, but they were not in Christendom. This was a wilder, wider world. Nor had Erik been entirely comforted by the behavior of the Golden Horde Mongol. True, he had snatched a piece of their prey from their jaws. But surely that had been just a piece of petty inter-clan warfare? A set piece of triumphalism to hold one of the women of another clan for ransom? Or did things go deeper than that?

“Why are you so edgy?” asked Manfred.

“Something is not right about this crew,” said Erik. “Yes, I know we didn’t have the most auspicious start. But I talked to Tulkun — the short plump one. He seemed to think that it was just a bit of clan rivalry. The Hawk clan claim descent from Chinngis Khan. They’re a bit holier than thou, or rather, more Mongol than thou, and it would be a big coup to capture part of the clan. But the girl seemed to think they’d kill her. She should know, surely. Tulkun thought it very funny, but he doesn’t know these people and they’re behaving more like bears with sore teeth.”

Manfred grinned. “You spend your whole life looking for disasters, Erik. Our envoy fellows seems cheerful enough.”

Erik grimaced. “It is always best to plan for disaster. Then when disaster happens, you can see how wrong your plans were.”

Manfred shook his head. “In my experience you plan really well, Erik. It’s just that usually the wrong disaster strikes.”

“Yes . . . well. But the girl worries me. There is something not quite right about all of this.”

“Nice looker,” said Manfred. “And there is a charming novelty in seeing one of them laugh at you, instead of make calves-eyes at you. What did Falkenberg say about the boy?”

Erik shrugged. “From what we can work out, the kid had been unconscious for nearly three days before he started coming around. There is a possibility the spine is damaged but . . . well, by the way he’s been jolted about — if it were damaged it’d be likely he’d be paralyzed. And his sister says he’s moving his arms and legs. It’s too early to tell. If a casualty stays in a coma for more than a week — things don’t look good. Falkenberg thinks he’s got a good chance of recovery. Of course keeping him still for a week or two would be best. But people with head injuries usually recover quite fast — especially youngsters — when they start to recover.”

They had reached the ridge-top by this stage. “Well. The lands of the Golden Horde,” said Manfred. “Funny they don’t look particularly different from the other side.”

“They do slope away to softer lands, by the looks of it,” said Erik. “Anyway, it’s the people, not the terrain, that shape a land.”

Tulkun shouldered his horse up to them. “Lady say she have something to tell you. Stop knights sweating so much.”

Erik looked around warily. “I better go and see what it is, Manfred.”

“If you must,” said Manfred. “Carrying stretchers on foot is good for them. Just as long as you don’t want me to do it.”

So Erik rode back — to where, as Tulkun had correctly put it, the knights were sweating along, carrying the boy. It was not that the lad was that heavy, but it was already bidding to be a warm day.

Erik greeted her, his tongue almost tricking him into the ‘tortoise’ again. It was just close enough to make the accidental transposition easy. She obviously caught it, because she suppressed a laugh but not the dimpling of the cheeks. “I wanted to say I have a cart hidden down there. Maybe even an ox, still.”

That would please the knights, even if it would probably jolt about more. Erik was sweating in his armor. Actually the only person who seemed to be feeling cold was the horse-boy. He was wearing an old hooded cloak Kari had given him. It was a good bit too large for him. Erik wondered if the boy was sickening for something.