And, yes, heroines too.
As Xorai kicked and flailed her muscular limbs, her father, Tsetgerel Boroldai, Jaqhar of the Khavsar horde, carried her out of the tent. His clan had already gathered in anticipation. The Jaqhar shed no tears for the death of his second wife, although he loved her as his life. All his emotion was in his arms as he thrust the screaming infant up to the sky.
“Today,” he bellowed, “the Boundless Blue has given me a daughter.”
Faces fell; he ignored them. “My daughter battled death itself to come to us. See how her fists clench, dripping blood! The might of the Khavsar pounds through her veins. Through her, our rule will extend far and wide. No man shall match her in strength!”
The Jaqhar glared around at his clan, and the horde cheered and stamped their feet. Even the elders smiled as the Jaqhar promised to arrange a strategic betrothal for his daughter—one that would not merely sell her away like chattel, but bring another horde under Khavsar rule.
All the other children were afraid of her, and Xorai had no friends or siblings to play with. Yet she had plenty of love from her father, giving the Jaqhar endless amusement with her wit and valour, far more than any of his good-for-nothing sons had. Xorai’s brothers by the Jaqhar’s first wife had all gotten themselves killed over the years—by plague, by falling off a cliff, by werewolf or wild khraal.
As I said, children, survival was not easy for our ancestors.
Indeed, Xorai’s father grew so attached to his only remaining child that he dreaded the day of her marriage. For then she would have to leave his camp, to make her home in another. Every day, when they were not hounding him to sire an heir, the elders pestered him about Xorai’s betrothal. Now the old Shamaness was grumbling in his ear again, for Xorai’s first blood had just come, which meant she was of marriageable age.
Other than the elders’ pebbly voices, it was a quiet night. Though it was a full moon, the werewolves and wild khraal had learned to steer clear of their camp, in no small part thanks to Xorai. The Jaqhar chewed thoughtfully on a yak shank, pretending to nod respectfully while the elders discussed who should be given Xorai’s hand.
Inwardly, the Jaqhar sneered. What man was worthy of his daughter? Look at her, stirring the broth on the other side of the tent, clad in the distinctive black pelt of a werewolf. Its snout lay over her head as a hood, its eyes still glowing red with the demon-magic that enabled its transformation. That wolf had been the alpha of its pack, and the Khavsar could breathe more easily until the next full moon transformed more men. Why should he send her away to rule another horde, when she herself did not want to?
“Let me stay with you,” she had said to him that morning, two hares slung over her shoulder. “Who will keep the Khavsar safe, when I am gone?”
Tsetgerel Jaqhar chortled. “We have plenty of strong men, you know, and I am not so old yet.”
“Ah, but who will make you laugh? Who will cook your favourite broths?”
Indeed. What need had he to sire an heir—another fragile babe who would one day command his daughter, whether or not this prince was worthy? Xorai did all her womanly duties without complaint, yet also protected the Khavsar with the strength of ten men!
His daughter, he decided, would be ruled by no one.
“Fine,” the Jaqhar grunted, and the elders fell quiet in surprise. Before they could sigh with relief, however, the Jaqhar narrowed his eyes. “The man who defeats my daughter in a fight will have her hand in marriage.”
Xorai snorted. The Shamaness’ jaw dropped. Impossible! It was said that the Boundless Blue had blessed Xorai with supernatural strength to make up for the loss of the Jaqhar’s wife. Xorai was only thirteen, and already in wrestling she was unrivalled among the hordes. They had all seen, at the last trade fair, how all the boys she’d beaten straggled home like wilted, storm-tossed flowers.
The Jaqhar chuckled at the memory, but the elders were not amused.
An old woman standing behind the Shamaness stepped forward with pursed lips, her face like curdled milk. “While we laud Xorai’s prowess, Xorai’s skills on the battlefield are scaring all the eligible bachelors away.”
“Besides,” said another, “Xorai’s husband should be submissive. A prince, preferably, so Xorai can rule his horde in his stead. He would remain with us as a valuable asset, while Xorai wrests control over his horde with the might of her fist. It would not do to have him fighting us all the time.”
“How dull he would be,” said Xorai scornfully. “A husband who obeyed my every whim! I would despise him. I would not want a weak man to be the father of my children.”
“An alliance must be formed,” the Shamaness insisted. “One needs friends to survive.”
The Jaqhar shrugged. “If Xorai cannot find a husband, then I will just have to make her my heir.”
The elders reeled in horror. It was one thing to conquer another horde by making Xorai their queen—ultimately, Xorai would still be under Tsetgerel’s thumb. But it was another thing entirely to make Xorai herself Jaqhari of the Khavsar! How could she lead hunts and raids when she conceived, when she had to rear children and organise all the complicated logistics of migration? Did the Jaqhar intend to find her husbands who would willingly take to the wifely and queenly duties? They scoffed. Would any woman even respect such a man?
The old women tutted, shaking their heads. Laying the burdens of a Jaqhar on a woman’s shoulders would doom her to a life of loneliness, without husband and children to warm her tent—or worse, with a sullen husband and children sundered from her, closer to their nurses than to their own birth-mother. It was best to leave the fighting to the men, they murmured. No woman would find glory in it.
Xorai leapt to her feet. “There is no glory in bloodshed!” Above her head, the eyes of the werewolf glittered. “This—” she grabbed the wolf’s snout “—was a shameful necessity.”
The elders exchanged knowing glances. Khavsar women were groomed to be compassionate, like Earthmother, and it was clear from her outburst that Xorai had the heart of a good queen. As mother of a horde, she had the benevolent strength needed to separate squabbling children and a gentle firmness that people could rely on. But it took a different set of traits to be Jaqhar.
“Sit,” her father growled. It was a savage land they lived in, where resources came only to those with the strength to take it. “Is there no glory in defending your own?”
Xorai sat slowly, but her mouth was a stubborn line. “Blood is sacred. You taught me that. The spilling of blood is an offence to Earthmother.”
The elders sighed, like dry grass in the wind. “But when you must choose whose blood to spill?” the Shamaness rasped. She shook one gnarled finger at Xorai. “Whom will you defend, and whom will you kill?”
Xorai raised her chin. “I defend the weak against the strong.”
“Foolishness,” the Shamaness hissed. “What if the Khavsar grow mighty?” The long beaded strings in her grey braids quivered. “Will you fight against us as we conquer?”
“She is young—she will learn.” The Jaqhar stood. “Send a message to the hordes: their men will fight my daughter for her hand. But this summer, Xorai will join the Anulakh.”
Some of the elders opened their mouths to protest; the Jaqhar raised a hand. “She will have no aid as a woman. She will prove herself with the rest of the boys, and earn the men’s respect.”
This was the third day of the contest, and they were down to the last five men.
Xorai sighed, excusing herself. Usually, the Khavsar men refused to engage her in any sport; too often had she beaten them, humiliating them in front of their wives and peers. Xorai had been looking forward to the challenge of fighting the best among the hordes, but so far the turnout was disappointing.
She knew her father did not really expect anyone to win. He had arranged this contest for other purposes: as a concession to the elders, to sift friend from foe, to test the strength of the other hordes. Those who were absent were not interested in an alliance. And the hordes who were present could showcase their skills, even if none of their warriors won.
And if Xorai could find no husband, Xorai’s father would be justified in making Xorai his heir. Especially since she would have proven herself indomitable.
Restless, Xorai walked away from the crowd. Women hovered around the simmering vats of meat at the edges of the camp. Smoke billowed, steamy and pungent. Xorai’s stomach rumbled. The men would be tired after fighting; she would not be wrestling anyone today. She grabbed a bowl and held it out as Duya, an aunt on her mother’s side, ladled in the broth.
“I saved the yak’s heart for you,” said Duya. “For vigour and courage.”
Xorai smiled, accepting the bowl with thanks. Duya was the only woman who talked to her; the others resented her prowess over their husbands.
After sating her appetite, she wandered toward the wooden posts the khraal were tied to, their thick necks bound in rope. They were fearsome creatures, all serrated teeth and sickle claws. Like a cross between a large eagle and a lizard, with leathery skin and a dusting of fine feathers over the head and spine. Some were feeding, grasping a carcass with their sinewy forelimbs, but when Xorai walked past they stood still as soldiers on their brawny hind legs, amber eyes staring straight ahead. These khraal were all battle-trained, taken from their mothers when young and honed into killing machines for hunting and war. In the Anulakh she would have to capture a wild one, a khraal old enough to hunt, yet young enough to adapt to human society.
Once upon a time, the shamans said, the people of the steppes could speak with khraal and understand them. Human and khraal were of one mind, one heart, connected through a bond deeper than marriage. But when a khraal shed the blood of man, the Skyfather took language from the khraal. As dumb beasts they would serve their penance, until Merciful Skyfather saw fit to grant them speech again.
“Xorai Tsetgerel,” said a rough voice behind her.
She whirled. One of the finalists stood staring at her—Yarsav, the adopted son of the Daarin’s Shamaness. He was a tsagashür, a white-devil. It was said his mother had lain with a demon. Unlike the steppe-people, he was not tan but unnaturally pale, the exact shade of noon-time snow. His face was cut like an iceberg, his eyes an icy blue, his braids stark white against his black silk tunic.
“Xorai Tsetgerel,” he said again, tasting her name between his teeth. “Where is your strength?”
She laughed. The shamans said that those who were blessed with uncommon gifts, whether divine or demonic, had a seat of strength wherein they kept this power. “In my hair,” she said, tossing her forty braids at him as she turned back to saddle a khraal. “Where’s yours?”
Yarsav smiled, thin lips pulling back over too-sharp teeth. “In my mouth.” Then his hands flared white like miniature suns and he hurled the flames at her.
Either his aim was poor or he did not really seek to injure; the suns flew wide and exploded somewhere beyond the camp. The crowd surged around them, gasping. Yarsav charged toward her. His strong arms locked around her neck, but she pushed him back, back, their feet kicking up sand. She drove one foot behind his leg and was about to knock him over when she hissed and recoiled, pain searing her arms. His skin was smouldering, sparks of blue crackling over where she’d touched him.
“Shüraagdzen,” she spat. Demon-curse—his power an unholy thing.
She darted left, right, glimpsed the flash of a blade and swooped low. There was a shearing sound. She grabbed the sides of his tunic and slammed him to the ground. The crowd cheered; she had won.
When she stood, her hair was loose over her shoulders, half her braids in his hands.
Xorai Tsetgerel laughed long and loud.
“I lied,” she said to Yarsav. “My strength is in my hands.”
Yarsav watched her as she strode away, his eyes hard and cold as frostbite.
A group of Khavsar men gathered to rail at the Daarin. Yarsav had fought dishonourably; his horde must make up for this slight. The Daarin warriors bristled. If Yarsav’s power was unnatural, then so was Xorai’s strength. The match was fair, they claimed.
Xorai decided not to care. In a match, the ring provided a false sense of security. In life, the only rule was survival.
She mounted a khraal and galloped off, tearing over the plain with loose bridle, easy seat, corded whip in hand. On the horizon, the setting sun gilt the summer fields in gold, and the peaks of the Seven Kings blazed red in its light. The wind flung her hair back, so much lighter without her braids. As the familiar exhilaration flooded her veins, she was filled with a desire to ride forever.
She thought of her father having to mediate between the hordes, and did not envy him. She had fought in battles and liked it; the burst of victory in her mouth, and her father’s pride and praise. But she had also seen her father slay her uncle’s entire family when he’d rebelled. The executioner had snapped her uncle’s back while she held her cousin’s hand. The boy had been too young, too brave, too much his father’s son. He’d rounded on the Jaqhar: I will kill you! I will kill you! She remembered her aunt, panic-stricken as she clamped a hand over her son’s mouth; the Jaqhar’s face grimly resolute as he marched forward and twisted first the boy’s neck, then his mother’s.
She did not blame her father. The message had to be sent. But she dreaded the day she would face such a choice.
Whom will you defend, and whom will you kill?
What was the cost of the freedom to choose?
She cracked her whip harder, felt the wind almost lift her off her seat, her body low and leaning forward, soaring.
A soft pounding sounded behind her. She glanced back to see Araban, a bastard-child of the Daarin horde, riding toward her. Xorai scowled, driving her khraal forward, but to her surprise he kept gaining on her.
“What do you want?” she yelled, as he came abreast.
For the past two days he had been challenging her to a duel. She had declined at first, but when he’d insisted, she’d knocked him over with the ease of a finger-flick. Still he was undeterred. He grinned. “Another match!”
Xorai sped up. But when he outpaced her, she yanked her khraal to an abrupt halt. “I won’t marry you,” she snapped.
“Fine. Just fight me.”
“Do you like being flung about?”
“Only if you’re doing the flinging.”
“I came here to be alone,” said Xorai coldly.
Araban sighed. “Actually, I came to apologise.” He swung himself off his khraal and gave a deep bow. “I am sorry for my brother’s misdemeanour. Yarsav is… unusual. Please do not hold it against the Daarin.”
Xorai eyed him warily. “You are loyal.”
“My horde is not kind to children of adulterers. Yarsav and I are alike, in this way. Before he grew into his power, he was often bullied.”
“Does he not have the Shamaness’ protection?” According to the laws of the steppe, adulteresses were stoned or cast out of their horde, but children were innocent. The children of adulteresses were usually allowed to stay if another woman agreed to take them.
“He is a demon-child. He will always be feared, and thus he always seeks power. He chases power as a refuge, but it only makes people fear him more.” Araban shrugged. “Nevertheless, he is Daarin. He and I are of one womb, one blood.”
Xorai looked at him with a flicker of new respect.
“One match,” she said, swinging herself off her khraal.
Araban smiled, dropping to a crouch. “How about two?”
“You test my patience.”
He launched himself at her. She recognised the move—she had used it against him the first time they’d wrestled. She deflected; he gripped her back with one hand and her elbow with another. She let him hang there for a while, let him test his strength against hers, before sweeping him to the ground.
He grinned and hopped up, drawing a scimitar from his belt. The curved blade glinted like a crescent moon. Xorai raised her eyebrow and drew hers, too. He lunged, she parried, and less than a minute later his sword was flying through the air.
“Will you teach me?” said Araban, sprawled on the ground and panting.
He looked skinny, underfed. Xorai knew how cruel people could be, even within the same clan. One needs friends to survive.
She offered him a hand.
The rules should be changed, the hordes complained. Let Xorai pick the best fighter among them all, whether or not he could defeat her. Or let Xorai fight Yarsav again.
“You’re popular,” Araban teased. “Strong wives beget strong children.”
Xorai shut him up with a punch that made him double over. She winced; she hadn’t intended to hit him that hard.
“Most of these men are from the northern hordes,” she noted. “They want to cement an alliance against the south.”
“You’re also beautiful,” said Araban. Xorai smiled. “Your company has made me the envy of all the men.”
“Hone your blade, Araban, not your tongue.”
“Why not both?” This time, he danced out of the way of Xorai’s fist.
Then came autumn, and the Daarin and Khavsar had to part. The Daarin would be taking their herds south. Xorai and Araban agreed to meet at the foot of Blacktooth Mountain the following summer, when they would both take part in the next Anulakh.
“Be my blood-brother,” Araban said, the day before he left. Xorai saw resilience in his gaze, an iron will. She felt kindness in his calloused hand.
“Sister,” she corrected.
So it was that Xorai Tsetgerel and Araban the Bastard raised their swords together beneath the Boundless Blue, and by the mingling of their blood in the womb of Earthmother, swore that for as long as they lived their hands and hearts would belong unfailingly to each other.
The boys, if they returned, would be recognised as men. The girls kept pace with them, shrieking with excitement. At sundown they would return to their camps while the boys continued.
Araban waved when he saw Xorai streaking toward him on her khraal, and Xorai cried his name, forgetting herself in her joy. They clasped each other’s arms, grinning. Araban had grown over the winter, and was lankier now than ever, though his limbs were no longer soft as a fawn’s. Xorai punched him in the stomach, and found to her surprise that it was hard. “You’ve been practising,” she said with satisfaction, laughing as he doubled over with a grunt.
“Still as feisty as ever, Elder Sister. Have you caught yourself a husband yet?”
Xorai pulled a face and exaggerated a sigh. “Ah, woe is me! The warrior-princess doomed to a life without love! Only remember me when I die, Araban!”
Thus they bantered up the rugged scrubland, brimming with the sure-footed confidence of youth. They travelled at a leisurely pace, keen-eyed Araban leading the way. He spotted signs Xorai would never have: broken twigs, misshapen ferns, a downy feather caught on a thorn. Occasionally he would dismount to peer at something in the underbrush, or cock his head and listen. He noted the alarm calls of birds and foxes, the bounding gait of gazelles.
Just before dawn they saw them: a mother with two young. Xorai would not have noticed them if the smallest had not moved, flicking its long tail as it darted behind a bush. They were camouflaged by the grey-browns of their scaly armour.
“Beautiful, aren’t they,” Araban murmured. “Look at them play.”
The smallest of the khraal—a male, judging from its thicker, golden-brown crest—pounced on its sister and growled. The larger female whipped round, snarling. It clamped its jaws over its brother’s neck, and tossed it casually aside. The poor male landed in a cloud of sand, blinked, then sheepishly scrambled to its feet and ran up beside his sister, head bowed.
“A sign of submission,” Araban whispered. “Moving downwind, head lowered.”
Xorai watched in fascination. The khraal at home never behaved like that.
Araban beckoned. They crept closer, lying low an outcrop of rock. Araban raised a finger to his lips.
The mother lifted her head and sniffed the air. They would have to separate her from her young. Xorai tapped her chest and pointed to the mother; she would handle her, while Araban captured the younglings. Xorai and Araban placed a hand on their khraals’ necks, and their mounts dropped to a crouch.
At Xorai’s signal they exploded from the brush, ululating. The wild khraal bolted, hemmed in by Xorai on the left and Araban on the right. Lassos swung, and Xorai laughed as she gained on the smallest khraal, then overtook it—she would leave that for Araban. She was neck-and-neck now with the mother and she could almost taste its panic, hear its fury in the thunder of talons on the ground.
With a powerful leap sideways Xorai landed on its back, her own khraal falling behind.
The mother raced downhill, roaring with rage, zigzagging and bucking while Xorai bared her teeth and whooped, clinging on to the khraal’s neck with arms of iron. Down came her whip on the khraal’s flank, and the khraal shrieked in pain and terror. The khraal slammed itself against boulders to throw off its captor, but woman and beast were locked in a dead knot, a blur of skin and scales crashing through briars and tumbling down ridges, each testing the other’s strength to her limit.
For a day and a night Xorai clung on, her grip never slackening.
At last, halfway down the mountain where the scrub opened into rolling grassland, the khraal faltered. A stream trickled nearby, and it tottered towards the water. Its chest heaved, its mouth foamed; it panted with thirst. Xorai slipped a bridle onto its head, and tugged the reins. A moan sounded deep in its throat, but it halted, obedient. Only when Xorai felt no resistance did she let it drink. As it crouched by the bank, its amber eyes were bleak with sorrow.
The thudding of khraal feet made Xorai spin around. There was no mistaking that hair, streaming white under the pre-dawn moon—Yarsav. But what was that dark bundle flopping over the saddle in front of him? Xorai frowned.
“An exchange, Xorai!” Yarsav bellowed, bone-white face stretched into a terrible grin. “Your strength for your blood-brother’s life!”
Yarsav tossed the flopping heap onto the grass. Araban landed with a yell and twisted himself around, eyes wide with panic. His hands and feet were bound, his forehead bruised and bleeding. Xorai rushed forward, but at a gesture from Yarsav a ring of blue fire shot up around her brother and a wave of heat blasted into her face.
So Yarsav needed his hands to call up power. If Xorai kept them occupied, she would stand a fighting chance. She catapulted towards Yarsav, then they were a flurry of earth-juddering blows and blue-white sparks. Steel clashed with steel as they chased each other across the highland plains, two silhouettes whirling in a furious dance against a magenta sky.
“The truth, Xorai!” Yarsav thundered. “Where is your strength?”
Xorai gave a harsh bark of laughter. “I told you—it’s in my hand!”
His voice was the howling of the wind. “Which hand?”
“The one that fights! The one that will be your death!”
She stuck to him like yak grease, never letting the gap between them widen, giving him no time to think, no chance to summon his demon-fire. Whenever his skin crackled she would rear back and lunge again; he could not hold the heat for long.
“I will defeat you,” he hissed, his eyes spitting blue flame as their swords met with a resounding clang, “and win your hand by right.”
The sun rose over the mountains, just as Yarsav’s sabre blazed white. For a fraction of a second Xorai paused, blinded. She heard a whump.
When she could see again her sword was on the ground and her hand was in Yarsav’s, sliced off at the wrist—bloodless, smoking, the flesh instantly cauterised.
She screamed. And as Yarsav was about to sink his teeth into her severed hand her scream turned to mad laughter, and through a haze of fury and defiance she shrieked, “I lied! You took the wrong hand!” And she hurled herself at him.
With a snarl of frustration and disgust, Yarsav raised his arms to meet her. Xorai’s sword crashed down, and her stolen hand flew through the air like a frightened sparrow.
The khraal opened wide its mouth. With three young to feed, she had not eaten in days. Her teeth snapped shut, and Xorai’s hand disappeared down her gullet without so much as a flutter.
Xorai gave a cry of anguish and then she was on Yarsav again, their blows raining on each other as they vaulted over birch and boulder, sweat drenching their tunics as the sun reached its zenith in the sky.
Xorai’s hand, it seemed, had given the khraal a taste for human flesh. The beast charged after them, the light back in its amber eyes. As Xorai slung her left fist at Yarsav’s cheek and Yarsav blocked and dodged, the khraal’s hefty hind legs bunched and sprang. Her talons swiped down and dug into his chest; her jaws crunched down on his jugular and she tore out a bloody chunk, lines of drool and red tissue running thick between her teeth.
Thus Yarsav met the Skyfather, childless and unwed, while the Earthmother drank deep.
Xorai stood, chest heaving. The brothers of the Daarin lay prone on the ground, one dead before her, one behind. The khraal had never been tamed; she had only pretended to submit. She stood with one talon on Yarsav’s corpse and turned toward Xorai, fiery eyes narrowed.
Xorai heard Araban shift behind her, and his soft, quivering rasp, “Don’t move.”
Fear thrummed a heavy rhythm in Xorai’s chest. The khraal’s glare was bitter and terrible, but Xorai’s was as fierce. “You destroyed my hand,” she said to the beast. “I would have destroyed your life, but you saved mine.” She lowered her head, took a few steps back and to the right, and slowly moved forward again toward the khraal, back facing the wind.
The khraal’s tongue flicked out, two thick tines tasting the air. Her snout was spattered with gore. Xorai smelled the sharp, iron tang of blood on the khraal’s breath. The long tongue whisked out again, dripping red, brushing Xorai’s temple like a feather.
The khraal’s eye was a golden furnace, unnervingly large and near. Xorai saw herself reflected in its black slitted pupil, a tiny figure that brought to mind both fear and an old familiar comfort.
As a khraal she had hunted with men, sharing her kill with the humans who had loved her. She felt the happy sensation of a full belly and the temporary safety of a human camp, where humans made fire that frightened away larger predators. Their guards patrolled the site for werewolf-packs, and every day the women fed fat meat to her children and gave them bones to gnaw.
Her precious, fragile children, yielding to the sting of whips, the humans’ demand for more control. She ripped open a man’s neck, did not care that he was not full-grown. They were tearing her children from her and she was mad with rage. They were breaking her children, teaching them all the wrong things, and she did not understand why. Why they now had to work for their food, why they could no longer hunt whenever and wherever they liked, why they had to run after cattle and hunt other humans. Seasons later, when her children returned, they were no longer recognisable. She had to teach them, slowly, how to be khraal again. To be the wind and caprice, the lightning in the sky and the thunder on the plain, instead of smooth, flat pebbles worn down by the stream.
Eventually her children found mates and lay hatchlings of their own, and she taught them all to fear the humans, those sly duplicitous creatures with their treats in one hand and their whip in another. It took time, to learn how to be khraal. It was not only about eating and hunting and mating. Did the humans think they were just borrowing a few years of the khraal’s lives? These years were not theirs to borrow.
“Go,” she told the khraal. “When I am Jaqhari, you and your kind need no longer serve.”
She did not know if the khraal understood. Xorai wanted to ask her for her name, but sensed she would not be able to use it. It was a scent, a subtle tinting of the air that no human nose could discern. It was a cry no human throat could make.
The khraal snorted. Her mouth yawned wide to reveal jagged rows of teeth, and her bloody breath gusted warm on Xorai’s neck. Every muscle in Xorai screamed at her to run, but she held herself still. Then the khraal turned, and Xorai felt the rush of air from her tail as she took off.
Xorai squinted into the blinding sun, watching the fading outline of a creature she almost understood. There was a feeling in her chest threatening to explode—awe, perhaps, but also a wrenching sense of loss.
“I owe you my life,” he said, taking her hand. He stared at the stump where her other hand used to be, and his lip trembled, his eyes darkening with grief.
Xorai shook her head. “You are my blood; your life is mine.”
They took Yarsav’s khraal and set off at a slow lope, each deep in thought. Araban held the reins. Xorai slumped, exhausted, in front of him, nestled in his arms.
“The people of the steppes have always had khraal,” said Araban quietly. “Without them, we cannot survive.”
“In the past, we did.”
“In the past, other hordes did not use khraal as they do now. The Khavsar will be nothing without khraal. Your horde will be devoured by others. You will be devoured by your horde, who will not accept you as Jaqhari. You need the khraal.”
“Brother,” said Xorai. “Will you stand with or against me?”
“I will be your right hand, Elder Sister. Always.”
“The Aangut,” Araban whispered.
In the distance a gang of masked riders galloped in a circle, surrounding a group of people huddled on the ground. One of their headscarves fell, revealing a long braid of snow-white hair.
“Tsagashür,” said Xorai, her voice hardening.
“Perhaps there are more like Yarsav,” said Araban with wonder. “Perhaps these are his people, travelling from behind the mountains.” Then he stiffened. “Children.”
Xorai blinked. Araban was right; his sharp eyes had spotted a toddler and an infant, hidden under their mother’s cloak. Beside them a man lay, bright blood soaking the ground.
Xorai snatched the reins and was about to urge the khraal forward when Araban grabbed her one hand. “It could be a trap.”
Yarsav’s face loomed in her mind. Who knew what that demon was capable of, even in death? Then the baby’s wail cut through the air like a fraying thread, and Xorai did not hesitate.
The khraal sprang forward and they moved as one; Araban drew his bow and Xorai her scimitar. Two men fell forward on their khraal, Araban’s arrows sticking out of their backs. Xorai’s blade flashed faster than the eye could see, deflecting the rain of arrows that the men threw back at them. Steel met steel again in a wash of blood.
Araban guarded their right flank, Xorai their left. But there were twelve men against them and Xorai and Araban were weary. Araban could only hold them off for so long with bow and arrow, and when they neared he fumbled with his sword. And though Xorai’s left arm still had the strength of three men it felt clumsy to her, slow and inflexible. She cut down mask after painted mask, each with an expression more dreadful than the last. Yet they kept coming.
Bushy brows and yellow fangs. Hollow eyes and gaping maws.
Her body screamed with pain and fatigue.
Her arm flagged. She hissed as an arrow stabbed her side. Then an echo of a smell came on the wind, and the soft pounding of taloned feet. And Xorai laughed, for she knew her friends had come.
They leapt into the fray, the khraal who had eaten her hand charging forward with an army of wild khraal. Claws tore into flesh. Teeth sank into necks. The Aangut’s khraal roared, milling in confusion.
In their exchange, perhaps the khraal had taken more from Xorai than she’d realised, become a bit more human just as Xorai had become a bit more khraal. The khraal seemed to speak to one another now, more clearly than before—or maybe she was just noticing them more. To Xorai, watching them as she fought on, the wild khraal spoke to the trained ones in their mysterious way, through body and wind. For suddenly the latter went mad, bucking and twisting, and the moment their wild peers pulled the Aangut off their saddles, the once-disciplined steeds turned on their masters and ripped out their throats. Blood and sinew flew in crimson sprays.
Only one khraal remained loyal, biting at the other khraal and hurling them aside in defence of his master. Or perhaps his master was defending him, shooting arrow after arrow despite his bleeding arm. Some lodged fatally in a khraal’s eye or mouth; most bounced harmlessly off the khraal’s rugged scales.
Two khraal pounced. The Aangut screamed as talons lacerated his shoulder. He swung his scimitar. One khraal slid off, but his mount toppled as teeth pierced her neck, dying red the feathers on her back. Xorai expected the man to run—anyone would—but with a roar he hacked at his assailant, covering his khraal’s wounds with his hands in a bid to staunch the bleeding, his body a fragile shield over hers.
It was no good. Another two khraal attacked, and the man collapsed over his steed, their blood mingling in a pool that soaked the earth.
Xorai closed her eyes. Around her the clash and clamour of battle had been replaced by the quieter sounds of gnawing and tearing flesh. A scent came from upwind—imperceptible to her human nose, but Xorai felt it nonetheless in a gentle tug of the spirit. She dismounted, bowing to greet the khraal who had saved her life yet again.
In the khraal’s blazing eyes Xorai saw herself, wrought small in the black slits of her pupils. As she moved downwind with her, Xorai reached out a hand to touch her neck, and the khraal blinked once, slowly.
“Xorai Jaqhari,” said Araban, with awe and a hint of fear. “Queen of the khraal.”
“No,” Xorai murmured. “Just a hand of the khraal.”
But as her shoulder touched the khraal’s and she breathed in the creature’s scent, something like dry grass and the rust of blood, Xorai felt it keenly in her heart—not so much words as an impression, as clear as if the khraal had spoken:
Xorai Tsetgerel, friend of the khraal.
Xorai knelt before the Jaqhar. “Father,” she said, “let the khraal go.”
Tsetgerel stared at her for a long moment. “I would give you anything under the sky, daughter, but I cannot give you this.”
“Think, girl,” the Shamaness pled. “How can you ask this of your father? The horde will revolt. Without the khraal, do you think the Khavsar can survive? The other hordes will waste no time in attacking.”
Xorai rose again. “The khraal will help us. As friends, not as slaves.”
“How can we trust them?” said the Jaqhar, and the khraal growled, stepping forward. Swords flashed out around the Jaqhar, his men braced to defend him with their lives. Xorai felt the khraal’s bloodlust as if it were her own.
Kill them. Lead the Khavsar. We will help you conquer the steppe.
Xorai frowned. No.
The silence was fraught with tension. Xorai stood with her friends on one side and her family on the other, and waited to see what the khraal would do.
They were her friends. They did not make her choose. One by one they stepped back, turning to lope back across the plain.
And Xorai wept, for the world had lost its simplicity. She could not ride forever, she realised. Sooner or later she would have to decide where to camp.
Only a few storytellers know the truth, though all perhaps tell the truth in one form or other. What do I know? I’m just an old woman, peering dimly through history in search of some wisdom.
This is the truth I choose to tell: that Xorai took a few of the Khavsar with her and, with Araban as her right hand and the khraal as her friends, began her own horde together with the tsagashür. For these blue-eyed, white-haired folk were not demons, after all. They were people of the ice, refugees from the harsh land beyond the mountains. As ordinary as you and me, save for the occasional few who, like Yarsav and Xorai, were blessed with special strengths.
She named her horde the Khraalin’aizuud, meaning “friends of the khraal,” and they roamed the Seven Kings, giving aid to any of the ice-people who stumbled through from time to time. Whether or to whom she gave her hand in marriage is, indeed, important, but inconsequential to this tale; for she loved generously and was loved in turn, and she treated all her horde, man and beast, as her very own children.
As for where Xorai’s strength was, no one ever found out—except perhaps the khraal who ate her hand, who does not speak our language and would never tell, even if she could. Whenever Araban asked, Xorai would slip her hand in his and smile.
“I told you,” she would say, as the howling winds flung back her forty braids and the feathers in her hair. “My strength is in my hand.”
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