Feathery snow billowed and swirled across the snow-covered steppe, driven by the moaning winds.
Orhan Timur halted his tired horse, cursing. Already the snowfall was so heavy he could no longer tell where the steppe ended and the mountains began. Soon he would not be able to see more than a few feet ahead. He was no longer even sure where he was. He strained every sense outward, desperately seeking any trace of the stag he had wounded at dawn.
Though some of his own wounds still seeped and men hunting him for his head could be anywhere, Orhan dared not give up his own hunt. He could not afford to. Game had been scarce and hard to find while he was on the run, and he hadn’t eaten in three days. Without the food, winter would kill him as surely as any enemy sword.
The world was lost in a white haze. The cold wind dampened any scent of blood, and whatever traces there may have been, its gusts blew away. Nor could Orhan, despite his hunger-sharpened hearing, hear anything but the ghostly moan of the wind across the vastness of the steppe. He blasphemed under his breath, snuffed the wind in vain one last time with a snarling grimace like a wolf or a big cat cheated of its prey, then kneed his horse into a circling walk, casting his strange hazel-gray gaze intensely upon the snow.
At last, with a sigh of relief he found what he was seeking. While wind-driven snow had obscured the deer’s tracks, pitted dark spots on the white blanket coating the ground betrayed where the animal’s hot blood had fallen and created a trail. Orhan clucked to his horse and swung it around to follow the bloodstains. Soon he was conscious of their passage over rising ground. As he had suspected, he had not been far from the mountains — but which ones? Was he in the foothills of the Drokpas to the south or east, or the haunted and forbidden Turuul range in the north? He had fled so far, dazed with weariness and wounds yet killing more than once stolen horse with his pace, that he was no longer sure where he was.
Just a few days ago, Orhan Timur would not have been riding to the hunt alone, but with a retinue of veteran guards and chosen companions, merrily passing around a skin of airag to warm their bellies. Among them would have been his blood-brother Jungar, khan of the western tribes, who every winter would ride to pay homage to Orhan, khan of the eastern tribes and Khagan, khan of khans, over the whole Murjen nation.
But this winter, Jungar Khan had come not with gifts and his usual friendly jests, but with war. Not suspecting any treachery, Orhan had been caught with complete surprise.
Jungar. The mere thought of the name made Orhan’s lips draw back in a savage snarl. Jungar, my blood-brother, my anda, traitor and oathbreaker! He had broken the most sacred bond known to the Murjen people, and now he was Khagan. Not even in the deepest of the Nine Hells will you escape my vengeance, Jungar, Orhan swore.
But first, I must have food.
For hours beyond his reckoning Orhan followed the blood trail, alternating between cursing the stag for refusing to weaken and saluting it, even improvising a few verses, in praise of its strength and stamina. That stag’s heart would be worth eating, by the Four Winds! He regretted having to shoot it with a bow not his own and a warped arrow. With his own weapons he could have given the stag a quick death, but his brocade-covered, powerful horn bow lay broken on the battlefield, and his quiver’s last few arrows, like the ratty coat he now wore, had been stolen from a shepherd’s tent on the way.
Higher and higher up the mountain he followed, through a hidden pass he might never have discovered, then back down. As he crossed the pass, the snowfall ceased — and a great bawl of despair rang against the mountains, along with a terrible growling and snarling.
Orhan reined in with a curse.
A mere bowshot away rose a tall, rounded tumulus, and at its feet, a pack of wolves had fallen upon his stag and were even now tearing it apart. But the wolves had already been feasting even before the unfortunate stag had blundered into them. For the flat space around the burial mound was strewn with human bodies.
Some were clad in the lamellar armor, pheasant-plumed helms and crimson scarves of the Quan Empire’s border cavalry, while most were in simple nomad herdsmen’s coats and fur caps. Orhan saw the skirmish had ramped a good distance from the mound, as mounted fights usually did, and some of the nomad bodies were almost at his horse’s feet. Curiously all the nomads wore all-black coats, a color the tribesmen normally avoided, and their caps, also rimmed in black fur, also bore a curious ornament: a pair of raven’s wings.
And Orhan, suddenly realizing where he was with a surge of supersititious dread, wheeled his horse about and would have set spurs to its flank to gallop away, snow-cloaked crevasses and slippery rocks be damned, for he was in the most forbidden of all sacred places to the steppe tribes.
The mound could only be the secret barrow of Toktengri, the first chieftain to ever call himself Khan of Khans in the days before the Murjen even had that name, and the dead nomad warriors were Khereyid, the fabled Raven Tribe who had been charged with the duty of preserving this site’s taboo. It was death for any not of Toktengri’s line, which was extinct, or not Khereyid, to ever set foot here.
But even as the horse turned, one of the Khereyid corpses moved and groaned. “Water,” the Khereyid croaked, as harshly as the bird they were named for. “Please. One last drink of water.”