Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 66

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David was beginning to wonder whether dying of heat was any better than being murdered. The knights in their armor were complaining. And he, in this hooded cloak, felt as if he was going to melt entirely. Worst of all, it appeared that both Kari and Erik had noticed. “What are you wearing that thing for?” asked Kari. “It’s hot enough to make a bear shed its pelt. Are you hiding something under there?”

“I’m just not smart enough to be seen among these noble Mongols,” said David.

“These are nobles?”

David nodded. “Yes. Of course. They are Mongols. Like the knights, they are nobles. Well, not just commoners like me.”

“In Vinland a man’s as good as he can prove himself to be,” said Kari. “I’ve never understood how just being born makes you something special. Maybe all nobles have tough births . . . but you never showed any worry with the knights. If these Mongols are what you call nobles, the knights should have troubled you just as much, eh?”

“They’re foreigners. It’s different,” said David.

“Well, I’m not buying you some smarter clothes because you won’t be seen dead in what you have. They’ll just have to put up with you as you are. Or you can cook in that thing.”

That was all too close to the truth. The part about being seen dead, and the part about cooking.

A little later, Erik had come past, doing his usual checks on the column and scouts. He had his visor raised within the column. He raised his eyebrows looking at David.

David had to admit that he’d at least tried to avoid being noticed quite so much by Erik, since the practical joke. He’d also tried to avoid any more temptation in this direction, especially after he’d been caught out. But the Frank’s face did make it hard to resist. And he did feel that there was still some payback justified, even if Erik and Kari had saved his life from those barbarians on that island.

“Are you sickening for something, brat?” asked Erik. “It’s as hot as a warm day in hell, or even a cool day in summer in Jerusalem.”

David decided to play it for sympathy. “I am not feeling too well.”

“I’d better get Falkenberg to look at you, then,” said Erik. “He’s as near to a Knight Hospitaler as we have with us. Mind you, I could ask one of the Mongols. Maybe they have a healer.”

“Er . . . no. I’m really not feeling that sick. Perhaps I could just ride back to that village in Illyrian territory and wait until you all came back.”

Erik snorted. “I don’t think you’d survive, boy. The world out there is more complicated than Jerusalem. Maybe I can get you a ride in the Mongol lady’s ox cart. You could hardly ride it worse than you do that horse. I’ll go and ask her.”

He rode off, and came back a short while later. He was smiling. That was enough to worry David. He had seldom seen Erik smile, and never for no apparent reason. “Come along, brat. The lady says she’ll do you up as a pretty little Mongol boy. No one will ever accept that something as lowly as a mere horse-boy will be smart enough to ride in a Mongol lady’s cart. I’ve been talking to Kari. So if you’re sick, or not smart enough? Either way we’ll fix you.”

David groaned. But he had learned by now that there was not much use in trying to resist Erik. Besides, he could lie down in the cart, couldn’t he? No one would see him there.

Of course, when he got to the cart he discovered that the noble Mongol lady had her own ideas about what to do with him. It appeared that these included cutting his hair and dressing him up in her brothers deel. “I’m sure that they would hardly recognize you like that,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye that he entirely distrusted. From the lofty height of his 15 or possibly 16 years he knew that women were usually not to be trusted, especially when they looked at you like that. And after they had asked you if your mother was a tortoise, definitely not.

On the other hand, it did appear that she was going to let him drive the cart. That was more pleasant than riding as far as he was concerned. And he did rather enjoy wearing the fine clothes. He noticed several of the Golden Horde riders were plainly very impressed. He sat tall, forgot about the various ills of his life and played off the attitude and manners of nobly born Ilkhan Mongol. He doubted that they were that different to the ways of the Golden Horde.

Bortai had to laugh again. The tengeri were surely playing some complicated game with her life, and for that matter, with Kildai’s. The foreign knight, Erik, must by now think that she spent her entire life laughing, principally at him. But he had told a good story, even in his broken Mongolian. Storytellers and singers were much liked and respected, the great ones as much as Shamans and Orkhans. He seemed genuinely concerned about the serf who looked so like her brother. Well, he did say the boy was much trouble. So was Kildai, except when the seriousness of being a leader of the Hawk clan was impressed upon him, which, sadly, usually lasted only a few heartbeats.

She was of course pleased to ‘help’. She hoped she didn’t look too utterly delighted by his request.

A little later Tulkun rode by again. He grinned at her. She beckoned him closer. Using every ounce of protocol at her disposal she addressed him very flatteringly. He grinned wider. “And what is it that the noble lady requires? When my wife is that polite to me, I know that she wants something.”

“The wisdom of the noble warrior from the bear clan stands as high as the eternal blue sky,” she said, with her best smile. The one she saved, normally, for asking just how much a warrior would dare to wager on a wrestling match.

He chuckled roundly. “Oh, this is a large one. What is it that you desire, noble lady?”

“Just that if any of the people of the Raven clan of the Golden Horde should ask, my brother Kildai, as well as having been concussed, has broken his leg. It is not too serious,” she said demurely. “You saw how they strapped it up and splinted it, did you not? It will make riding very painful until it heals.”

He laughed again. “I suspect that this is a very clever trick. But I do not see that it will do me, or my master the tarkhan, any harm.”

“No. And it will earn you the gratitude of the Hawk clan.”

He nodded. “If any of them should ask me, I’ll tell them that. You do not want them to think he can ride?”

“Something like that,” she said, favoring him with a smile again.

She was pleased to see, a little later, after some quick barber work, and changing the boy into Kildai’s beautifully embroidered deel, and even letting him wear Kildai’s sword, that her judgment had been dead right. So long as they did not really get a close look at him or see him riding . . . The sword too, he was plainly unfamiliar with. Ion was able to leave off driving the cart, and she let the boy take over with it.

This David seemed to be enjoying, which was something Kildai would never have allowed anyone to see, even if he did. And by the looks on the faces of the Raven Clan escort, Tulkun had done his part too. It would make nearly as good a story as the tortoise greeting, if they got away with it. And there was some delight in playing such a trick on this serf from Ilkhan lands. No matter what his birth, he had shown himself to be a practical joker. A trickster. It was a dangerous way to establish your status, but it was both popular and effective. Of course any such trick always called for a reply. She smiled to herself; she was, in a way, repaying Erik for his generosity, and this David for his practical joke. Besides the look on the faces of the Raven clan made it all very worthwhile.

A little later the blond knight came riding up again. He was, she noted, ever vigilant. An Orkhan who did not believe in merely delegating his responsibilities. She could understand why the tarkhan Borshar had hired such a mercenary, if he was going to hire such things at all. She’d seen quite a number of battle commanders, and this was one of the most methodical she had ever come across.

He looked at David. Blinked. Looked again. Then he motioned for her to ride next to him. They rode ahead a little. “He looks very like your brother. Clever. I should have seen.”