To most people, setting up camp in the middle of a plain where you could be seen from any direction was obviously a foolish idea – especially if one did so in the steppes of Tartaria, where there was often naught but a sea of grass to greet the eye from end to end, and the only hint of other lands was in the distant peaks of mountains rising over the horizon.
Setting up camp even before the sun had set was also another questionable idea, but Natalia didn’t care. She had already laid out the foundations of the campfire, and reached out to retrieve a flint and a striker from her nearby pack. One confident strike, two, and three – and her tinder line of dry grass and small twigs began to catch flame.
The Minotaur leaned back, drawing up a skin of ale that she kept at her waist for a sip. She watched the fire as it built and charred the inner sides of the two logs she had placed next to each other, finding herself thinking about the past even as she gauged its readiness for the next step towards a long, night-lasting fire.
She snorted at her sentence. Exile. Ha! The council knew nothing. The man she slew was a monster and they couldn’t see past his noble front face. If she hadn’t acted, then Lydia would have been hurt and terribly so. Whatever, she thought. At least they didn’t sentence her to die. Even if they did, she would have taken down ten armed men before falling down herself. Hell, perhaps that was why her ill-deserved punishment was so comparatively light. Natalia had no issue with living in the wild, for the wild itself flowed within her veins, cowed only by the precepts of human civilization.
It was lonely, however. That, she had to admit. For the thousandth time, she sighed.
She stood up. The motion was smooth and controlled despite her bulk. The afternoon sun cast her a long shadow as she rose to a whopping seven feet tall. She wore a padded blue jacket tailored precisely for her gigantic proportions, the heavy flaps slapping her brown-furred thighs from where they split halfway from the center of the garment as she turned. Her large hooves left marks as she strode to a four-foot log of dry hardwood and picked it up with only one calloused hand, her forearm openly bulging with intense muscle as her jacket’s sleeves stopped at the elbows.
Natalia carefully put the log at the center of the other two, forming a pyramid of sorts. The two horns that sprouted from her temples took on an exquisite luster in the fire-light. Her shoulder-length, auburn hair took on a similar shine, and although it would never be braided again, men still lusted after her. Unfortunately for her, they were of the scummy sort. For a few times already she had been accosted by steppe bandits, taken by her exotic looks. Apparently there were no women around with green eyes like hers. Or horns. Natalia killed them all, no matter their taste. Her axe could fell men just as well as it could fell trees.
She did not enjoy killing and she most certainly didn’t enjoy taking her first life – but perhaps that was just a fact of life in the wilderness. All she had known till the last year were the streets of Novgorod and her home village where she and the rest lived on the bounties of the forest. And although she had acclimated well to living like a wildwoman, she wondered if she had the heart to kill more.
“I probably do,” she said to herself, as she began to skin one of the three marmots she had taken down earlier in the day. There would be more idiot Turkic raiders who would want to rape her, since no settlement would accept anyone with the mark of an exile.
The scar on her forehead had already blurred with the natural healing power that came with being a Minotaur, but it still held a recognizable shape, and no-one would be branded on the forehead otherwise. That’s why she had been rejected time and time again by so many settlements, saying that she was a bringer of misfortune. She sighed once more, cursing her loneliness.
“Lydia would like this marmot,” she muttered, getting a feeling that she was probably over-indulging in sadness as she cut with her knife and pulled away the second Marmot’s guts with a powerful hand. Bright, pink intestines spilled over her grubby fingers. Unhesitantly, she threw the viscera far away for the crows circling above her camp to feast. You had to give back to Nature just as you took from her, after all. It made her daughter-spirits happy. Natalia idly fantasized that they had always been watching over her, ever since the start of her stupid journey outwards from home. Just how far had she come now, anyway? Now she was sharing the plains with nomadic tribes who didn’t speak a lick of Russian. At least the marmots remained the same, nice and tasty.
She was almost done. It was very quick work for someone as experienced as herself. She was already removing the heart of the third marmot, and popped it into her mouth once it was free, just like she did with the others. Natalia had always liked the chewy consistency of heart meat, especially if it was raw. After that, she was chopping off its paws. She gathered those with the rest in a small heap that she threw in the same direction she’d thrown the guts earlier. A few cawing birds of carrion flew up, sensing a threat, but landed upon realizing that it was just more food. Natalia smiled at their simple desires. She wondered if birds made friends too.
Even though she wasn’t welcome to stay in any settlement, many were still chummy enough to trade with her. Natalia was quite happy to have bargained for a full skin of sunflower oil exchange for venison and furs. That had been a good deal. It was easy enough to hunt anything, after all, and the oil meant for easier and more varied cooking. She ran an impatient tongue across her lower lip as she unfastened the ropes that held her cooking pot close to her pack. It was very large for human standards, able to hold the meat of three marmots put together. Such were the portions of a usual meal for the active Minotaur.
The crows did not touch the bare meat where the pieces lay next to her on top of what used to be the marmots’ furs. They knew it would be foolish to invite the Minotaur’s wrath. Instead, they were content to squabble over paws and guts, aggressively nipping and batting each other with their sharp beaks and wings; rising from the steppe grass only to fall back into the brush. No, Natalia thought – birds probably didn’t make any friends.
She would have made a soup if she had water to spare. Instead, she opted for a stir-fry, choosing to use the pot rather than to go through all the trouble of an open roast over the flames. The meat did not have enough fat to melt, so she gave the pot a healthy coating of sunflower oil and set it up to heat.
Seasoning the meat came next. The furs absorbed the blood as the pieces sat there in the open and Natalia retrieved her ingredients – a jar of salt, another one of black pepper which she had looted from a Turk, and a small purse of garlic mustard leaves that she’d collected earlier. She took her time in rubbing the flavors into the meat, deforming the flesh with her unyielding fingers. Once satisfied, she began to place them one by one into the pot, and she was greeted with a welcome sizzle and an even more welcome smell.
Natalia smiled, despite herself, as she vigorously cleaned her hands with the furs. They were ruined, but she didn’t mind. From her pack already hung a veritable curtain of fox, deer and marmot tails and inside of it there were more skins waiting to be processed or traded away. Hell, she had already made a sleeping bag made entirely out of skins, stitching it up by herself. It was somewhat of a waste to handle Nature’s bounty so carelessly, but even Natalia had limits to what she could carry.
She turned the pieces of meat over with her long knife, making sure that both sides were cooked. They were gradually settling into a delectable color of golden brown. Now the sun was beginning to set. She would be eating soon: amidst the endless plains, the squawking of carrion birds, and her little thoughts.
Natalia had bovine ears in addition to human ones. Although the latter were by no means dysfunctional, she tended to rely on their more monstrous counterparts, simply because they were better in every way. It was with her ears that Natalia could know precisely where any marmot was – she would just press her ear against the ground and locate their dens with a bit of patience. Her favorite tactic was to wait outside one entrance with her crossbow at the ready. Even in a chase through dense woods she could track a deer that had bolted away till it was too exhausted to run away from her. Perhaps that was more than enough to offset the stigma of having been born a monster.
But of course, there were more uses to her ears. Natalia always listened to the wind, for sounds near and far. If need be, she could scoot away before anyone even knew she had been there in the first place. But in the plains, it was nigh-impossible. Her meal was also almost done cooking, anyway. The party she had been tracking with her ears came closer and closer, till she looked towards the distance. The steppe wasn’t completely flat. The ground rose and fell in a thousand subtle hills. She could see them cresting over one such feature, so far away – or at least, she thought she could. Her ears, however, did not lie.
If they stayed away from her, then all was well and good. If not, then she would grant them guest rights. Otherwise…
Natalia removed the pot from the fire and set it onto the furs. Casually, she strode over to her pack and retrieved her crossbow. Arming it with its powerful string of dried sinew, she loaded it with a heavy bolt shaped for killing deer in one hit. She set it next to her as she laid out the golden brown pieces of goodness one by one on a cleaner section of the fur mat and began her meal. Tearing away a sliver of flesh with her powerful fingers, she popped it into her mouth, savoring the flavors and watching as the dots in the distance grew larger.
Jebke squinted his eyes, his face shadowed by his square steppe cap as his near-perfect vision struggled to determine who the sole figure was so far up ahead. He blinked, once, twice, trying to magnify the person in his sight through sheer will – before throwing his head back and laughing.
“It’s impossible,” he said. “I cannot see him clearly!”
The rest of his arban laughed with him, calmly riding alongside their officer on fresh ponies. They were good men, very good men, Jebke thought for the millionth time. He turned his head – left, then right – to regard the faces of his companions:
Ligdan, Tudan, Kundek and Maqali took up his left, while Sagra, Ile, Khadagan, Siban and Nayaga took up his right. They all had such different looks, but they all smiled, laughed and grinned the same. They could also similarly skewer a Chin crossbowman from two hundred paces away with their powerful recurve bows, making a giant pincushion of the man with repeated, powerful arrow shots. It was not a boast. All ten men had killed at least one Chin soldier in their service to the Khan.
But their skills in archery didn’t matter, Jebke thought, as much as their ability to laugh and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. He was glad to have volunteered the arban to outrider duty. Make no mistake, he considered it an honor to serve in the shock corps, but to someone born and raised on the open plains, spending much time in close, sweaty proximity to armored men and horses could take a mental toll.
The issue he raised was big enough for his minghaan officer, Uchikin, to be bothered. The man agreed to put his veteran ten on outrider duty, if only out of respect for their accomplishments. Uchikin had asked if they were truly alright with performing duties mainly done by young, unbloodied men, and Jebke answered that his arban yearned for the open plains, and the plains yearned for them back.
That much was true. His arban rode a hundred and fifty miles ahead of the Ordu, and Jebke shared a thrill with the rest of his men at being among the first to see the lands that they would conquer, the enemies they would fight – and, of course, the grass they would graze.
He barely suppressed a bout of laughter at that thought. Barely.
Tudan spoke up, his long, luxuriously braided beard beating against his chest with every hoof-fall of his mount. “I wonder… if the grass here is good grazing?”
The arban laughed. “I wonder indeed!” Khadagan called, his round, puffy cheeks red with mirth. “What do you think, Maqali?”
“Hmm…” Maqali narrowed his eyes, looking at the clouds as if to divine the answer from their shapes. And as if he had found it finally, he raised his hand with all fingers but the index closed to underline his point.
“The grass,” he said, “will be good!”
The arban laughed again, cheeks puffing out and faces creasing. Their mirth carried across the wind.
“Horses!” Jebke cried. It was customary for the commanding officer to seal the joke. “Horses eat grass!”
The horsemen laughed harder than ever before. Horses – grass! Ah, it was a good day to be a Mongolian. Perhaps the figure up ahead also appreciated horses and grass? Only time would tell, and soon. Jebke grinned as his fingers curled around the spine of his bow.
Ten men rode towards her abreast in a line, not a column. Natalia recognized it for what it was: a battle formation. She tensed, chewing slower as she weighed her chances.
Yet despite their military arrangement, the horsemen did not appear to focused. Natalia could hear them laugh and laugh, over and over again. She heard them clearly over the great distance but did not understand the language. She fancied herself a novice in Turkic with her encounters with the local nomads, but as she squinted her eyes, she realized that she understood not a single word.
They seemed relaxed, and Natalia struggled to figure out a reason why before stopping that foolish train of thought. Of course they wouldn’t be alarmed, she thought. It was just her, after all, in that little corner of the great steppe; and they outnumbered her ten to one.
They were closer now, allowing her to see them in detail. The horsemen wore simple linens and boots, and hats of a make not dissimilar to that of the local tribes. They rode on small steppe horses, powerful and enduring despite their size. They were also very well armed, however. All ten of them held a bow in a special holster attached to the saddle, and on the other side of their mounts, there appeared to be very large quivers for holding arrows. Ten distinct scabbards undoubtedly sheathed swords.
Natalia’s eyes widened in fearful realization. She’d die if she tried to fight them. All of them rode with an easy confidence that she saw only in knights and veteran men-at-arms. They were different from the steppe bandits that she had dealt with so far. They were professionals – trained killers, able to take or spare a life on a whim.
Five hundred paces now. She saw the centermost horseman reach for his bow, prompting her to stand. Then she saw the man raise it, high in the air – an action mirrored by the rest of his fellows.
So they come as guests? Natalia couldn’t sigh in relief. Nothing was certain yet. She went over to her crossbow, removing the bolt before raising it in turn, signalling that she was willing to receive them.
They laughed, almost as one, before dropping their bows back into their holsters. What was so funny? Natalia picked up her large axe, opting to lean against it as she waited. Almost as tall as her, she took some comfort in how cold the flat of the head was against her cheek. It was something to focus on, other than the horsemen and their incessant laughing.
God, what the hell were they even laughing at? They were in no hurry to close the distance at all. Sometimes they even stopped, as if to better hear a joke one of their number was telling, before guffawing and going on their way once more. Natalia couldn’t share in their humor. Rather, it made her even more nervous. She gulped. Hopefully, they meant her no harm. She could only really hope. They were so close now. She could see all ten of their broad-faced, thin-eyed faces so clearly. Their laughing, grinning, smiling faces.
Fifty paces away, the horsemen came to a halt.
“Sain!” said the centermost horseman, who was easily the largest among them. He regarded her with a cheerful expression, his broad face and small eyes describable as ‘baby-like’ were it not for his short, well-trimmed beard. Who were these people?
“Hail,” Natalia replied. She did not have to speak very loud, as the plains were awfully quiet save for the blowing wind and the caws of birds.
“Russkiy?” the horseman said. Natalia was surprised.
“Ah, that is good. I can speak some Russian.” His accent was strong, but it was understandable enough. “My name is Jebke,” he said, placing a hand over his chest and bowing slightly.
She returned the gesture. “I am Natalia.”
Jebke nodded, and began pointing to his fellow horsemen, introducing them in turn. “This is Sagra, Ile, Khagadhan, Siban and Nayaga. To my left here are Ligdan, Tudan, Kundek and Maqali. We are travelers-”
“Very well armed travelers,” Siban interjected in bad Russian, grinning.
“-and we were just looking for a place to camp. Would you mind sharing?”
Natalia considered her predicament, looking at each of the ten grinning horsemen. She really had no choice but to trust them. “No, not at all. I offer you guest rights. You are welcome in my camp.”
Jebke bowed. “You do us honor, Minotaur.”
He then barked a word in his native language and, after a bout of laughter, the men dismounted, leading their mounts by the muzzle as they walked. Jebke, however, entrusted his mount to another man as he strode to Natalia. It was only common sense for the party leader to meet with the master of the camp, after all. He wasn’t so tall anymore, now that he was dismounted. Natalia noted that he left his bow on his horse, and his hands swung freely away from his sword. Still, she could not yet relax.
“You are very brave to camp here, where anyone can see you.”
“Being brazen is characteristic of my kind, is it not?”
Jebke frowned, hesitating for a moment. “Ah, I know what you mean. You used some complex words. Ah yes – my people are bold, too. We thought we found a kindred spirit in the idiot who would do something as dangerous as camp in the bare open, so we came to check you out.”
Whoever the were, they were a confident bunch. “Who are you people?”
Jebke looked to where his arban were driving down stakes to the ground and preparing rope to secure their mounts. “We are the silver people, the horsemasters of the steppe. We are the Mongols, and we live to ride and conquer.” He turned his gaze back to Natalia, staring her intently in the eyes. “Have you heard of us?”
The Minotaur shook her head. “No, I’m afraid I haven’t.”
Jebke laughed. “Well, now you have heard of us. And the people of the West will hear more of us. They will learn to fear our laughter.”
Natalia watched him intently, considering his words as he stepped around her to regard her little camp.
“Your fire is strong and will last the night, but where is your ger?”
Jebke scratched his beard, thinking. “House, home – place to stay. Tent? Yes, tent.”
Natalia shrugged, easing herself off of her axe. “I don’t have one.”
“Then you sleep in the open?”
“That’s what I usually do.”
Jebke shook his head, tutting. “That will not do. Only wretched people sleep on the dirt. A creature like you is too magnificent not to have a roof over her head. With your permission, we would like to set up our ger over your fire.”
Natalia blinked, unsure as to how to take the compliment. “Uh, okay. Sure. I can help, if you want.”
“That would be appreciated. Setting up the frame is a pain in the ass. Come,” he ordered, as he walked towards his fellows. Natalia followed after him, left without much of a choice. He barked out a couple of foreign words, and – after a bout of laughter – the Mongols began to take down the packs from their now-secured mounts.
Natalia watched with interest as they unfolded strange, collapsible wooden lattices of wood, each slightly higher than a man. By pairs, the men took them to the fire, digging them into the dirt next to each other to form a large semicircular shape.
“You haven’t seen a ger before?”
“I have, but I’ve never seen one being assembled before.”
“Those wooden… cross-woods,” Jebke began to explain, his Russian vocabulary failing him for a moment, “make up the frame. They form a circle around the fire, after which wooden beams are steadied between them and the frame for the smoke-hole. After tying it all down, bolts of fleece are draped over and there – you have a ger! Here, help me out with this so we can complete the first circle.”
Natalia stared at her axe for one long moment. She did not like the feeling of being disarmed, especially around strangers, even if she did have the long knife tucked in her belt. The axe provided her with a better feeling of comfort.
Jebke noticed her stalling as he set down a large leather bag and pulled out a bundled piece of frame with both hands. “You can put away your axe,” he said. “If we wanted you killed, you would already be dead.”
Natalia glared swords at him. The Mongol didn’t waver, even though she towered a full foot over him. His crouching position amplified the discrepancy in height, but an ever-cheerful expression contrasted her look until a feeling of foolishness eventually convinced her to relax.
“You’re right,” she said, sighing as she walked back to the marmot furs to set down her axe. “Fine, I’ll help.”
“Great,” Jebke said on her return. He’d already untied the lace holding the frame together. Stretching out his arms, he unfolded it. “Your axe was scaring my horse. Here, take the other end.”
Natalia did so. It wasn’t heavy at all and she could certainly carry it alone, but she wasn’t about to disrespect the Mongol leader by hogging all of the work.
“So what is a Minotaur doing, alone on the plains?” Jebke asked as they walked.
“I am an exile,” Natalia curtly answered.
“Mhm.” Jebke’s eyes betrayed his confusion. “It means that I am banished from my homeland.”
“Ah, I see – that is a new word learned. Exile, exile,” he said, feeling the word. “Yes, now I know.”
Natalia suppressed a wince at how easily the man referred to her sentence. She shrugged it off as she drove the frame’s spiked bottom into the ground, wrestling against the dirt for purchase. Nayaga and Tudan set down their piece of frame to the Minotaur’s right, completing the circular shape around the fire.
“There’s plenty of space between the frame and the fire, but won’t the wood burn down?”
“It’s fine. They’ve been lacquered to resist heat. The ger won’t burn down on top of you, worry not. Here, take these ropes and tie the cross-woods together. I’m sure you know how to tie a good knot.”
“I do,” Natalia said as she took them and set about with her task. Jebke didn’t seem to care that she was an exile. “And what about you, Jebke? What’s a band of ten well-armed men doing on the plains?”
He grinned, as he finished off a knot. “I told you – we are travelers. Very well armed travelers, going from one place to another. You know how it is.”
“To what end?” Natalia asked, undeterred by his dismissive hand gesture. Jebke looked at her with that constant cheeriness of his. It unnerved the Minotaur. Just what the hell was there to be cheerful about?
“I told you before, didn’t I? That we are the Mongols, the… Silver People. We are born to ride and conquer. Do you understand?”
“So you ride and conquer with only nine others, then?”
Jebke laughed – and he laughed out loud. First his hands were on his hips, next they were crossed over his belly as he bent over, immersed in mirth.
“No,” he said, wiping tears away. “No. You misunderstand me. My arban is just one of thousands. We are outriders, Natalia, for an entire nation hundreds of thousands strong.” Natalia looked back at him with a disbelief that he seemed to savor. “You will see. The Ordu will come and you will see. Our laughter will be one with the wind as we draw our sabers to cut down our foes. The cities of the West will burn if they resist, their streets flowing with rivers of blood as we take down their stone houses brick by brick. You will see, Natalia. You will see soon.”
There was a change in the way he grinned. It was so childish and carefree earlier, but now there was…. a bloodlust in it. His lips parted not only to smile, but also to snarl; and in his eyes, Natalia could sense a deep hunger. A shiver ran down her spine. Who the hell were these people?
The red atmosphere lasted for but a moment as Jebke unfastened the skin that hung close to his waist and unscrewed the cap to down what she presumed to be some ale.
“Hopefully, you will see as a spectator,” he said, as he used his wrist to wipe his mouth, “and not as a victim. Just stay away from the cities, in case the princes in those places foolishly decide to resist our army.”
Natalia gulped. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Why not?” Jebke shrugged. “It’s the truth.”
“But… if you’re scouts for an army, then wouldn’t you want to remain hidden?”
Jebke laughed again. “Maybe for the armies in this land, but not our army. We want everyone to know that the Mongol Ordu is coming for them.”
Natalia closed her eyes, digesting the information. “I see… so, what about me?”
“What do you intend to do with me, then?” Natalia asked. “If you are soldiers to this… Ordu, then what would you have of me?”
“Well first, we would drink with you.”
Jebke threw her the skin he’d been sipping from. She gave him a questioning look.
“Go on, try it.”
Natalia did so, upending the skin to let it flow-
It was only through strength of will that she didn’t spit all of it out. She swallowed, but it was with conscious effort, and the rest spilled and dribbled over her chin. Jebke laughed. Natalia glowered at him, then at the skin.
“It is called airag. It is made by fermenting mare’s milk.”
“Right,” Natalia said, as she wiped the rest of it off her face. She noticed that the other men were looking at her, all smiling. She didn’t care if they smiled at her in amusement – Mongols always smiled. It appeared to be their natural state. “That explains it.”
Natalia threw the skin back, and Jebke caught it expertly. “Anyway, after drinking with you, we would eat with you, and sing with you.” He glanced over to a man whose name Natalia had forgotten. “Kundek here – he is very good with the morin khuur. We can dine, listening to stories – don’t worry, I will translate – and to music. We will make plenty of jokes and have a good time. Then we can part ways in the morning, happy to have shared in each other’s company.”
“You… do not intend to hurt me?”
Jebke laughed. He said something in his native tongue and his arban laughed with him. It made Natalia quite nervous.
“Ah, now I see what you mean. No, we will not harm you or rape you.” Jebke put a hand over his heart. “In this, you have my word as a warrior of the Orlok and of the Khan. Now, I mean no disrespect,” he said, his eyes sparkling, “you are most definitely a beautiful woman, but it would be dishonorable for a man to take a wife who is much stronger than him, no?”
Jebke chuckled. “No, Natalia – you are meant for greater men. Not for lowly soldiers like us. You have given us honor by welcoming us into your camp. We would not do evil upon you.”
Natalia stared at him for quite a long time. There was so much information to digest: a new people, a coming army, and the compliments – they called her beautiful, which genuinely shocked the Minotaur, although she didn’t dare to show it. They stared at her with desire and yet they did not act upon it like maniacs. These Mongols were strange, to say the very least. Amid their air of cheeriness, they also held themselves in perfect, confident postures. No, it was more than just their training as professional killers, as men-at-arms. Perhaps… perhaps they really would honor their word and act nobly where others had wronged her, simply for her monstrous lineage.
She sighed. The situation was entirely out of her control. She really had no other choice but to trust them.
“Alright. I understand.” She held her hand over her heart and bowed. “I thank you for your honesty.”
“It is good that we have come to an understanding,” Jebke said, returning the gesture, “because my men have been gawking at us the entire time. Keep building the ger, you idiots! The sun will be setting soon,” he yelled in his native language. They shared a laugh with him before they continued their work.
“I told them they were idiots and that we have to keep building the ger. Come, we could use your help in setting up the next layer of wood-crosses.”
Natalia chuckled. Jebke turned, looking at her incredulously.
“‘Lattice.’ The word you’re looking for is ‘lattice.’”
“Lattice…” Jebke looked wonderingly at the sky as he tasted the word. “Lattice – yes, lattice. Alright, that is another word! Come, we must set up more lattice.”
Natalia walked after the strange horse archer, wondering how he’d even learn to speak Russian so well if his people lived far enough that she’d never even heard of them. She’d ask him later. The ger still needed to be set up, after all.