Chapter Two

Fighting depraved cannibals ruled by evil sorcerers was something all their neighbors had an interest in. The Khökh-Khan of Mongolia was not the least of those.

Prince Dzhambul, son of Kha-Khan Qutughtu of the clan of the Borjigin—which made him a descendant of the great Temujin, not that half the world couldn’t say that—reflected that being a Prince wasn’t all that some people thought it was, particularly when your uncle disliked you and commanded the army in which you were serving. And, some said, or privately thought, he would be a better successor to the Kha-Khan than you would; the position was elective, within the line of Royal descent.

For example, if you’re a prince in those boots you may get sent on a long-range scouting mission that may end up behind enemy lines, he thought.

It was snowing a little, hard granular flecks out of a low gray sky that made him blink when he turned his head northward and caught in his thin young-man’s mustache and beard and made him glad he’d greased his face this morning. The ground was still mostly covered in dirty white and frozen hard, though it was early in the season for it, and he thought he smelled a change in the weather under the dry mealy scent of the snow. His horse snorted with resignation and turned a little under him, to get its nostrils out of the direction the snow was coming from.

He watched the top of the barren hill for the scout’s signal, one booted foot cocked over the leather-sheathed arched wood of his saddle’s pommel. He’d been up long enough that the stiffness of sleeping on cold ground wrapped in a cloak had worn off and he’d beaten all the bits of ice out of his wolf-fur lined coat before he put on his mail and ate a bowl of hot rice gruel, but it was still early morning.

Behind him there was a wheep-wheep of someone sharpening something, and the restless hollow clatter of unshod horse-hooves as stationary mounts shifted their weight, the creak of harness, the snap of a pennant on a lance, someone making a low-voiced invocation to Sülde Tengri, who was a war God but also the Ancestor, Genghis, and who dwelt in the tugh war banner:

My Sülde who is without fear;
You who become the armor for my body;
Though it be threatened by ten thousand enemies—

Mostly they kept a disciplined silence. Though he reflected wryly that if the wind were wrong the enemy might smell them coming, rank man-sweat and horse-sweat soaked into felt and cloth and leather; contrary to what foreigners thought, Mongols didwash when that was practical. In the field it wasn’t and he hadn’t noticed warriors of any other nation smelling much sweeter, including the Han who were always going on about their superior civilization.

Maybe that’s why we keep beating them—we talk less, but we hit harder.

He waited with the stolid patience of a hunter and a herdsman, holding his helmet on his boot, though inwardly his stomach was clenching a bit at the thought of the weight of his decisions. This scouting mission wasn’t a major operation, but there were still two hundred men depending on him, and the army needed the information they were gathering.

This little valley had grown maize in the year past, with some broken stalks still showing, and the remount herd were nosing at the ground, occasionally scraping with their hooves. They were down to three remounts per man, but the beasts were in good condition, since they’d looted enough grain to supplement the meager pasture since they crossed the Yalu. A huddled village of mud-and-stone shacks with one slightly better hovel for its supervisor stood about four long bowshots eastward, behind him.

The people had all fled before the Mongols arrived, and there had been nothing but a few chickens and the grain in pits, and the place was too filthy to use—and probably haunted by hungry ghosts and unclean spirits, anyway. Some of the remounts had sacks of the dried grain slung over their backs, half a rider’s weight so as not to slow or tire them, others had reserve gear, mostly bundles of arrows. Scouting missions traveled light. They’d shoveled the rest of the corn out and thrown it into the cesspits or into the street and ridden the horses over it.

Beyond that, eastward, were low hills growing to mountains, mostly covered in scrub that might be forest someday; you could tell they’d been stripped bare of anything that would burn before the Change, and then soil had washed down in gullies. Dzhambul had never seen a country so bare of life, hardly even any small birds and scuttling marmots and the like, and it looked as if it had been even worse a generation ago. He thought the peasants were probably up there, watching and waiting for the armed men to leave.

Then there was the long hogback hill ahead of him, and a larger plain of farmland with more mountains westward beyond it, but far enough that they were on the edge of sight even from up there. Most of the plain was divided into rectangular enclosures by low baulks of earth, a sign it was planted in rice most years. Dzhambul hated campaigning in rice country, because it was so hard on the horses.

This country has too many mountains, he thought; on a map the flat places were like the veins on an old man’s hand. The rest is like a piece of paper you crumple and throw down.

The signal came with a blink of light from a flame held before a hand-mirror, and he swung his foot down into the stirrup, took off his sheepskin hat and put on his helmet, a steel bowl drawn up into a peak in the center with a horse-hair plume rising from that and falling down the back, and a neck-guard and hinged cheek-pieces of boiled leather covered in rows of small metal rings, salvaged stainless-steel washers of the highest quality. He tied the cheek-pieces together under his chin and gave the men a quick look. All was ready.

“The Ancestor is with us! Now! Forward!” he barked.

He stirred his horse into motion with thighs and balance, pulling his bow out of its case and an arrow from the quiver slung to the left side of his belt. Beside him rode his bannerman. The tugh battle standard had a spike on the end of the pole, with a curved U shape below it, points up, for the Munkh Khukh Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky, and two horse tails dangling from it.

Which was far too grand for a command of only a few hundred horsemen. His uncle Toktamish had granted him that honor for the sake of their common blood—he was punctilious about the symbols of respect, if not the substance.

The Miqačin enemy—the word meant man-eating ogre, more or less—was still strung out in column on the other side of the shallow stream that ran from the north along the edge of the flat country. The Mongol force rounded the south side of the hill at the trot, spread out into a four-deep line and spurred into a pounding gallop towards them; it was much easier to hide here south of the Yalu than it was in most of the Mongol homeland, or even in the tributary parts of Manchuria he’d seen, but the mountains mostly just got in the way of large-scale campaigning.

The man-eaters were about his own numbers: he had two zuun—hundred-man squadrons—here with him, both at nearly full strength. The enemy was all mounted, too… and the Miqačin might eat men, worship evil spirits, and practice any number of other abominations, but they bred good horses. The enemy formation churned, and then turned to face his charge. It looked as though they expected him to barrel right over the stream—which had chunks of ice in it and a gravel bed—and go up the bank to smack into them; they had their swords out and/or spears leveled, there at the edge of the water. They didn’t do as well at picking up Mongol plans as they once had; the shamans said it was because their evil spirits were weakened.

He grinned to himself: That is going to spare my men and cost them, and shouted—

“Flank turn right,” to his bannerman. “Now!”

The horse tails went up, turned and swooped. The Mongol column broke right, turning their horses in the beasts’ own length at the gallop; it was like a herd moving by itself, or a flock of birds, a rippling unison. He brought his bow up, locked his thumb-ring around the string and exhaled hard as he drew and the long bone siyah-ears on the ends of the stave levered against the horn and birchwood and sinew of the ten-strength bow—the draw-weight was two-thirds that of his own body on a scale, and he wasn’t a small man.

The recoil pushed him back, in the always slightly surprising way it had when you were shooting well. Before the shaft struck a sleet of arrows was in the air, with others following it, arching up in a shallow curve and then down. Some came back, but most of the man-eaters had their bows cased and it took a moment to get them out—they weren’t bad archers, but they were a bit slow. By the time they were all ready there were half a dozen empty saddles in Dzhambul’s command, and ten times that many among them… and the Mongol force had simply galloped northward out of range.

“Cross left in column and deploy in line,” he called.

The banner moved again. Dzhambul turned his horse and slowed to a trot, the column went through the stream in a froth of spray and ice, cold even through the sheep-grease rubbed on his face. Dzhambul reined aside to let the first zuun pass him, keeping his position in the middle of the line where everyone could see the commands, then turned to lead as they trotted towards the enemy and sped up to a gallop when he did. Everyone took their pace from him.

His stomach had settled completely; it always did in action. Waiting was hard, especially because you must show complete confidence, and afterwards he hated losing men and couldn’t stop himself thinking about their wives and children and parents, but during a fight it was like dancing.

The banner moved, and they turned south and opened their formation up into the shape of a scythe-blade heavier on the right and charged, shooting as they came, forward over their horses’ heads. Dzhambul shot three times himself, always picking that floating moment when all four of the animal’s feet were off the ground. A black-fletched arrow went whippt past his face, and another crack into the tough larch-wood of the banner’s pole. Then suddenly there were men in spiked helmets with snarls on their faces shockingly close. Snarls and scars, not just battle marks but sometimes an ear removed or a lip or the tip of a nose, those were standard punishments among the Miqačin. He cased his bow—one bending downward movement dropped it into the open mouth of the lacquered-leather shape—slapped his left hand onto the single grip of the small round shield hung to the outside of it, and swept out his saber as he came upright again.

Doing that fast at a gallop was a sport among his people, and he’d been good at it even as a boy.

UUUUUUKHAI!” the Mongols roared, a deep sound from the belly, like Kargyraa throat-singing but louder.

Juche! Juche!” the man-eaters shouted back.

Their formation was loose, still disorganized from the losses they’d taken in the exchange of arrows. Maybe they’d lost officers, and the man-eaters never reacted well to that. The Mongol right swung around them, the outer part of the horn still using their bows and peppering their backs. Dzhambul put that out of his mind, since it seemed to be taking care of itself. An enemy swung at him and he swayed aside and to the left in the saddle, his point slamming up under the man’s chin as he went past—you never had time for more than a stroke or two in this sort of melee.

A horse standing still in battle has a fool sitting on it, as the old saying went.

He twisted the curved sword without looking back, and punched at another dao-blade with his shield as a man-eater swung at his head. It banged off, hurting his left wrist, and he cut the man across the face—the thin bones there crunched under the edge and the other fell with a bubbling scream. Then one just too far away for him to use a saber on was drawing back a lance for an overarm thrust. Dzhambul set himself, but before the man could strike a Mongol right behind him shot him in the lower back, the arrow punching through his leather-and-metal armor to stand feather-deep, with the point coming out his belly.

The lancer dropped his weapon, shrieked like a woman in childbirth, and fell. The Mongol trooper grinned, and then whooped as he looked around. Mounted fights were like that, you were hammering away and suddenly one side or another was running. This time it was the enemy, scattering in all directions like drops of water skidding across greased leather in a high wind. The zuun-commanders were yelling for pursuit, and parties of his men went after the man-eaters, always three or four to one, and shooting rather than trying to close—you could point a bow backward over the rump of your horse, but it wasn’t as easy as shooting forward. And getting into a long exchange of arrows with Mongols was not something other people usually did well.

Other troopers were carefully putting arrows into the Miqačin wounded on the ground from a safe distance; they were as dangerous as rabid dogs, and Mongols prided themselves on being a practical people. Still others rounded up the enemy horses, recovered arrows, and looted anything useful or valuable; one grimaced and held up a smoked human hand and forearm from a saddlebag before throwing it aside and wiping his hand. A few of the younger men gulped and looked queasy.

Fighting the man-eaters has advantages, Dzhambul thought. Burning the Han out of the southern marches beyond the Gobi is a grisly business by comparison.

It had to be done, the Kha-Khan was right about that; the farmers from the south had taken those lands once called Inner Mongolia from his people, the Yeke Mongghol Ulus, in the generations before the Change when they were strong. Turning it back into pasture for the clans was needful.

The Han had suffered far more in the time of the Change than his folk, who even then had been mostly herdsmen who lived in ger among their pastures, not city dwellers or even farmers dependent on machines and the dikes along the great rivers. China was a wreck, seven or eight in ten of its inhabitants had died since the Change, maybe more. Whereas there were probably more Mongols now than fifty years ago, which wasn’t something any other people he knew of could say. Even so, there were so manyHan, and they wouldn’t be weak and divided forever. They had to be pushed back as far as possible while it still was possible.

But fighting the man-eaters is a pleasure by comparison—harder, but a pleasure.

His hundred-commanders came up as he removed his helmet—wearing them for a long time always gave him a vile headache, for some reason—and ran his hand over his hair, feeling the stubble catch in the calluses of his palm. He also preferred the traditional style, shaven except for a roach above the brow and enough over the ears to fall in braids to his shoulders. The cold struck the sweat and seemed to make the iron band around his brow go away. He became conscious of the cut-off scream of a wounded horse put down, and the nasty stinks of a battle, like the latrine-field of a herding camp too long in one place, but just after you butchered a yak too.

Gansükh had a light axe thonged to his wrist, which he preferred to a saber, possibly because his name meant Steel Axe. He was wiping it as he spoke his report, a stocky cheerful man. Arban was lanky and as tall as Dzhambul’s above-average five-foot-eight and never said a word when he didn’t have to, possibly because his name meant eloquent.

Prompted by the sight, Dzhambul pulled a cloth out of his belt and cleaned his sword, checking for nicks. It was a gift from his father when he came of age, and a fine weapon of layer-forged alloy steel, broad and well-balanced, with a very slightly flared hatchet point.

“Very well done, Noyon,” Gansükh said, and Arban nodded and grunted agreement as they both bowed.

Dzhambul’s face was stone, but the sound of approval made him want to grin. Both the veteran zuun commanders were five or six years older than he, and while they deferred to his birth their professional respect was well worth having. Gansükh gave the details:

“We killed a hundred and thirty, maybe a hundred and forty of them before we called off the pursuit; we took a hundred and ten unwounded horses, another twenty worth taking along that we can eat if they don’t recover, and the other loot.”

The Miqačin made excellent swords and bows and fairly good armor, to much the same patterns as Mongols save for details. Their common people lived worse than any herdsman would treat a goat, and were used by their rulers quite literally like goats or sheep or possibly as Han peasants raised pigs, but they had some fine artisans somewhere, as good as the Han or the Uyghurs and better than the Russki. And some of them carried gold. It didn’t make up for the fact that they had little livestock to raid, but it helped keep the men’s spirits up.


“Ten dead; a dozen wounded fit to ride but not fight. Four wounded who can’t ride.”

Dzhambul grunted a little. That meant the mercy-knife, and he never delegated that task, if a man wanted it from him. He was still relieved when Arban shook his head, meaning that they’d chosen to receive it from their own zuun commanders or from a kinsman or oath-brother. Or were unconscious.

“And—” Gansükh began, then stopped.

Their heads came up. The outer ring of scouts the Mongol force had automatically set up were raising a cry:


That was the alarm call, and it was coming from the north. Dzhambul uncased his binoculars and looked that way. The snow had gotten a very little heavier and there was no dust from the winter ground here, but he could see that it was a dozen riders and maybe six remounts on leading reins. And from the way they rode…

“Mongols,” he said. “Mongols in a hurry.” Then: “Ah. It is the Günjüüdiin Khauks, the Princess and her Hawks.”

Arban groaned slightly; Gansükh muttered something like “Merciful Bodhisattvas, it’s Börte and her hens.”

Since he wasn’t looking at them and it hadn’t actually been said aloud, really, Dzhambul decided to let it pass. There was still a little frost in his tone as he said:

“I will greet my kinswoman. Get the men ready to move.”

“The Noyon wishes,” they both said, ducking their heads.

A few minutes later his sister Börte drew up her gray Uyghur horse, which had the foam of hard riding on its neck and chest; she preferred them for their speed, though Dzhambul thought they didn’t have quite the stamina of steppe ponies. There was blood on her saber.

“What are you doing here?” he said roughly; this was a very dangerous place even by the standards of a campaign on foreign ground.

“Saving your life,” she said and used the blade to point behind her before she cleaned and sheathed it; there was more blood on her face, but not hers. “More Miqačin. North up the valley. Half a tümen at least, and all mounted and coming this way… coming fast, by their standards. I think they’re the screen for the retreat of their main force. We ran into their forward guard and couldn’t break contact. There was a running fight before we turned on them when they didn’t expect it.”

He grunted, as if he’d been punched in the belly. It was very bad news, but much better to know than not.

He also suppressed an impulse to say: Are you sure? Several of her followers were wounded, and one was bent over the cantle of her saddle with her eyes closed and a hand clasped to the stub of an arrow in her lower belly. One look said she was a dead woman, just still breathing for a while; two of her companions helped her out of the saddle, and she made no sound though she bit her lip until it bled.

He and Börte were both twenty-five winters—they were twins, in fact—though she favored their mother more than he. She had been Russki, a Cossack woman from the Ussuri Hetmanate, and Börte was as tall as he was, longer-faced, and had eyes of an odd blue-gray; not altogether unknown among their people, but fairly rare.

She wore a fine shirt of light riveted mail over her deel coat and her gear had seen hard use. All Mongol girls learned to ride and shoot the bow and use sword and knife and wrestle, and it was a matter of pride that they would fight like she-demons against raiders or invaders on their home range, but it was considered rather eccentric for them to ride out to make war on foreign territory like this. Usually they stayed home to tend the herds and their families, which was one reason so many Mongol men could go to war when needed.

Börte had dutifully made the marriage their father wanted to a prominent chief’s son up near Lake Höwsgöl in the far north of the ulus, but there had been no children and her husband had died on the Kazakh marches several years ago. Currently she spat on convention and went about with a group of friends who she called her Hawks, and he had to admit they were perfectly competent at light work like this even if it was a little embarrassing. Apparently, the Khan agreed, but then he’d always indulged her; some said he spoiled her.

“Thank you, sister,” he said sincerely; time counted. “We’ll talk later.”

He shouted for his officers, turning his back to give Börte and her band what privacy he might. She knelt beside her wounded follower while he did, and out of the corner of his eye her brother saw her hold up the knife. Two of the Hawks held the injured woman’s hands in theirs, not wincing at the white-knuckled grip, and another cradled her head. The dying warrior nodded.

“Yes… set me… free to run… with the Sky-Blue Wolves of Heaven,” she said, carefully to avoid gasping. “I ask it… of my own will… and… make you clean… of it. I go to the wind and thunder… oh, Mother….”

She clenched her teeth and turned her eyes to the clouds beyond which lay the Eternal Sky, and the steel flashed once.

The two officers came up with their chief subordinates. Both hissed slightly at the news.

“Split up?” Gansükh said.

It was the standard response. You fought when you had the advantage, and ran when you didn’t, in the wars of the steppe and desert. The enemy was probably in a hurry. They’d almost certainly send a detachment after two hundred men fleeing in a body, but twenty separate parties was a problem without a solution for them if you didn’t have much time. Numbers were only the illusion of safety here, not the reality.

“Yes. By squads.”

Ten men was the basic Mongol unit. He forestalled the zuun-commander, who he could tell was not going to report to his regimental chief that he’d left the Kha-Khan’s son in the hands of his sister and a bunch of wild girls.

“How many men in your hardest-hit squad? Not counting any too wounded to fight.”

“Seven men, Noyon.”

“I’ll take them, then, and the Hawks. Three remounts each, from the best of the captured animals, and enough food for a week. We’ll meet at the first of the agreed points.”

They compared their maps, printed up in the army’s mobile records ger from woodblocks before they started this mission, and copiously annotated since. They were in agreement, which was important. They all noted this location and the date to mark where they’d divide their forces.

“Go!” he said.


“Toktamish does not favor me,” Dzhambul admitted reluctantly, and quietly, as they walked aside from the hillside camp.

It barely deserved that name; they were both gnawing at strips of dried horsemeat, only slightly softened by being stuck under the saddle. Even with the heavy soft snow that was falling a fire was out of the question, and they were in a globe of silence and privacy only a few paces from the sentries sitting up with the dirty-brown of their sheepskin cloaks gathering an extra layer of white and their bows beneath to keep them dry.

“Toktamish hates the children of our mother and wants us dead,” Börte said. “But he hates you most of all, brother, because the common people and some of the noyons love you. When our father dies—”

“I will not begin a civil war,” Dzhambul said. “Who sheds the blood of his own is a traitor to the people. Let our father live long, and the kurultai of noyons and chiefs will settle the succession among the blood of our grandfather.”

He smiled at her. “Besides, remember the great prophecy of the idugan while this war was young. The dark magic of this land has been weakened. And the empire of Genghis Khan will be renewed…. What, you do not believe it?” he said, scandalized.

Börte’s mouth twisted as if she had bitten into something sour.

“Of course I believe it,” she said. “I was there. We all felt that the Tengri spoke through her. But I listened, where you did not.”

“What?” he said.

She began to tick points off on her fingers. “She said the spirits the Miqačin worship and whose slaves they are could no longer bar the Yalu River against us, and she was right. But!”

Another finger. “She did not say that the Miqačin would not fight us with bow and saber and lance. And they are very many.”

Another finger. “She did not say that their forts would fall without us having a proper siege train, and they have a lot of very strong forts.”

Another finger. “She did not say we wouldn’t have trouble with the Han, and the Manchus, and the Russki, at the same time we were fighting here. And we are fighting the Han, the Manchus, and the Russki. Oh, and we and the Kazakhs and Uyghurs are all raiding each other.”

Another finger. “She said the Empire of our ancestor Temujin would be restored when the Son of Heaven and the White Tsar, the Courts of the North and South, were no more. But she did not say how soon it would be restored.”

Then she clenched the fingers into a fist and shook it under his nose. “And she did not say you and I wouldn’t be killed, you blockhead! By the Miqačin, or by Toktamish!”

He sighed. She wasn’t necessarily wrong, but…

“First, we have to get back to the army.”


Copyright © 2018 by S.M. Stirling