I seem to be on a writing roll. Partly thanks to some very positive reviews of my work, and partly from a more efficient workflow, with the aid of Obsidian for my story notes and (surprise!) Microsoft To Do. I’ve started putting in my desired edits and writing objectives in To Do, so every morning when I open my PC they’re there.
Now to the story! This excerpt is from a WIP, inspired by a bunch of ideas I’m mixing together: the Persian myth of the Peri, a faery/bird maiden, a secret palace or castle divorced from time and its denizens who can never leave, and the legacy of Callistos Zhulkarnein, my world’s version of Alexander the Great. Stir them together, add in an angry and determined Snow Leopard, and …
The sun was setting over the mighty, snow-cloaked Drokpas, painting the skies with bands of amethyst, ruby and gold. A creeping line of shadow advanced up the mountainsides, leaving the upper slopes washed in a coppery glow while the remote valleys below were already blanketed by the peace of night.
The peace was shattered by the thunder of hooves.
Out of a high, nearly hidden pass four riders galloped into the valley. The first was ahead by a hundred yards or so, bent low over the saddle and arrhythmically jinking from side to side, the other three were in hot pursuit, shooting arrows as they came.
Orhan Timur grunted with pain as an arrow slammed into his left side. The mail he wore beneath his robe kept it from sinking deep, but driven by a powerful nomad’s horn bow, it still felt like taking a sledgehammer into the ribs. He winced again as the arrow was jarred out by the horse’s galloping, enlarging the wound even as it fell out. His right hand quested in vain over the quiver on his hip, and he cursed as he realized he was out of arrows. Then suddenly he was in darkness.
The transition from sunlit slope to evening gloom was so sudden that for a moment he could barely see anything, for he had been riding westward with the sun in his eyes. He thought the valley below was littered with crumbling stone ruins, and a big pile of them lay immediately to his left. He turned the horse’s head toward it, found himself riding into the remains of a low-walled compound, perhaps some ancient nobleman’s villa, and there he slipped off the saddle, darting into the shadows of what must have been the stables.
Moments later his three pursuers clattered into the ruins. “Aie! His horse is here! We’ve run the Snow Leopard to ground, brothers!” one of the nomad warriors cried.
“Find him! We’ll bring his head to Jungar Khan and be rich!” exhorted another.
“Wait, I can barely see a thing!” cried another.
Keeping an eye on their quarry and shooting arrows at him, the pursuers had perforce been looking sunward for some time while Orhan had been riding with his head down. His lips pulled back in a savage smile, as his namesake silently snarls when about to face a village’s dogs. He padded behind the crumbling walls, working his way deeper into the shadows in a low crouch.
The three nomads dismounted, two of them drawing their sabers and unlimbering round shields of wicker covered in bullhide, while the third nocked an arrow. Orhan knew the man would be able to draw and loose in a heartbeat and likely hit whatever he meant to, for Jungar Khan only recruited his scouts from the best hunters. And every moment he waited, their hunters’ eyes would be adjusting to the gloom, depriving him of that sliver of advantage.
He found pieces of broken brick, their corners and breaks weathered round with age, and piled several fist-sized ones at his feet.
By this time Orhan’s eyes had fully adjusted to the dimness, and as the stable’s roof was long gone, he could easily see anyone approaching him while he could hide behind a pillar. The first scout entered. Orhan stepped from behind the pillar, his sinewy arm propelling a brick shard right into the scout’s face.
The scout staggered backward, stumbling into the one behind him even as Orhan rushed at them. The Snow Leopard’s scimitar licked out, disemboweling the blinded warrior. The second nomad stepped back, raising his shield, but Orhan’s left arm shot out, releasing an even larger piece of brick that rocked the shield out of line. His merciless scimitar followed, and the second scout crumpled to the ground.
The third scout, smarter or more cautious than his comrades, did not rush in after them but instead awaited Orhan outside, putting bow and arrow down to ready sword and shield. Orhan stepped out from cover, the dead man’s shield on his arm.
The scout did not move, his mustached face impassive. Orhan, however, could read a play of warring emotions in the man’s eyes and stance; savage exultation at a long’ hunt’s final act, gold-lust kindled even higher, for if he could slay the Snow Leopard alone the reward was all his, and fear. For Orhan Timur, known for his cold, predatory gray-eyed gaze as the Snow Leopard, was not only a legend for his swordsmanship, he was also the warrior’s former master.
And the man had already realized Orhan would not let him escape. The fugitive khan could not allow anyone to lead more pursuers onto his trail. To his credit, though, the man neither turned to flee nor tried to bargain for his life. Instead the scout nodded a greeting. “Orhan Khan.”
“Tangut?” Orhan tried to recall the scout’s name.
“No, lord. I am Turgun, Tangut’s brother. I am glad you remember. I am sorry, lord, but I am sworn to bring your head to Jungar Khan.”
“So. You are welcome to try,” said the Snow Leopard.
Turgun attacked. He was shorter than Orhan, who was tall for a Murjen nomad, but much more thickly built. He drove at Orhan shield-first, trying to smash the khan’s shield aside for a killing stroke. But the Snow Leopard countered with the blinding speed he was famous for and a master’s skill, shunting the bashing shield away and lightly pivoting around so that Turgun shot past him. Orhan’s scimitar flashed in a low arc, and Turgun fell face flat as he was hamstrung. Turgun tried to roll aside and cut at Orhan’s legs, but the Snow Leopard jumped above the whistling blade, then the slim scimitar darted like a cobra’s tongue, point-first into Turgun’s neck.
Orhan Timur bowed curtly to the carcass, the least he could to for the brave man’s spirit. Then, allowing exhaustion and wounds to overtake him at last, he limped to the horses.
As he rode out of the ruin he let his gaze rove over the surrounding peaks, trying to match their outline to landscapes he knew. Once, when he had been Orhan Khagan, khan of khans of all the Murjen tribes and commander of the eastern tribes, the Drokpa Mountains had been the border of his realm and he had hunted among them often. But he recognized none of the mountains.
This mighty range snaked across the edge of the steppes like the spine of some world-conquering dragon, hiding among its tortuous folds a thousand, easily ten thousand valleys no Murjen had ever entered. The Drokpas formed the wall between three worlds — the steppes to the north and west, the spice-scented kingdoms of Varanga and Lakhmaristan to the south, and the sleeping giant that was the Quan Empire to the east. Whoever held the few major passes across the Drokpas had their hands on the throat of a rich and vital trade and the keys to an empire.
And Jungar Khan, having gathered the entire Murjen host, was riding south to seize those keys and the wealth of Lakhmaristan beyond. Only the rajahs of Lakhmaristan’s northernmost hill kingdoms barred the roads to conquest, and those petty kings were locked in perpetual war with each other, ignorant of the threat from the north.
Jungar Khan. Orhan’s fists clenched as he recalled his treacherous blood-brother’s laughing face at the end of their last battle. The battle Orhan had fled, his household guards cut down all around him like wheat, the battle that had made Jungar khagan in his stead. “I will stop you yet, Jungar,” Orhan snarled. “I will unite the Rajeen kings of Lakhmaristan against you and break your might in the passes, and then the tribes shall again call me khagan!”
But wily Jungar had anticipated just that from Orhan, for had they not grown up together as brothers? Thus the seemingly endless hunters combing the mountains for him.
Killing these three had won him a night’s rest, though, at the very least. He considered camping in the ruined villa, but decided against it. The nights were growing chill as winter neared, meaning he’d have to light a fire — but a fire would be easily visible from the pass he’d come through, and if any hunters were following Turgun’s lead they would see it.
The moon was rising now, a mere sliver, but with its light and the stars, clear and bright as the night sky can be only in the mountains, there was just enough light to ride by. Orhan picked his way down the slopes, having seen yet more ruins below that he thought to hole up in. As he passed them he began to think he was approaching a city, for here and there were the moldering skeletons of houses, the hulk of what may have been a temple, and at regular intervals he found pillars topped with three-headed lions, marking what must have been a road. Orhan knew many kingdoms and empires had risen in these mountains, only to leave such crumbling heaps behind. The weight of the centuries evident in these once-magnificent ruins made him somber.
The moon rose higher. And at the bottom of the valley, a well of light sprang into existence, warm and inviting. He had been mistaken. The valley was not empty after all. Those were the lamps and fires of a town, or perhaps some prince’s country palace.