Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 65
The knights found Bortai’s cart easily enough. The bullock had pulled its stake and it took Kari a while to find it. He was a better-than-average tracker, Erik noted. He was as useful out here as he had been difficult in more civilized parts. The knights were glad that he had found it. So was Bortai, Erik noticed. It was probably all she had in the world besides a couple of ponies. Good horseflesh, but not on a par with that owned by the Ilkhan’s escort. That was to be expected, naturally. Erik did not have Svanhild’s eye for horse-flesh, or utter passion for it. But he did like horses, and felt that he could tell a great deal about a man and his culture, from his horse. The Illyrians were not great riding people and generally the quality of the mounts of the scouts that accompanied them had not been of the best. Not that they didn’t look after their horses, or were not proud of their steeds . . . but they came across as a people who fought on foot and fled on horses. The Ilkhan’s men used and loved their horses . . . but the Golden Horde came across to Erik as men who lived in the saddle, fought in the saddle, and would probably mount a horse in order to cross the street in a town.
With three rather unexceptional ponies to her name, no wonder a cart and a bullock had seemed so important to the girl. Well, his own family were not rich — the lands at Bakkaflói had always been more beautiful and wild than really productive, although they grew good sheep and tough Icelandic ponies, and the sea saw that no-one ever starved, but there were only little patches that were arable for rye and oats — so he knew what it was to be careful. And she smiled about it. She had an infectious smile, as well as a happy laugh — frequently, it seemed, when he was there. Erik was glad for her, although it gave him a pang of guilt. He’d never really thought he would enjoy listening to any woman’s laughter again, after Svanhild. Svan had been quite a serious girl, most of the time. Except — he blushed, remembering — when he tickled her.
* * *
Finding the cart intact — and the bullock too, was a relief to Bortai. It meant that she could implement the second phase of her plan. With Kildai safely hidden in the cart, there was a chance that she could fool — or at least insert doubts into the minds of some of the Raven clan, that the boy who looked like Kildai, was in fact him, and up and about. There was of course one problem. He looked like Kildai. He ran like Kildai. But he did not ride like him.
She had to come up with an answer for that. But finding the cart, bullock and the things they had had to abandon was something to smile about to the tall blonde Knight. Her betrothed. She had to laugh a little. If that story got among the clan! And it was rather appealing and amusing the way he looked puzzled when she laughed at him. She felt slightly guilty. He had blushed so today. She chuckled to herself, a gurgle of welcome laughter. It had been rather pleasant to play such games after the life and death survival on the run for the last while.
She looked up from the cart to discover that he had just ridden up. And she was laughing again. He probably thought she was laughing at him. Well, at least he did not appear to be offended. She smiled and greeted him in his own manner. Perhaps his mother really was a tortoise.
He frowned, looking most comically puzzled. “I thought that was the wrong greeting.”
Some demon from the lands of Erleg Khan made her reply, demurely looking down. “It is. But a man might greet his betrothed so. ”
He put his hands to his face. Shook his head. “I am sorry. That horse boy! He told me it was the right way to greet people politely. I wanted to learn your tongue. He taught me much rubbish.” He blushed yet again. “I am glad Benito didn’t know it was that sort of greeting. He would have killed me, let alone David.”
So in broken Mongol, assisted by Tulkun who had just ridden up, he told the story of how he had got the Darughachi to thus greet the tarkhan. By the time he had got to the part where his friend the Darughachi had the boy in jail she had to wave her hand at him — the one that wasn’t clutching her pommel — to stop. She couldn’t breathe and was in danger of falling out of the saddle. The plump Ilkhan warrior was in no better case.
* * *
Erik hadn’t seen quite how funny it could be before. But he had to admit, telling the story himself, in his broken Mongolian, that it was more than just a little ridiculous. He found himself hard put not to laugh too at their delight in the story. It would appear that the Mongols shared the same sense of humor as the Plains Tribes in Vinland. The Plains Tribes could be serious and earnest people. But they were also hugely fond of practical jokes, preferably very embarrassing and fairly direct ones. It was not a terribly subtle humor perhaps, but it was enjoyed enormously. Erik had liked the Plains Tribes. He found he liked the Mongols too, so far. Well. He had not bound to the tarkhan Borshar. But perhaps he was more likely to get on with the rustic ordinary Mongol, than someone who was plainly more at home in the great cities of the Ilkhan empire, places like Jerusalem, Dishmaq and even the fortress-city of Alamut. Borshar seemed to spend a great deal of time in a trance-like state, paying little attention to the rest of them.
Erik rode back up the column to Manfred. “You seem to be getting along very well with your Mongol girlfriend,” said Manfred.
Erik knew better than to rise to Manfred’s obvious bait. “I was explaining how come I used the wrong greeting. Fortunately, they seemed to find it quite funny. And there’s no need for you to mock me about it.”
“I wouldn’t have dreamed of it,” said Manfred with a totally unsuitable saintlike expression on his face. “I was just wondering if I should be learning the language. Or if she has any sisters.”
“Learning the language is always good idea. Philandering in a strange culture probably isn’t,” said Erik.
“You never know,” said Manfred. “There must be a culture out there somewhere that thinks it’s a good idea. I mean, I’ve never met any other girls who think that your face is something to laugh over. They normally go all starry eyed and moon over you.” Eric cuffed him. “Ouch. You are supposed to be protecting me. Not inflicting me with injuries.”
“I am protecting you. Your comments will get you killed elsewhere. I’m trying to teach you not to make them. Just you wait for rapier practice. Too much of you is covered by armor.”
“Not another word, I swear,” said Manfred, his grin belying the solemn words. “It is age, I am sure. Your face didn’t used to be funny, now it is. We’re all just used to it. Or afraid of you. That’s why we don’t laugh.”
Erik threw up his hands in disgust. “Just you wait. You and that horse boy, David. I will choose my time and place.”
Manfred laughed. “That hell-born brat. He’s even more trouble than Benito was. Falkenberg and Von Gherens have both told me that he was born to be hung. At least Benito had the common sense to shut up and learn. This one keeps his mouth shut only when he’s eating. And he’s not even too good at that. Kari has had a rough time just teaching him to chew with his mouth closed.”
Erik nodded. “Mind you, I’ve had less trouble from Kari since he’s had to run after the boy.”
“So now, instead of one source of trouble, you have two. I am not sure if you have gained ground, Erik. But no doubt this is some obscure Icelandic battle strategy.”
“I think I’ll ride up and check on the van,” said Erik, shaking his head.
* * *
Manfred watched him ride forward. He smiled quietly to himself. There had been a time, after Svanhild’s death, that he had seriously feared for Erik’s sanity and survival. He would never tell Erik: but he hoped that this Mongol girl seduced him, stole his heart, or at the very least make him laugh a lot. It had done Manfred’s own heart good to see Erik smiling again. He would have to find excuses to send the Icelander to keep the lass company. Preferably on a cold, lonely night. Erik was no philanderer, but perhaps the girl could make up for it. In Manfred’s experience, all but a few of them were willing to do just that, given the right opportunities. Erik was several years his senior, but in this, Manfred felt very much like an older brother. It would do the boy the world of good. And besides, she really was quite a looker. Maybe she did have a sister.