Ta and his dragoons picked their way gingerly along a cliffside pathway which constituted little more than a ledge. They stayed grimly quiet while their horses trod uncertainly. All were weary after four days and nights in the saddle, having snatched only winks of sleep in the Imperial Posting Stations and inns along the way.
The hush of comradely chatter and the near-silence of usually galloping hooves made all the sharper a patter of stones cascading from the palisade above. The horsemen dodged pellets as large as hen's eggs. Masterful handling was required to keep the shying ponies from plummeting in terror over the edge. The men glanced nervously upward, fearing an avalanche.
They were unaware that the shower of gravel had heralded the arrival of Shabara on the overhanging cliff. It was the morning she had ridden out from Mandorva Khan's yurt encampment to view the Great Wall at dawn.
Ta rode boldly ahead, anxious to demonstrate his leadership.
The trail leveled abruptly beyond a bend. Ta found himself at the base of a gentle rise leading at last to the great Mongolian plateau, nearly two thousand meters above the plains of North China.
It was here that he caught sight of Shabara awash in pinks and reds. Her serene gaze was riveted to the panorama spread out before her.
Ta's heart began to race.
Is she the guardian of the dawn, he wondered, the keeper of its fire?
He spurred his horse up the hill. The noise of his approach broke her reverie. She turned her face toward him and gazed directly into his eyes.
He feared his heart would burst.
At that moment, the other dragoons appeared. Manchu soldiers! a panicky voice within Shabara cried.
Her pony was already on the move, dashing with his precious cargo into the safety of the enclosing pass.
Pounding through the ravine in Shabara's wake, Ta lost control over the thundering in his heart. His thoughts exploded in superlatives.
Magnificent! My ideal! If you are of the spirit world, I must have you for my dreams! If you are mortal, I must capture you to become my wife! Beauty! Perfection! The woman of all women! Stop! Wait for me! I am he! I am the man God has sent to give you love!
When he reached the western end of the pass, in confusion he saw that she had disappeared. Nothing but rolling hills lay ahead, and a tracery of camel trail.
Pao and the dragoons rode up beside him, breathless. "Some goddess has fallen from the sky, Highness, for I do not think any human woman could be so made!"
The other four murmured their agreement.
At that moment, a tiny figure on horseback crested a nearby hill. They all started at once, but realized quickly that it was a man headed their way. He rode over another hill and seemed larger, and yet another and another, getting bigger all the time, until it became clear that he had ridden from a great distance.
"This undulating land plays tricks on the eyes," muttered Ta.
The man who came toward them they judged to be a person of some rank. He, as did they, wore a peacock feather, probably two-eyed to gauge from its length. It fluttered from the back of a saucer-shaped hat which also sported two long, yellow ribbons. His robe was of purple silk, with a corner tucked into the wide green sash at his waist. On his feet were the most enormous boots the Manchu dragoons had ever seen, of heavy leather with flat heels and upturned toes.
"Blood of a duck!" whispered Pao to Ta. "What manner of foot does this man have? With such feet, I would need no paddle on Peking's Peihai Lake!"
"Hail!" the new horseman shouted, waving his rifle in salute. "Have I the honor of addressing my lord Prince Ta-Loong?"
"You have, sir," Ta replied.
"I know you by the yellow jacket, lord. Welcome to my country, and I welcome your noble escort, as well. Will you ride with me, Prince? I am Damba, son of Mandorva Khan, in whose name I greet you."
"Thank you, Lord Damba," Ta said. "We, in turn, greet you. You may set the pace."
"An easy pace it will be, Your Highness, as I imagine your party must be weary!" Damba lifted the edges of his lips in the merest trace of a challenging smile. Ta could feel his dragoons bristle in their saddles. "Not so weary, lord, that we cannot sit a saddle still!"
Taking the cue, Damba set off at a breakneck clip, but found the Manchu soldiers his equals in the run. After three miles, he slowed his horse to a walk in invitation to the others to slow down as well.
"What does the Mongol love more than the race, but the man who can beat him at it!" Damba laughed generously, winning their appreciation and respect.
"Lord Damba," ventured Ta, riding to the Mongol's side, "we have seen a girl this morning. At least, I think it was a girl, although she had the look of a spirit creature. She was on the other side of the pass, a beauty on a white horse. She outdistanced us in the ravine. We lost her only moments before we saw you. Did she pass you on the way?"
"A girl, my lord?" Damba shook his head. "I saw none."
Pao had joined them. "It is as I told you, Highness. She was a goddess!"
Damba smiled. "I doubt that, gentlemen. You must have seen a shepherdess. Their beauty can overwhelm the heart, like coming across a field of wildflowers unexpectedly on the far side of a barren hill. Such a sight can take the breath away."
Ta harrumphed in disbelief. "Surely this woman was no simple shepherdess! She wore fabulous jewels - huge fire opals, and pearls of great worth!"
Damba shrugged nonchalantly. "Mongols do not measure wealth in stones, but in cattle and sheep, horses and goats. The horse is even our standard currency. Jewels?"
He pointed to the scabbard of his saber. It was encrusted with precious gems.
"Our forefathers who rode with the Grand Khan and his sons and grandsons brought back such pretty trifles from the conquests of Europe, India and your own Cathay. They have been passed down from generation to generation in many of our families!"
Damba spoke without braggadocio. His broad Mongolian face was open and good-looking, the face of a man assured his place in a society that subscribed to unchanging values. Ta took him to be of an age near his own.
"Let's hear more about the women," suggested Pao, his voice keen with excitement.
Damba grinned. "You will, I hope, have time to judge for yourselves what our women are like. How long do you plan to be among us?"
All looked to Ta.
"I do not know," he said hesitantly. "We shall see."
Ascending a final hillock, the party reached its top. With one breath, still slightly frosted from the morning's chill, the six Manchus gasped at the view. A shallow valley spread between low hills. It was filled with Mongol tents and a throng of people dressed in rainbow-colored silks. The several hundred yurts were made of white felt pressed from the spring shearing of wool. The chalky structures clustered like mushrooms in the green grasses that signaled the end of a harsh Mongolian winter.
Situated grandly at the center, on a lofty knoll, sat a yurt of palatial proportions.
"That is my father's, Mandorva Khan," volunteered Damba. "You call our tents yurts. To us, they are gerr."
"Who selects your campsites?" asked Ta.
"That is a privilege accorded me by my father," replied Damba. "My first consideration is always the presence of a sweet-water spring. There is one at the base of the low hill where the gerr are blue, not white. The blue ones are used for housing servants and for the work of the camp such as butchering, cooking, and laundering."
Pao suddenly sat erect. "Look!"
Ranks of horsemen approached slowly up the hill, their silken garments dazzling in the sun. They rode twenty abreast in each of ten lines.
"A small contingent of my father's soldiers," explained Damba proudly. "They will escort us into camp."
With the soldiers came a ragtag band of children and dogs. The children romped among the horsemen, some straddling their shoulders. Both Ta and Pao noticed that all the riders wore huge boots like Damba's.
The ranks broke in bright confusion and drew up close to the foreigners in unabashed curiosity. Waves of laughter swept over them when one of their number dismounted and boldly lifted Pao's foot from its stirrup. He pointed to it with loud shouts.
"Don't be offended, my friend," Damba said to Pao. "Manchu boots look girlish to us. Such velvety little things! Why, even our women wear leather!"
"We wondered, Lord Damba, about those boots of yours, as well," commented Ta in high humor. "The Mongol foot, is it larger than ours?"
Damba laughed uproariously and translated Ta's question in a booming voice. The Mongols roared with delight. The soldier who had grabbed Damba's foot proceeded to circle around with exaggerated steps. His great boots made him waddle like a duck. All chortled until tears coursed down their cheeks.
"Inside our boots," Damba explained when the laughter died down, "are feet as dainty as any Manchu's! Mongolia gets bitterly cold in winter. We wear fur socks, which are thick. As the weather turns colder, we add more socks. As it warms, we peel them away. To contain a foot and several layers of socks, the boot must be big!"
The Manchus nodded approvingly. In all the merriment, Pao scarcely noticed a plump young girl of fifteen who came out from among the Mongolians to stand quietly beside his pony. She fed it a sweetmeat from her palm. Then, in one quick move, she sprang up lithely behind him in the saddle. Her arms fell into place around his waist, her hands coming to rest in a surprising place. He sat up with a start when her nails dug playfully into his groin.
"Heaven's blessing!" he cried. "Who is this bold young creature?"
"She is known as Coral," Damba informed him.
The girl had closed her eyes and rested her cheek against Pao's back, heaving loud, long, contented sighs.
The Mongol soldiers clapped their hands and chuckled with glee at the show.
Damba leaned toward Coral and whispered in Mongolian: "Where is my sister? These men have seen a lady wearing an opal bandoleer."
Opening one eye, Coral gave him a withering look and replied: "My mistress lives a life of her own. Milord knows that well."
Damba twisted in his saddle to scan the plain. Nothing moved. He shrugged.
Giving his horse a quick lash, he sped forward into the camp. The others followed, with Coral still clinging tightly to the deeply embarrassed Pao.