My mother kissed me upon the brow, my oldest brother slapped my back, and my father gave me the knife gifted to him by his father upon his ascension to manhood. My two sisters stayed away, as was custom, though I could half-see them peering out from behind a tent; those two never listened.
It was the first day of my fourteenth winter, the shortest day of the year, the time when night rules supreme; when cold and hunger summon Hanji and his gutting knife into the world every night, the time when the steppes thirsts not for blood but slumbers sated.
I bowed to my father and mother one final time before climbing onto my mare. I’d been there when the mare had been born, played with her as a foal, and trained her with the help of my father. So, it was no wonder that it turned around without any urging from me, as if it was merely a limb of mine and not an animal separate, and began trotting away. I didn’t look back, as was custom.
A thousand paces from the camp boundary, my brother Mhim, senior to me by eight years, waited. With him were other younglings, fifteen or twenty of them, some nearer my age while others were older than him and near the time of manhood. They waited as a disorganized mob, talking with each other in twos and threes, one sitting up on his saddle and inspecting his toes.
Mhim himself stood at the very front, and his mob avoided coming near. He raised a hand after noticing my approach. I kneed Bitter into a canter. He didn’t move forward, to approach any nearer to the camp before he was a man was taboo, a dishonor as great as turning away from your brothers in the face of battle.
We grasped each other’s forearms once I arrived, our mounts sides’ touching. I kissed his cheek and he matched me. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen him in eight years, that I had few memories of him other than his fumbling attempts at teaching me the bow and a vivid picture of him being beaten for stealing father’s favourite sword. He was my brother. That was all.
“Come, enough dallying brother,” he finally said, “we must swing out and watch the plains, or else Kamaru warriors will steal all our women while those old goats drink themselves to Hanji’s Palace. Say, do you have a good bow and a sturdy tulwar?”
“I have a bow of my own hand, of Nishia wood. And the weapon I wear father took off the dead body of Kankher the Jani. It has an eager edge.”
He nodded assent, “then lets us ride, brother.”
In my sixteenth summer, ten days after my brother left us and returned to the camps as a man, I saw my first battle.
I’d fought and killed other men before, in small skirmishes of flying arrows and furious slashes. The Jani and the Kamaru shared the plains with us, their younglings greedy and stupid and ambitious. They came for our mares and sheep at night. Again and again we caught them and left their corpses rotting for Ehreman’s pleasure, but they never learned. I always anticipated the joy of feasting on their horses’ flesh and blood.
This battle was not the heated melee of the legends, nor was it anything like the battles the old men talked about. There was no great horde of horses meeting head on, no flight of arrows that could make a king wet his breeches, and no duel between two Tumens on a field of blood and corpses.
Instead the Jani struck at dawn, breaking through the northern youngling bands as a sharp knife gelding a stallion. I later heard that Rukhala, my youngest uncle, was among the first to die, but his brothers in arms raised the alarm in time. We were all already awake of course, tending to our mounts and preparing for the day’s journey. Eldrim, the youngest of us, banished a mere week ago, was burdened with scrubbing Humara’s horse, who was now eldest and in charge. I was uneasy at his treatment, but what was I to do when Humara, a mere year away from being a man, had no honor? I could do nothing but watch and fume.
Had we been younglings of fifty summers ago, the horn’s cry would’ve drawn us like an oasis jackals. But my grandfather had taught the warriors of the Umani Wastes better, so we mounted and readied our bows and swords, lining up in two lines on opposing sides of the hill we were camped on, half keeping watch on tribe to our right and half surveying the empty grasslands of our left flank.
I was on the right, and saw as the banners of my father and two of his brothers rode out to the north, cantering as fast as they could without winding their mounts. The banners of three Minghaans waited still at the center, prepared to meet the real enemy push, a second jab aimed at our center but coming from the flanks or the rear.
A call rang out from the left, “I see dust!”
I wheeled Bitter and crossed the camp’s width, taking note that Eldrim was now putting out the fires and gathering all the pots into a bundle when he should’ve been on a mount with weapons drawn.
The call had been right, there was dust to our left, and they surely numbered more than the forty of our band, but less than a hundred. Likely younglings themselves, sent to test the perimeter or to sow panic and draw undue attention.
Humara sounded his horn; one shrill, long note. It told the Tumen and his Minghaans we expected a fight, but it was not a call for help, not yet.
We lined up, forty men and horses each standing six paces distance from our neighbours; it was to hide our numbers. Once we started riding hard, the only way to tell how many men rode was looking at how broad the cloud of dust raised behind us was. We were few, compared to the enemy, and though we could and would hold them to the last man if it came to it, there was no reason for us to die if it could be avoided. This battle was not the desire of Clan Khruha, and the sooner it ended, the better.
Humara kneed his stallion into a canter. The band followed him a blink later. The canter soon turned into a gallop, and the space between the two groups began the shrink rapidly. At two thousand paces, I brought the bow to my chest, taking an arrow out of my saddle quiver and notching it. By eighteen hundred paces everyone in the line had done so.
The fear came at fifteen hundred, where we crested one hill as they did the same on another. For one swift moment we came face to face from far away. They saw us for what we were, and I saw that they had six bows for every one of us. After the first volley, half our number would be dead or horseless and at the mercy of the enemy.
At least that was what I thought.
There were good reasons why Humara led and I was the follower. A soon as they were hidden behind another hill he slowed us down a trot and blew two shrill but quick notes on his horn. “This isn’t the real attack, but we cannot handle it.” He didn’t speed up afterwards, keeping us in a trot as we descended into a shallow valley between hills and crossed it.
Humara’s horse went back to galloping when we started ascending. A shouted order traveled down the line and the space between each rider and the men next to him widened to eight, then ten paces. I brought up the bow, the arrow’s vales touching my cheek.