T HE X I X IA DEFENDERS COULD HAVE NO IDEA how many Mongols had crossed the desert against them. Though Genghis rode up to the edge of bow range with a dozen officers, he kept the main army well back in the twisting canyon. He had decided against sending climbers up the slopes. The plan depended on the defenders thinking of them as unsophisticated herdsmen. Watchers on the peaks would reveal at least some talent for planning and make the fort soldiers suspicious. Genghis chewed his lower lip as he stared up at the Xi Xia fort. Archers clustered like ants on the wall and at intervals one would send a shaft high into the air to get the range for any assault that might follow. Genghis watched the last of them sink into the ground a dozen paces ahead of him. His own men could fire further and he spat contemptuously in the enemy archers’ direction.

The air was thick and still in the canyon, where no winds could blow. The heat of the desert was still strong while the sun crossed overhead and cut their shadows almost to nothing. He touched the sword of his father for luck, then turned his pony in place and rode back to where a hundred warriors waited.

They were silent, as he had ordered, but excitement was visible in their young faces. Like all Mongols, they relished the idea of tricking an enemy even more than overwhelming him by force.

“The wooden shield is lashed together,” Khasar said at his shoulder. “It’s rough, but it will get them to the foot of the wall. I have given them forge hammers to try the gate. Who knows, they might break in.”

“If that happens, have another hundred ready to charge in support,” Genghis said. He turned to Kachiun standing nearby to oversee the last details. “Hold the rest back, Kachiun. It would be an easy killing ground for them to be packed in tight while only a few can climb through. I do not want them running wild.”

“I’ll put Arslan at the head of the second group,” Kachiun replied. It was a good choice and Genghis nodded assent. The swordsmith could follow orders in a storm of arrows.

At their backs, the wall seemed to loom still, though it was lost to direct sight. Genghis had no idea what lay behind the dark stones, or how many men defended the pass. It did not matter. In less than two days, the last water skins would be empty. The tribes would start to drop after that, dying from thirst and his ambitions. The fort had to fall.

Many of the men carried beautiful swords and spears to leave on the sand, anything that might catch the eye of the defenders and make them come out. To a man, they wore the best armor, copies of a Chin design. In the heat, the finger-width iron scales stung bare skin, and their silk undertunics were soon sour with sweat. They gulped from skins of the dwindling water supply. Genghis had imposed no ration on men about to risk their lives.

“We have done all we can, brother,” Khasar said, interrupting his thoughts. Both men watched as Kokchu appeared among the warriors, scattering precious water over them and chanting. Many of the men bowed their heads to receive his blessing, and Genghis frowned to himself. He imagined Temuge doing the same thing in the future and could find no glory in it.

“I should be among the attackers,” Genghis murmured.

Kachiun heard and shook his head. “You cannot be seen to run from anything, brother. Perhaps the plan will go wrong and the tribes will be routed. You cannot be seen as a coward, and not half the army knows the plan here, not yet. It is enough for them to see you watching. I have chosen most for nerve and courage. They will follow orders.”

“They must,” Genghis replied. His brothers moved apart to clear the trail for the assault group and the wide wooden shelter. The men bore it above their heads with pride and the tension built in silence.

“I would see this wall brought down,” Genghis said to them. “If not with blades and hammers, then with guile. Some of you will die, but the sky father loves the warrior spirit and you will be welcomed. You will open a way to the sweet kingdom beyond. Sound the drums and horns. Let them hear and worry in their precious fort. Let the sound carry right to the heart of the Xi Xia and even the Chin in their cities.”

The warriors took deep breaths, readying themselves for the sprint to come. In the distance a bird called shrilly, high on the thermals above the hills. Kokchu exclaimed that it was a good omen, and most of the men looked up to the blue bowl above their heads. A dozen drummers began to pound the rhythms of battle, and the familiar sound lifted them all, making hearts beat faster. Genghis swept his arm down and the army roared and horns wailed. The first group jogged to the point where they could turn into the main canyon and then accelerated, calling a raucous challenge. Echoing back came the warning cries from the fort.

“Now we will see,” Genghis said, clenching and unclenching his sword hand.

The voices of the warriors crashed against the sides of the pass as they ran. They were suffering under the weight of the barricade above their heads, already half blind with sweat. It proved its worth in moments as it bristled with black shafts, the colored feathers quivering. The archers were well disciplined, Genghis saw, loosing together after a barked order. One or two shots were lucky and by the time the barricade reached the wall, there were three still figures lying facedown on the sand in their wake.

A dull booming filled the pass as the hammer men attacked the door in the wall. Archers swarmed above, leaning over to send their arrows straight down at the smallest gaps. Men cried out and fell away from the edges of the wooden shield, their bodies jerking as they were hit again and again.

Genghis swore under his breath as he saw heavy stones being raised to the parapet. He had discussed the possibility with his generals, but still winced in anticipation as an officer wearing a plumed helmet raised his arm and screamed an order. The first stone seemed to fall for a long time, and Genghis heard the crack as it hammered those below to their knees. As they struggled up, the hammer men struck even harder, their blows coming as fast as the beats of the drummers they had left behind.

Two more stones fell before the wooden barricade broke apart. The hammers were thrown to the sand and a great roar of panic went up as the archers above found fresh targets. Genghis clenched his fists as he watched his men scatter. The door in the wall had held and they could do nothing but shake their weapons in rage at the enemy over their heads. Man after man fell, and without warning, they broke back down the pass, racing each other in desperation.

As they ran, more of them were knocked from their feet by waves of buzzing arrows. Barely more than a dozen made it out of range, resting their hands on their knees and panting. Behind them the pass was littered with everything they had dropped in the retreat, the bodies marked by shafts sticking out of them.

Genghis walked slowly to the center of the path, staring up at the jubilant defenders. He could hear their cheering and it was hard to make himself turn his back to them. When he did, the sound intensified and he walked stiffly away until he knew he was lost to sight.

On the highest point of the wall, Liu Ken watched him go, his satisfaction straining the impassive mask he showed the soldiers around him. They were smiling openly and clapping each other on the back as if they had won a great victory. He felt his temper rising at their foolishness.

“Change the shift and get five Sui of fresh archers up here,” he snapped. The smiles vanished. “We’ve lost a thousand shafts in the gorge, so make sure the quivers are full once again. Give every man a drink of water.”

Liu rested his hands on the ancient stone, looking into the pass. They had killed almost all of those who had come into range, and he was pleased with the archers. He made a note to congratulate the officer of the wall. The sound of hammers had worried him, but the door had held. Liu Ken smiled tightly to himself. If it hadn’t, the Mongols would have run straight into a high-walled compound with archers on every side above them. The fort was beautifully designed and he was pleased his tour of duty had not ended before he had seen this test of its construction.

He frowned at the broken pieces of wood on the sand. Everything he had been told of the tribes suggested that if they came at all, they would attack like wild animals. The barricade showed shrewd planning and it nagged at him. He would be sure to put it in his report to the governor of the province. Let him decide how best to respond. Liu mused to himself as he looked down at the scattered dead. The stones had never been used before. Most were moss-covered from years of lying ready on the wall. Those too would have to be replenished from the stores, though there were clerks for that sort of mundane activity. It was about time they did more than allocate food and water for the men, he considered.

Liu turned at the clatter of sandals and swallowed his dismay at the sight of the fort commander coming up the steps to the wall. Shen Ti was an administrator rather than a soldier, and Liu braced himself to answer his inane questions. The climb up to the wall had left the fat man gasping, so Liu had to look away rather than acknowledge his superior’s weakness. He waited without speaking as Shen Ti joined him at the wall and looked down with bright eyes, his breathing still labored.

“We have sent the dogs running,” Shen Ti said, recovering. Liu inclined his head in silent agreement. He had not seen the commander during the attack. No doubt he had been cowering with his concubines in his private rooms on the other side of the fort. With wry humor, Liu thought of the words of Sun Tzu on defensive war. Shen Ti was certainly adept at hiding in “the recesses of the earth,” but only because Liu had been there to scatter the attackers. Still, he owed courtesy to the man’s rank.

“I will leave the bodies for the rest of the day, lord, to be certain none of them are faking death. I will send men out to gather weapons and collect shafts at dawn.”

Shen Ti peered down at the bodies in the canyon. He could see boxes lying on the ground as well as a beautiful spear as long as a man. He knew that if he left it to the soldiers, anything valuable would vanish into private collections. Something sparkled in the green and gold sand and he squinted at it.

“You will supervise them, Liu. Send men down now to check the gate is not damaged. Have them bring anything valuable to me to examine.”

Liu hid a wince at the fat commander’s naked greed. The Uighurs never had anything of value, he thought. There was no reason to expect more than a few bits of shiny metal from those ragged tribesmen. Yet he was not a noble and he bowed as low as he could in full armor.

“As you command, lord.” He left Shen Ti still staring down, a faint smile touching his fleshy lips. Liu snapped his fingers to attract the attention of a group of archers who were taking turns drinking from a water bucket.

“I am going out to strip the dead.” He took a deep breath, aware that he had allowed his bitterness at the shameful order to show. “Get back to your positions and be ready for another attack.”

The men scurried to obey, the water bucket landing with a clang and spinning untended as they rushed back to the wall. Liu sighed to himself before concentrating on the task at hand. No doubt the Uighurs would be made to pay for the attack when the king heard about it. In the peaceful lands of the Xi Xia, it would be the talk of the court, perhaps for months. Trade would be strangled for a generation and punishment raids would be sent out against every Uighur settlement. Liu had no taste for that sort of war, and he considered asking for a transfer back to Yinchuan city. They always needed good guards with experience.

He gave crisp orders to a dozen spearmen to follow him and walked down the cool steps to the outer gate. From the inside, it looked untouched by the assault, and in the shadow of the walls, he considered the fate of anyone foolish enough to break it down. He would not like to be among them, he thought. It was second nature to him to check the inner gate was secure before he raised his hand to the outer locking bar. Sun Tzu was perhaps the greatest military thinker the Chin had ever produced, but he did not consider the difficulties of greedy men like Shen Ti giving the orders.

Liu took a deep breath and pushed open the door, letting in a beam of hard sunlight. The men behind him shuffled in readiness and he nodded to their captain.

“I want two men to stay and guard the door. The rest of you are to collect usable shafts and anything else that might be valuable. If there is trouble, drop it all and run for the gate. There will be no talking and not one of you will go more than fifty paces, even if there are emeralds the size of duck eggs lying in the sand. Acknowledge my orders.”

The soldiers saluted as one and their captain tapped two on the shoulder to remain on guard. Liu nodded, squinting out into the sun as his eyes adjusted. He could not expect high standards from the sort of soldier who ended up in the fort. Almost to a man, they had made some error in the standing army, or offended someone with influence. Even Shen Ti had made some secret error in his political past, he was sure, though the fat man would never unburden himself to a common soldier, no matter what rank he held.

Liu let out a long, low breath, checking a mental list of the defenses. He had done all he could, but still there was a feeling in his bones that he did not like. He stepped over a body, noting that the man wore armor very similar to his own. He frowned at that. There was no record of the Uighurs copying Chin armor. It was rough, but of serviceable quality, and Liu found his sense of unease growing.

Ready to leap back, he trod heavily on an outstretched hand. He heard a bone break, and at the lack of movement, he nodded and went further out. The dead lay thickest near the gate and he could see two sprawling men with arrows through their throats. Heavy hammers had fallen near them and Liu picked one up, propping it against the wall to be taken in on his return. It too was well made.

As he narrowed his eyes on the end of the pass, his men fanned out, stooping to pick up weapons from the sand. Liu began to relax a little, seeing two of them yanking arrows from a body that resembled a porcupine for the density of the strikes. He strode out of the wall’s shadow, wincing at the sudden brightness. Thirty paces ahead of him lay two boxes, and he knew Shen Ti would be watching to see if he found something of worth in them. Why the tribesmen would have brought gold or silver to an attack Liu could not fathom, but he walked across the baking sand toward them, his hand ready on his sword. Could they contain snakes or scorpions? He had heard of such things being used to attack cities, though usually they were thrown over the walls. The tribesmen had brought no catapults or ladders on their assault.

Liu drew his blade and dug the point into the sand, levering the box onto its side. Birds erupted from the confined space, soaring upwards as he threw himself back in shock.

For a moment, Liu stood and stared at the birds, unable to understand why they had been left to bake on the sand. He raised his head to watch them fly and then comprehension dawned and his eyes widened in sudden panic. The birds were the signal. A dull rumbling came to his ears and the ground seemed to vibrate under his feet.

“Get back to the gate!” Liu shouted, waving his sword. Around him, he saw his soldiers staring in shock, some of them with armfuls of arrows and swords. “Run! Get back!” Liu bellowed again. Glancing down the pass, he saw the first dark lines of galloping horses, and he turned to the gate himself. If the fools were too slow, they had only themselves to blame, he thought, his mind racing.

He skidded to a halt in horror before he had run more than a few paces. Around the gate, some of the bodies were leaping up, still with shafts lodged in them. One of them had lain perfectly still while Liu broke his hand under his sandal. Liu swallowed his panic at the thunder growing at his back and he began to run again. He saw the gate begin to close, but one of the enemy was there to shove his arm into the gap. The tribesman cried out in agony as his hand was hacked to pieces inside, but there were others with him to wrench it open and fall on the defenders.

Liu raised his voice in a howl of rage and never saw the arrow that took him in the back of the neck. He tumbled onto the sand, feeling its sting even as the darkness came for him. The inner gate was shut, he was certain. He had seen it closed behind him and there was still a chance. His own blood choked off his thoughts and the sound of hooves faded to nothing.

Tsubodai rose from where he had lain in the sand. The arrow that had felled him had been followed by two more lodged in his armor. His ribs were agony and every step brought fresh pain and the warm sensation of blood trickling down his thigh. The canyon was filled with a sound like thunder as the galloping line came in at full speed. Tsubodai looked upwards as he heard bows thrumming and saw black shafts darting down. A horse screamed behind him as Tsubodai saw the gate was jammed open by bodies and staggered toward it.

He looked around him for the ten men Genghis had placed under his command. He recognized four of the figures rushing at the gate, while the others lay still on the sand, truly dead. Tsubodai swallowed painfully as he stepped over a man he had known from the Uriankhai.

The sound of riders grew into a force at his back until he expected to be hammered from his feet. He thought his wounds had dazed him, for everything seemed to be happening slowly and yet he could hear each labored breath from his open mouth. He shut it, irritated at this show of weakness. Ahead of him, those who had survived the assault were rushing through the gate with swords drawn. Tsubodai heard the snap of bows, muffled by the thick stone of the wall. He had a glimpse of men falling as they went through, spitted on arrows as they looked up and cried out. At that instant, his mind cleared and his senses sharpened. Arrows still sank into the sand around him, but he ignored them. He roared an order to stand back as his warriors reached the gate. His voice was rough, but to his relief, the men responded.

“Make shields of the wood. Take the hammers,” Tsubodai told them, pointing. He heard the jingle of armor as men leaped to the sand all around him. Khasar landed running and Tsubodai grabbed his arm.

“There are archers inside. We can still use the broken wood.”

Arrows vanished into the sand around them, leaving only the black feathers. Calmly, Khasar glanced down at Tsubodai’s hand just long enough to remind the young warrior of his status. As Tsubodai released his grip, Khasar snapped out orders. All around them, men picked up pieces of the original shield and held them over their heads as they rushed through the gate.

As the hammers were taken up again, archers above their heads shot into the pit between the two gates. Even with the rough shield, some of the shafts found their marks. On the hot sand outside, Khasar ordered waves of arrows up against the archers on the outer wall, keeping the Chin soldiers down and spoiling their aim until the army could move. He bit his lip at the exposed position, but until the inner gate was broken, they were all stuck. The dull thump of hammers sounded over the cries of dying men.

“Get in there and make sure they aren’t enjoying a quick rest while we wait,” Khasar shouted to Tsubodai. The young warrior bowed his head and ran to join his men.

He passed under a band of shadow into bright sunlight and had a glimpse of a line of cold-eyed archers shooting shaft after shaft into the killing hole.

Tsubodai barely had time to duck under a piece of broken planking. An arrow scratched his arm as he did and he swore aloud. He recognized only one of his original ten men still alive.

The space between the gates was deliberately small, and no more than a dozen warriors could stand inside at a time. Except for those who wielded hammers with desperate force, the others stood with pieces of wood above their heads, wedged together as best they could. The ground was still sandy and bristled with spent shafts, thicker than the hairs on a dog. Still more were fired down and Tsubodai heard orders shouted in an alien language above his head. If they had stones to drop, the entire assault would be crushed before the inner gate gave way, he thought, fighting terror. He felt enclosed, trapped. The man closest to him had lost his helmet in the attack. He gave a shriek of pain and fell with an arrow’s feathers standing upright in his neck, fired from almost directly above. Tsubodai caught the planking he had held and raised it, wincing with every shuddering impact. The hammer blows went on with maddening slowness, but suddenly Tsubodai heard a grunt of satisfaction from one of the warriors and the sound changed as those closest began kicking at the cracking timbers.

The gate gave way, sending men sprawling on the dusty ground beyond it. The first ones through died instantly as they were met with a volley of crossbow shafts from a line of soldiers. Behind them, Khasar’s men roared in savage anticipation, sensing there was a way in. They pushed forward, compressing the group at the gate as they stumbled over dead men.

Tsubodai could not believe he was still alive. He drew the sword Genghis himself had given him and ran forward in a mass of raging men, freed at last from the confines of the killing ground. The cross-bowmen never had a chance to reload and Tsubodai killed his first enemy with a straight thrust to the throat as the soldier froze in horror. Half of those who came into the fort were wounded and bloody, but they had survived and they exulted as they met the first lines of defenders. Some of the first ones inside climbed wooden steps to a higher level and grinned as they saw the archers still firing down into the killing hole. Mongol bows snapped shafts across the fighting below, striking the Xi Xia bowmen from their feet as if they had been hit by hammers.

The army of Genghis began to funnel through the gate, exploding into the fort. There was little order to the assault in the first charge. Until senior men like Khasar or Arslan took charge, Tsubodai knew he was free to kill as many as he could, and he shouted wildly, filled with excitement.

Without Liu Ken to organize the defense, the Xi Xia warriors broke and ran before the invaders, scattering in panic. Leaving his horse in the pass, Genghis walked through the gate and ducked through the broken inner gate. His face was alight with triumph and pride as his warriors tore through the fort soldiers. In all their history, the tribes had never had a chance to strike back at those who held them down. Genghis did not care that the Xi Xia soldiers thought themselves different from the Chin. To his people, they were all part of that ancient, hated race. He saw that some of the defenders had laid down their weapons, and he shook his head, calling Arslan to him as the swordsman strode past.

“No prisoners, Arslan,” Genghis said. His general bowed his head.

The slaughter became methodical after that. Men were discovered hiding in the fort’s cellars and dragged out for execution. As the day wore on, the dead soldiers were piled on the red stones of a central courtyard. A well there became the eye of the storm as every drythroated man found time to quench his thirst in water, bucket by bucket until they were gasping and soaked. They had beaten the desert.

As the sun began to set, Genghis himself walked to the well, stepping over the piles of twisted dead. The warriors fell silent at his step and one of them filled the leather bucket and handed it to the khan. As Genghis drank at last and grinned, they roared and bayed in voices loud enough to echo back from the walls all around. They had found their way through the maze of rooms and halls, cloisters and walkways, all strange to their eyes. Like a pack of wild dogs, they had reached right to the far side of the fort, leaving the black stones bloody behind them.

The commander of the fort was discovered in a suite of rooms hung with silk and priceless tapestries. It took three men to batter down the door of iron and oak to reveal Shen Ti, hiding with a dozen terrified women. As Khasar strode into the room, Shen Ti tried to take his own life with a dagger. In his terror, the blade slipped in his sweating hands and merely scored a line in his throat. Khasar sheathed his sword and took hold of the man’s fleshy hand over the hilt, guiding it back to the neck a second time. Shen Ti lost his nerve and tried to struggle, but Khasar’s grip was strong and he drew the dagger sharply across, stepping back as blood spurted out and the man flailed in death.

“That is the last of them,” Khasar said. He looked the women over and nodded to himself. They were strange creatures, their skin powdered as white as mare’s milk, but he found them attractive. The scent of jasmine mingled with the stench of blood in the room, and Khasar smiled wolfishly at them. His brother Kachiun had won an Olkhun’ut girl for his wife and had two children already in his ger. Khasar’s first wife had died and he had no one. He wondered if Genghis would let him marry two or three of these foreign women. The idea pleased him enormously and he stepped to the far window, looking out on the lands of the Xi Xia.

The fort was high in the mountains and Khasar had a view of a vast valley, with cliffs stretching away into the haze on either side. Far below, he saw a green land, studded with farms and villages. Khasar breathed deeply in appreciation.

“It will be like picking ripe fruit,” he said, turning to Arslan as the older man entered. “Send someone to fetch my brothers. They should see this.”