Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 67

And she should have realized that someone as vigilant as this would not miss the similarity. Or be taken in by the deception. She could only hope that the Raven clan was led by less observant warriors. “They look quite like each other,” she admitted. “If they see him sitting up, they will not realize that he cannot ride away.”

He looked at her keenly. “There is more, yes?”

He was entirely too astute. She nodded. “There is conflict between this clan and ours. Believing that my brother is recovered will worry them. That is good.”

“I have a lot to learn about your people,” he said. “Good luck with this.”

His eyes, never still, scanned the countryside. “It is a fine, rich land this,” he said.

“Ours to the north is better,” she said proudly. “What is your land like?”

“Mostly rocks,” he said with a smile. “And very much colder. But when I have finished my . . . ” he searched for words and ended up with, “serving.” Which was plainly not quite what he wanted to say. “I am going back to Vinland. There is much good rich land there. I went there before,” he searched for the word again, and had to settle for ‘serving’ again.

Bortai had to smile at his description of his family’s lands. Not many of the Mongol would admit to their lands being ‘mostly rocks’, although in some cases it was true. It also explained what he was doing here. He was probably a second son. At least it would seem he had no plans to carve out a holding on Golden Horde lands, or, not yet. “So where is this Vinland?”

“A long, long way to the west,” he said. “Across a huge . . . water, that takes us weeks and weeks to cross. My home is . . . part of the way. On a land in the water.”

“An island. In the sea,” she explained, resisting an urge to ask him if his people tended fish on seahorses.

He repeated her words, carefully. “And you would call them?” He supplied the words. And asked for a few others. It was amusing. But he never stopped looking out for trouble.

And when it came he reacted with speed and ferocity.

They had fallen back slightly and were now level with David and the cart. He suddenly dived sideways, snatching the boy off the bench of the covered cart.

An arrow ripped through the covering of the cart. Had he still been sitting there, David would have taken it in the chest. Erik had somehow spotted it in the process of removing David from its path he had also knocked her sideways, almost off her horse. She could not be certain that that was his purpose, but they were the only unarmored people there.

The responses from the Frankish knights were equally rapid, and plainly very practiced. Well, the movement of the knights was practiced and coordinated. What nearly frightened half of the Raven clan off their horses was the dark-skinned man and his hand cannons. He had fired four of them in to the copse, which the arrow had almost certainly come from, even before the steel-clad knights had got to a full gallop. Some hurtled towards the trees, the others closed in around them, as they pushed the whole column, including the poor ox and cart, into a run.

Bortai had pulled herself back into the saddle, and, plainly on orders from Erik, found herself between three steel clad knights. The man with the hand cannons had leapt from his horse and onto the cart, a feat fitting of a Mongol warrior. The Raven clan obviously did not know quite what to make of all of this. It was apparent that although they were supposedly escorting the knights, the knights themselves were looking after the situation. A few hundred yards later someone — possibly Erik — called a halt. Looking back, Bortai could see why. The small column of knights that had detached itself, now accompanied by a couple of Arban of Raven clan warriors were returning. With a dead body.

Erik, still with the serf boy David across his saddle bow, rode up. He dropped the boy, who sat down abruptly panting and wild eyed at their feet. Eric was not laughing now. “I did not bring him to you to be killed.”

“They are without honor,” hissed Bortai, white with anger. She had expected treachery, but later, in the dark, when they could do it with poison or a thin-bladed dagger. She had never expected anything quite this blatant. True, had the boy been killed, and the knights and the man with the hand cannon been less rapid to react, the bowman would have got away. No doubt the Raven clan would have sent several Arban ‘in pursuit’. They might even have brought someone back. Almost certainly, a dead someone. Possibly even the bowman. They would have been handsome and fulsome apologies. Blood money paid — they were under the escort of the Raven clan. It would have been a matter of considerable embarrassment. She would not even have been surprised if they did escort her home after that. She was not that important in their scheme of things. Killing Kildai plainly was.

“I nearly got killed,” said her brother’s look-alike, still stunned.

The man with the hand cannons had pulled the cart up next to them. He said something. The boys staggered to his feet. Bortai noticed that the man who had taken control of the cart was patting him on the shoulder with a sort of rough kindness. She felt terribly guilty. They did not look alike, but what if it was his younger brother? “I’m sorry,” she said humbly. “I did not expect this.”

“You warned me, Lady,” the serf David said, gratefully.

That actually made her feel worse. It was conduct without honor. And without honor the Hawk clan was nothing.

The knights who had sortied, together with two of the Golden Horde Mongols, Tulkun and a second man, and two Arban of the Raven clan came riding up. Bortai noticed that Erik’s huge companion had made his way there too.

Bortai let her fury explode within her. A little later, when she calmed down, she was not entirely sure quite what she had said to the commander of the Arban. It had included quite a lot of terminology that a wellborn Mongol lady should not admit that she knew. The leader of the Arban was bright red, and the serf boy David was laughing so much that it looked like he would fall over. Tulkun and his companion were looking at her with a mixture of shock and amusement.

The commander of the Arban stuttered out the start to a reply.

Bortai, now that she had vented some of her spleen, demolished him in a few well chosen words about the honor of his clan. And told him to go. Now. To remove himself from her sight, and to do the sort of job of patrolling that honor really demanded. She knew just as well as he did that the archer was from his own clan. She also knew that the humiliation would prevent them from trying in that manner again. It did not stop her from being badly embarrassed too, later.

* * *

“By Christ’s blood!” said Manfred admiringly. “I don’t understand a word of it, but I have heard drill proctors with thirty years experience give a gentler chewing out. She’s quite some spitfire, that girl. Take my advice: stick to the meek and mild ones. They’re not as much fun in bed but at least you get to keep your head on your shoulders.”

“She certainly was as shocked and angry as any one can be. She . . . has quite a rough tongue. I thought at first that she’d set David up as a decoy — a false target. I was fairly angry with her. He’s just a fool of a boy.”

Manfred shook his head and looked at the leader of the Golden Horde’s little patrol slinking away like a whipped cur. “Are you sure she’s just some ordinary woman, Erik? She was behaving like an empress back there.”

Erik blushed dully. “No empress would tell a man to do that. No empress would even know the words. I didn’t even know half of them, but what I did understand . . . well, I think perhaps she is woman who cleans fish. They are . . . um inclined to speak like that.”

“Still think you’d better take some steps. Fishwife or no, someone just tried to kill that boy. My suspicion has to fall on our escort.”

Erik nodded. “Kari got lucky with a shot there. Normally those pistols of his are not particularly accurate, especially at that sort of range. Mind you, if they’d shot from close up they’d have killed him. I only had a few heartbeats of warning. I think he’ll have to go inside the cart, and we’ll have to put a full escort on it. I think, because I am trying to conserve our force, I will bring them inside your cordon.”

“Makes sense to me,” said Manfred. “If the targets are hidden inside that cart they can’t tell just where they’re dropping their arrows.”