The little group rode down the beaten, muddy path that wound along the wide, marshy side of the Danube. They were a peculiar sight in the warm spring sunlight, small dark men with blank asiatic faces and lank, greasy hair. They were clothed in nondescript, worn leathers and their weapons were clean and ready to hand. The mounts were stubby little ponies, the sort that even the highly motivated horse thieves of this horse-mad land would scorn, not recognizing their toughness and endurance. Behind them trailed a string of remounts, lightly laden with packs.
It was a good day to be a Mongol, he thought. The air was lush and soft with the promise of spring, gloriously green in a way the steppe grasslands never were. The mountains – hills, really – rolled away to the north and the south, but the trees… The trees! So many, many trees! They had the luxury of burning wood instead of dung in their cookfires!
The party had been avoiding towns and villages and likewise skirting the local baronial fiefs. The occasional rider had taken flight at the sight of them, except for that one nobleman and his party who had barred their way. We could have given them to the birds of death, he mused, hand absently stroking the recurved bow in its sling. But we did have the letters and the seal, and they let us pass. Good thing we weren’t carrying the last of that deer meat – they’d have tried to grieve us over that, and we would have had to kill them. No going back to the Horde after… after… His expression tightened into a look of black hatred, then eased. He twisted slightly in the saddle, flexing strong shoulders. No sense dwelling on that; what was done was done. They would serve this Christian prince, and they could never go home except to die.
Yes, a good day to be a Mongol, riding free in this land where my fathers and forefathers rode. And if the land is not mine, then I owe nothing to any man, and for now that must be enough.
He broke character long enough to laugh, and his nearest companion tipped him a wink. “So, Kevin, how do you like it so far?”
“Great, Ray. Amazing. Just incredible. Everything is so…”
“Don’t say it, you’ll jinx the spell!” They laughed.
“Cool idea to come as Mongols, Kevin.”
“Well, we didn’t have a lot of options. Not many Asian Vikings or Popes, you know. Our minds are accustomed to seeing our physical selves in a certain way. We’ve enhanced the data feeds and cleaned the bit filters until all this is more real than real, sort of like turning up the gain on an amplifier. We can make things seem real by helping the brain fill in the gaps, letting it assume and postulate from the data it has. Those trees – those, over there? Unless you concentrate on them, the computers don’t have to worry about exact appearance; they’re just a tree-like blur. But we aren’t ready to try fooling the brain on things it knows intimately and through long experience. Not yet. So your appearance stays true to your real body.”
“So why is everything so, so, so clear?”
“We can’t provide the quantity of data that the brain gets from your actual senses, so we enhance what we do feed it. That makes everything a little exaggerated, but it helps the brain to supply details that we can’t provide. Like, don’t look, but if you think about what color those cows were we saw back there, and then look, they’ll probably be that color.”
“Nah. Not purple.” They laughed again.
“Just don’t worry about little inconsistencies. That’s one of the things we’re here to check.”
“Man, what a job.”
“Yeah, but somebody’s got to do it.” They laughed again, and rode on.
The little troop rode almost into the camp before anyone saw them – there were no scouts out past the perimeter, and the ones who were supposed to be on guard duty were slack. Old Khasim was casual enough about camp, but even he would have gutted this bunch for bowstrings. And the camp was a stinking, sprawling mess; if they were attacked here, they’d never be able to sort themselves out for battle. No wonder the Turks were so feared, if this was the level of their competition.
Eventually a hard-faced man with vast mustaches came up, and the merchant they had brought along as a translator found some common words. The hard-faced one couldn’t read their letters but recognized the seal, and waved them over to an empty patch of meadow. Time enough to set up a camp before dark. Maybe even time enough to scout out some clean water – he wasn’t going to allow the horses or his men to drink downstream from that stinking mob.
The fight, when it came, was a disorganized brawl. The little army had been wending its way south for several days with short stops while the prince did some politicking for support from the local nobles. This was all land claimed by the Turks, now, handed over to them by treaty in some recent war. None of the local nobles loved the Turks, but they weren’t anxious to defy them, either, and they needed plenty of persuasion.
They’d been traveling along some little stream and the prince and his Mongol troop were up with the vanguard. No telling which stream; language skill was coming far quicker than it ever would in real life, but most of the place names were lost because the locals talked too fast. The Mongols had offered to ride on ahead and scout, but seeing how that suggestion disturbed the locals, they hadn’t pressed it. The locals probably thought the funny looking little men were going to warn the Turks. Oh, well. No scouts, no maps… just this wandering around the countryside.
Then the Turkish horsemen burst from the woods on the far side of the meadow, clumping into loose formations before coming on at a walk. He saw pinpoints of flashing light – that must be drawn swords at this distance. Hopefully they weren’t cavalry archers. Their own army was strung out behind for miles, so they’d have to fight with what was here. He tried to guess at the enemy numbers, and his hunch was a couple of thousand. That was big for a raiding force but too small for an invading army. Likely the local nobility had gathered up their household troops and set out to see about this rumor of an enemy army.
No friendly infantry that amounted to anything. A company, perhaps, of crossbowmen back with the wagon train but they’d never get here in time. The Mongols had an even dozen bowmen, not enough to stop a force like this. The prince had told off some bannermen and they were spurring their horses out into the meadow. There were a couple of thousand horsemen in the vanguard, enough that the Turks were outnumbered but not lots more. “A little decent scouting and we’d never have been caught like this,” he muttered. Oh, well – arrows until they closed, cold steel thereafter. And thank goodness he’d had the foresight to make sure that none of the real people could take any serious damage from weapons.
He waved to his companions and they trotted off to the right through grass that came up past his horse’s chest. A minute to get the bows out…
In the depths of the complex computer programs, the equivalent of dice spun and spun and spun. Life is often shaped by accidents, and these were the electronic arbiters of fate. Beneath him, the tough little pony stumbled over a loose rock hidden in the grass and stamped rearing upright as a harmless snake slithered out from under.
He had a moment to wonder at the clarity of the sky before he went backwards off the horse, a moment to hear his friend yell out his name, and then he landed hard on his head.