Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 70
David was glad enough just to lie down in the cart, and close his eyes and control his shaking. He had to admit — at least to himself if to no-one else — he was badly rattled by all of this. He actually wanted to cry and might just have permitted himself a snuffle or two. Was the entire world determined to kill him? He hadn’t even done anything to most of it, yet.
And if the entire world did have to be set on killing him, was it right that there should be quite so much world?
Pondering the unrightness and unfairness of it all, he might possibly have fallen asleep for a while. He was not certain. He had his eyes closed anyway. But the feeling that he was being watched finally penetrated his rest. He had grown up as a thief in family of thieves in Jerusalem. The days of strict enforcement of the Yasa code were long gone, but even so, there were very few thieves in Jerusalem, and those that there were, were like David — very aware of being watched. They’d been selected for that. The Yasa code of laws had had those who failed, killed. Of course that hadn’t stopped him going against his instincts at that market stall on Corfu, where he could SEE that the stall-holder had her back to him. She had two small mirrors hidden among her merchandise . . .
Someone was definitely watching him. He opened his eyes a slit, wondering just how fast he could get to the knife in his boot. If they had tried to kill him with arrows . . . and failed, knives and certainty would be next.
It was the boy. He was half sitting up in the bed they had made up for him, staring at David. David opened his eyes properly and sat up.
“What are you doing here? And why are you wearing my deel?” asked the boy.
Perhaps because he had just managed to frighten himself silly again, David was less than respectful to this scion of a noble Mongol clan. “I’m here because your sister tried to get me killed instead of you,” said David bitterly. “Which is why she made me wear your deel and sit out there, and get shot at. But she didn’t tell me that. Oh no. She told me she was helping me.”
The boy nodded slowly. “Bortai does that kind of thing. You get used to it,” he said, quite as if he accepted this as a norm.
“I’ll get even. Just you wait. All right, maybe she didn’t actually know they’d try to kill me. But she tricked me,” he said, darkly.
The boy sniggered. “She always does that. You get used to it,” he said again. “Oh my aching head. What happened to me?”
David had no intention of getting used to that sort of treatment from anyone, even a highborn Mongol lady. The very idea made him angry and frustrated, and although he knew he should be treating this boy with deference, he could not bring himself to do so. “You fell off your horse. Then you landed on your head. Knocked yourself unconscious.”
“I did not! I do not fall off,” said the boy indignantly. He paused. “Something knocked me off. I remember that. That and the Vlach. I don’t remember anything else.”
“I suppose you never fall off,” said David sarcasm dripping from every word.
Either the boy was totally unaccustomed to sarcasm, or the effects of being hit on the head were greater than David had realized, because he obviously failed to detect it. “Well. Not that often. And you?”
“At least I don’t land on my head,” said David unwilling to admit that he had discovered that compared to the knights, and Kari, he was not a very good rider.
“Oh I suppose you land on your feet,” said the boy, showing that no matter how insensitive he was to being the target of sarcasm, he was expert at using it himself — and that he plainly took David for someone of his own rank, just a little older. “Where are you from? Your accent is very strange.”
“Jerusalem. The greatest city in the world,” said David proudly.
There was a longish silence. David eventually worked out that the kid — and he was a kid — at least a year younger than he was, was trying to work out where Jerusalem was. Everyone ought to know that. But maybe, on thinking about it, the kid had last been riding around at a kurultai, deep in this godforsaken part of the world. Someone from Jerusalem was not something he’d be expecting. “You’re from the Ilkhan. Has Bortai got us away across the sea?”
“No, you’re still in the lands of the Golden Horde. I came here . . .” the kid probably had no idea who the knights of the Holy Trinity were, “with the tarkhan Borshar.”
“Oh. I am very thirsty.”
David sat up properly. “Hang on. I’ll get Kari to call your sister to bring you something to drink. I don’t know where to find anything.”
“Yes. He’s driving the cart. He is mad. But don’t worry, he’s mostly harmless. He doesn’t speak Mongol.”
“You have a servant that is mad?”
Temptation, never too far from David, took a firm hold of him and steered his mind down to the reply he gave. It was bound to get him into trouble. But sometimes being in trouble was worth the payback. And he felt that he had a fair amount to pay Kari back for. “Doesn’t everybody?” He said airily. “We humor him. He gets strange ideas. As I said, he’s mostly harmless provided he doesn’t get too excited. And he does a good job with the horses. We can’t leave him to starve.”
“Ah!” Light and respect dawned on the boy. “Lesser clans do. But we of the Hawk clan also take our responsibilities seriously,” said the boy. “I suppose old Mette is pretty crazy. She still thinks I am in swaddling clothes,” he said, grimacing.
David nodded, and pulled aside the door curtain. “Kari. The boy is awake. He says he’s thirsty. Will you call his sister for him?”
Shortly Bortai came along with a skin of what was, by the smells of it, Kumiss. “Help me sit him up,” she said.
“I can manage,” said the boy rebelliously.
David felt he had the measure of the boy by now. He was still very afraid of the lady Bortai, so scared that his mind failed to make the connection that this was in fact her brother. In his mind the boy had somehow become a sort of younger brother of his own. “Do what you are told, you hell-born brat, or I will beat you,” he said, sitting the boy up.
“Ha. You and how many others?” said the boy, not actually resisting. He took the skin of Kumiss and drank.
“I think you must lie down again, Kildai” said Bortai.
He opened his mouth to protest, but David again, without thinking, waved a finger at him. He scowled and cooperated. “What’s going on, Bortai?” the boy asked, once they had made him comfortable again. “How long have I been like this? I’m tired and weak. I don’t like it.”
“Longer than I liked either. Now lie still and get better because we may have to ride as if all the demons from the furthest corners of the realms of Erleg Khan are on our tails,” she said.
“Not until we are across the great river,” she said. “Rest.”
He was already slipping into sleep. Or at least his eyes were closing. He opened them briefly and looked at David. “Bortai. Honorable clan. Look after old retainers. Mad ones.”
She sat there watching him for a little bit. Kildai at least appeared to be sleeping. Eventually she asked. “What was that about, serf-boy?”
“I have no idea, Noble lady,” said David with his best attempt at insouciantly pretending not even having been in the same country as whatever had happened to cause whatever she was asking about. “He’s been hit on the head. People get very confused by that.”
“Yes. He keeps asking me how long he’s been like this. And then he forgets he’s asked. But this time he recognized me. He seemed to be a lot more with us. He seemed to listen you. If I had told him to do that, even politely, he would have told me not to treat him like a baby. I am glad he had the Kumiss. It’s the first time he’s asked for anything. You can live off Kumiss.”
David nearly said ‘Yes, but who would want to,’ but managed to bite his tongue in time. The fermented, mildly alcoholic mares milk had come his way — well, he’d gone out of his way to steal it, because the noble Mongol still drank it sometimes. You had to grow up drinking kumiss to like it. Jerusalem had every other drink known to man, and of a long list David could make to try again, Kumiss was near the bottom. You’d have to drink a bucket of it to get mildly tipsy, and he would throw up long before that. But she wanted reassurance, so he gave it. “Yes. I have heard some people eat nothing else all summer.”
She scowled. “Yes. True. But the great Ulaghchi Khan forbade that.” She looked at her brother again. “You are good with him. And I think it is probably safest for you in here. If he wakes again, call me. I need to watch for enemies.”
“Erik is watching. Nothing gets past him, Noble lady.” He was beginning to believe it.
She nodded. “He is a great Orkhan. But he does not know the Raven clan. They have no honor.”
So David found himself on sick-bed duty. It beat currying horses. He looked forward to telling Kari that he would have to do that on his own again.
Some time later Kildai awoke again. David’s hopes that he might have forgotten the last time or be lost in the confusion of concussion were dashed. Kildai plainly recognized him. “Can you call your crazy manservant? I need to pass some water. And I wasn’t going to tell Bortai, but I don’t think I can stand up. I feel so weak. But I really need to relieve myself. And I can’t have a woman help me do that.”
* * *
Later, when David had gone off to get himself fed, Bortai sat with her brother. He thought she was looking at him rather too keenly and too often, so he asked about the other boy. “He’s not from any clan,” said Bortai. “Although his mother was a tortoise,” she said smiling.
Kildai looked at her. “Oh. He said he came from Jerusalem.”
“Yes he’s with the Franks and the tarkhan.”
Kildai had had a Byzantine tutor. His father had insisted. Bortai had learned more from the man than he ever had. The Byzantine knew nothing about the important things of life like horses, or the great game, or even about archery, war or hunting. Most of his attempts at teaching his charge about the history and geography of the wider world had passed into one of Kildai’s ears and out of the other. A few errant bits had stuck. He knew that the Franks existed. And he knew that Jerusalem was in the lands of the Ilkhan Mongol. The Tortoise must be one of their clans. Strange, but maybe the Ilkhan had run out of good names.