Orhan slitted his catlike eyes in concern. It seemed wolf packs were converging from all across the steppe, scores of shadowy shapes loping behind him and to either side, while wolf tracks all but obliterated the trail of the cavalcade he followed. It was unnatural for wolves to gather in such numbers in winter, even more unnatural for different packs to run so closely together without fighting. It could only be the magic of Toktengri’s banner. The curse was real.
And the wolves behind were gaining upon him.
Orhan counted his arrows, counted the nearest wolves, listened to his horse’s heavy breathing as it kept a steady pace across the snows, trying to gauge how far he dared to push it. But it was driven now as much by fear as his will to keep going. On through the night it ran, as tired and hungry as its rider, unable to stop for even a mouthful of snow to slake its thirst. Nor did Orhan dare to slake his own burning need for nourishment by drinking of the horse’s blood as he’d been taught, for he needed it to keep all its energy.
They passed dead horses and men, and when the wolves devouring them turned upon them Orhan shot them. He wished he could have retrieved those arrows, but dared not stop.
The men were Quan soldiers by their armor, and by the hacked-up wolf bodies strewn around them Orhan saw they had died hard. Their horses must have collapsed from exhaustion, burdened by the weight of men in heavy scale armor — and ill-gotten gold. For the dead horses’ saddlebags and the men’s clothes, torn up by the wolves, had spilled cups and bangles, dishes and ewers, jewelry for a hundred brides, all of gold.
Orhan smiled grimly. Would that Toktengri’s curse worked only in this simple manner!
But it did not. Only a few wolves had stayed to feast on the carcasses. Contrary to their nature, more had kept running in relentless pursuit of the tomb robbers. At least the harsh steppe winter and the wolves were steadily thinning the enemy for him. But how many would he have to face when he caught them?
He tried to recall previous battles, the daredevil raids he’d made with the barest handful of men, the fox’s tricks he’d used when outnumbered, to find a plan he could reuse or adapt. But exhaustion and hunger made thinking hard. He closed his eyes, trying to will the dull and muzzy ache away.
He jerked awake to a pandemonium of barking, baying, and the unmistakable screeches of an eagle in distress.
Dawn had snuck up on him as he slept, painting the eastern sky with a soft wash of purple, salmon and gold. The trail he’d been following was nowhere in sight. Instead, before him was a hunter’s yurt, ominously innocent of the morning fire’s smoke. Dark shapes in torn rags littered the snow, dark stains beneath them. And a sextet of wolves were leaping and snapping around a man-high oaken branch set in the ground, harrying the great golden eagle whose jesses were still tied to the perch.
Orhan would have ridden on, desperate to find the trail again. He turned his mount’s head away. The eagle screamed, shrill and defiant, knowing no surrender. It was a kindred spirit on the lonely, enemy-haunted steppe.
With a snarl Orhan kicked the horse into a gallop for the camp. He shot two wolves before they were even aware of him, then he was among them, his scimitar licking out, not at any wolf, but at the rawhide tether.
The freed eagle shot skyward. The remaining wolves surrounded Orhan’s rearing and plunging horse, the beast so panicked that all Orhan’s skill with the scimitar was useless. While one wolf menaced the horse’s throat, another danced and circled behind it, preparing to fall upon its hind legs. Only the horse’s blindly lashing hoofs kept them at bay.
A tawny streak flashed past Orhan’s head, and the wolf behind his horse yelped in pain. The eagle had clawed its face, blinding it in one eye.
Orhan at last got the mount under control. He charged the wolf before him, swerving aside and leaning down at the last moment to sweep his blade across its neck. The horse trampled another with lashing forehoofs. He looked for the remaining two wolves.
They were no longer attacking him. Instead, they were running in confused circles, the eagle swooping down at them then climbing away in a breathtaking aerial dance. Orhan dropped the scimitar to dangle from his wrist by its swordknot, whipped his bow back out of its case and feathered the last wolves.
To his surprise, the eagle circled low about him until he put out his arm, upon which the raptor settled.
“Your master has gone to the Four Winds,” he told the bird gently. “You should go now. You’re free.”
But the eagle did not go.
Orhan regarded the bird closely. It was a male, he now saw, but an unusually large one, of a race that generations of steppe falconers had bred for hunting wolves. “Have the gods sent you to aid me? Or was it the spirit of Toktengri that bade you stay? Either way, my thanks. You were as good as a hundred arrows, my brother. I shall rename you for that — Zunjebei, Hundred Arrows.”