Chapter Nine

I am never going to eat pork again, Dzhambul thought.

Which was a pity, because he was rather fond of the way the Han did it. Especially pork ribs with sweet and sour sauce the way it was served at a little place in Ulaanbaatar run by a man named Hua, in what was left of a pre-Change building mostly disassembled for its metal. They served good rice wine there too.

He wasn’t an overly sensitive man—Mongols rarely were, and he’d ridden on his first raid and killed his first man when he was sixteen, and seen towns burn before he was twenty—but watching, and worse still smelling, what the Miqačin were doing around their fire…

The child can’t have been more than six, he thought.

Dzhambul closed his eyes for a moment and wished he was home; Hua’s place would do, carousing with some fellow-officers and joy girls, but even better his mother’s ger at one of the clan’s herding camps, waking and wolfing down a handful of dumplings before heading out on a hunt on a crisp fall day.

He couldn’t order an attack just because what he saw them doing disgusted him; rather, he could, but he couldn’t order it without having his command rightly lose all respect for him. Luckily, he had a perfectly good tactical reason for what he was about to do, which was a nice change from duty nagging him into something he disliked. He turned and crawled snake-fashion, pushing himself along on his belly down his own back trail with slow cautious movements, bringing each foot up, testing that the toehold was secure and wouldn’t produce a clattering of loose rock.

It wasn’t snowing anymore, and it was a little warmer—not so warm that ice melted, but warm enough that body heat or a fire melted it quickly. It was very dark indeed, though, with the moon down, and fortunately the cooked-meat smell faded quickly, leaving only the cold dirt and his own rankness, also controlled by the weather.

The loudest sounds were his own breathing, and the rustle and chink of his clothing and mail shirt. He crawled over a low crest and down the other side a little without running into the man-eater picket he was sure was out here somewhere.

Something hard and cold touched him behind the ear.

I must still be night-blinded from looking at the fire, he thought.

Urt Khan Khutushü amidardag,” he said aloud—which meant Long Live Khan Qutughtu.

That was not only impeccably loyal, it was also full of sounds that the man-eaters found hard to pronounce, which was why it was the password for tonight.

“Advance, Noyon,” the darkness said softly.

In a woman’s voice, and showed itself as a blackness against blackness as the knife was withdrawn. He thought she bent and slid it into a boot top, but it was difficult to be sure. He was sure that there was another of the Hawks not far away, ready to slip away and raise the alarm if enemies took out one sentry. That was the way the Kha-Khan’s army worked, and the Hawks had learned from their fathers and brothers… and from Börte, who’d learned everywhere.

He rose and walked—very carefully—in her wake. They were in a region of bare ridges, with only an occasional pocket of flatter soil, running between steep mountains that horses couldn’t travel. Gansükh and Börte were waiting for him, shapes in darkness, crouching on their heels. One of them passed him a skin of airag, fermented mare’s milk, and he couldn’t even tell if it was his sister or not. He took a single mouthful and passed it back; they didn’t have much left.

The zuun commander had been there with the seven-man squad when the scouting force split apart to dodge the Miqačin pursuit, looking stubborn. It hadn’t been worth the trouble to argue, and he did have to go with someone; this was the largest single group of those that had made up Dzhambul’s command, since it included the Hawks. Gansükh’s stolid broad face had said as plainly as words that he wasn’t going to show up back with Noyon Toktamish’s army to find that Prince Dzhambul had been among those who didn’t return alive.

Even if Toktamish would not be grieved. Especially if Toktamish would not be grieved; he would need a scapegoat, doubly so if he were under suspicion. Who better than Gansükh to take the blame and provide a severed head to point to? Which Gansükh knows full well, so I cannot even really blame him for sticking to me like a burr to a horse’s tail—this way he can at least die trying to see that I get back.

“There are thirty of them,” he said softly, as they leaned their heads together. “Infantry—no horses.”

He closed his eyes—it made little difference—and thought. Then he went on:

“This is probably part of a screening force strung across our path. There will be horsemen somewhere nearby to take up the pursuit if they give the alarm. There are just enough of them to be very risky for a single squad to tackle.”

Both the others grunted thoughtfully. Then Gansükh cursed quietly but eloquently, ending with:

“—jüjigchin khüü! We can’t get by them undetected unless we abandon the horses.”

Dzhambul and his sister both snorted. They might as well take turns slitting one another’s throats as do that, with the unlucky last one to kill himself.

Or herself, he thought mordantly.

Gansükh continued. “And if we fight them, we have to kill them all and do it quickly and without much noise. Even so it will not be long until the rest knew we have passed.”

That made thirty against nineteen; man-eater infantry were fairly well equipped, but the enemy’s cavalry were their elite. In a Mongol army, of course, everyone except some specialists was mounted, and even the siege engineers and such rode to where they did their jobs. It was still long odds, except for the advantage of surprise.

Börte said it for him. “We can’t just fight and beat them—that’ll have their reaction force on our track before sunrise. We have to eliminate them.”

Dzhambul grunted agreement, and thought again, calling up the ground in his mind. Always the ground, for a start. Neither of the others wasted any more words while he did.

“We’ll do it this way,” he began.


Mongols were tough and hardy, and many of them were willing to tell anyone willing to listen all about just how hardy and tough they were. Dzhambul had heard a tümen-commander boasting (or possibly complaining) about how being a Mongol made you too mean and tough and hardy to even get drunk, while he slurped down bowls of mao-tai in a tavern south of the Gobi near the ruins of Hohhot. That had trailed off into mumbles just before he passed out with his face in a puddle of his own sour vomit and started to snore.

Dzhambul himself had been raised mostly on the steppe, in a ger winter and summer, and often enough sleeping out under the Eternal Blue Sky, learning to ride and shoot, herd and hunt and fight as his ancestors had, though more bookish schooling hadn’t been neglected either. The Khan didn’t believe in coddling his offspring and possible successor, though that wasn’t certain. Anyone descended from Dzhambul’s great-grandfather, Kha-Khan Tömörbaatar the Unifier, could be elected by the kurultai of notables… and between youth, vigor, multiple wives and plentiful concubines, his great-grandfather had left a lot of descendants.

But hardy and tough or not, Dzhambul was tired of being cold and hungry, and it was a very cold midnight right now.

He was also tired of crawling through the dark with Miqačin around, trying not to clatter as he carried his weight on toes and knees and elbows, ignoring the way it made muscles stiff with cold ache and crack. The arrows in his belt-quiver were muffled by rags, and his bow and saber were slung across his back, but moving silently in armor was just hard. Even in a chain shirt, more flexible and less likely to clank than lamellae on a leather backing. He was also cold in a bone-chilled way that made you tired and restless at the same time, and hungry in a way that eating mostly dried lean horsemeat for a week turned into an almost insane longing for something like tsötsgii—separated cream—poured over fried millet.

Something with fat, eaten in a nice warm ger with double-felt walls and a glowing fire under the smoke hole. And plenty of airag, and a big bowl of boiled mutton, and some meat dumplings fried in fat too, and everyone chatting and laughing and children chasing each other around….

He pushed the thought out of his mind. Not being tortured and eaten and killed was very good motivation to remember practice and hunts and previous scouting and raiding expeditions, but he’d had too much of it lately. He was doing it well—at least as well as the others, Gansükh and his seven men who were moving forward on his flanks—but it had a nasty feeling of conscious effort, not the mindless ease that let you focus on something else.


There was someone ahead. He might not be able to see it beyond a suggestion, but he was sure that someone had stood and turned around, facing him.

The glow of the man-eater campfire was in that direction, though they’d at least had the wit to put it in a hollow, rather than setting up a beacon that could be seen for miles. But even with the wind from the south at his back he could smell something warm and close. Man-stink, but subtly different from his own. People smelled differently depending on their diet; grain-fed Han had a milder smell than Mongols who lived on meat and dairy, for instance, more acrid, sharper but less rank.

hoped they wouldn’t have sentries out but I didn’t expect it, he thought. But I could be pretty sure they wouldn’t have as many as we would.

And reached up to take the hilt of the slender, slightly curved Uyghur knife he’d been holding in his teeth while he brought a foot forward and braced it solidly. The metallic taste was strong in his mouth, and the buttery tang of stale lanolin from the swatch of raw sheepskin he used to keep his weapons rust-free. Now he could hear breathing… steady normal breathing, not the slow cautious way he was letting his breath in and out through an open mouth.

The man ahead stirred, and a rock clicked against a rock. A few seconds later Dzhambul was close and his outstretched hand closed on a boot; a crude moccasin-like boot, at that.

That told him where the man’s head would be. He grabbed hard, jerked the foot out from under the man-eater and lunged up, and by luck his left hand closed on a man’s neck just below the angle of the jaw as he toppled. It was an awkward place to grab a man, but there was frantic strength in his grip, and his spring had all his weight behind it, over a hundred and ninety pounds with all his gear. The man-eater went over backward, trying to shout, but it came out as a gurgle, more like a strangled yelp than anything but with words in it.

They grappled in the dark, and the Miqačin was strong and knew what he was doing and fought like a python with hands, even though Dzhambul sank his knee into the man’s belly. That hurt his knee too, because his enemy was wearing a stiffened leather breastplate studded with steel nailheads, but it knocked some of the breath out of the man beneath him in a puff of rotten-meat stink.

His hands clamped at Dzhambul’s face, thumbs groping for his eyes, while he tucked his chin into his chest. As he did the Mongol bit down savagely on one hand and stabbed hard and fast. The first was turned on the man’s metal-studded leather cuirass and nearly gashed his own left hand, the second struck a spark on a stone, but the third rammed home into the armpit of the arm that ended in the thumb trying to gouge out his eye, and coming far too close to succeeding.

He shoved to drive the point in with all the power of his thick shoulder and arm, felt it stop as the point skidded on bone and then suddenly jam in blade-deep, and jerked the hilt back and forth. Blood coughed out, thick on the hand he had on the man’s throat, a spray on his face that made him spit. It was unpleasantly like cutting the throat of a wounded deer, a parody of the act.

We are herders, we are hunters, went through some distant corner of his mind as the death-stink told him his enemy was gone; so did the limpness. Why do we fight to rebuild the empire of a man eight hundred years dead?

“Kyung-joon?” a voice called from ahead, as he blinked away stinging pain and the eye throbbed.

Put such thoughts aside. Evil spirits ride the night here. Do not give them entry. If we weren’t fighting here, we’d be stealing each other’s horses and sheep and fighting over that instead back home.

He thought that Kyung-joon was a name, but that was about the limit of his Korean; there wasn’t even the usual soldier’s incentive to learn surrender or hands up, since they generally didn’t surrender and couldn’t be trusted if they did. He had to improvise now, but the time was about right and a plan with no allowance for mishap wasn’t a plan at all, it was a suicide pact.

He filled his chest and belly and made a sound; it was a low deep warbling that was something like a night bird, though not one from this country… if there were any here. It had three advantages: it carried very well, it wasn’t easy to mistake for anything else, if you knew it, and it was extremely difficult to place, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. Then he crawled past the body, and up onto the low ridge overlooking the enemy outpost.

Kyung-joon, neo mwohaneungeoya, babo ya?” a voice said from those grouped around the fire, in a sharp commanding tone with a question in it.

With his eyes just above the crest line Dzhambul could see a helmeted figure standing before the low red glow, looking up towards him—but standing next to a fire and looking into darkness was a fool’s game, you might as well have your eyes closed.

But he’ll think of that—the sentry was well away from the fire, and looking away from it, he thought. Except that now there’s no time for him to come to his senses.

An earsplitting scream came from beyond the higher ground on the other, northern side of the man-eater camp. It was precisely the sound a sentry might make if someone rammed a thin blade into their kidney from behind, almost certainly because that was precisely what had happened.

You’re being hit from two directions at once, Dzhambul thought towards the Miqačin commander. You don’t know which is important… you can’t decide… be paralyzed….

Somewhere nearby Gansükh was being quietly, obscenely thankful that the hens had pulled it off.

If Börte is ever the Kha-Khan’s sister, this man is doing his prospects at court no good at all, but at least he’s no lickspittle,Dzhambul thought as he pulled his bow off his back and reached for an arrow from the quiver at his belt. Or he may change his mind tonight, if we aren’t all killed.

The enemy commander in the helmet whirled and swept out his sword, looking northward to where his second sentry had evidently just died. If he wasn’t very stupid, he’d be realizing he was in a situation where he had few choices, all bad, and it was entirely his own fault.

In his shoes, Dzhambul would have had half his force out as sentries, and spent his own time moving between them at unpredictable intervals.

Mong-go!” the man-eater commander yelped—the Miqačin word for Mongols.

Whichever bad choice he’d picked didn’t matter, because an arrow came whispering out of the night, right from the direction he was looking. They were close enough for Dzhambul to hear the solid crunching thuck sound as the arrow hit him square in the face, penetrated all the way through and went tink on the inside of his helmet at the rear. He wasn’t close enough to see the fletching on the shaft, but he’d have bet his best horse back home that it was Börte’s; she used stork feathers, where he preferred eagle or vulture.

She would be more or less where he’d lain while scouting the enemy camp, and that was only seventy-five or eighty delem from the fire—delem were what they’d called meters in the old days, about one long stride—which was pretty close range. Borte’s bow drew at two-thirds of her body’s weight, much less than his, but she was just as accurate, or better if you listened to her.

The enemy officer fell backward, head and shoulders in the fire; the embers flared up as he twitched and his heels drummed on the frozen ground.

All the enemy were on their feet, even the ones who’d been sleeping off their meal of abominations. Some of them even had arrows on the string, for all the good that would do them, trying to shoot into impenetrable blackness. The right move would have been to draw their swords and charge the direction of the shot; it wouldn’t save them at his point, but they’d inflict far more damage and crucially slow their targets down. Though doing that would be very hard without someone to give the order; his sister had picked her target well.

And probably nobody had told the man-eater troops why they were here. In a Mongol force they’d have been thoroughly briefed on what the high command intended and thought, which made for flexibility.

“Now,” he whispered.

And as if hearing the command another ten bows began to snap along with Börte’s. The arrows were invisible until they caught the firelight near their targets, and then they were the merest flicker. He’d had experience with being shot at in the dark, and it was nerve-wracking, with only the very briefest of whispers to warn you of what was coming in, which made your mind multiply the arrows and think you were being bombarded from everywhere.

Some of the man-eaters drew their own bows and then hesitated, or shot blindly; half a dozen did charge the northern ridge with blade or spear in hand, and died quickly as all the archers concentrated on them, which was why a uniform rush would have been better. A lone hero was nothing but an arrow-riddled corpse in the making.

“The hens… the Hawks… can shoot, at least,” Gansükh said grudgingly from his position a little farther down the line.

The fall of the last of their men attacking northward was the signal for all the surviving Miqačin to stop cowering, turn and bolt south. They crowded together, an unconscious seeking of reassurance in numbers. That made them better targets and several fell silent or shrieking with arrows in their backs and legs, but some had picked up shields that they wore slung on their backs, square ones that covered them from the back of the head to the calves, and those did provide a fair amount of protection. A new sound rang, the hard thockof shafts punching into wood and leather. For a moment he could see their faces, gaping eyes and mouths, and then they were only silhouettes against the dying fire.

Sumnuud!” Dzhambul shouted.

He came up on one knee and drew with the full stretch of his arms, for the long heavy war-shaft with the plum-needle head. Sumnuud meant—


The man-eaters screamed again as the Mongols shot, more arrows coming from nowhere. Dzhambul drew and loosed four times; at this range and from his bow the heavy pile-headed arrows made nothing of armor. The last one in front of him swung a polearm of some sort at him, a gleam of steel before a flash of eyes and teeth. He reached back and up over his left shoulder, swept out his sword and parried with a shower of sparks as his blade struck the metal wire wrapped around the wooden shaft below the cutting head.

The hard shock jarred his wrist painfully. Before the Miqačin could draw back for another blow something glittered behind him and he toppled backward with a scream. Before he hit the ground Börte struck again, this time with the long thin dagger in her left hand rather than the saber she’d used to slash across his hamstrings.

“You keep bad company, brother,” she said, panting.

“Then let’s be gone, sister,” he replied, sheathing his blade and running the bow back into the case slung across his back.

From across the hollow he heard a high shriek—very hawk-like, in fact, shouting triumphantly:

“The Sky-Blue Wolves are in the fold!”

And a thunder of hooves, as the two Hawks who’d been left with the mounts brought them forward at the gallop despite the darkness and the uncertain footing. The flood of horses poured down the slope opposite, a moving carpet of darkness in the night. They parted around the Miqačin campfire, red catching on tossing manes and rolling eyes, trampling the fallen under-hoof, and as they went smaller figures ran by them and caught the pommels, bouncing into the saddles and lying forward along the horse’s necks.

“What do you say about Börte’s Hens now, hundred-captain Gansükh?” his sister shouted through the darkness and chaos.

“That the Hawks ride like leopards, Princess!” the man called back, and you could hear the grin in his voice.

Dzhambul whistled sharply; his mount veered towards him, stumbled on something—a rock, a man, who knew?—recovered and half-reared above him. He leapt, grabbed the saddle and swung up, clamping it with his knees and then sliding down into the leather embrace, yelling like the boy who’d played this game amid the ruins on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

A scatter of man-eaters were ahead of them down the slope, running towards the narrow dirt road that cut into the side of the hill. Dzhambul whistled signals, and the Mongols fell into a column of twos, which was all that the track would take. There wasn’t time to be afraid, but he could feel the loom of the hillside to the right, ever steeper, and the slope to the left was a chasm now that went… somewhere, but he couldn’t see it.

That was what he’d been waiting for. He leaned forward, and the horse—who had spent as much of his life being ridden as Dzhambul had spent in the saddle—lengthened its pace, albeit with a snort of disbelief at the risks he was making it take. The man-eater running ahead of him gave a weak breathless scream as he tried to run faster, and then a much louder one as Dzhambul freed his left foot from the stirrup and kicked out. The scream fell as the Miqačin arched out into emptiness for ten delem and then struck the stony slope, presumably bouncing and rolling down it, though it was mainly the clatter of rock that told him so.

Behind him two more of the man-eaters threw themselves down and covered their heads with their arms. They screamed too… briefly.

“Thank you, Ataya Tengri, who gives me a horse to ride with my thighs, who walls away servants of dark Erlik-Khan who seek to destroy me,” he murmured, as he drew aside where the track flattened out.

The riders weren’t making much noise, it was too dark to really see their faces, no talking, but he could feel their cheerfulness. The little engagement hadn’t taken more than ten minutes, counting knifing the two sentries, and had been a demonstration of how surprise gave each one the strength of twenty.

Börte drew up beside him and so did Gansükh, when they reached a lower spot where the ground opened up.

“My apologies, Princess,” the zuun-commander said. “That worked perfectly! The Ancestor could not have done it better when he was a youngster hunted by his enemies!”

Then he stopped, not seeing their faces but able to tell that their helmeted heads were turned towards him.

“What?” he said. “What?”

“Hundred-commander,” Börte said. “What direction are we moving?”

“Why, south… oh.”

“Oh,” Börte said, loading much meaning into the little sound, including but not limited to you idiot.

That’s a little unfair, Dzhambul thought. Gansükh is excellent at tactics. Strategy is not his strong point, though. And we’re all short of sleep and food. That makes your mind stiff, focused on what is right in front of you.

“We’ve been dodging the traps the enemy lay,” he said aloud instead. “But they’re still keeping us from breaking through northward.”

Gansükh had a frown in his voice when he spoke. “Yes, Noyon. That means they are devoting a good deal of manpower to this… to us, specifically, not to other bands from our force.”

Kangshinmu,” Börte said.

Dzhambul and Gansükh both stiffened at the name of the enemy’s sorcerer-lords.

“They can still feel us, I think, even if they are weakened. I do not know why they are concentrating on my brother and I, but they are.”

“We are doing our people a service by distracting this many troops,” Dzhambul said. “Though I wish we had a shaman with us.”

“I wish we had ten shamans and five tümens of the Kha-Khan’s Kheshig guard,” Gansükh said.

“Why not wish for twenty tümens, while you’re at it?” Börte asked.

“Not enough grazing here for the horses of two hundred thousand men,” Gansükh said, his voice matter-of-fact.

They all chuckled at the joke; which would be heartening for their followers.

Dzhambul thought for a moment. “If they’re trying to herd us south, to break contact we should go south—fast, instead of trying to loop back every time they push at us,” he said. “Once we have lost them, we have options. They cannot have big armies everywhere and they cannot put screens across the whole country—or even the parts of it that are not mountains.”

His eyes sought his sister, but it was too dark… still Gansükh’s head swung towards him as he said, “So, the extra part of our mission…”

Börte nodded. “We are heading that way after all, without even trying.”

He called up the map of the territory in his mind. “We will head for this Pusan place.”


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling