Boys become men

This is one of several beginnings that my book about Genghis Khan has had while I’ve been writing it. It’s about 3500 words long. I hope you enjoy it.

When he was growing up, the Mongolian boy, Temujin, suffered many hardships. So important was he to the Mongolian people that they retell the stories of his life to this day. Those stories contain seeds of truth and clues to the origins and personality of the great warrior and leader that the world knows as Genghis Khan.

Mongolia: 1179 CE

Belgutei and his two brothers had been hunting since the first glimmer of a pale winter dawn, hoping to surprise some steppe-dwelling creature in the half light. They had had no luck then, nor as the brief day brightened towards noon.

The three of them trudged on through the white world, three tightly-wrapped roly-poly fur and hide bundles, their bellies growling with hunger, their bows in hand – but with nothing to shoot at. It wasn’t surprising; they’d hunted the area around their encampment until it was as empty as their bellies. Not a rat, not a sparrow, remained. Every day they needed to plod further and further from their ger before there was anything to shoot.

A Mongolian does not enjoy walking. A Mongolian does not use his own two legs for locomotion – he rides. That the three boys had to trudge on foot through the snow put all of them in a foul mood. Belgutei knew very well why they were walking. Bekter, his younger brother, knew also. Both glared at the back of the boy in front who was forging a path through the snow: Temujin. It was because of Temujin that they were walking. Temujin. Always Temujin.

Today they had slogged further across the frozen steppe than they had ever gone. Still they had not seen anything to nock an arrow at, except an eagle circling in the snow-grey sky high above them. Now the day had passed its best ; it would be twilight soon. The long, dark, hungry walk home began to beckon.

*

So many mouths to feed on so little. Even when you knew where to look – and Belgutei knew where to look, every Mongolian did – sometimes the steppe was just an empty sea of grass. And grass soup is the saddest meal in the world.

The plump quail had flown south as soon as autumn began to lose its colour; the little flirt-tailed antelope followed soon after. Belgutei and his family should have followed the migrating game – like all the other clans had done – but they had no ponies. Only the toughest creatures remained on the steppe through the winter: the marmots. They disappeared deep into their burrows when winter began to bite and were difficult to unearth.

Belgutei’s family had no ponies because of his foolish half-brother, Temujin. The family was marooned on the steppes – nomads with no means of wandering – because of Temujin. They were disgraced, impoverished and starving because of Temujin. The rest of their clan had gone south nearly two moons ago. Back at camp the tracks of that departure were still plainly visible; the ruts cut into the autumn mud by the wheels of their heavy carts, the hoof prints of their ponies and cattle, yaks and goats peppering the ground around the ruts. The spoor was a constant, now frozen, reminder of Temujin’s disgrace – which his whole family must share. To punish Temujin for his temerity the clan’s council had decreed that the family’s livestock should be forfeit. Without animals the ambitious Temujin and his disruptive mother, Hoëlun, would cause no more trouble through the winter. By the following spring the rebellion would be frozen out of them. They might actually starve; then the problem they posed would be solved for good.

Hoëlun had pleaded for at least her younger children to be parcelled out amongst other families and allowed to travel with the clan. But the elders had shown no interest in alleviating the family’s problems even this much. Mongolian clans were not known for sentimentality. No one who lived on the move, on the steppes, could afford such a luxury.

And besides, Mongolian women were strong. Hoëlun had complained long and loud that the clan had failed to take revenge against the Tatars who had killed her husband. Too long. Too loud.

Far from seeking conciliation with his uncles and cousins, Temujin had still been fuming that they had not permitted him to take his dead father’s place as clan chief. That a boy of only ten winters could believe himself ready for such an honour was beyond crediting. Belgutei – Temujin’s elder by two winters – had himself not yet formally become a man, and would have been horrified had the clan asked him to put on their father’s heavy mantle of responsibilities. Nevertheless Belgutei’s was the stronger claim, as he had been born to Yesugei’s senior wife, rather than the junior Hoëlun who was Temujin’s mother. Belgutei, as eldest brother, had advised Temujin to remain silent, to embrace caution. But silence and caution weren’t words in the younger boy’s vocabulary.

Temujin had been living with the Onggirat clan of his betrothed, Borte, when news reached him of his father’s death. The boy had ridden two ponies into the ground to get back to his own clan. Despite his haste Yesugei  had been two weeks dead by the time Temujin had arrived to avenge him and claim his birthright. The clan’s elders had simply laughed at him. A perfectly satisfactory chief had already been chosen. Why should they consider a boy when what the clan required was a man to lead them? And as for the other matter – this was no time to be taking revenge. All through the camp men were greasing and wrapping their fighting swords and putting them away for the winter. Now was the time for culling beasts, salting and smoking meat, checking the weatherproofing of the family ger and getting ready to move south.  Even if the Tatars had poisoned Yesugei, vengeance would have to wait for the spring. But Temujin wouldn’t let it lie. The Tatars had violated the inviolable when they poisoned the guest-gift of mare’s milk they gave his father. Their deaths should be swift and bloody he insisted – as befitted the cowardly murderers of Yesugei Baghatur, khan of the Kiyads.

Hoëlun added her own pleas to Temujin’s. There were good practical reasons for wreaking bloody murder on the Tatars. She had four other children by Yesugei. His first wife, Sogichel, had contributed Belgutei and Bekter to the family. She now spent her days humming and rocking mindlessly beside the fire, so it fell to Hoëlun to maintain Yesugei’s household. Who would protect the family now? Who would feed them? The goods and slaves Hoëlun would receive from a successful raid of the sort Temujin wanted to mount would turn away the poverty that currently stared the family, unblinking, in the face. This was how the world turned on the steppe.

Eventually, of course, the uncles and cousins of Yesugei grew impatient. In the summer, on the steppes, a horse will gallop many miles to be free of the ever-biting flies. Thus had the elders finally decided to deal with Temujin and his irksome mother and all the other little flies associated with their buzzing: they packed up in the night and moved away at dawn. They took with them every beast the family owned – every yak, sheep, goat, and all five of the family’s precious horses.

*

Musing wouldn’t feed the nine of them. The sorry saga had run through Belgutei’s mind so often that it had almost the numbing effect of a mantra. Almost.

He brought his mind back to the present and took yet another look around for something, anything, disturbing the white blanket of snow and ice covering the steppe. The land was flat ahead of him for as far as he could see. Behind him, a long way behind him, gently rolling hills sheltered the family’s camp. All around him the ground was white except where tussocks of brown grass poked through.

But wait. Belgutei strained his eyes until they watered, while making his way in the direction of … something brown. It wasn’t grass. It was … earth. Brown earth. Earth piled up like that could only mean that close by was the entrance to a marmot’s burrow!

Belgutei looked around for his brothers. They were easy to spot. The slightest movement betrayed the hunter in this white winter world. And marmots were easily spooked. What a blessing that they were also incurably curious. If you found a marmot warren and drummed on the ground the creatures would all disappear into their burrows quicker than you could nock an arrow. But if you waited a little while, quietly, up they’d come again to see what had made the noise.

In the distance Bekter waved his bow to attract attention and signed that he’d found a warren with signs of recent activity. Belgutei began to jog towards his brother. His belly rumbled as he ran and he prayed silently to the Earth Mother to give them something more than grass soup tonight. His eyes watered with the effort of trying to see marmots in the poor light. But marmots were masters of camouflage.

Bekter joined Belgutei and Temujin at a distance from the occupied burrow, then the three of them began to whoop and stomp on the ground. Half a dozen previously invisible dull brown, scrawny rodents at once made a dash for their burrows. Watching them disappear down their holes Belgutei felt the juices in his mouth start to flow so suddenly and fiercely that it hurt. The best way to cook a marmot was by skinning it and piling the meat back into the bag of skin with hot stones from the fire. But before you could skin your marmot you first had to catch it.

Now was the time to be quiet.

Each of the boys made his way silently to one of the holes into which the marmots had bolted. Each of them cast silently about until he’d found a good place to out-wait the stupid rodents, made himself as comfortable as possible on the lumpy frozen ground and nocked an arrow. With luck it wouldn’t be long.

It was bitter cold on the steppe, and there wasn’t much light left in the day. Belgutei was losing the feeling in his feet and fingers and having trouble focussing in the fading light. But he promised himself that he wouldn’t return to the ger without his arrow through a substantial supper,

Suddenly he heard the twock and hiss of an arrow. At almost the same moment he heard another arrow fly. And then a third. He hoped his brothers had shot true and hunkered down, looking for a target, hoping for a shot himself. But now a screaming began – not the scream of an animal: a human scream. The scream became a gurgle, then there was silence.

*

Belgutei lumbered to his feet, cursing the cold which made him slow and clumsy, and whatever accident it was that had destroyed any hope of bagging another marmot. He tried to spy out his brothers in the deepening dusk. What had happened? Where were they?

Casting about he caught sight of a glimmer of white where it had no business to be. Instead of soft-edged whiteness, it was a tiny, hard-edged thing thrown into relief by the tussock of brown grass behind it. Belgutei’s mind was still processing the possibilities when he realised what this must be. Temujin’s made his own flights out of white eagle feathers. It was a typical, needless extravagance for a mere boy to insist on fletching his arrows with such superior feathers – but Temujin bartered for them and bound his arrows himself. Temujin, at least, had shot something.

Quickly Belgutei made his way towards the white-fletched arrow. It was sticking out of a marmot, as was a second arrow – one of Bekter’s. Belgutei was bending over the kill when he became aware of Temujin marching towards him, in a towering fury.

‘Get your hands off that marmot, Bel,’ he snarled. ‘I’ve killed one of you whelps for it and I don’t care if I have to kill you both.’

Belgutei was so shocked by the boy’s words and the madness in his eyes that he straightened up and took a step backwards. In doing so he trod on something soft. Stumbling, he turned and found himself on his knees beside Bekter, dead on the steppe with a white-fletched arrow through his throat and his eyes wide open.

‘What have you done?’ Belgutei gasped. There was blood still flowing out of the wound, which made Belgutei uncomfortable. He sat back on his heels to get away from the stench of death, and to keep an eye on the raging Temujin. ‘Why? In the name of the great sky above us, why have you done this?’

‘It was my shot and Bekter took it.’ The younger boy spat the words out. There were flecks of white spittle on his lips. He bent and jerked both the arrows out of the marmot. His own white-fletched arrow he wiped carefully and returned to its quiver. He broke Bekter’s arrow over his knee and threw it on his brother’s corpse.

At this Belgutei’s astonishment at what had taken place was overtaken by a fury of his own. Mongols never harmed their own. It was bad enough that Temujin had killed a fellow member of the clan – and, even worse, it was his own brother who lay dead at their feet. Yet the boy showed no remorse. Indeed, the killing rage was obviously still upon him; it would be laughable in one so young, if matters weren’t so deadly serious. Belgutei fought for control of his own emotions as he reached for the scruff of the boy’s clothing. He could hear his stepmother’s voice in his head, exhorting him to look after Temujin, to set a good example, not to let the boy come to harm. He needed to get a firm grip on this young djinn and take a moment to think what to do.

The djinn, however, wasn’t cooperating. He squirmed in Belgutei’s grasp and Belgutei heard Temujin’s skinning knife sing from its scabbard. The boy cut the thong holding his topcoat closed and slipped free, leaving his brother holding an empty jerkin. Temujin went into a fighting crouch and began to toss his blade from hand to hand. The tactic was a good one – in the lowering light it was as much as Belgutei could do to keep track of the weapon. Temujin lunged. Belgutei stepped back, flat-footed. The devil in front of him, freed from the heavy hide jerkin that now encumbered the older brother, danced lightly on his feet looking for a vulnerable place to stick his knife. Belgutei bundled Temujin’s jerkin around his shield arm and continued to back up.

‘Temujin,’ he called. ‘Temujin!’ But the younger boy continued to circle round him, his body coiled to strike.

There was nothing for it, it seemed. Belgutei tried not to think ahead to the point where either he or Temuin must lie dead beside Bekter, and began to stumble towards Temujin across frozen tussocks now almost invisible in the twilight. As he closed the distance between them, reluctantly, he drew his own knife. He must put an end to this now: night was upon them, the temperature was dropping, they were far from home and had a dead weight to carry between them, as well as the marmot which was the cause of all the trouble. The boy continued to circle him. Belgutei felt like an old bull yak, turning too slowly. All he could do was continue to face this brother who had suddenly become his enemy, close the distance between them, look for an opportunity to entangle his knife hand, catch him in a clinch and wait until the madness left him.

But above all else he must concentrate on that weaving knife blade. Too late! In the heartbeat during which he had been distracted the boy had danced sideways, stepped in, and stabbed through the thick hide of Belgutei’s coat. He felt a sting where Temujin had pricked him. A few moments later a warm, sticky sensation told him he was bleeding. By the eternal sky, it was possible that this mad child would kill him and his brother both, over a scrawny marmot! Belgutei felt his own rage burn now. He would not die on this steppe at the hand of this child, Temujin.

With a roar Belgutei launched himself at the boy. Temujin danced aside but left a foot in the bigger boy’s way. Belgutei felt himself falling. The frosty tussocks and his own thick clothing broke the fall, but he was winded all the same.

Knowing that his next few heartbeats might well be his last, Belgutei wriggled over onto his back, protecting his organs with the coat wrapped around his shield arm and defending the space between himself and Temujin with his knife.

The boy ignored both shield and weapon and threw himself at his brother’s head, slashing and scratching at Belgutei’s eyes with his knife and fingernails. Belgutei scrabbled to bring his own hands up to protect his face from this new, frenzied attack.

As soon as he had done so Temujin moved his attack to Belgutei’s midriff. Almost at once he severed the long belt bound around Belgutei’s coat and, as Belgutei writhed beneath him trying to catch his hands, the coat flopped open. Now the boy sprang into the air, coming down with one knee driving into Belgutei’s testicles and one elbow ramming into his solar plexus. Belgutei felt something give inside his belly and lower down, in his balls, pure agony blossomed. He could not prevent the bellow of pain and fear which escaped him. He had never known such pain as this.

Temujin got to his feet. Belgutei more felt than saw the boy loom over him. If Temujin wanted his brother dead one stab now would see the job done: Belgutei had no resources left to resist him. The pain – aah! The pain would not stop.

‘I’m taking my kill in now,’ said the boy. ‘You can bring your brother. Or not. As you like.’

He picked up the marmot and walked away into the gloom.

*

Belgutei lay where he had fallen. The pain took a long time to ease. When he began to lose feeling in his fingers and toes he knew he must move or die where he lay. He struggled to his feet and did his best to retie his belt to hold in place whatever was broken in his belly. The cold had finally dulled the pain in his testicles, but getting to his feet brought it rushing back so badly that he bent over and retched.

Then he began to stumble after his little brother, back to the family’s camp at the foot of the distant hills which it was now too dark to see.

About Bekter he could do nothing. He told himself he would return tomorrow for the corpse, but he knew that long before morning the hungry things of the steppe would have discovered this source of food that until recently had been Bekter. By morning Bekter’s body would be gone. That was the way of the steppe – the body was simply a vessel, transportation for the soul. After death it became fuel to enable other creatures to survive another night. Bekter would survive for as long as he was remembered. When his name was no longer spoken his soul would slip out of the eaves of the family’s ger into the steppe wind; from there it would fall, at last, to the earth and be trodden into the ground by the wandering herds of the nomads. He, Belgutei, would not forget. He clenched his teeth as a gesture of remembrance – and to stop them chattering with pain and cold.

He concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other, leaning forward, bringing the hind foot forward. He kept the wind in his face, for that was the way home, but it beat against him cruelly. After a while he felt as though he was floating over the steppe, until the grass reached up and pulled him down into an icy embrace. Time and again he struggled to his feet, pain screaming through him, and stumbled on.

It was full dark now. He didn’t know how long it had been so. Still he plodded forward. Something nagged at the back of his mind. Wasn’t there something he had to remember? He didn’t know what it could have been.

His teeth were chattering. Had Temujin told him to stop his teeth chattering because the sound would scare away the marmots? Then he remembered: Temujin was far ahead of him, had left him to die after having killed their brother over a marmot.

Belgutei realised that he was afraid of his younger brother, had been for some time before the insane events of this day. The fear weakened him, but he couldn’t rid himself of it.

But there was another conviction that stayed with him too. There would be a reckoning for this. Temujin was a mad little shit – and one day Belgutei would make him pay for killing Bekter. One day.

Belgutei continued on across the dark and icy steppe. To keep himself going he began to chant under his breath,

‘At … my … hand. He … will … die. At … my … hand. He … will … die.’

The end

 

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