Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 73

Chapter 39

“I am worried,” said Erik to Manfred, as they stopped for the evening.

“A normal situation,” said Manfred. “What about this time? Besides a beautiful woman who keeps laughing at you.”

“Believe it or not, that’s part of it. Although not for the reasons you imply. I met and lost the only girl I will ever love.”

Manfred said nothing. He’d learned that much from Francesca. Saying things like: “You’ll get over it” or “there are other fish in the sea” were counterproductive, even if they might be true. Manfred had never been that seriously emotionally engaged with a lover. Physically engaged, yes. But he knew Erik was different, and did not know how to love lightly, and would never learn to. Manfred doubted anyone would be allowed to pierce that armor again. It was a pity, because Erik would never really get over it without someone else to take her place in his heart. But he knew his bodyguard, mentor, and latterly friend too well to do more than tease him, beyond a certain point.

“It was that incident when someone shot at the horse-boy. It just doesn’t fit, Manfred. The Mongols responded far too slowly . . . and the commander knew it was going to happen, if you ask me. That and the general . . . I don’t know, feel. And the fact that they say we’re going to have to cross the great river — I presume that must be the Danube. I feel like we are walking into a trap.”

“You’ve been uncomfortable from the very start of this venture into the Golden Horde’s lands, Erik. You’ve told me so at least five times now,” said Manfred.

“It’s the river, Manfred. Look, here, if things turned nasty . . . well, we are not that far ride from Illyrian lands. And if that Iskander Beg has less than a regiment’s worth of men very close at hand I will be very surprised. They were there, watching, when we had our first little meeting. I spotted at least three scouts, and I’d bet Mongols did too . . . but that won’t be all. Iskander is like a good knife man. You won’t even see the blade until he tries to kill you.”

He gestured at one of the Golden Horde Mongol trotting past. “There are not that many of them. With our armor and our cohesion as a force . . . we could possibly get you back to that border-line. But not once we are across that river.”

Manfred thought about it. Erik was by nature and by training one of the finest bodyguards in world. His instincts were preternaturally sharp. But this time . . . it just didn’t add up. “There is of course their reputation for honoring the safety of envoys and diplomats,” said Manfred. “And we are that, even if I must agree with you that this lot seem as trustworthy as the average adder. They don’t like us, but there is not much — serious — that they can do about it. Envoys and their escorts are sacrosanct.”

“It’s an old reputation,” said Erik. “Centuries old. Things change. And the part that worries me most, is that they are not likely to send your head in a bag to the Holy Roman Emperor to tell them that it happened. The Ilkhan, by all accounts, are still known for that honor to envoys, but if you die here — the blame is likely to be pinned on Iskander Beg. Or bandits.”

“The only part of your logic that doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Manfred, “is why they would do it? They have nothing to gain by it, that I can see. Well, other than your little bit of Mongol cuddle. And she’s pretty, but hardly worth ruining the reputation of centuries, and creating two major enemies if word of it leaks out. And you know these things leak out of even the most closed societies. Sooner or later, someone would tell a trader or a seaman. But I actually have an entirely different worry for you. Something that has been bothering me.”

” What is that?” asked Erik.

“It seems to me,” said Manfred, “That our entire reason for coming on this expedition has fallen apart. We hoped to meet and establish some form of diplomatic contact with the leaders of the Golden Horde. Now it appears, from what I can gather that they are in a state which is very close to civil war. They don’t have a new Khan. Their electoral kulurtai broke up in fighting. Nobody is in charge at the moment. From the point of view of our agreement with the Ilkhan: we have honored that already. We have brought their Tarkhan safely to Golden Horde lands. Should we not be heading back? I know that we haven’t affected things as far as Jagiellon’s fleet is concerned, but to be brutally honest, their civil war does us no harm.”

Erik nodded slowly. “A point. I think you need to talk to Eberhart.”

“For once I actually think I really could benefit by talking to old doubletalk,” agreed Manfred. “Come with me. With any luck you will get your wish, and not cross the river.”

They found Eberhart, “We have a problem — besides the fact that their women laugh at Erik,” said Manfred.

“Would you give it a rest?” Erik scowled. “Manfred has a serious question about the entire mission. It would seem that our purpose — to treat with the new Khan — cannot be achieved. I think we need to head back to Illyria.” He did not say ‘While we still can.’ But Manfred could tell that he was thinking it.

Eberhart tugged at his short white beard. “Perhaps we need to talk to the tarkhan Borshar.” Eberhart gave a wry grimace. “That is if the tarkhan is prepared to talk to anyone. My experience among the Ilkhan is that their diplomats are even better than the Ard Ri’s speakers at the fine art of saying very little in very many words, for a very long time. Borshar seems to be an exception to that. Perhaps it’s because he has to serve among us foreigners. I had hoped we’d learn something about the Ilkhan as we journeyed together. But he really is the most taciturn of men.”

Manfred decided that if Eberhart thought the Ilkhan wordy, he was infinitely glad that he had not ended up having to deal with them too. But he refrained from saying anything, something he wished that Eberhart would do.

Erik shrugged. “He looks almost as if he’s in a trance half the time.”

“Well, let’s go and find out if he is talking at the moment,” said Manfred. So the three of them went across to the encampment that had been set up for the tarkhan. Much to their surprise, he was not only welcoming but quite affable. He clapped his hands and sent his manservant to bring a bitter brew in little cups that he called kaveh, served with sickly-sweet little sweetmeats. Manfred would have preferred a glass of wine, but that was not on offer, it seemed. On the other hand Borshar was, this time, willing to talk.

“At the moment, until a new Khan is elected, the Orkhan, that is the war-leader, will oversee matters. It will be of great value for you to meet him. I will arrange for an audience for you, it will be an opportunity for you to present your credentials. He is a leader of great influence. I have spoken with these clansmen. He is trying to bring the kulurtai back together again.”

Erik had no time for diplomatic doublespeak. “Tarkhan, I am responsible for the security and safety of the Prince.” As an afterthought he added, “and Prince Manfred is responsible for your welfare. It is my task to assess risks. I do not like this situation. Quite honestly, I believe that we will come to the Danube tomorrow. I am concerned about crossing it.”

The tarkhan raised his eyebrows. “You are here as part of my escort. You were honored by that status by the Bashar Ahmbien, the voice of the Ilkhan Hotai in Jerusalem. It is a matter of honor among the Mongol that an envoy and his entourage, and their escort will be as safe as if they are in their own homes. Do you question this?”

Manfred watched in some amusement as Erik, the blunt-spoken Erik, tried to avoid a major diplomatic incident.

“No,” said Erik after a short struggle with his tongue and his conscience.

* * *

Before they rode out the next morning, Erik discussed the situation with Falkenberg and Von Gherens. He was not surprised to find the two old warhorses had similar feelings of discomfort. “They’re supposed to be escorting us, protecting us, providing something of an honor guard,” said Falkenberg. “They’re not. They’re guarding us, as if they expect us to break and run. When we rode that archer down — Kari had wounded him, half of them were all set to attack us instead.”

“And if he wasn’t one of their boys, then I’m a castrati eunuch from Alexandria,” said Von Gherens. “We’re riding into trouble, Erik.”

“But from what you say, we can’t easily get out of it,” said Falkenberg. “I had a long talk with Eberhart last night. He said that to break off now would just about be a declaration of war. A deadly insult. I think it might be worth it.”

“Unfortunately, Manfred doesn’t. And in the end it is his decision,” said Erik dourly.

“So what do we do?” asked Von Gherens. “Besides make our peace with God and go like lambs to the slaughter?”

Falkenberg touched his sword hilt. “We will make them pay a very high price for it. To the last man.”

Erik bit his lip. Shook his head. “In a way, the worst outcome for them is if some of the knights get away. A great deal of their power and prestige rest on their reputation. So does that of the Ilkhan Mongol, who do a great deal more business with us. Any kind of treachery here would force them into an alliance with us. We need to look carefully at the trap we are walking into. And then when they think they have us, give them a surprise or two.”

The notion that the Mongol were not a great maritime people was upheld by the ferry boats. Erik’s standards were set out in the north Atlantic. These things would have had a life span of moments in those great swells. Even on a river this size, Erik viewed them with trepidation. However, they did stay afloat for long enough to get them across the Danube. It was a vast river, and an intimidating barrier.

Looking upstream Erik could see distant cliffs. “What is that?” he asked one of their escort, pointing at it.

The man spat in the water. “Magyar,” he said sourly. “Irongate.”

Erik had been unaware of just how close they were to the edge of Valahia and Hungarian territory. Not that they would find any security or help there.

Once they had crossed the river it was still another four days ride to the orkhan’s camp. With every league, Erik’s worries increased.

The camp was not far from the river. And Erik became aware of just how large the force assembled there was. There must be at least five thousand men there.

Erik looked at his pitiful force of knights, and put the heel of his hand to his head.