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Father Michael Curran, Special Vatican Envoy from His Holiness the Pope Innocent IV to the People of the Felt Walls, stared at the waves of oncoming riders and did what he could to keep the fear from showing on his face. Not that there wasn't good reason to be afraid. They were at least three days' hard ride from Karakorum, where Guyuk, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the current ruler of the Mongol Empire, held court over his subjects. In the years since the death of the Great Khan, the empire had fractured. More and more tribes were returning to the old ways, fighting and competing against one another. The Naimans were one such group and Curran's party was deep in a contested area that the Naimans claimed as their own. The distance from the capital meant that no one was going to come charging in to save them. To make matters even worse, the honor guard that Guyuk had sent with Curran for this trip into the Hentiyn Nuruu Mountains numbered less than thirty men, while the Naiman warriors currently charging their position appeared to number in the hundreds.
As the enemy swept forward, Curran could see that each man stood high in the stirrups, guiding his mountain pony with his knees, leaving his hands free to use his bow with the unerring accuracy that had made the Mongol army so feared. True, these were not the famed warriors of the Great Khan—just a lesser khan's raiding party— but he knew they were deadly just the same. The thunder of their horses' hooves mixed with the screeching wind that whipped across the open plain, and the priest no longer had to wonder what hell might sound like. Now he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Hell was the uncanny silence as the enemy thundered toward them. Hell was the thrumming of the enemy's arrows as they filled the sky above him, so thick that for a moment he lost sight of the sun itself. Hell was the thump of the shafts as they met leather armor and human flesh. Hell was the cry of the injured and the dying as they fell into the snow around him.
The Naimans harbored years of resentment against the unification brought to the plains by the army of Genghis Khan some fifty years before. They had caught the small group in the open, crossing a wide valley between two separate mountain peaks, leaving them with few places to run and little to use as cover of any sort. Curran had to admit to himself that it was a marvelous piece of strategic planning. Volke, their group's leader, had been too confident in his belief that no one would dare to attack a party under Guyuk's protection. But the harsh winter and the lure of overwhelming odds had apparently filled the enemy with daring. Curran knew the old adage usually held true: desperate men will do desperate things.
Having been forced into a desperate move, it now seemed that this group of raiders was determined to make certain that no survivors were left behind to report their audacity to the ruling khan.
Volke shouted something in Mongolian, but the wind whipped his words away before Curran could make sense of them. It didn't matter, though; they hadn't been directed at him, anyway, but at the other Mongol warriors in their small group. As one, the soldiers around him wheeled about and sent their sturdy ponies charging for the mountain pass they'd emerged from a half hour before. The priest would have been left behind if one of the warriors hadn't snatched the reins of Curran's horse out of his hands as he thundered by, forcing him to follow suit.
As they raced away, Curran fought to remember the man's name.
That was it. Tamarak was one of the older, experienced warriors assigned to the expedition by the khan himself and ordered to personally see to the safety of the envoy. Curran had resented it at first, seeing Tamarak's presence as a sign that the Mongols still did not trust him. But now he was thankful to have the man at his side.
Curran knew that if they could reach the pass behind them, they could lose their pursuers in the mazelike passage across the mountains or take shelter in the many caves lining the passage walls. Either one would more than likely grant them the time and safety they needed to regroup and restore their wounded. If they could hold off until dark, they might then be able to sneak across the valley without the Naimans being the wiser.
Curran's group was tired—they'd been traveling for days already—while the enemy appeared to be fresh. It was obvious to Curran that the enemy had the advantage. That didn't seem to matter to these hardy warriors, though. They would either succeed or die trying, apparently; and for the first time since he had come to live among them, the priest felt a sense of admiration for their tenacity and sheer courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
Their horses thundered on through the snow while the enemy closed inexorably from behind.
After a time, it was obvious to everyone, even Curran, that they were not going to make it. Volke shouted again and the small entourage turned to fight.
Curran watched their pursuers come on with fear in his heart but with courage on his face.
As the enemy closed the distance, they split ranks, sending half of their forces sweeping to the left while the remainder went right, enveloping Curran's small group in a wide circle two ranks deep, with each rank moving in opposite directions. From out of those ranks the arrows came again. Curran watched Volke topple from the saddle with more than a dozen black shafts jutting from his now-still form. Kaisar and Jelme, his senior lieutenants, met the same fate seconds later. In moments, the enemy had effectively stripped the small band of its most experienced leaders. Curran had no doubt that the tactic had been intentional. Cutting off the head to kill the body was a strategy as old as war itself.
If someone didn't do something soon, they were all going to die, the priest realized. Apparently the men around him felt the same way, for there was a sudden shout from one of the more experienced warriors and the troops spurred their horses and charged the enemy. Trained to act with the others, Curran's horse followed suit. The Jesuit was about to meet the enemy whether he wanted to or not.
"Lord, protect your humble servant," the priest whispered under his breath as he drew his sword and went to meet his death with his head held high in the manner of the Savior he revered.
The two groups slammed together with thunderous force. Men shouted, horses screamed, and Curran found himself slashing to and fro with his weapon, striking out at anything within reach, fighting for his life just as savagely as the enemy sought to relieve him of it.
For just a moment, he thought they might win. Their sudden concentrated attack had surprised the enemy and they burst through the first rank without stopping, surging forward, but in the next moment a heavily mailed fist holding the pommel of a sword smashed into Curran's face, toppling him from his saddle. He struck the ground hard, and as he lay there unmoving, the wind knocked out of him, he felt a stabbing pain in his left leg. Curran screamed in agony. Darkness loomed and then swept over him like the tide.
Having fully expected to die when he'd lost his grip on his horse, Curran was surprised to regain consciousness sometime later. With consciousness, however, came an awareness of the pain his body was experiencing and surprise quickly turned to regret. In that first instant, he was convinced that death would have been a better alternative to what he was currently experiencing. He screamed aloud against the pain and passed out again.
The second time he regained consciousness, the cold had wrapped him in its chilly embrace, dulling the pain to a minor roar, and he was actually able to open his eyes.
He immediately wished he hadn't.
The dead were everywhere. They covered the ground in front of him and as far as he could see on either side. After stripping the bodies of anything of value, the Naimans had followed the traditional steppes custom and left the dead where they had fallen. Now their eyes stared unseeing and their blood stained the snow in thick patches of crimson-black. The bodies of his companions mingled haphazardly with the corpses of the horses on which they'd ridden, neither man nor beast being spared in the midst of the fray.
He shifted his position and a lance of roaring pain shot up from his left leg and threatened to plunge him into unconsciousness once more. He fought against it, knowing that if he succumbed, he'd most likely freeze to death.
When the dizziness receded and he could think clearly again, he looked down at his leg. He turned away almost immediately. The sight of the dark shaft of an arrow jutting up from his thigh and his own blood staining the snow was almost too much for him to bear.
He couldn't ignore it, though. He was going to have to deal with it, and soon, if only to keep from bleeding to death. Steeling himself, and taking a deep breath to keep from vomiting, he looked down at his leg again.
The arrow had hit him high on the back of the thigh and had gone all the way through his leg at an angle, exiting about an inch above the knee. He could see that the edges of the head were barbed, which meant he wasn't going to be able to pull the arrow back in the direction it had entered. Nor could he remove it the other way; the feathered shaft would prevent it.
He was going to have to break the shaft on one side or the other and then pull the rest of it free.
The very thought of it made him shudder.
Why bother? he wondered. Even if he could get the shaft out and stop the bleeding, he was only trading one method of dying for another. There was no way he could travel in his condition, and if nightfall caught him here on the plain he was sure to freeze to death. It seemed God had saved him from a quick, sure death only to fall victim to a long, lingering one.
But Curran was not the type to go down without a fight.
The wind was picking up and the snowfall that had dogged their march earlier that morning had started anew. Never mind the brutal cold that threatened to steal his every breath. If he didn't do something immediately, he wasn't going to have the strength left to try anything at all.
He tore several strips of cloth off the shirt of a nearby corpse, folding some a few times to create makeshift compresses and laying the others out where he could reach them without difficulty. Working quickly so that he wouldn't have time to think about it, he rolled partially on his side, exposing the feathered end of the arrow. Taking it in his left hand, he gripped his thigh tightly with his right, holding it steady. Curran took a deep breath and then snapped his left hand sharply to one side, breaking the wooden arrow in two just above the fletching.
He screamed against the pain, but managed to remain conscious. The motion had started the wound bleeding again. With shaking hands, he stuffed several of the compresses against the open wound and then tied it off with one of the strips.
He was breathing heavily now, the pain making it difficult to concentrate, but he pushed through it, knowing he had no choice but to finish what he had started.
Gingerly placing his leg flat on the ground, he took hold of the tip of the arrow, wrapping his fingers around the barbed edges to give him more leverage. He gritted his teeth and pulled.
With more than a bit of resistance, the rest of the shaft slid free.
He tossed the broken shaft of the arrow aside, packed the wound with some snow and the rest of the compresses to stop the bleeding, then tied the whole thing off just as he had the entry point.
When he was finished, he slumped on the ground, sweating, exhausted and in considerable pain.
After some time—he didn't know how long—the pain receded to a manageable level. He pushed himself back up into a sitting position and took a look at his handiwork.
Blood had dried around the edges of the makeshift bandages, but it looked like as if the wound had stopped bleeding.
Maybe he was going to make it, after all.
A soft snort to his immediate right made him nearly jump out of his skin. He slowly turned his head, not wanting to jostle his injured leg but at the same time afraid of what he might see. To his vast surprise, he found the horse he'd been riding standing a few feet away, rooting through a partially opened saddlebag for something to eat.
"Thank you, Lord," Curran whispered.
If he could get on the horse, he had a fighting chance at survival.
Like the other Mongol steeds, his was a short-legged, shaggy beast that had seen its fair share of death and was unmoved by the carnage around it. Losing interest in the saddlebag at its feet, it raised its head, catching sight of Curran in the process. It trotted over and nuzzled him, looking to be fed.
"Good boy," the priest whispered, petting its nose with one hand while grabbing onto the straps of the saddlebags it still wore with the other.
Using the straps for support, he hauled himself upright, using the strength of his arms and his one good leg. It took several tries, but at last he was standing on one leg, his arms wrapped around the horse's neck to keep from falling.
He rested in that position for a moment, praying the horse wouldn't make any sudden moves and dump him back down on the snow. When he'd caught his breath again, he reached for the pack still hanging around the horse's hindquarters, right where he'd loaded it earlier that morning.
Working slowly and carefully to limit jarring his injured leg any more than necessary, he untied the drawstrings of the pack and withdrew the ceremonial robe he'd worn when appearing for his audience with the khan in Karakorum. The material was quite thick, something he constantly complained about when wearing it, but now he was silently thankful. He slipped the material over his shivering form and slumped against his horse, already exhausted and he hadn't even tried getting himself up into the saddle.
A sudden sound to his left drew his attention.
He straightened up, trying to see.
Only the dead stared back at him.