TERROR WAS A SICKNESS in the air.
The boy crouched in the ruins of a smoking cart, shivering fitfully. He was tall and solid for his years, and his long arms were heavily muscled. He could not stop the trembling when he heard the screams of the Kursk women, kneeling on the ground so the Mongol scimitars could strike off their heads more neatly. Only the old and ugly women were beheaded. The young and pretty ones went into the Mongol haramzadas.
The boy felt the earth quiver under him as a tuman of shaggy Mongol ponies galloped through the burning town, their riders in sheepskins and wool caftans screeching their triumph with open mouths. Mongols!
He hated the word and the men it stood for, as all the world hated and feared them in this year of God, 1235. Nomads of the barren steppes of Sibir to the east, to the very rim of the world and a land called Cathay, they had been molded into an invincible army by their world conqueror, Genghis Khan.
From Karakorum, that was the land of the black tents and their homeland, they had spread outward to ravish more than half the known world. They called themselves the bowmen of the alten ordu, the Golden Horde. For eight years, their great Khan, Genghis, had been dead. His empire was divided among his four sons. Batu Khan—the Bastard—ruled here in Russia, down to Georgia and the Caucasian gorges. It was his jun-gar army that was looting and killing now in Kursk.
Baibars hugged the sandy dirt with frenzied fingers as his eyes went this way and that, seeking an avenue of escape. These squat bowmen had nostrils like those of the caged ferrets the boy had seen at an Astrakhan fair. It seemed as if they could smell out prey to be disemboweled and flayed if a man, beheaded or worse if a woman, and only their god, Tangi, knew what if he were a homeless orphan like Baibars!
A man screamed thickly from beyond a line of burning carts. An instant later the boy saw him, bent over and trying to run, bloody hands clasped to the belly from which his intestines were bulging where the skin had been deftly split. The man ran ten paces, then collapsed in the dust, legs twitching uncontrollably.
"Merciful Allah!" the boy panted.
The smell of smoke was in the air. The thatched rooftop: were blazing, and the fire was spreading to the timbered houses. Fire, blood, steel, raping! These were the weapons the Mongols used, deliberately and coldly, to paralyze their enemies with terror.
This had been a teaching of their conqueror, the Great Khan. Rule with terror and you rule with confidence. More than once, a single Tatar would ride into a little town, putting every man to the steel and taking the women, one after another, without a single hand being raised against him. Baibars thought it was a kind of madness, but his eyes had seen it happen.
"I'll kill them if they find me," he sobbed.
The sounds were receding a little now, as the fire was swept by the wind from one building to another. Even huddled in the shadow of the cart, the boy could feel that awful heat. Slowly he rose, alert and ready to run, wiping his moist palms on the worn wool of the sleeveless jacket that, with his loose kitaika breeches, was his only garment.
He took three steps before he saw the rider watching him from the archway of a rug-seller's stall. The Mongol wore a fur cap with upturned ends, and a bearskin cloak over his furred caftan. A bow-case and a quiver hung on either side of his hide saddle. In his hand he held a throwing lance.
The rider grinned.
Baibars saw him heft the spear, as if to hurl it. He stood frozen, hearing the pound of his heart grow steadily louder as it marched upward from his chest and into his throat. He could not run! Allah il Allah! His legs were water! He could not even turn his head. Like the cock hypnotized by the snake, his eyes were held by the sunlight twinkling on that spearhead.
The Mongol shouted thickly and his spear came up. His heels banged the ribs of his shaggy pony, catapulting him along the street. The spear's sharp tip was aimed at the boy's belly. More than once Baibars had seen a man impaled on such a spear, impaled still living with the spear jabbed into the soft earth so that he lay twitching out his life like a beetle on the pin of some Ispahan scholar.
"Hai!” screamed Baibars thickly.
He did not know why he shouted, or why he was running. It was an instinctive eruption of vocal and leg muscles. Instead of running away from the rider, though, he went running toward him. The Mongol shouted in surprise, seemed to pause, then banged his heels even harder on his mount.
Baibars saw the spearhead coming at his middle.
Then he was off the ground, leaping sideways, offering his body to the legs of the steppe horse. He felt the shock of contact, was spun and twisted around and slammed hard into the dirt, sick and dazed. But the pony was sprawling, throwing his rider, both of them rolling toward the cart.
He tried to get to his feet. Arsu, god of caravans! Grant his back be not broken! Again he wrenched himself up, and this time he made it. On shaking legs he tottered across the dirty street and bent to pick up the lance.
The Mongol was numb with shock himself, but he understood the hate in the blue eyes that looked at him over the haft of that spear. Striving to rise, he was on an elbow and a heel when the point went into him.
Baibars stood over the dying man, and there was no emotion in him but relief. "I—I didn't want to kill you. I—had to do it!"
Then he turned and ran toward the riderless pony that was standing with head up, reins dangling. Baibars was tall for his age, and lithely muscled. He went off the ground in a leap that put his left foot into the hide stirrup and his two hands into the shaggy mane. An instant later his rump was set in the leather kak, and he was heeling the pony into a run.
With luck, he might have made it.
Omordai the Fox, who was bahadur and cup companion to Hulagu Khan, and a man grown old in warfare, waited until the last of his tuman was gone from the blazing market quarter of the city. He wanted none of his men caught and left behind, pinned under a falling timber. To make certain of this, he trotted his horse around the square, calling out harshly every few feet.
Only silence and the fiery roar of the flames were there to answer him.
"So be it,” he grunted into his scraggly mustache, and toed his mare to a canter.
It was then that the boy came flying from a side street, head down and hands clenched in the leather reins. At first Omordai thought the pony riderless, for Baibars was supple as a snake and could plaster himself into strange positions when the need arose. When he saw the boy, his white brows rose.
"By the spirits! Halt, you boy! Stop or I'll—"
He should have saved his breath, the old man told himself. The face of the big youth who clung so expertly to the pony's back was carved as if from the brown stone of Ho Nan. There was anger and despair and madness in the eyes that touched him a moment with their glare before the boy was gone in a pound of hoofs.
"Fool!” Omordai chided himself.
His keen old eyes recognized the red leather saddle and headstall as the property of Ilchukyt, one of his captains. How had Ilchukyt lost his horse: looting or raping? Well, he'd soon catch the thief and make an example of him, boy or no boy!
The chase lasted two hours, and ended well beyond the city limits.
It was almost dusk when Omordai laid the flat of his scimitar against the back of the boy's head, tumbling him into the dirt.
“By Tengri's blessed winds,” the old man grumbled. "If I'd known I'd take this long to catch you, I almost think I'd have let you go.”
The Fox admired bravery and tenacity, which he liked to think were typical Mongol traits. As he knelt to tie the boy's wrists together, he shook his head. "Too bad you aren't one of my own brood, Kipchak. I'd be proud of any son of mine who could keep a bashi of the Horde busy for two hours before running him down!”
In token of his admiration he waited until Baibars opened his eyes before kicking him in the ribs. "Get up, foul son of a foul mother! I'm taking you back to teach you manners. To steal a Mongol's horse is worse than stealing his food!”
Baibars said sullenly, "I didn't steal it!”
Again the booted foot caught him in the ribs, but this time there was little force behind it. "Son of a thousand liars! I suppose Ilchukyt gave his horse to you? Eh? Answer me!"
A kind of resignation sat in the boy. They could kill him no deader for one crime than for another. He threw back his head and said proudly, "Yes, I killed your Ilchukyt! With his own spear I killed him after he tried to run me through with it!" He shouted out the tale. To his stupefaction, the old man listened with a grin on his lips.
"As I said before, you're the son of a thousand liars! I have only to examine the knees of the pony to know you speak a falsehood!”
Whirling, the old man went to the steppe horse and bent over. A moment later he cursed harshly. There was blood on the pony's knees, where it had fallen. The wonder of it was how the horse could run so far and so fast with the bloody flesh showing the way it did.
The smell of mare's milk was heavy in the air as Baibars followed the old Mongol past the felt tents where the cooking pots were hung on tripod hooks above the dung fires. He walked with his head high, knowing the black eyes of these traditional enemies were fastened cruelly on his height, his tawny yellow hair and blue eyes. They knew him for a Kipchak, a nomad tribe from the steppe lands west of the Caspian Sea, known also as the Sea of the Ravens.
They came to a stop before a big yurt that rested on a wagon frame. Unlike the smaller tents, which were taken down and strapped across the backs of pack animals, these kibitka yurts trundled from town to town, across steppes and plains on their wooden-wheeled platforms.
A voice shouted in rage. A moment later, a lean man with a straggly mustache that drooped downward on either side of a wide, thin mouth came thrusting a path through the gathering Mongols. His big hands gripped arms and shoulders and sent men spinning out of his way. Few men treated the horse archers in this fashion.
There was more than a touch of Chinese blood in this Mongol. His slant eyes and yellowish skin attested to that. His legs were long, and not as bowed as those of his kinsmen. Thick black locks fell from a fur cap to his shoulders.
He came to a halt before the old man, one hand hooked by a thumb in the broad leather belt that held his woolen caftan to his middle. The scimitar that he carried, Mongol-fashion, over his left shoulder, bobbed to his broken stride.
"Omordai Khan!” he shouted. “That is my brother's horse!"
He was a lean wolf, this one, yellow and black and deadly. It seemed he sought only an excuse to fling himself at the beki, his commander. Mongol cruelty and Chinese pride were blended in his blood as the wu ts'ai enamels were blended in porcelain vases.
Baibars sensed the antagonism in the nomads as they thronged around the lean man. His own hatred was a thick treacle in his throat. These squat bowmen in their fur caps and quilted caftans with the curved swords jingling on their chains had just burned a city of his people. They had raped and beheaded women and impaled living men on bamboo splints. They saw in him only another victim.
Omordai gestured him up the wooden steps of the yurt wagon. His wise old eyes blinked a moment at the lean man.
"The Kipchak youth killed your brother in fair fight," he said slowly. "I made this one my prisoner.”
The lean man snarled. “Is this the law of the clan?”
"It is my law, Baku Noyan, which is the same thing."
Baku Noyan bristled. He turned to the Mongols surrounding them, lifting his hand and letting his words ring out. “The Il Khan has said that a hundred men must die for one Mongol slain. My brother Ilchukyt has been killed. Who dies in his name?”
“Not the Kipchak!” Omordai smiled gently. "I've taken a fancy to him. He will guard my ponies."
Baku Noyan looked over the head of the khan at the Kipchak boy. Baibars saw insane fury in the black depths of his eyes. The lean man was quivering with the killing lust, and the need to control it. Baibars was a little surprised that Omordai protected him like this; then he remembered that these wild horsemen were prouder than Persian peacocks. Omordai might have given him to Baku Noyan to slay as he would, if the lean man had been a little less arrogant.
Omordai said mildly, "Take your brother's pony, Baku Noyan."
Baku Noyan looked from the tough little bashi to the shaggy steppe pony. The breath whistled between his teeth as he gulped, snorting air through his thin nostrils. He bent to lift the reins. He said, “As long as you live, I will let the Kipchak live, Omordai."
The Fox grunted. His brown hand motioned Baibars up the wooden steps of the wagon ladder. The youth lifted the leather curtain and stepped inside the felt yurt. A fat woman in a woolen caftan, with dank black hair falling down her back, turned from the tamarisk sticks in an iron brazier to stare at him. Her expressionless eyes slid aside to touch Omordai.
"Fetch more food,” he told the woman.
When she was gone, Omordai seated himself cross-legged on a pile of brocaded cushions. Oil lamps had been lit. By their smoky radiance, Baibars could see the felt household images, the natagai, hung by the door, and the weapon rack below them. There was a low table of inlaid tile, on which rested a large black stone. In the darker recesses of the yurt stood a wide divan covered with leopard-skins
"You have made an enemy in Baku Noyan," said the bashi, reaching toward a shallow wooden platter resting on the floor. He dipped his dagger into half a dozen pieces of steaming meat and put a red pepper on the point. He chewed slowly. "I mention it to point out the fact that my life is as valuable to you as your own."
The wrinkled face split with a wry grin. "I intended to appoint you as a pony herder. Now I think you'd be more valuable as a bodyguard to me.” The eyes went this way and that over Baibars. It seemed to the Kipchak that they could see right through the sleeveless jacket that hid his deep chest.
"You're big enough, but too young,” The Fox muttered after a moment. "Do you know how to handle a sword? A bow?"
Baibars shook his head. "I was only a herd boy among my people. They did not give me weapons."
Omordai grunted. “Strip yourself.".
When he was naked, the tuman-bashi walked around him, touching his arms and back. There was thick muscle on his wide shoulders and his arms, developed during the long years of heaving sacks of grain and oats as pony boy to Mikhail Beg, the Seljuk horse trader. His waist was as lean as the haft of a Russ battle-ax.
The plump woman came back with a tray of steaming rice in her hands. She put the wooden platter down and went out. She took no more notice of the Kipchak than if he had been a dog. A wind stirred the leather curtain of the tent, making it rustle with a dry, parched sound.
“I can always teach you sword-strokes," said Omordai thoughtfully. "Whether you'll have the heart is something I can only learn by testing you. Still, you killed Ilchukyt, and he was a good fighting man. Get dressed now. I will think about this notion of mine. For the nonce, you can be a pony boy."
Baibars was bending for his fallen clothes when the plump woman came back. Omordai said to her, "Take him to Murakina's yurt. Give him a hide to sleep on and some food."
The woman nodded and stood waiting until he was dressed. Silent in her flat-soled felt boots, she led him out of the wagon-yurt, down the wooden steps and toward a big hide tent whose tasseled canopy was set on upright spears. The sky was black overhead, speckled with stars and a crescent moon. The lights of the cooking fires were reflected on the horsetail banners set up on long poles, and off the weapons hung on wooden racks.
The smell of grease and horseflesh was over everything, for the Mongol nomads larded their bodies against the cold of their vast steppes, and their ponies outnumbered the people. Black eyes watched the woman and the tall boy as they moved like shadows between the fires. Strong white teeth paused in the tearing of meat from bones. Hands that held kumiss sacks paused in midair.
The plump woman brushed through the narrow doorway of a yurt, and Baibars followed. This tent was furnished with thick carpets on the ground, with heavy cushions scattered here and there. There was a divan covered in cloth-of-gold, looted from a Samarkand palace. Golden lamps hung on chains from the tent-beams, lighted against the night.
A woman sat on a cushion, wrapped in a thin khalak of Chinese silk. Baibars stood frozen just inside the doorway, where the felt natagais were hung to protect against the evil spirits, the kelets. He had never seen a woman like this, with bluing on her eyelids and red paste on her rich mouth. Hair as black as the purga storm clouds was coiled above her shapely head and set with gold and silver pins.
Sukiyut looked at Baibars. “You will sleep there,” she told him, indicating a pile of horse-hides tanned to the pliability of wool.
The painted woman lifted a polished silver hand-mirror, studying her aristocratically thin nostrils, the wide, low forehead, the brightness of her eyes.
Sukiyut muttered as she moved past Baibars to the doorway, "The boy sleeps in your yurt, foreign woman. Omordai has commanded it.” Then the leather curtain fluttered to her hand, and she was gone.
The painted woman beckoned Baibars closer. Her black eyes were faintly amused. “So you're the boy they're making all the fuss about. Turn around and let me take a look at you. Mmm, you're as big as they say, and you look strong. Are we going to be friends?”
Baibars grinned. He liked this woman. For all her exotic beauty, there was an air of honesty about her. "We will be friends," he nodded.
“Lard-belly calls me a foreign woman. You're a foreigner, too. They won't ever let you forget it. In a way, it's a good thing. It keeps your heart where it belongs.”
He told her a little about Baku Noyan, and his threats. She listened sympathetically, nodding her head.
"Ilchukyt was bad enough, but he was stupid," she said slowly. “Baku Noyan is as cruel as his brother, and he's sly. Watch him." She looked at him archly. "Have you ever known a woman?”
Baibars shook his head. His eyes had been moving over the thin silken wrapper that seemed to be her only garment. A kind of breathlessness was in him; it had been this way when Ilchukyt had come at him with his spear, but this experience was far more pleasant.
The woman laughed. “Then go over to that pile of horse-skins and lie down on it with your face to the yurt wall. I have to dress to please Omordai. I can't be bothered about keeping covered while I'm at it."
Baibars moved through the lamp shadows and lowered himself to the hides. He did not loosen his caftan or breeches. Two kicks and his flat-soled felt boots were off. The nights on the steppes grew cold during this early autumn of the year. The fires in the iron braziers gave off a little heat, but they were all placed in a circle about the woman. He rolled over and put his face to the felt tent wall.
Murakina busied herself with black silken trousers so tight she had to stitch them on. Pouring scented oil into her palms, she rubbed it into her midriff and shoulders and upper arms. There was delicate perfume-attar of Fitna from India, musky and disturbing—for her pale, heavy breasts. Deftly she fastened the black veil on its golden hairpins, and wrapped herself in a long silken khalak whose black transparency was shot with golden threads.
One glance she cast on Baibars before moving toward the door. There was a kind of tenderness in her for the boy. He was almost a man in size, and his yellow hair was thick as a lion's mane. Murakina would have liked to twist her fingers in that hair and kiss the boy, just to see what would happen. She knew better than to try it. Omordai would stake the Kipchak out on the ground and kill him in an unpleasant way. And he would find an even harder way for her to die.
She did not notice the man who stood in the shadows of the yurt canopy as she emerged. She angled her walk between the hide tents with an intriguing swing to her hips. Years before, she had been sold by her Khmer parents to the proprietor of a wayside inn near Kia-ting. The owner of the inn had seen to it that his bayaderes taught her the mystery of pleasing men. Murakina had been an apt pupil.
More than one pleasure girl of Cathay had risen to a better station in life by her knowledge of the love arts. A minister of state or a Cathayan warlord might see her and take her with him to such fine cities as Nanking or Tunkuan. Instead of these, it was an advance guard of the Mongol bowmen, with Subodai and Omordai as commanders, who had overrun the little tavern. While the ta'tas tortured the war prisoners, Murakina danced naked for their conquerors. Her black hair and smooth ivory skin caught the fancy of The Fox. He picked her to share his bed.
Murakina—her Cathayan name was Mei Fan—discovered that the Tatar bashi was something of a man before the dawn of the next day. In happy satiety, she heard him order a yurt prepared for her. She was his jeldu, now—his kept woman.
Instead of a stone and alabaster palace in Nanking, she reigned from a creaking wagon. Where she had dreamed of flower gardens and pools of perfumed waters, she had limitless horizons of waving grasslands on which to pasture her gaze. The other women of the wayside inn had been killed in a variety of unpleasant ways, once they had been taken by the horse bowmen. She still had her life, and a measure of authority.
Unhurriedly, she strode through the camp.
The man in the canopy shadows watched her undulating hips a moment before turning back to the yurt. His hand ran up and down the scabbard of the long khanjar dagger he wore in the twist of felt at his middle. Angrily he shook himself, and wiped the palm of his hand across his caftan. The memory of Omordai's cold eyes was still in his mind.
A faint sound floated downwind to him. "Knuckle-bones," he said thoughtfully, licking his thin lips with a tongue-tip “Chainkin throws the knuckle-bones to read the future.”
Chainkin was a tribal shaman, a man versed in the religious wisdom of the Mongols. For a price, he also practiced magic and sorcery, and because sorcery was a crime among his people punishable by death, he charged and received very high fees for his spells. Baku Noyan told himself it might be worth a few ponies to be reassured about his vengeance.
He found the shaman crouched low above a fire in whose coals flared half a handful of herbs. Chainkin was leaning above the fragrant fumes, inhaling them. There was a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Baku Noyan rattled a leather purse at his belt, the coins making a musical jingle.
Without rising from the smoke, the shaman said, "Sit, Baku Noyan. I have been expecting you."
Baku Noyan was eager. He settled his rump on a large Persian cushion and leaned forward. “What said the bogdo?"
Chainkin smiled craftily. All during the early evening he had been making his preparations. Baku Noyan was a good customer for his charms. Out of a sense of duty, Chainkin had already made a few knuckle-bone throws.
The shaman wore a brown leather caftan hung with silver bells and copper toli, iron chains and stuffed snakes. His hale boga aprons rustled as he reached across the cushions for a hand-drum. Dank black hair hung to his shoulders, almost hiding the three round mirrors sewn onto the caftan at his back.
His long fingers worked on the hide drum-head A roll of thunder washed across the yurt. When the thunder seemed distant and far away, he said softly, “What does the son of Dolbag and brother of Ilchukyt seek of Chainkin the shaman?"
“A glimpse of the future. Show me how I shall kill the Kipchak!”
Chainkin put aside the drum. He took the knuckle-bones into his leathery palms and rattled them. He watched soberly as Baku Noyan lifted the purse and upended it so that the dinars rolled in waves of red gold across the carpets. The knuckle-bones rattled louder.
A wrist twisted and fingers opened. The white bones fell onto a strip of gray felt. Chainkin sighed. It was as he feared. Baku Noyan would not like this.
"The Kipchak cannot be slain with steel, nor with copper or any other metal,” he said softly. "It is almost as if the kelets themselves protect him.”
Unmindful of the harsh cursing of the Mongol, the shaman took the bones into his hand again. He threw and studied them. "There is grave danger for the Kipchak in the year of the Dog. An enemy will lay hands on him and do him a grievous injury."
"In the year of the Dog? Thirty moons from now?"
Chainkin smiled tightly. "The passing of the years sharpens the delight of vengeance when it is at last achieved."
Baku Noyan laughed harshly. "You are a wily scoundrel, Chainkin! I shall put a dagger into Baibars before the year of the Goat is out. When he is dead I will accuse you of sorcery to Omordai. You will be sewn into the skin of an ox and thrown into the nearest river.”
The kam hissed like a snake. “No dagger nor sword can injure the Kipchak. I have said it!"
Baku Noyan left the tent in a black rage. Behind him, Chainkin tossed the knuckle-bones again, and shook his head. He wished he were a wiser man. According to the bones, there was a rare destiny in store for the Kipchak youth. And it was interwoven with the life-thread of Baku Noyan. Chainkin wished that he could have lied and so pleased the beki.