To my brothers
John, David, and Hal
This book could not have been written without the people of Mongolia, who allowed me to live among them for a time and who taught me their history over salted tea and vodka while the winter eased into spring.
A multitude of rulers is not a good thing. Let there be one ruler, one king.
Homer, The Iliad
THE SNOW WAS BLINDING as the Mongol archers encircled the Tartar raiding party. Each man guided his pony with his knees, standing on the stirrups to fire shaft after shaft with withering accuracy. They were grimly silent, the hooves of their galloping ponies the only sound to challenge the cries of the wounded and the howling wind. The Tartars could not escape the whirring death that came out of the darkening wings of the battle. Their horses fell groaning to their knees, blood spattering bright from their nostrils.
On an outcrop of yellow-gray rock, Yesugei watched the battle, hunched deep into his furs. The wind was a roaring devil on the plain, tearing at wherever his skin had lost its covering of mutton grease. He did not show the discomfort. He had borne it for so many years he could not have been sure he even felt it anymore. It was just a fact of his life, like having warriors to ride at his word, or enemies to kill.
The Tartars did not lack courage, for all he despised them. Yesugei saw them rally around a young warrior and heard his shouts carry over the wind. The Tartar wore a chain-mail vest that Yesugei envied, lusted after. With curt words of command, the man was preventing the raiders from scattering, and Yesugei saw the moment had come to ride. His arban of nine companions felt it, the best of his tribe, blood brothers and bondsmen. They had earned the precious armor they wore, boiled leather inscribed with the leaping figure of a young wolf.
“Are you ready, my brothers?” he said, feeling them turn to him.
One of the mares whinnied excitedly and his first warrior, Eeluk, chuckled.
“We will kill them for you, little one,” Eeluk said, rubbing her ears.
Yesugei kicked in his heels and they broke effortlessly into a trot toward the screaming, roiling battlefield in the snow. From their height above the fighting, they could all see the full stretch of the wind. Yesugei murmured in awe as he saw the arms of the sky father reach around and around the frail warriors in great white scarves, heavy with ice.
They moved into a gallop without the formation changing and without thought, as each man judged the distances around him as he had for decades. They thought only of how best to cut the enemy from their saddles and leave them cold on the plains.
Yesugei’s arban crashed into the center of the fighting men, making for the leader, who had risen in the last few moments. If he was allowed to live, perhaps he would become a torch for all his tribe to follow. Yesugei smiled as his pony hammered into the first of the enemy. Not today.
The impact broke the back of a Tartar warrior even as he turned to meet the new threat. Yesugei held his mount’s mane in one hand, using his sword in single strikes that left dead men falling like leaves. He refused two blows where the blade of his father might have been lost, instead using the pony to trample the men down and the hilt as a hammer for one unknown soldier. Then he was past and had reached the knotted core of the Tartar resistance. Yesugei’s nine followers were still with him, protecting their khan as they had been sworn to from birth. He knew they were there without looking, guarding his back. He saw their presence in the way the Tartar captain’s eyes flickered to each side of him. He would be seeing his death in their flat, grinning faces. Perhaps he had also become aware of all the bodies around him, stiff with arrows. The raid had been crushed.
Yesugei was pleased when the Tartar rose in his stirrups and pointed a long red blade at him. There was no fear in the eyes, only anger and disappointment that the day had come to nothing. The lesson would be wasted on the frozen dead, but Yesugei knew the Tartar tribes would not miss the significance. They would find the blackened bones when the spring came and they would know not to raid his herds again.
Yesugei chuckled, making the Tartar warrior frown as they stared at each other. No, they would not learn. Tartars could starve to death deciding on a mother’s tit. They would be back and he would ride out to them again, killing even more of their dishonest blood. The prospect pleased him.
He saw that the Tartar who had challenged him was young. Yesugei thought of the son being born to him over the hills to the east and wondered if he too would face a grizzled older warrior across the length of a sword one day.
“What is your name?” Yesugei said.
The battle had finished around them and already his Mongols walked among the corpses, taking anything of use. The wind still roared, but the question was heard and Yesugei saw a frown pass across the face of his young enemy.
“What is yours, yak penis?”
Yesugei chuckled, but his exposed skin was beginning to ache and he was tired. They had tracked the raiding party for almost two days across his land, going without sleep and surviving on nothing more than a handful of wet milk curd each day. His sword was ready to take another life and he raised the blade.
“It does not matter, boy. Come to me.”
The Tartar warrior must have seen something in his eyes that was more certain than an arrow. He nodded, resigned.
“My name is Temujin-Uge,” he said. “My death will be avenged. I am the son of a great house.”
He dug in his heels and his mount surged at Yesugei. The khan’s sword whipped through the air in a single stroke of perfect economy. The body fell at his feet and the pony bolted across the battleground.
“You are carrion, boy,” Yesugei said, “as are all men who steal from my herds.”
He looked around him at his gathered warriors. Forty-seven had left their ger tents to answer his call. They had lost four of their brothers against the ferocity of the Tartar raid, but not one of twenty Tartars would return home. The price had been high, but the winter drove men to the edge in all things.
“Strip the bodies quickly,” Yesugei ordered. “It is too late to return to the tribe. We will camp in the shelter of the rocks.”
Valuable metal and bows were much prized for trade and to replace broken weapons. Except for the chain-mail vest, the pickings were poor, confirming Yesugei’s thought that this was simply a party of young warriors out to skirmish and prove themselves. They had not planned to fight to the death on earth as hard as stone. He draped the bloody metal garment over his saddle horn when it was thrown to him. It was of good quality and would stop a dagger’s blow, at least. He wondered who the young warrior had been to own such a valuable thing, turning his name over in his mind. He shrugged. It no longer mattered. He would trade his share of their ponies for strong drink and furs when the tribes met to trade. Despite the cold in his bones, it had been a good day.
The storm had not eased by the following morning, when Yesugei and his men returned to the camp. Only the outriders moved lightly as they rode, staying alert against sudden attack. The rest were so bundled in furs and weighed down with looted goods that they were shapeless and half frozen, rimed in dirty ice and grease.
The families had chosen their site well, against the lee of a craggy hill of rock and wind-blasted lichen, the gers almost invisible in the snow. The only light was a dim brightening behind boiling clouds, yet the returning warriors were spotted by one of the sharp-eyed boys who watched for attack. It lifted Yesugei’s heart to hear the piping voices warn of his approach.
The women and children of the tribe could hardly be stirring yet, he thought. In such a cold, they dragged themselves from sleep only to light the iron stoves. The time of true rising came an hour or two later, when the great tents of felt and wicker had lost the snap of ice in the air.
As the ponies came closer, Yesugei heard a scream rise like the gray smoke coming from Hoelun’s ger and felt his heart beat faster in anticipation. He had one baby son, but death was always close for the young. A khan needed as many heirs as his tents could hold. He whispered a prayer for another boy, a brother for the first.
He heard his hawk echo the high note inside the ger as he vaulted from the saddle, his leather armor creaking at each step. He barely saw the servant who took the reins, standing impassively in his furs. Yesugei pushed open the wooden door and entered his home, the snow on his armor melting instantly and dripping in pools.
“Ha! Get off!” he said, laughing as his two hounds jumped up in a frenzy, licking and bounding madly around him. His hawk chirruped a welcome, though he thought it was more a desire to be off on the hunt. His first son, Bekter, crawled naked in a corner, playing with curds of cheese as hard as stones. All these things Yesugei registered without his eyes leaving the woman on the furs. Hoelun was flushed with the stove’s heat, but her eyes were bright in the gold lamplight. Her fine, strong face shone with sweat and he saw a trace of blood on her forehead where she had wiped the back of her hand. The midwife was fussing with a bundle of cloth, and he knew from Hoelun’s smile that he had a second son.
“Give him to me,” Yesugei ordered, stepping forward.
The midwife drew back with her wrinkled mouth puckering in irritation. “You will crush him with your big hands. Let him take his mother’s milk. You can hold him later, when he is strong.”
Yesugei could not resist craning for a sight of the little boy as the midwife laid him down, cleaning the small limbs with a rag. In his furs, he loomed over them both and the child seemed to see him, launching a ferocious bout of squalling.
“He knows me,” Yesugei said, with pride.
The midwife snorted. “He is too young,” she muttered.
Yesugei did not respond. He smiled down at the red-faced infant, then, without warning, his manner changed and his arm snapped out. He gripped the elderly midwife around the wrist.
“What is that in his hand?” he asked, his voice hushed.
The midwife had been about to wipe the fingers clean, but under Yesugei’s fierce gaze, she opened the infant’s hand gently, revealing a clot of blood the size of an eye that trembled with the tiniest movement. It was black and shone like oil. Hoelun had raised herself up to see what part of her newborn boy had caught Yesugei’s attention. When she saw the dark lump, she moaned to herself.
“He holds blood in his right hand,” she whispered. “He will walk with death all his life.”
Yesugei drew in a sharp breath, wishing she had not spoken. It was reckless to invite an evil fate for the boy. He brooded in silence for a time, considering. The midwife continued nervously with her wrapping and cleaning, the clot quivering on the blankets. Yesugei reached for it and held it in his own hand, glistening.
“He was born with death in his right hand, Hoelun. That is fitting. He is a khan’s son and death is a companion for him. He will be a great warrior.” He watched as the baby boy was handed over at last to his exhausted mother, suckling ferociously on a nipple as soon as it was presented to him. His mother winced, then bit her lip.
Yesugei’s expression was still troubled as he turned to the midwife.
“Throw the bones, old mother. Let us see if this clot of blood means good or evil for the Wolves.” His eyes were bleak and he did not need to say that the child’s life depended on the outcome. He was the khan and the tribe looked to him for strength. He wanted to believe the words he had used to avert the sky father’s jealousy, but he feared that Hoelun’s prophecy had been the truth.
The midwife bowed her head, understanding that something fearsome and strange had come into the birthing rituals. She reached into a bag of sheep ankle bones by the stove, dyed red and green by the children of the tribe. Depending on how they fell, they could be named horse, cow, sheep, or yak, and there were a thousand games played with them. The elders knew they could reveal more when cast at the right time and place. The midwife drew back her arm to throw, but again Yesugei restrained her, his sudden clasp making her wince.
“He is my blood, this little warrior. Let me,” he said, taking four of the bones from her. She did not resist, chilled by his cold expression. Even the dogs and hawk had grown still.
Yesugei threw the bones and the old midwife gasped as they came to rest.
“Aiee. Four horses is very lucky. He will be a great rider. He will conquer from a horse.”
Yesugei nodded fiercely. He wanted to hold up his son to the tribe, and would have if the storm had not raged around the ger, searching for a way into the warmth. The cold was an enemy, yet it kept the tribes strong. The old did not suffer for long in such bitter winters. The weakling children perished quickly. His son would not be one of those.
Yesugei watched the tiny scrap of a child pulling at his mother’s soft breast. The boy had gold-colored eyes like his own, almost wolf yellow in their lightness. Hoelun looked up at the father and nodded, his pride easing her worry. She was certain the clot was a dark omen, but the bones had gone some way toward calming her.
“Have you a name for him?” the midwife asked Hoelun.
Yesugei replied without a hesitation. “My son’s name is Temujin,” he said. “He will be iron.” Outside, the storm roared on without a sign of ceasing.
ON A SPRING DAY in his twelfth year, Temujin raced his four brothers across the steppes, in the shadow of the mountain known as Deli’un-Boldakh. The eldest, Bekter, rode a gray mare with skill and concentration, and Temujin matched his pace, waiting for a chance to go past. Behind them came Khasar, whooping wildly as he moved up on the two leaders. At ten, Khasar was a favorite in the tribe, as lighthearted as Bekter was sullen and dark. His red-mottled stallion snorted and whickered after Bekter’s mare, making the little boy laugh. Kachiun came next in the galloping line, an eight-year-old not given to the openness that made people love Khasar. Of all of them, Kachiun seemed the most serious, even secretive. He spoke only rarely and did not complain, no matter what Bekter did to him. Kachiun had a knack with the ponies that few others could match, able to nurse a burst of speed when the rest were flagging. Temujin glanced over his shoulder to where Kachiun had positioned himself, his balance perfect. He seemed to be idling along, but they had all been surprised before and Temujin kept a close eye on him.
Already some way behind his brothers, the smallest and youngest of them could be heard calling plaintively for them to wait. Temuge was a boy with too much love for sweet things and laziness, and it showed in his riding. Temujin grinned at the sight of the chubby boy flapping his arms for more speed. Their mother had warned against including the youngest in their wild tournaments. Temuge had barely grown out of the need to be tied to the saddle, but he wailed if they left him behind. Bekter had yet to find a kind word for Temuge.