Chapter 9: A Rare Jewel
Lady Suri had been packed for weeks. She had been almost certain Margreth would die; no one ever survives bearing children for the gods and her sister’s health had deteriorated greatly in the last month of her pregnancy. She had begged Margreth to take the medicine she prepared for her but no her love for him was so strong it had become more important to her than her own life. She had been determined to give him a child and this is what it got her, Suri wiped the tears from her eyes, she was too angry to weep.
Her sister had been so beautiful, like their mother. Suri thanked the spirits that she had been born plain. No fiery red hair just simple dark brown; no emerald eyes just soft grey. She could however ride like a demon, shoot a bow better than most men and her knowledge of healing herbs was extensive. She may not attract a god but she sure could take care of herself.
Suri threw a few more items into a trunk, she hated Brannoc, he had known the risks and as far as she was concerned he might as well have killed Margreth with his own hands. The baby made soft cooing noises; Suri stopped what she was doing and picked her up.
“Ssshh little one, we will go far away. Your grandfather is the great Khan and he has more horses than there are stars in the sky. Your grandmother is his first wife and the greatest healer. They will protect you.”
She rocked the tiny bundle until she slept again.
There was a soft knock on the door. Suri laid the baby down, covered her with a blanket and opened the door. A huge man in dark red leather armor stood at attention. His glossy black hair was pulled back in a neat braid and even though he was a very large man he had a kind face and soft grey almond shaped eyes.
“My Lady we are ready. We received word that Lord Brannoc and another rider left from the east gate within the last hour. We can leave from the west gate immediately.”
“Thank you captain Yeke,” Suri said, “please send someone up for this last trunk and I will meet you at the gate.”
Suri took one last look around her room. I will not miss this cold house of stone but I will miss you my beloved sister. She picked up the baby and closed the door behind her. She was sorry that her sister’s remains would be buried here in this cold wet place instead of rising in flames to the bright blue skies and the soaring eagles over the steppes of home.
Suri held the tiny bundle close hoping that she would not cry as she hurried to the main stable near the west gate where the horses were saddled and ready to ride.
When Margreth had come to the castle seven years ago with Brannoc, their father the great Khan had sent twenty men and forty horses with orders to protect Margreth and Suri until the time came for them to return to the Khan. They were to bring them back to him safely or die trying. There were also several supply wagons. Suri had one of the wagons fitted for carrying the child and she had arranged for two wet nurses in case one fell ill.
Suri was Scythian and she was more at home in a saddle than on the ground so she would ride with the men. She knew the wagons would slow them down but the child was too fragile to ride yet. Soon she would swaddle her and carry her on horseback but for now the wagon.
Suri had carried the seal of the great Khan in a small pouch with her for many years. Reaching into the small bag she pulled out the golden seal and placed it on her finger; hopefully it would help get them home safely. To show the seal was to invoke the protection of the Khan and promise a thousand deaths to anyone that would harm her, Suri was glad to have the seal but she trusted her bow and daggers more.
“Are we ready to ride Captain?” Suri shouted.
“We are my Lady,” he answered.
They gate was raised and together they began the long journey east to their home on the steppes.
The days turned to months and still they were far from home. Travel with the wagons was slow and the weather was worsening by the day. They had left Stornoway in late fall and had only managed to cross the channel before they were forced to shelter in a friendly village to ride out the throws of winter. They would never have departed at that time of year normally but the baby had to be taken from the castle as quickly as possible so they had no choice. Twenty one skilled archers were a welcome addition to any settlement and food was more plentiful for all because of their skill so all in all they fared well that winter.
The baby was growing stronger by the day. Her skin was as smooth as silk, white as cream and she had her father’s violet eyes. The whole village loved her. Children brought her gifts; every woman wanted to hold her. Even the toughest burliest men would stop and tickle her chin and make silly baby noises to her.
The chief of the village offered Suri a great many cattle, twelves swords, six horses and many bolts of wool to arrange a future marriage with his young son and the baby but Suri had to politely decline without insulting him after his village had been so gracious. She assured him that once they reached the Khan he should petition for her hand but she, only the Aunt had no right to negotiate. Such was the babe’s effect on everyone, they loved her instantly.
Suri however loved her most of all and they were never apart. Not only was the child all she had left of her sister but there was something more. Suri had held her since the moment she was born and in some real way she felt as if she was her own child; she knew she would die to protect her, she did however hope it would not come to that.
Finally the winter broke and they headed east again. The roads were nothing more than muddy trenches and as Suri had feared the wagons caused more and more delays. The baby was now four months old so Suri began to carry her on horseback with her. At first it was for only an hour or so but within a month she was riding with her most of the day. They decided to pack some of the reserve mounts with the supplies and traded two of the wagons for dried fish, dried fruit and mead and after that the group made better time but it was still slow. Suri had hoped to make the steppes before the next winter but she was beginning to have doubts.
So far they had been lucky and met with no real trouble. Twice they had been challenged by robbers but their Scythian bows and superior horsemanship had made quick work of their attackers. They stuck to the main trade route so they often camped with other groups who were traveling east from the Silk Road.
There were stopping points along the trade route where groups or caravans of traders would rest. Small settlements grew around these stops offering supplies, services and lodging that might be more comfortable than their traveling accommodations. People would gather to trade goods, news and stories; they sang, danced, and ate exotic foods. Suri looked forward to the trading stops and the baby seemed to love the company of new people, she charmed everyone she met.
They had been traveling for almost ten months when they stopped at a small settlement along the road. It was not as festive or as well stocked as many had been, no bright banners fluttered from the roof tops, there was no sound of minstrels, the livestock looked under fed and the streets were empty. Small ribbons of dark smoke rose from less than half of the chimneys and there was a large pyre in the center square that looked to be well used. Suri took the baby to the wagon.
“Please take her for a while Bette I am going to try and trade some fox and mink pelts for some supplies, she is tired and should sleep for a while.”
“Of course but please take two of the men with you Lady Suri,” Bette pleaded. “You are in danger by yourself among these barbarians. I don’t like the look of this place. Look at the streets, there are no women or children.”
“I appreciate your concern Bette but I am not afraid of these beasts. They can smell your fear you know.”
She showed her teeth to Bette and growled. Bette’s eyes got wider and she held the baby close.
“I will keep her safe I promise.”
“I know you will,” Suri answered. “I will be back soon.”
Suri took the pelts and smoothed down the lovely fur. These should fetch a good price, she thought. Suri reached down into her boot and adjusted the long dirk she carried there. Bette may be a silly sheep but it didn’t hurt to be careful.
Suri picked her way through the mud. A large half tent, half wooden structure seemed to be the main trading post so that was where she headed. Several men shouted suggestive things at her but she just ignored them as she picked her way through the mud and the filth.
The interior of the structure was dark and lit only with a few oil lamps. There were several large heavy tables for laying out goods for display so Suri began to lay out the pelts on the first table.
A ragged voice came from the shadows at the end of the table.
“Cover your head woman, have you no shame,” and a filthy ragged cloth was tossed at her from the murky darkness. If fell on the floor at her feet; Suri glanced down as it hit the floor.
“Where is your master?” the raspy voice demanded, “I do not conduct business with women. The only business I have with women is the business between their legs. If that is what you are here to trade then we may have some trading to do.”
Suri stopped laying out the pelts. She slowly rubbed the fur on a particularly beautiful white fox pelt.
“I am the leader of my caravan. I own these pelts and you will see no finer. You can make a good trade for them or you can continue to spew vile insults and I will see to it that you do not have a tongue or any other appendage to insult another woman.”
She laid her hand out flat on the pelt. The seal of the Khan shone in the lamp light. Suri could smell the man in the shadows; he reeked of sweat and rancid grease. As he leaned forward into the light Suri saw that he only had one good eye, the other was cloudy white. Black greasy hair hung from the sides of his balding head and a deep scar down his cheek had healed badly causing his mouth to be permanently twisted. His good eye was small and black and it darted back and forth from the Khan’s seal to her face.
“We serve the one God here and women are the carriers of sin and evil. I will not endanger my immortal soul by doing business with a filthy pagan witch.”
Suri slowly began to pick up the pelts. She kept her eyes on him. She knew his kind, worshippers of the Christian God, and haters of women. His mind was beyond logic. She had taken his insults to be a bargaining tactic but she now knew he was a religious zealot. He may not be willing to do business with her but he would think nothing of raping her and burning her to death all in the name of his god. Two more men stepped from the shadows.
“You can just leave the pelts on the table witch,” one of them growled.
“Oh, so your great god is the god of thieves,” Suri hissed.
“It is no sin to take from a witch for whatever you have has been gained through evil deeds,” the one eyed man almost chanted.
“I am protected by the seal of the Great Khan,” Suri calmly stated. “Harm me and your lives are forfeit.”
“We care nothing for the threat of your pagan pig of a Khan,” the youngest of the three men snarled.
Suri began to slowly back towards the door. She had most of the pelts over one arm and the other arm slipped down her leg and pulled the long dirk from her boot. The younger man laughed.
“Do you think you can take the three of us you simple girl. Drop the pelts and knife and once we are through with you we may let you live if you please us.”
He jumped up onto the heavy table and started to launch himself at Suri. She crouched and prepared for the impact but suddenly he stopped; blood was squirting from a hole in his neck. He gurgled as black blood poured out of his mouth and sprayed out of his torn neck as he tried to breathe. A Scythian arrow had gone clean through; Suri heard it hit the wall in the back of the room. The blood fell onto the beautiful white fox pelt on the table; Suri thought it looked like blood in the snow.
She turned and saw her Captain Yeke, his long Scythian bow ready with another arrow.
“Get behind me Lady Suri.”
Suri turned as the man on the table fell to his knees clutching his throat. She backed out the door. Yeke looked at the two remaining men.
“By all rights I should kill you both but since only that one raised his hand to her I will let you live. Do not follow us or my generosity will be withdrawn.”
Seven more men waited outside and Suri saw two more on rooftops, she had never been happier to see them. The group hurried back toward their horses but no one followed. Thank goodness they are cowards, Suri thought. Captain Yeke turned to Suri.
“Are you harmed in any way? If so I will gladly go back and kill them all and burn their filthy huts to the ground.”
“No Yeke,” Suri said softly,” I am fine and I am sorry I put you and the other men in that position. I should be more careful and less bull headed.”
“You have the blood of the Khan. You cannot help but be fearless, it is your nature.” Yeke said with absolute seriousness.
Suri smiled at him.
“You looked pretty fearless yourself.”
“Thank you Lady Suri,” Yeke beamed.
“No thank you Yeke and please just call me Suri. I would like that very much.”
“I would also like that very much,” answered Yeke. The two walked the rest of the way back in silence just smiling.
The group left immediately hoping to avoid any other conflict. They had needed some supplies but it was nothing they could not do without. Even though it was already late in the day they put as many miles as possible between them and the rundown trading post. It was early fall and a light snow was falling when they stopped to make camp.
The small round tents were set up and everyone settled around a large fire to enjoy the evening meal. Suri handed Yeke a bowl of stew and smiled.
“I wanted to thank you again for today,” she said. “I will be more careful in the future and always take an escort. It has never seemed necessary in the past but lately the trading villages have been less and less welcoming.”
“Yes I have noticed that as well,” Yeke agreed. “I am also concerned about the weather. We can travel for perhaps another month before we must set in for the winter. I am worried that we may not be able to find a village that will take us in.”
Suri nodded, “but if the weather holds we should be in the lands of the Khan within six weeks so maybe we will not have to stop.”
“I hope you are right,” Yeke answered as he scooped up his first bite of stew.
After the meal some of the men sang songs and one of the older soldiers told a long and beautiful Scythian tale about a boy who could turn into a wolf and how he won the heart of a chieftain’s daughter but was then killed by her accidentally as she hunted for the furs to make her wedding robes. Suri cried and Yeke handed her a cloth to wipe her eyes.
“Such a soft heart you have,” he said as he laughed.
Suri laughed too.
“I know; I just can’t help it when Chen tells such a beautiful story.”
Suri had the toddler asleep in her lap. She picked her up and headed for their tent. She turned towards Yeke.
“Thank you again.”
Suri wrapped the child in warm furs and snuggled down into her own bedding. During the night she was awakened by some commotion. First she checked on the child and then lifted the heavy flap of her tent. Her guard stood at the door.
“What is happening?” Suri asked.
“I do not know for certain my Lady” the guard answered, “but there seems to be a small wild fire down the hill started by sparks from our campfires. Most of the men have gone to deal with it before it gets outs of hand.”
“Well let me know if I am needed,” Suri answered.
She closed the flap and went back into her tent. Suri had just drifted back into sleep when she felt a hand clamp down over her mouth.
A large heavy man was on top of her. He smelled of sweat and rancid grease and she knew exactly who it was, the horrible dirty man from the trading post. He put his foul mouth to her ear and said.
“Your guard is dead witch and you will join him soon but not before I make you pay for my brother’s death. My name is Regulus and I want that to be the last name in your head before you meet God and he punishes you for your wickedness.”
Suri could make out another man in the shadows inside the tent but the child was all she thought about; maybe they will not see her. The other man came up behind Suri and stuffed a rag into her mouth and held her shoulders down with his knees.
“Now both my hands are free,” whispered Regulus. “Let’s see what they can find.”
Suri still had one hand free. She slowly tried to reach the dirk hidden in her bedding.
“Hold her hands,” the fat man hissed to his companion.
The other man leaned over her head and held down her hands. Regulus’ rough paws pulled her legs apart. He grabbed her between her legs so violently tears welled up in her eyes but she made no sound, afraid of waking the baby. The stinking man slid his massive body between her legs. Suddenly there was a small cooing sound from the other side of the tent.
“There is someone else here,” growled the monster on top of Suri.
The man holding Suri’s hands stood up which caused the huge man to have to stop what he was trying to do and hold her down. He went to where the child was sleeping and picked her up. Suri’s heart froze.
“It is just a baby,” the man in the shadows whispered.
“Kill the witch’s bastard before it cries and gives us away,” Regulus ordered.
The man holding the baby looked into her softly glowing violet eyes and he did not move.
“Kill it,” growled the big man.
The man shifted the baby to one arm and pulled his knife from his belt. Suri tried as hard as she could to get from under the mountain of flesh that was on top of her, but she was just too small, she tried to scream but her mouth was filled with the dirty rag. The man raised the knife. Suri saw it glint in the pale moon light that came through the vent hole in the top of the tent. She struggled even harder trying to reach her dirk. The man’s blade flashed in the moonlight and the child dropped silently onto the thick pile of furs.
Suri felt as if her heart had been crushed; she suddenly did not care what they did to her. She had failed her sister and the baby. She stared at the man standing in the beam of light as he slowly turned away from the child and she could see that blood was pouring down his chest and gurgling out of his mouth. His eyes were wide with shock as he tried to make a sound but no sound came out. Suri realized he had cut his own throat instead of the child’s.
The fetid lump of flesh on top of Suri was stunned just long enough for her to reach her dirk. She drove it deep into his side hoping to hit a kidney. He howled in pain but because of his huge girth she could tell it was not a fatal blow. He put his filthy fleshy hands around her throat.
“Witch you will die for this sorcery,” he screamed at her.
Suri knew she only had seconds before she lost consciousness. She plunged the knife into his side again and again until everything went black.
Suri awoke to find herself in Yeke’s arms.
“Is the child safe?” Suri gasped.
Her bruised throat would hardly work.
“She is safe,” whispered Yeke. His face was stained with tears. “It is you I am worried about.”
Suri closed her eyes and put her head against his chest.
“I will live,” she rasped from her bruised throat. “The blood is all his.”
The next few days Suri rode in the wagon with Bette and the child. She was sore and bruised but for the most part alright. Yeke rode up at least once an hour to check on her and Bette kept giggling as if she knew a secret. Suri had gone over and over in her head the events of the night before.
Everyone assumed that she had taken out the first man and the second one had almost killed her; she knew different. Suri was well aware of the child’s father’s abilities and now she realized that the little girl had inherited at least some of them. That demon father of hers always could make any one do anything he wanted; Suri had always been careful not to look into his eyes. She never trusted him and now she knew that the child could bewitch people as well, barely a year old and she had made a grown man cut his own throat. Suri felt that it might be best if no one knew this.
“Here he comes again Lady Suri,” Bette giggled.
Suri turned to her, eyes flashing.
“I know you think that Yeke and I are fond of each other Bette and it is true we are but my father is the Khan and he will decide my husband. I do not have the privilege of most Scythian women to choose my mate. I have responsibilities. Alliances must be made and I will do as he says for my people.”
Suri said this with more than a bit of sadness in her voice as Yeke approached the wagon.
“Our scout has seen riders in the distance,” Yeke announced.
“Are we being followed,” Suri rasped?
“No they come from ahead of us; they are from the winter camp of your father.”
Suri sank back onto her bedding relieved.
“First get my horse. I will not be seen lying in a wagon like an old woman; then go and welcome them Yeke, and send word to my father. We are home.”
Four riders went on ahead to tell the Khan that his daughter was returning. The journey took four more weeks but with the added men and supplies it was not so difficult. The Khan had moved his main encampment south for the winter so they were much closer than they would have been come spring. The riders were a hunting party gathering game for the coming winter months; luck had brought the two groups together otherwise they would have continued on north probably missing the new encampment completely.
It was a glorious bright day in the second week of November when Suri and the baby finally made it back to the safety of her father’s camp. The camp was alive with the air of a festival at the return of the Khan’s daughter. Margreth had been the Kahn’s first child; Suri was her younger sister by seven years. When they had left with Brannoc eight years ago Suri had only been nine.
Her father had sat her upon his knee to say goodbye.
“You my little mink have always had a clear head on your shoulders,” he had said to her. “I want you to watch after your sister, assist her when you can, comfort her when she needs it and most of all help her to remember her family. Bring her back if you can and if not find your way back to me when she no longer needs you.”
He had then given her the pouch with the seal in it.
“I promise father I will do my best,” Suri had said trying to sound as grown up as possible.
“Until the moon looks down on both of us together stay safe little one.”
He had then kissed the top of her head. Suri felt shame that she had returned without Margreth. She walked into the great tent with tears in her eyes but on her hip she carried the beautiful child. Her nineteen guardsmen followed behind her.
The Kahn sat on a large stool in the center of the tent. Suri saw her mother seated on pillows on the floor beside him. Her mother was the oldest daughter of very wealthy traders from the snow lands to the North West. Her hair was the color of copper and her eyes were emerald green, intricate dragon tattoos adorned her arms. Her beauty was the stuff of legends and their daughter Margreth had inherited that curse.
He asked for her hand before he had even become the Khan. His father the Khan before him had been good friends with her family and a match was made. She was well known as a great healer and her blood ties formed an important alliance with the peoples of the snow lands. She and the Khan also loved each other very much. Although he had many other wives none had ever taken her place in his heart. She treated the other wives like sisters for she understood the importance of the alliances that were formed in their blood, she held the Khan’s heart she wanted nothing more.
Margreth their beautiful first born had been given in alliance to a powerful being, he had in return promised protection and had left many gifts when they departed but now their other daughter stood before them alone and the Khan knew Margreth was dead.
“My little mink,” said the Khan as he held his arms open, “It brings tears to the eyes of an old man to see you. You have become such a beautiful young woman; you are
no longer the little girl I remember, come hug your father.”
Suri handed the little girl to Bette and ran to her father’s arms.
“I have missed you so much, Papa. Margreth is gone. She died in childbirth. I have failed to bring her home.”
Suri was sobbing. Her mother stood and the three of them held on to each other.
“You did your best my little one,” her mother said. “We never expected to see either of you again but I should have known that you would find your way back. Our joy is great that you have returned to us.”
Suri wiped her face and stood up straight.
“All of us fought hard to get back and one perished as we returned defending me. There are no braver men Great Kahn than these before you.” she said as she motioned to her band.
They all lowered their heads as the Khans gaze fell upon them.
“Indeed,” said the Khan. “To each of you I give 10 mares and one stallion, forty reindeer hides, the finest bow and one hundred arrows and to the family of the dead man the same is given plus five more mares. I am grateful; you have returned my heart to me.”
There were murmurs of approval throughout the tent until the Khan spoke again.
“And you Captain Yeke, you deserve a greater reward for leading your men and bringing Suri home safe, ask what you will.”
Yeke stepped forward and spoke without hesitation.
“I ask for the hand of the Lady Suri.”
The crowd in the tent gasped. He had asked for too much. Yeke was only a soldier, a captain yes, but Suri was the child of the Khan and the first wife. She would marry a great chieftain from the west or lord from the Far East. All eyes were on the Khan as he rose to speak.
“Many years ago I sent my two precious children to live with one who calls himself a god. This god could not save the life of my one child nor could he offer safe passage for the other. You Yeke have guided her home and brought back that which I thought was lost forever. I offered you anything and this is what you chose. I have but one question.”
The Khan turned to Suri.
“Is this what you wish little mink?”
“More than anything father.” Suri whispered.
“Then it is so!” roared the Khan. “Today this most joyous of days will be a wedding day as well.”
The crowd in the tent cheered and clapped. The Khan raised his hand for quite.
“But who is the little one?”
Suri went to Bette and took the child and turned back to speak to her father.
“This is the daughter of Margreth and the one called Brannoc Tong Durai. I lied to the one who calls himself a god. He believed the child to be dead so I stole her away and brought her home. I have not named her since that is the right of her grandparents.”
Suri handed the child to her mother Isla.
“She is so beautiful; she has her father’s eyes.”
Suri’s mother was instantly enchanted. The Khan sat back upon the great stool.
“We have a very special guest today. Tradition says that it is he that should name the child. What say you my friend?” The Khan motioned to a tall man.
The crowd watched as from the shadows beyond the great fire pit a stranger stepped out. He was extremely tall and he wore a very plain suit of what looked like brown leather. A strange faint blue light came from the collar around his neck. He smiled and he had fangs. The crowd gasped. The stranger walked to the dais where the royal family was. He gently ran his hand through the child’s jet black hair. Little Fade what are you doing here, he thought. He took the girl in his arms and held her high. She laughed with delight.
“Her eyes are the color of a beautiful jewel,” he said. “In my language the word for a rare jewel is erdene and it is the name of my home. Her name shall be Erdene.”
Niurgun smiled at the irony, a Fade named for the Thracian home world. He then handed the little girl to the Khan.
“Thank you Niurgun my friend,” said the Khan, “Erdene is a fine name.” The Khan looked down at the toddler on his lap. She cuddled up into his great fur cloak.
He stared into her purple eyes; she giggled and smiled; the Khan was hers.