Xubachu saw them coming from a long ways off. At first, he thought he was seeing a massive herd of elephants moving along the river, but they moved in a far too purposeful way. As the distance closed, he made out more detail. Riders. The elephants had leather flaps over their heads to protect them from the sun, and many carried loads. It did not take Xubachu long to conclude that this party was not a threat. Traders? Might they have something for sale that his party could use?
Cho was sure he recognised them. He said it was Clan Savo.
“How can you tell?” Xubachu wanted to know. “At this distance they might as well be Kung Sah for all the detail you can see.”
“It’s their hats,” Cho said, smiling back at him. “They have ear flaps.”
Xubachu snorted and went back to watching the caravan. Yes, he could see the ear flaps. So what? He had a winter hat that had ear flaps too.
He rode forward to confront the huge caravan. He found himself staring at a member of Clan Savo. Cho sat smugly beside him and said nothing.
“Greetings from the Kung Sah and our Hetman, Chun-gah!” He called to the leader of the elephants.
Shouts drowned out his last words as the men dismounted from their elephants with hand waving and smiles. Xubachu had a skin thrust into his hands with cries of “Drink! Drink!” It was definitely not fermented mares milk!
When the liquid had finished burning down his throat and sending heat to every nook and cranny of his body he had tears in his eyes and was ready to fall off his horse. The men of Savo were all ready to make camp and have a party. Discipline quickly broke down as the two groups of people made merry amid much backslapping, shouting, and swigs of the fiery clear liquid that passed for Mares Milk. Xubachu found himself quickly getting very, very drunk.
“How many were hurt?” Chun-gah stood with his hands clasped behind his back. The woman before him had blood on her outfit, and he wondered if any of it was hers.
“Thirty-two men were hurt, but only five seriously. We’re doing what we can. A party is trying to dig out the bodies right now, but a head count shows twenty missing. I fear the worst.”
Chun-gah blew air through pursed lips, lifting his moustache. “How did it happen?”
“They were working a coal seam underneath a ledge, and the ledge gave way. The injured are from the rocks rolling down the hill, they were moving up to relieve the men at the coal face.”
“We can’t have that.” Chun-gah looked over at the tangle of greenery that separated him from the hill. He could not see it. On the steppe, one was not so closed in. “Have the Altman look it over and learn some lessons from it. We must do better. We didn’t come here to throw away Kung Sah lives, it’s not worth it.”
“Yes, Chun-gah. We did not know the rock could loosen up like that.”
“No,” Chun-gah replied softly. “No one did.” His eyes bore on the greenery and the plants stared back. “We will be organising a more dedicated group of miners. Ask for volunteers.”
“I’ll do that.” the woman replied. “How many?”
“A few hundred. Pick some that don’t mind this jungle.”
“That will be easy, only you oldsters are uncomfortable here.”
“Yeah, we oldsters.”
The green crowding him made him feel very old. The woman had gone on her way, apparently sensing that Chun-gah was through with his suggestions. She was the wife of the Altman and a very capable helper to him. How the Altman had managed to get such a young woman was beyond him, but apparently she found him ‘Quite Charming’, as Jade Gate would say.
The hunting was pathetic in this area, the hill was surrounded by tangled growth and the only thing that seemed to thrive here was vermin. His hunters had only seen a few deer, and they were small things with reflexes like lightning. It was wet, green and closed in, and it killed people too. Chun-gah could not understand why their destiny seemed to lead them to such awful places. And, worst of all, it was he himself who led them from jungle to jungle. He shook his head sadly. Tired now, he opened his yurt and went back into the comforting darkness, maybe to dream of a fast horse on the endless steppe.