The entire ger went silent as Kundek stood, setting the body of his morin khuur on the ground. It was the traditional musical instrument of the Mongolian people, played with a bow to produce sweet sounds that amplified the power of songs and stories. The two-stringed instrument came in various sizes, although most only came up to one’s waist. Kundek’s morin khuur, however, rose an inch over his bald scalp, such that the end of the thing, of lacquered wood sculpted into the shape of a horse’s head, stared over everyone else in the room like a judgmental idol.
He drew the bow across the strings, listening intently for any discordance in the tone. He tutted. Yes, there was. He slightly turned one of two knobs that sprouted off the instrument just under where the horse head began and drew the bow again. He smiled. It was perfect now.
Kundek cleared his throat as he regarded his audience. He gave Natalia, their minotaur host, a toothy smile. He steadied himself then, having decided on a story to tell. Of course, he would go with a classic. Jebke would translate it for Natalia, being the only one in the arban who could actually speak Russian. She would know the story of their great nation through his officer.
Kundek’s right hand held the bow, his strong, calloused fingers gripping the thing with confidence just as they would a bow of the shooting kind. For such a stocky man, his arm moved with a surprising grace as he settled into the ready position. Then, pinching at the thick horse-hair strings, he began to play and sing.
Others sang with him. Natalia’s eyes widened in surprise. She did not know what she had been expecting, but it most certainly wasn’t what she was hearing at that moment. It was a sound that the Mongols produced by… what, closing their throats as they sounded? She didn’t know. It was a drone, a constant growl begrudgingly coaxed into the words of the Mongolian tongue and beaten even further into song. It was… unique, she concluded.
Jebke noticed her staring in wonder. Her green eyes sparkled in the light of the fire as it cast stark shadows of all of them against the fleece walls of the ger.
He prodded her wrist to get her attention. “It could be called ‘throat-singing’ in your language. Kundek has chosen a fine tale to tell us tonight: the tale of Genghis Khan.”
Natalia blinked. “Genghis Khan?”
Jebke almost laughed. Almost. “Sorry,” he said, still cupping his mouth with his hand. “It is just that it is funny that you speak a great name without knowing anything about it. But that is fine. Look to Kundek as he sings, feel the power of his words. I will tell you their meaning.”
Natalia looked at the warrior-turned-troubadour. He wore a matching tunic and trousers, dyed to a rich, emerald green. It took on a serene glow in the fire-light as Kundek was serene himself, staring into the air as he lost himself in a world of lyrics and poems. It was almost absentmindedly that he played his instrument. Clearly, it was a tune he knew well.
“Born to brave Yesugei and fair Hoelun;
Born with a clot of blood in his hand;
Born with death at his side;
That is Genghis Khan, that is Genghis Khan.”
“With eyes like a cat, he sees all things;
With arms of steel, he slays all foes;
With voice like thunder, he commands the nation;
That is Genghis Khan, that is Genghis Khan.
“There was a storm when he looked for eagles;
Looking for eagles with his brothers;
Khasar, Kachiun, Bekter and Temuge;
They were with Genghis Khan, Genghis Khan.“
“The winds buffeted the cliffs, and Genghis looked down;
Their ponies were so far down below, but he kept climbing;
Climbing with his brother Kachiun the Brave;
The harpies then saw Genghis Khan, Genghis Khan.
Kundek stopped playing the morin khuur at that moment, spreading his arms to herald the next scene. The suddenness of the action made her realize how closely she’d been watching, how intently she’d been listening. Kundek continued, his already deep voice suddenly becoming deeper and richer, such that it pounded at her eardrums.
“And the Great Eagle Harpy Mother blessed him;
Blessed Genghis Khan with the strength of the Sky Father;
And the Great Eagle Harpy Mother blessed him;
Blessed Genghis Khan with the gifts of the Earth Mother;
So his destiny was unveiled before him.”
Kenduk resumed playing, at a faster pace than before.
“And so Gengihs Khan surpassed many trials that beset him;
When the traitor Eeluk abandoned his family to the wilderness,
Genghis was strong;
When his brother Bekter betrayed their family,
Genghis was strong;
And when the traitor Eeluk cast him into a dark abyss,
Genghis was strong.”
“Genghis usurped Eeluk and became Khan of the Wolves;
Genghis usurped Sasar and became Khan of his tribe;
Genghis usered Sajar and became Khan of the Keirat,
And he destroyed the Tartar army that dared to enter the plains.“
Kundek went on, recounting the Great Khan’s military conquests in the light of divine destiny. Genghis fought the Alliance of the Naimars, before uniting the Mongol nation into one gigantic tribe. Natalia listened as Kundek sang of the campaigns in Xi Xia and Northern Jin – lands she’d never heard of till now. The Mongol warrior sang of blood, ruin and devastation, a smile on his face as he recounted how Yenking had been starved to the point where its inhabitants were cannibalizing each other.
She looked around, gazing into the eyes of the Mongols around her. Their dark irises sparkled with remembrance, joyous and sweet. They laughed and grinned, apparently drunk in their memories just as they were with the airag they were swigging. Had they been there, too? When the Jin women jumped off the walls of Yenking, to die with dignity in a quick fall, as opposed to death by starvation or to suffer Mongol rule?
“And now we have dominion over the Silver Plains;
And now we have dominion over the King of Xi Xia;
And now we have dominion over the Jin Emperor;
All of this is thanks to Genghis Khan – praise be to you, Genghis Khan!”
With a triumphant raise of the bow, Kundek finished the tale. A round of whoops, applause and laughter shook the ger as the troubadour bowed once, then twice, before setting down his morin khuur so he could actually begin with his dinner.
He took a bite of a piece of marmot that his arban had roasted, smiling as he relished in the salty flavor. After swallowing, he took a moment to laugh, but at no joke or anything peculiar happening around him. He simply deigned to loll his head back in laughter, like it were as natural as breathing. Natalia shook her head, not at all understanding. Kundek shared this characteristic with the rest of his arban – the ability to laugh at nothing at all. She wondered how hardened men, so used to killing, could be so flippant. Maybe being so mirthful was actually a requirement in becoming a good warrior?
“What’s wrong? Is the tale not to your liking?”
Natalia looked to her right and down, to regard Jebke’s ever cheerful countenance. Remembering that she had been holding a piece of her own fried marmot the entire time, she popped it into her mouth and spoke as she chewed.
“No, I think it’s a fine tale, and I think I’ve learned a lot about your people now. So this Genghis Khan has united your tribes, and is now leading your nation to war?”
“Oh yes. He has received the blessings of both the Sky Father and the Earth Mother through a very holy being – an eagle harpy matriarch. They make their roost only at the peaks of high mountains, where they are closer to the celestial plane and thus closer to the gods.”
Natalia nodded, but kept silent at the obvious exaggeration, expecting him to continue.
“Do you have any other questions?”
“Tell me more about these eagle harpies.”
“They are among the most holy of beings, the melding of eagle and woman. They are few now, and they make their roosts where they are not easily found.” Jebke scooted over closer then, taking on a conspiratory tone. “They pick their husbands from only the finest of men, and it is said that Genghis himself was proposed to by one of their number. Can you believe it? I sure can. I have seen Genghis up close with my own two eyes. He is a true man of power.”
“Did he accept her offer?”
“No, because that would mean a life of inaction high up in one of their mountain villages. Genghis was still very young then, yearning for adventure, so instead he came down from the Red Rock and took the woman Borte as his first wife.”
Natalia blinked, a little incredulous. “Is there any shame in marrying an eagle harpy?”
Jebke made a shocked expression. “What? No! No, not at all.” He laughed for a little bit before continuing. “It is one of the highest honors a mortal man could ever get.”
“Ah. Sorry,” Natalia said, shrugging. “It is just that I’ve never heard of any humans calling monsters holy.”
“Monsters?” Jebke frowned. He kept silent, and Natalia noticed the confusion in his eyes.
She gestured to herself. “You know, creatures like me – minotaurs, holstaurs, harpies of all kinds. Humans call us ‘monsters.’ This talk about revering harpies is new and strange to me.”
Jebke frowned, sympathising, although Natalia had long been used to the ostracism and her expression was cool the entire time. “That is because you’ve lived in Order lands all your life, no?”
Natalia nodded. “You know about the Order? Ah, well, who doesn’t? I don’t really know what it’s like where you come from, but people around here say that it is the Age of Men. That it’s the time of the One God, and that the old monstrous deities,” she quoted at the air with her fingers, “and us, their daughters, are long gone.”
Jebke scratched his beard ponderously. “But I am here, talking with you.”
“I don’t know, myself. I guess Russians are not that faithful yet. I’m no expert on history, but I guess the Crusades here have not been as thorough as in the west, where they’ve driven out almost all of, well, creatures like me.” She shrugged. “In my home village of Labinsk, people looked at me with suspicion, but it didn’t go any further than that. Then again, I lived in a house within the forest itself, far away from most other folks, and, well, I guess I should be glad they didn’t kill me while I was little.”
“How strange that your community allowed a family of minotaurs to even begin in their midst.”
Natalia shook her head at the suspicion in Jebke’s eyes. “You misunderstand. I do not know who my true parents are. I was adopted by a hunter and his wife, both of them humans. They said that they found me as a baby, in a basket drifting down a small river in the woods.” She looked away for a moment, her eyes twinkling with reminiscence. “They’re good people. I hope they’re alright.”
Jebke wondered at the unusual show of emotion from the minotaur, before shaking his head in disapproval. “So all your life you have never known a tribe of your own? Not good, not good at all!”
He stood up then, surprising Natalia. The usual cheerfulness Jebke usually wore had been washed away by a fierce and determined expression. Even in his standing position, he couldn’t tower much over the minotaur, but he radiated an aura of command nonetheless.
He offered his hand, palm open and empty. “I cannot bear to see a daughter of the Earth Mother suffering by her lonesome and so unjustly. You should come with us, back to the Ordu. We have many, ahem, monsters there, raising happy families of their own.”
Natalia looked at him with jaw-gaping shock.
Jebke grinned. “You heard me. You should come back with us to the Ordu. We would happily accept a minotaur, especially someone as welcoming as you!”
First they call her beautiful and now they were asking her to go with them? Natalia flushed, despite herself. Thankfully, the fire-light hid the red of her cheeks well enough. Quickly, she began groping for reasons. “B-but I- I like hunting my own food.”
“What? You will still need to hunt even if you join us. Oh, are you worried about us choosing poor grounds? You needn’t worry; we are experts at that.”
“No, you misunderstand, I,” Natalia shook her head. “Let me reorder my thoughts for a moment.”
She breathed in and out, trying to calm herself down with her eyes closed. “Okay, so – you barely know who I am, and now you’re asking me to come with you on promises of happiness. You sound like a slaver.”
Jebke shrugged. “I have two female slaves, maids to my wife while I’m away. What of it?”
“What? That’s not my-” Natalia sighed, unsure of all of it. “I… am just not sure if I can trust you.”
Jebke frowned, withdrawing his hand. “Well, what will it take?”
“You really want me to go with you?”
He shrugged. “Why not? Think about it this way: if we really did want to sell you like we were Arab merchants, then you would fight back as soon as you knew. You’d fight with everything you have and end up killing some of my men, before we’d get fed up and lob your head off. You would think it a worthy end.”
Natalia frowned as she nodded. “I would.”
“Or, I really am telling the truth and you would find a chance to start anew, surrounded by fine men to start a family with, and women who share the same sentiments.”
At this, Natalia laughed, before hacking a gob of spit onto the floor. “What makes you think that I want to start a family?”
“Because it is all a person has,” Jebke smoothly replied. “A man can be the best archer in the world, but he will always feel empty without a wife to embrace and a daughter to coddle. The tribe, also, is an extension of family – the faces you see everyday, people to drink airag with at festivals or to compete with at horse races. Family enriches your life, and gives you a reason for why you do things beyond your own self-interest.”
He pointed a finger at her then, almost accusatory in manner. “And that’s why you do not smile or laugh – because you have never known true family. That’s why you are camping out here in the open where bandits can see you from miles away, because you do not really care whether you live or die, no?”
Natalia glared swords at him. She rose to her full height, dwarfing Jebke and causing the rest of the ger to shush. The arban shared worried glances as their hands began creeping to their sword hilts, but a placating gesture from their leader stopped them all.
How dare you, was what she wanted to say, but it came out as, “How… do you know this?”
Jebke laughed. “My mind is not all full of jokes, you know. I like to think about philosophy sometimes. What do you think of my theory?”
“Theory?” Natalia groaned as she sat back down. “Just… just let me think about your offer first.”
Jebke smiled. “Very well. I will leave you to dine in peace. My sword needs some looking after.”
The man who turned away from her called it a theory, when Natalia was almost convinced that he was staring into her heart through the windows of her eyes. No, there was more to it than sheer loneliness, she believed; more to her dark thoughts than something as petty as being lonesome. However, she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. It was just her, she believed. Her solemn, brash demeanor was just the way she was, and she was content with that.
She answered the challenge of those bandits because she wanted to fight them, not because she wanted to die. She’d come wandering beyond the territory of Russia and into the hostile wilderness of Tartaria out of honest wanderlust, not because she wanted the earth to claim her corpse anonymously. Natalia deeply cared for her dignity and believed in a worthy end. That was why she tried so hard to thrive in the alien steppes: so she could be her best for when some big, bad steppe raider would inevitably come riding to her, sword flashing in the air and out for vengeance, and he could then give her the perfect excuse to just let go.
But I’m not suicidal, she thought. For to be suicidal was to endure an existence so pathetic that one saw no reason to go on. Her existence… wasn’t pathetic, was it?
A bitter laugh welled up in her throat, but she kept it down. There she was, in a yurt in the middle of nowhere, eating marmot with ten strangers from a different land. She had no friends. She had no home. And it took only a few vaguely wise words from a Mongol to move her to such great emotion. Natalia finally accepted that she had been living for nothing ever since she was exiled, and maybe even long before that. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she fought them down. She was good at that, at least.
She found herself glancing around the ger, at the men who acted like children but somehow had the sense of wise men. Natalia watched as Jebke ran a whetstone down the length of his sword, smiling as he usually did as he talked with Maqali and Kundek. Occasionally, he laughed. Perhaps that carefree demeanor had caused her to underestimate them all. These Mongols were oddballs for sure, but they had a wisdom of their own and it made them smile.
How long had it been since she last smiled? Since she last laughed? She was pretty cheerful as she stood over the corpses of those steppe bandits weeks ago, but that didn’t count. It was a bout of mania, where her lips snarled into a crazed, blood-lustful grin that her normal self wouldn’t dream of. When was the last time she smiled because someone had told her a funny joke, or because something good happened to a friend? Not counting the Mongols around her, she remembered. She remembered Labinsk, and she remembered Lydia, the only human there with sense other than her adoptive parents.
She turned away, staring at a piece of marmot with an appetite suddenly gone cold. That life was gone, robbed by the injustices of the world – but Jebke… Jebke had just offered her a new one. Life that had something other than cold rivers, empty plains and eternal wandering: family and friends, and among fellow monsters, no less.
It sounded too good to be true. He probably sugarcoated the whole thing, too; but Natalia had a knack for turning vinegar into wine. How else could she have thrived on the plains? She would adapt to whatever that would come. Now she had questions, so many questions to ask Jebke about life in the Mongol Ordu. She put the piece of meat back on her plate and turned to ask him, but she was surprised to find him frowning.
Jebke reached into the neckhole of his tunic and pulled out what appeared to be a medallion of sorts by the string. It was a small circle of grey metal with deep, elaborate engravings on its surface that glowed a dim green. Natalia noticed Jebke’s hands shaking and guessed that it was also probably vibrating strongly.
Jebke was scowling, believe it or not. He stood to bark at his arban in their native tongue, before turning to Natalia, who was visibly confused at how they were suddenly fiddling with the wargear stowed around the inside of the ger.
“What is that thing? What’s going on?”
His expression eased into an easy grin. “It is an enchanted item that glows and shakes when somebody bearing ill will approaches your camp.”
Natalia scowled. “Raiders, then? I will get my axe.”
Jebke’s cheerful expression did not change. “Relax, it’s just a scout. It glows green if it’s just one or two people, blue for three to ten, and red for more than that.”
“Ah. That’s pretty convenient.” Natalia suppressed a tinge of envy. Such magical items were usually only available to the rich. How did some steppe tribesman get his hands on it?
“It is! I got it off of a Chin bureaucrat,” he proudly said. Natalia nodded, finally understanding. “Probably used it to avoid assassination or something. ”
“So, who’s going to kill the scout?” She asked, getting the conversation back on track. “It’s getting pretty dark. It might be hard to get the jump on him.”
“Hmm? No, no. We’re not going to kill the scout. We will leave him be.”
Natalia sat there in confused silence, and Jebke continued, grinning. “We’re bored, Natalia. We haven’t killed anybody in a year. The last person I felled was,” Jebke scratched his thin beard thoughtfully, “some idiot Chin officer who didn’t understand that Baojing had already surrendered and I could loot his home as I wished.”
Natalia was unsure how to respond to such callousness. “Huh,” she sounded, in blank acknowledgement. She knew that Jebke was a professional killer through and through, but that fact just didn’t sink in thanks to his constant cheeriness.
Her expression somehow drew a bout of laughter from the man. “They’re just going to be mere steppe bandits. The men of my arban, all of us, are veterans of dozens of battles. You needn’t worry. It should be an easy victory. Hell, maybe they will have fine horses of European breed that we can take, strong enough to carry someone of your weight. Then, taking you to the Ordu would be much easier.”
Natalia snorted. “I haven’t even given you my answer.”
Jebke frowned, just for a moment. “Ah, right. Well, save your breath for now. It’s a decision you should sleep over. Can you fight?”
“I can. I’ve killed bandits before.”
Jebke made an expression that seemed like mocking wonder as he put the enchanted medallion away. “Oh, really? How many?”
“Five,” Natalia proudly said. “In two fights.”
“Hmm,” Jebke hummed, scratching his beard as he ran his eyes up and down the minotaur. “Normally, I’d tell you to stay put, but that would be foolish. Very well, I will let you fight,” he said, as if the decision was his to make. Natalia decided not to say anything. “I’ll have Tudan and Ligdan on watch while the rest of us get some sleep. They’ll wake us up before dawn, and then I’ll think of how to receive our bandit friends. They wouldn’t dare risk their horses in a night ride.”
Natalia raised a brow. “You won’t think of a plan now?”
Jebke chuckled, and gestured dismissively. “Nah. I’ll sleep over it.”