The north wind howled across the steppe, catching the wisps of smoke curling through the central smokeholes of a cluster of yurts and scattering it southward into nothingness. Even now in late spring, the steppe wind held a chill that stung the cheeks red, and on the vast rolling grasslands of the Alash Steppe, the wind never stopped. Restless as a young colt, it blew first this way and then that, but the fact that it blew was the one unchanging condition of Alash life.
For a moment the wind whipped around to blow from due east, and the horses tethered outside the domed steppe tents neighed and whinnied nervously. Even the huge, shaggy indrik tied alongside them tossed its head, unsettled by something on the wind.
A young man stepped out of one of the tents, the rifle slung over his shoulder marking him as a warrior at least, perhaps a chieftain of a small clan. His eyes narrowed and he scanned the country eastward, wondering if the scent of some predatory animal had spooked his horses. A pack of wolves perhaps, or possibly simatar, drawn to the stream that flowed in that direction, hidden behind a low rise.
Either beast would be a problem for the herds of cattle and sheep grazing away southward, but if it were a pack of simatar, then even his indriks would be in danger.
Not much could penetrate the tough hide of an indrik. The enormous, hairy beasts stood nearly twice the height of the hardy steppe horses of the Alash people, their proud single horns as long as a man and as heavy as an anvil. Simatar were the exception to that “not much”, though; their elongated bladelike teeth were serrated on the back edges, designed for deep, tearing puncture wounds, which the simatar loved to inflict on their prey’s necks.
Marat, the young man, had heard that across the great ocean in the continent of Antillia on the other side of the world, there were cats called xelot, bigger than simatar and with even longer fangs. He wasn’t sure if he believed it, but the thought was enough to evince a tremble. Simatar were bad enough.
He pulled his fox-fur hat back and scratched his head to clear away the irrelevant thought, blinking green eyes in a tanned, weatherbeaten face. A loose coat in serviceable brown hung about his shoulders, and a curved sword hung at his belt. Moustached and scarred, his legs slightly bowed from years in the saddle, he looked like what he was: an Alash steppe warrior.
The wind swirled east again, and he had to calm the animals once more. Yes, something away east was definitely troubling them, and as the warrior at hand, it was his job to investigate.
“Aysulu, something down by the river is spooking the animals,” he called to his wife within the tent. “I’m going to find out what it is.”
“Wolves, do you think?” she asked in response, coming to the doorway of the domed felt tent. Her dark eyes were concerned for both her husband and the animals that represented their livelihood. Her long dress was dark red in colour, the rough silk of the steppe rather than the fine silk of the Khitai Imperial court far to the east, but the dress was attractive and well-made. Long raven-black hair was mostly covered by the tall headdress of steppe women, and the red-gold running aurochs necklace he had given her as a bridal gift sparkled on her chest. Marat smiled back at her, his eyes bright with pleasure in his wife, but his face grim.
“That or simatar. If I’m not back before the horse-post’s shadow touches the threshold, ride for the rest of the clan and come looking for me.”
So saying, Marat untied his indrik and climbed into the saddle, riding off eastward toward the stream.
As they approached the stream, his indrik became more and more unsettled, tossing its head back and forth and sending out snorts of hot breath.
“Easy, girl,” he muttered, patting the beast’s neck reassuringly. “What do you smell, eh?”
Marat unslung his rifle, sniffing the air himself the next time the wind swirled east. Animals had far more sensitive noses than people, of course, but if it was close enough, even a human could pick up the musky odour of a simatar, especially if it had a fresh kill.
He smelled nothing. Not simatar, at any rate, though there was a strange, sharp tang to the air, like naphtha, or a really big thunderstorm. The sky was cloudless, though, and the closest source of naphtha was at the tar pit away to the south, by the coast of the landlocked Mazandaran Sea. Whatever it was, it didn’t smell animal. Almost like-
No. He’d seen no plume of smoke and steam. The war machines of the Orousski announced their presence for miles around, belching out immense clouds of hot, sooty steam like great boiling kettles. Some days you could look towards the Urul river and see a raw, brownish smudge on the horizon, and when the wind blew strong from the west, it brought with it a pungent, sulphurous reek. This wasn’t any Orousski Imperial war mechanik that he’d ever heard of.
Spurring his indrik forward at a lumbering walk, rifle at the ready, he rounded the low rise and came face to face with the corpse of a metal man.