Authors: Elizabeth Bear
This book is for Sunil Robert and Naveen Alexander Srinivasan Shipman, great-great-great-(…)grandsons of Genghis Khan.
Thank you to Celia Marsh, who names horses after pastry; Robert Couture and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, my
-pushing friends; my own great-grandfather the Cossack, whom I never met but through whom I inherited the steppes history I borrowed from so liberally—and some of whose family myth I have lifted for Temur (There’s a Russian saying:
—“Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar”); my father, Steve Wishnevsky, my source for that legend; my amazing editor, Beth Meacham, to whom I owe everything that’s right about horses in this book; my equally amazing agent, Jennifer Jackson, who continues to believe in me; a person in Kazakhstan who prefers to remain nameless, who read of my book-writing adventures on the Internet and volunteered with beautiful photos and descriptions of the local landscape; and to Sarah Monette, Michael Curry, Amanda Downum, Kat Tanaka Okopnik, and Jodi Meadows, all of whom read this manuscript in draft.
Ragged vultures spiraled up a cherry sky. Their sooty wings so thick against the sunset could have been the column of ash from a volcano, the pall of smoke from a tremendous fire. Except the fire was a day’s hard ride east—away over the flats of the steppe, a broad smudge fading into blue twilight as the sun descended in the west.
Beyond the horizon, a city lay burning.
Having once turned his back on smoke and sunset alike, Temur kept walking. Or lurching. His bowlegged gait bore witness to more hours of his life spent astride than afoot, but no lean, long-necked pony bore him now. His good dun mare, with her coat that gleamed like gold-backed mirrors in the sun, had been cut from under him. The steppe was scattered in all directions with the corpses of others, duns and bays and blacks and grays. He had not found a living horse that he could catch or convince to carry him.
He walked because he could not bear to fall. Not here, not on this red earth. Not here among so many he had fought with and fought against—clansmen, tribesmen, hereditary enemies.
He had delighted in this. He had thought it glorious.
There was no glory in it when the men you killed were the husbands of your sisters, the sons of your uncles. There was nothing to be won when you fought against those with whom you should have shared a shield and a fireside. He could not find the fire of battle fever within himself. The ember had burned to a husk, and Temur was cold, and weary, and the lonely sorrow ran down his bones with an ache like cold.
Perhaps he was a ghost. For weren’t ghosts cold and hungry? Didn’t they crave the warmth and blood of the quick? The wound that gaped across Temur’s throat
have been his death. When it felled him, he’d had no doubt he was dying. Because of it—so obviously fatal, except that he had not died of it—nobody had thrust a second blade between his ribs or paunched him like a rabbit to make sure.
He had been left to lie among the others, all the others—his brother Qulan’s men and the men of his uncle Qori Buqa: the defenders of one man’s claim on Qarash and the partisans of the one who had come to dispute it—on the hard late-winter ground, bait for vultures who could not be bothered to hop from their feasts when he staggered close.
One vulture extended a char-colored head and hissed, wings broad as a pony blanket mantled over a crusting expanse of liver. The soot-black birds were foul and sacred. Tangled winter-crisp grass pulling at his ankles, Temur staggered wide.
But if Temur was a ghost, where were all the others? He should have been surrounded by an army of the dead, all waiting for the hallowed kindness of the carrion crows and of the vultures.
Please. Just let me get away from all these dead men.
His long quilted coat was rust-stained with blood—much of it his own, from that temporary dying. It slid stickily against the thick, tight-woven silk of his undershirt, which in turn slid stickily against his skin. The fingers of his left hand cramped where they pinched flesh together along the edges of the long, perfect slice stretching from his ear to his collarbone.
The wound that had saved his life still oozed. As the sun lowered in the sky and the cold came on, blood froze across his knuckles. He stumbled between bodies still.
The fingers of his right hand were cramped also, clutching a bow. One of the bow’s laminated limbs was sword-notched to uselessness. The whole thing curled back on itself, its horsehair string cut. Temur used it as a walking stick, feeling it bend and spring under his weight with each step. He was beyond suffering shame for misusing a weapon.
The Old Khagan—the Khan of Khans, Temur’s uncle Mongke, son of the Great Khagan Temusan, whose enemies called him Terrible—was dead. This war was waged by Mongke’s would-be heirs, Qulan and Qori Buqa. Soon one of them would rise to take Mongke Khagan’s place—as Mongke Khagan had at the death of his own father—or the Khaganate would fall.
Temur, still stumbling through a battlefield sown heavy with dead mares and dead men after half a day walking, did not know if either his brother or his uncle had survived the day. Perhaps the Khaganate had fallen already.
Walk. Keep walking.
But it was not possible. His numb legs failed him. His knees buckled. He sagged to the ground as the sun sagged behind the horizon.
The charnel field had to end somewhere, though with darkness falling it seemed to stretch as vast as the steppe itself. Perhaps in the morning he would find the end of the dead. In the morning, he would have the strength to keep walking.
If he did not die in the night.
The smell of blood turned chill and thin in the cold. He hoped for a nearby corpse with unpillaged food and blankets and water. And perhaps a bow that would shoot. The sheer quantity of the dead was in his favor, for who could rob so many? These thoughts came to him hazily, disconnected. Without desire. They were merely the instincts of survival.
More than anything, he wanted to keep walking.
In the morning, he promised himself, he would turn south. South lay the mountains. He had ridden that far every summer of his young life that had not been spent campaigning. The wars in the borderlands of his grandfather’s empire had sometimes kept him from joining those driving the herds to his people’s summer ranges—where wet narrow valleys twisted among the stark gray slopes of the Steles of the Sky, where spring-shorn sheep grazed on rich pasturage across the green curves of foothills. But he had done it often enough.
He would go south, away from the grasslands, perhaps even through the mountains called the Range of Ghosts to the Celadon Highway city of Qeshqer. Away from the dead.
Qeshqer had been a Rasan city before Temur’s grandfather Temusan conquered it. Temur might find work there as a guard or mercenary. He might find sanctuary.
He was not dead. He might not die. When his throat scabbed he could capture some horses, some cattle. Something to live on.
There would be others alive, and they too would be walking south. Some of them might be Temur’s kinsmen, but that could not be helped. He’d deal with that when it happened. If he could find horses, Temur could make the journey of nine hundred
in eight hands of days. On foot, he did not care to think how long he might be walking.
If Qulan was dead, if Qori Buqa could not consolidate his claim, the Khaganate was broken—and if he could, it held no refuge for Temur now. Qarash with its walled marketplaces, its caravanserais, its surrounding encampments of white-houses—the round, felt-walled dwellings Temur’s people moved from camp to camp throughout the year—had fallen. Temur was bereft of brothers, of stock, of allies.
To the south lay survival, or at least the hope of it.
* * *
Temur did not trust his wound to hold its scab if he lay flat, and given its location, there was a limit to how tightly he could bind it. But once the long twilight failed, he knew he must rest. And he must have warmth. Here on the border between winter and spring, the nights could still grow killing cold. Blowing snow snaked over trampled grass, drifting against the windward sides of dead men and dead horses.