The barbarian stood in his stirrups, nocking an arrow in his horn-and-wood bow. He was husky, with bandy legs well suited to clenching the sides of his horse. For armor, he wore only a greasy hauberk and a conical skullcap trimmed with matted fur. His dark, slitlike eyes sat over broad cheekbones. At the bottom of a flat nose, the rider's black mustache drooped over a frown that was both hungry and brutal. He breathed in shallow hisses timed to match the drumming of his mount's hooves.
As he studied the horsewarrior's visage, a sense of eagerness came over General Batu Min Ho. The general stood in his superior's roomy pavilion, over a mile away from the rider. Along with his commander, a sorcerer, and two of his peers, Batu was studying the enemy in a magic scrying basin. Physically, the barbarian looked no different from the thieving marauders who sporadically raided the general's home province, Chukei. Yet, there was a certain brutal discipline that branded the man a true soldier. At last, after twenty years of chasing down bands of nomad raiders, Batu knew he was about to fight a real war.
Batu forced himself to ignore his growing exhilaration and concentrate on the task at hand. Staring into the scrying basin, he felt as though he were looking into a mirror. Aside from the barbarian's heavy-boned stature and coarse mustache, the general and the rider might have been brothers. Like the horseman, Batu had dark eyes set wide over broad cheeks, a flat nose with flaring nostrils, and a powerful build. The pair was even dressed similarly, save that the general's chia, a long coat of rhinoceros-hide armor, was nowhere near as filthy as the rider's hauberk.
'So, our enemies are not blood-drinking devils, as the peasants would have us believe.' The speaker was Kwan Chan Sen, Shou Lung's Minister of War, Third-Degree General, and Batu's immediate commander. An ancient man with skin as shriveled as a raisin's, Kwan wore his long white hair gathered into a warrior's topknot. A thin blue film dulled his black eyes, though the haze seemed to cause him no trouble seeing.
By personally taking the field against the barbarians, the old man had astonished his subordinates, including Batu. Kwan was rumored to be one hundred years old, and he looked every bit of his age. Nevertheless, he seemed remarkably robust and showed no sign of fatigue from the hardships of the trail.
Resting his milky eyes on Batu's face, the minister continued. 'If we may judge by the enemy's semblance to General Batu, they are nothing but mortal men.'
Batu frowned, uncertain as to whether the comment was a slight to his heritage or just an observation. An instant later, he decided the minister's intent did not matter.
Settling back into his chair, Kwan waved a liver-spotted hand at the basin. 'We've seen enough of these thieves,' he said, addressing his wu jen, the arrogant sorcerer who had not even bothered to introduce himself to Batu or the others. 'Take it away.'
As the wu jen reached for the bowl, Batu held out his hand. 'Not yet, if it pleases the minister,' he said, politely bowing to Kwan.
Batu's fellow commanders gave him a sidelong glance. He knew the other men only by the armies they commanded-Shengti and Ching Tung-but they made it clear that they felt it was not Batu's place to object. They were both first-degree generals, each commanding a full provincial army of ten thousand men. In addition, both Shengti and Ching Tung were close to sixty years old.
On the other hand, Batu was only thirty-eight, and, though he was also a first-degree general, he commanded an army of only five thousand men. In the hierarchy of first-degree generals, the young commander from Chukei clearly occupied the lowest station.
Nevertheless, Batu continued, 'If it pleases Minister Kwan, we might benefit from seeing the skirmish line again.'
Kwan twisted his wrinkles into a frown and glared at his subordinate. Finally, he pushed himself out of his chair and said, 'As you wish, General.'
Batu was well aware of the minister's displeasure, but he was determined not to allow an old man's peevishness to drive him into the fight prematurely. The surest way to turn a promising battle into an ignominious defeat was to move into combat poorly prepared.
The wu jen circled his bejeweled hand over the basin, muttering a few syllables in the mysterious language of sorcerers. As the barbarian's face faded, a field covered with green-and-yellow sorghum appeared. Along its southern edge, the field was bordered by a long, barren hillock. A small river, its banks covered with tall stands of reeds, bordered the northeastern and eastern edges. Swollen with the spring runoff from far-away mountains, the river was brown and swift.
The only visible Shou troops were Batu's thousand archers, who had formed a line stretching from the river to the opposite side of the field. Each man stood behind a chest-high shield and wore a lun'kia, a corselet that guarded his chest and stomach. Made of fifteen layers of paper and glue, the lun'kia was inexpensive and remarkably tough armor. The archers' heads were protected by chous, plain leather helmets with protective aprons that covered both the front and back of the neck.
Even through the scrying basin, Batu could hear the tension in his officers' voices as they shouted the command to nock arrows. The archers were unaccustomed to being left exposed, for in previous engagements the general had always supported them with infantry and his small contingent of cavalry. This time, the rest of Batu's army was hiding behind the hill, along with twenty thousand men from the armies of the other two provincial generals. These reinforcements were ready to charge over the hill at a moment's notice.
The archers were bait, and they knew it. If the battle proceeded according to Minister Kwan's plan, the barbarian cavalry would sweep down on them. As the horsewarriors massacred the archers, the twenty-four thousand reinforcements would rush over the hill and wipe out the invaders in one swift blow. The plan might have been a good one, had the horsemen been the unsophisticated savages Kwan imagined.
But the enemy showed no sign of taking the bait. So far, all they had done was ride forward and shoot a few arrows. When the archers returned fire, they always turned and fled.
As Batu and the others watched, a subdued and distant thunder rolled out of the scrying basin. A moment later, two thousand horsemen rode into view on the northern edge of the field, five hundred yards from the archers. At first, the dark line advanced at a canter. Then, at some unseen signal, all two thousand men urged their mounts into a full gallop.
The minister and the generals leaned closer to the scrying basin, watching intently. Two hundred and fifty yards out, the barbarians began shooting. Few of the shafts found their marks, for firing from a moving horse was difficult and the range was great. Still, Batu found it disturbing that any of his men fell, for he did not know a single Shou horseman who could boast of hitting such a distant target from a galloping mount.
Although they were equipped with five-foot t'ai po bows that could match the barbarians' range, Batu's archers held their fire. They had been trained not to waste arrows on unlikely shots and would not loose their bamboo shafts until the enemy had closed to one hundred yards. The horsemen continued to advance, pouring arrows at the Shou line in a haphazard fashion that, nevertheless, dropped more than a dozen of Batu's men.
Finally, the horsewarriors came into range. The Shou fired, and a gray blur obscured the scene. A thousand arrows sailed over the sorghum, finding their marks in the barbarian line. Riders tumbled from their saddles. Wounded horses stumbled, then crashed end-over-end as momentum carried them forward after their legs had gone limp.
Through the scrying basin, Batu heard the screams of dying men and the terrified shrieks of wounded horses. It was not a sound he enjoyed, but neither did it trouble him. He was a general, and generals could not allow themselves to be distressed by the sounds of death.
The Shou archers fired again. Another gray blur flashed across the field, then more shocked yells and