The fortress at Yanguan Pass was empty, just as it had been in her vision. The army had passed through just days before, kicking up red billows to fill the cloudless sky, leaving behind only a deathly silence in their wake. Naran had already witnessed it in spirit, hovering in the updrafts overhead, gazing down at an outpost as bare as the landscape surrounding. Now, seeing it for the first time with eyes of flesh, Naran couldn’t help but wonder why.
Even Altan shifted restlessly on her arm, chirruping and cocking his head. Beneath her, the grey mare pawed hopelessly at the earth, searching through the dust for clumps of grass to nibble.
“She was right.” Nergüi said, looking out to where the structure squatted upon the horizon, its upturned eaves like a demon’s horns.
“Of course, she was right,” Batzorig spat, a scowl upon his glistening, sunburned face. “It’s her job to be right.”
From a respectful distance away, the men sent to guard her surveyed the landscape at her flanks, steering their horses with only their knees as they held their bows at the ready. Naran could sense that they too were uneasy, though they were disciplined enough to conceal it. A Türkic man does not show fear: such was the first lesson taught to every boy in their tribe. Naran learned it just as well and held an impassive mask over her own dark features at all times.
The sun beat down on them like a thousand horses galloping, forcing the men to doff their long robes and retain only linen tunics for covering. Even Naran had left behind her traditional garb of ribbons, mirrors, and bells in favor of something lighter and less conspicuous. Her sun-brightened hair was free of adornment and tied back in a simple braid. Still, she kept her drum firmly secured to her saddle in case any need arose to call on the spirits.
“What does it mean, Shaman?” Nergüi ignored his fellow tribesman, addressing Naran directly. She had no ready answer to offer. The encroachment of Chinese walls through their grazing lands had been a constant source of frustration, damming off good pastureland along with a steady stream of riches. Though their tentative alliances sometimes served to subdue enemy tribes, more often than not, Chinese arrows were always aimed at them. It didn’t make sense that they would leave their fort so incredibly vulnerable. Soft though they were, surely they could not be so stupid. Naran raised her eyes to the vast expanse of blue overhead, offering up silent prayers to Tengri. Was this a trap or a sign of divine favor?
“Look.” Batzorig laughed, pointing towards the fortress. “That is what it means.”
There, moving beyond the protection of the Wall, they spotted a caravan strung together like dark pearls against the late afternoon light. It was common on this part of the Steppe for merchants to travel by night, avoiding the desert’s heat on their way to the next staging post, a clever logistical strategy thought to be safer as well. But with the soldiers gone, with the fort left unmanned and unprotected, there could be no promise of safety.
Naran smiled, shifting Altan to her shoulder so she could string up her bow. Here was an answer to her prayers if ever there was one. Batzorig raised a fist to signal and their horses thundered into motion.
From a distance, they would have appeared a landslide, cascading down the hills, just a cloud of dust and sand against the barren rocks. Only when the cloud drew nearer, when it came to envelope the company like a sandstorm spotted too late, would the hapless merchants realize what was coming for them.
It was always in these moments, above the tumult of hooves, beneath the halo of wings, that Naran felt most alive, perfectly centered over the axis of her being. If the civilized world met them with disdain, it was only because they had freed themselves from the corrupting influences of state, stability, and stationary existence. They would not barricade themselves behind walls of rammed earth, bow to the Emperor, send their sons die in Chinese wars for Chinese interests. No, they would no longer live as slaves. They would serve only Tengri himself, or else they would perish.
As they drew nearer, Naran could see at least a dozen Bactrian camels loaded with goods, some pulling heavy-laden carts. Her heart galloped in rhythm with her mare. Clearly, the spirits had steered her true. Panicked shouts rose up from the caravan, their approach now spotted, the camels scattering, the men rushing to and fro. An arrow flew towards Naran but missed, impotently striking the sand. Batzorig gave another signal, and the warriors spread out, encircling the company on all side. Once within range, Naran loosed an arrow of her own. This one didn’t miss.
The next few moments were filled with the flash of steel, the flight of arrows, the clamor and cries of men as Naran and the Türkic warriors relieved the caravan of its cargo and its keepers of their lives. The camels bellowed and bucked, frightened by the violence of the scene, but Batzorig moved quickly to hem them in. The Türks rarely had use for camels, of course, but they could be traded or otherwise, eaten.
In the end, ten men lay in the sand, dead or nearly dead, their carts abandoned. Altan descended and immediately set to work tearing their flesh, eager to be the first of many avian psychopomps to deliver their souls to Tengri. Meanwhile, Naran and the warriors set to work rounding up the remaining camels and inspecting the cargo. It was just as she was lifting the cover off one of the carts that the woman sprang out, fluttering past in a blur of silk and jade.
For a few stunned moments, Naran watched the distance lengthen between herself and the stowaway. She could have easily let her flee. A woman was no threat to them. There were no soldiers in the fort to alert, no villages nearby to offer her shelter. Naran even half-contemplated shooting her out of mercy. Better to die quickly by an arrow than slowly in the desert heat. But instead, for reasons she didn’t entirely understand, Naran did neither of these things.
Instead, she snatched up rope from her saddle and took off after her. Even at a steady trot, she closed in on the woman within seconds, swinging the circle of rope over her head and releasing it. The noose looped around her as easily as catching a stray horse, sending her tumbling to the ground where the rope pulled taut.
Naran didn’t expect much of a fight after that, but had to rethink her assumptions upon taking a few elbows to the face. By then, the men had gathered round to watch the tussle as their shaman struggled to tie the girl’s hands.
“I didn’t know they bred them so wild along the Yellow River,” Nergüi observed with a laugh. But for all her fight, the maiden at last fell slack, subdued by exhaustion if nothing else. Half the trick to breaking a wild horse is simply a matter of tiring it out.
Hefting the woman over her shoulder, Naran took her back to her mare, tossing her over the withers before mounting and setting off. A drama of shadows play across the copper hills, fading to blue upon a far-flung horizon, its patterns repeating in sparse wisps of violet against the crimson sphere of the Upper World. Naran watched the beauty of it unfold as they drifted through the desolate landscape. It was only here in the desert that she could see so clearly the Middle World’s reflection in Tengi’s domain.
They made camp just before nightfall along a windswept loess. Altan had managed to pick off a few marmots along the way, allowing them the luxury of fresh meat for their meal. Upon seeing the dazed look of her captive, Naran gave her water from her canteen, and staked her to a dried sapling a short distance away from the campfire. It wasn’t the most effective method of restraint, but in her current state, she couldn’t imagine that the woman would be able to break free.
It was the men Naran was worried about. She caught them glancing over at the woman every so often, speaking in hushed tones, licking the grease from their lips throughout the meal. It was no mystery what they were thinking. After all, this woman was sure to be distributed among the tribe with the rest of the plunder, as was standard practice. Other tribes did it, so did the Chinese. It was simply a fact of life for captive women. Still, no matter how many times Naran watched it happen, her blood turned to ice in her veins. Even the years worth of callouses accumulated over the softness of her woman’s heart could not stop its convulsion at the sound of terrified women screaming. They aren’t one of yours, she would remind herself. They are the enemy. This is what happens to the enemy. But somewhere within the well of her soul echoed the true depths of cowardice: Just be grateful it isn’t happening to you.
Nergüi was the first to make a move, tearing a bit of flesh from the carcass as he stood up. “Do you think she’s hungry?” he asked, smiling towards the woman. A rumble of laughter rose from the company, all following his gaze.
Naran’s eyes narrowed into slits. “I will feed her whatever’s left.”
“I think she might be hungry now.” Nergüi took a few steps towards the captive. “Are you hungry?” The girl said nothing. She was still hunched where Naran had left her, knees pulled to her chest.
Nergüi moved closer, now mimicking the act of eating, as he repeated the question louder and in more simple terms. “You want food? You eat?”
“Leave her be,” Naran growled, her tone low and dangerous.
But Nergüi was young and stupid and didn’t like taking orders from women. Though the spirits might have suggested otherwise, Naran was still a woman as far as he was concerned. He was now crouched in front of the captive, offering out the piece of flesh, jabbing it towards her mouth. “Come on,” he insisted. “Have a taste. You’ll like it.”
She turned her face away in tacit refusal, but still he persisted, pressing the meat directly against her lips. What followed next came as a surprise to them all.
Nergüi let out a pained curse, and Naran jumped up just in time to see the girl’s teeth clamped down on his fingers like a wild dog. Her dark eyes, once cast in shadows, now caught the firelight, fierce and livid. Naran found their gaze for the briefest of moments, holding it in rapt fascination before Nergüi’s fist came down on the girl’s face, breaking its hold.
“You little bitch,” he snarled, striking her again and again. She curled in on herself as if into a carapace, shrinking from the unavoidable blows.
“Nergüi, enough!” Naran shouted.
But the man was deaf to her voice, tearing the girl’s blouse down the back, pressing her face into the sand as he clawed at her skirts. So consumed was he by his intent, hands loosening the ties at his trousers, that he didn’t notice Naran’s arrow until it hit the ground next to him.
“I said, ‘leave her be.’” Another arrow was already nocked on the string and drawn back.
Nergüi stared up at her in stunned disbelief. “You would threaten your own tribesman? Over a woman?”
“No,” Naran answered. “I would kill my own tribesman for stealing from my Khagan.”
They both knew, of course, that the Khagan would be none too pleased to find out that a captured woman was sullied before he had the chance to claim her for himself. Men had been killed or exiled for much lesser slights.
Nergüi stood up, meeting her gaze, a dangerous thing to do with any shaman. Had she been any other woman, he might have struck her. He might have beaten her senseless for daring the raise a weapon at him. But had she been any other woman, she would have been back that the camp, felting wool, raising children, preparing milk tea in their yurt. She would not have been out there with him, scouting the land, raiding caravans, pursuing the will of the spirits. Finally, remembering himself, Nergüi looked away.
“Shaman.” He bowed, tone almost mocking in its courteousness, then rejoined the other men at the fire.
Naran pulled the rope loose from the stake, helping the woman to her feet. She rose shakily, gripping Naran’s deel for support as she allowed the shaman to lead her away from the men and towards an arching formation in the cliffside. Once settled on the ground, Naran severed the woman’s bonds and inspected her face, now bleeding with one eye swelling shut. It was the first time she had ever looked at her so closely. She must have been twenty, or at least near to it, and at first glance, one might have assumed her wealthy. However, the darkness of her complexion, the gaunt angles of her face suggested an altogether different kind of life. Perhaps she was a thief. Perhaps she had stolen her finery from the very caravan she leapt out of. How else would such a waif get her hands on fine silk?
“What is your name?” Naran asked, tearing a strip of cloth from her tunic and soaking it in water from her canteen. The woman winced as she wiped at a cut near her eye.
“You speak Chinese,” she observed drowsily, as if coming out of a daze.
“My people have many dealings with yours,” Naran said, still holding the dampened cloth to the cut. “Name?”
“Wei Jiaying.” She tried to bow, but only succeeded in lolling her head. “I must thank you for what you did. For… intervening…” She swallowed thickly, attempting another bow, but Naran held her head still.
“It was not his place,” she replied bluntly. “You are my captive. At least for the time being. At least until our Khagan decides otherwise.” She felt Jiaying shiver as she removed the cloth from her eye. It might have been fear, but the desert’s temperature always plummeted at nightfall. She untied her sash from her waist and draped it over the girl’s shoulders, now bare after Nergüi’s rough treatment.
“Might I know my captor’s name?” Jiaying asked, wrapping the sash tighter.
“Naran,” she answered. “But to you, I am always ‘Shaman.’ Is that understood?” Such expectations had to be established from the beginning. There could be no assumption of equality between the two of them, no matter what airs of “civilized” superiority this woman held
Jiaying nodded in mute understanding.
“By the way,” Naran continued, “that was quite stupid of you. Biting him. What sort of reaction did you expect?”
Jiaying answered with something of a wry smile. “Forgive me, Shaman,” she said. “My nature often gets the better of me. I don’t much care for being fed like a dog from a man’s dirty fingers.” Her reply betrayed a spark of willfulness so bright, even violence couldn’t smother it. Naran recognized this trait in her self, in many of her own people, though it was not so readily observed in well-bred Chinese maidens.
“Where are you from that you can afford such a nature?” Naran asked.
“Chang’an,” Jiaying answered. “I couldn’t afford it there, either.”
“But you could afford to pay off soldiers at inspection points?” She could think of no other way this woman could have gotten so far as a stowaway.
Jiaying’s mouth quirked, falling short of a smile, appearing more like a grimace. “No,” she said gravely. “I already knew there would be no soldiers at the inspection posts.”
A chill sliced through Naran so sharply, it could not be blamed on the cold night air. She recalled her vision, the empty fortress. The spirits never steered her wrong. “How could you have known that?” she demanded.
Jiaying let out a weary sigh, visibly wilting. “That will take a long time to explain.” Her voice came hoarse. Parched.
Naran once more took the canteen from her side and offered it out. “We have all night…”
Jiaying looked down at the container, sighed, then took a long draught. “Very well,” she said, lowering the container. “However, you will be disappointed if you had any hopes of ransom.” She gestured to her silk attire, now sand-stained and ruined. “Whatever you might have assumed from my appearance, I am not wealthy. My parents were peasant farmers from the Tongzhou prefecture. But for the past five years, I have been living at the palace, weaving silk for the Empress…”