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Of battles past (amgalan.., p.1
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       Of Battles Past (Amgalant #1), p.1

           Bryn Hammond
Of Battles Past (Amgalant #1)



  Of Battles Past


  Bryn Hammond

  Copyright 2012 Bryn Hammond


  My sister has been godmother to the book. Amgalant, what’s written and what isn’t written yet, I dedicate to her, with waves from Tem and Jam, and no sight or scent of a goat. In steppe epic, a steed and a sister are your trustiest, most intelligent and indefatigable aid: the hero doesn’t have to be heroic, but these do.

  The cover is Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath

  I make Of Battles Past available as a free sample: it is the first half of Amgalant One: The Old Ideal.

  Table of Contents

  1. Yesugei Seizes a Wife

  2. One People

  3. To Avenge Ambaghai Khan

  4. Bad Times, Great Traditions

  5. Friends are Chosen by Father and Child

  6. A Drink with Tartars

  7. Hoelun Alone

  8. In the Mountains’ Sanctuary

  9. Temujin Slays his Monster

  10. A Yoke about his Neck

  A description of The Secret History of the Mongols


  1. Yesugei Seizes a Wife

  ‘Son, what kind of girl do you want me to find for your wife?’

  ‘Father, find me a girl who’s up before I get to my feet, who’s on her horse ahead of me, who, before I reach the enemy, has heads of theirs to give me.’

  ‘That’s a comrade-in-arms you’re after, not a girl. Still, I have heard of one...’

  from The Book of Dede Korkut, old tales of the Oghuz Turks

  Once a great grey wolf, his fur touched by blue like a cloudy sky, wooed a doe, ochre like a steppe horizon. The doe loved her enemy. For in that age animals understood each other’s speech, in a state of jargalant and amgalant, happy and at one. Tangr had a goal for these beasts in their courtship and sent them on a journey over the Sea of Origins. When they came to Onon Springs on the mountain Holy Old Haldun, the urge to quest in their hearts lay quiet. Here the ochre doe coupled with the cloudy wolf and cast a strange creature, a human child: he was the Mongols’ first father.

  So ran the origin legends.

  Yesugei graced his name with baghatur, an acknowledgement of courage, a title bestowed by popular cry and a Mongol’s proudest boast. He been chosen marshal of his tribe the Kiyat. For father he had Bartan Ba’atur – that’s baghatur with the Mongol slur – a hero of the China wars whom, impious people liked to joke, Yesugei worshipped whilst alive. For grandfather he had a latter-day legend, Khabul Khan, whose most famous deed, possibly, was to have pulled the beard of the Emperor of China over dinner at his court – wherewith began the China wars. In spite of these points to assist him, and close on thirty years of age, Yesugei had no wife.

  This was nobody’s fault but his own. The situation he had left to grow, uninterrupted, with Suchigu had inhibited his father, he knew. Suchigu was too ensconced. The upright Bartan shrank to ask a noyon for his daughter where the tent mightn’t altogether belong to her. His father was quite right. It was up to Yesugei to change his home circumstances, if he had wish of a wife. And he had wish.

  He had need. Simply, a marshal’s wife has a great deal to do; wives are trained from infancy, and Suchigu grew up a slave. In effect he was half a bachelor and half not. His nokod didn’t mind and they liked Suchigu, whom they called Suchigu, her pet-name, where they ought to call the woman at his side Lady What-have-you, at banquets. Their wives weren’t always as tolerant, but that wasn’t the crux. Half a bachelor, simply, finds himself half-equipped at times. He was meant to have a lieutenant – aside from Ubashi – in short he wasn’t meant to function without a wife. That was his excuse. It wasn’t going to be easy to tell Goagchin she was out.

  They hadn’t been unhappy. In a gay mood Suchigu was hard to be unhappy with. Moreover, she possessed a trait a man never does underprize: you only have to undo your trousers and she is without fail very interested. No complaints there. So what did he have to complain of, exactly, in private territory? He didn’t know. That was the trouble. A sense, an instinct told him, there is more. It’s not too late. I’m not thirty yet. Out there exists what they sing of in the songs. Was he a dreamy-head, to want what they sing of in the songs?

  Perhaps he had seen his promise through. He had unworthy niggles of thoughts: had he lived, Dolgor might have gotten over her by now. Forgive me, Dolgor. If you love her yet, then you know the thing I yearn for.

  Yesugei, I didn’t intend you to go this far. You can’t live my life for me.

  That wasn’t Dolgor, that was him.

  The children he didn’t count in his decision. Children from a slave aren’t worse off than children from an under-wife, but both are adjuncts. They don’t rank in the clan. Without a wife his hearth, after him, must go to his youngest brother for lack of a recognised youngest son. As for the eldest, who was five, he could give him animals and set him up, but he couldn’t give him status. Status wasn’t up to Yesugei – a fact, unfortunately, the mother of his children didn’t seem to understand. Perceptions? He didn’t give a goat’s toenail about perceptions, but society was society, and keep Goagchin or cast her off – act of his didn’t alter the status of her children.

  One night, late, in his father’s tent, alone with him, Yesugei spoke up. “Father, I start to feel the want of a wife. Both to manage a wife’s tasks and for her companionship.”

  Poorly timed. The news about the khan had hit Bartan very hard and domestic concerns weren’t at the front of his mind. But that was just why the matter had grown urgent in Yesugei’s heart, with war ahead, serious war. He had to tug his father’s attention: in fact his eyes lost focus and came back again guiltily to Yesugei. It was awkward but how you had to talk to Bartan, since the news. Yesugei pursued. “Of course, to introduce an ujin, I’d straighten out my tent. It weighs on me, father, that you cannot countenance the situation I am in with Goagchin.”

  “On the contrary. Who has said so? Have I?”

  “No, father.”

  “When he lay with fatal wounds and short of twenty, your brother-by-oath asked you to take his love in, as wasn’t, he knew, to be asked of his brothers by the bone. This you promised.”

  Yesugei felt a twinge of conscience, yet.

  “And I can tell you, Yesugei, only once have I heard a comment, the intention critical, but to my mind not. It was said to me, Yesugei goes far to keep his promises. He does, I answered, he travels very far. No, I look on with satisfaction.”

  “I am glad. Glad, too, that members of my nokod don’t quarrel with how I live, unlike one or two of their wives.”

  “Who gives a billy’s balls what one or two wives have to say?”

  “Quite, father.” This was strong language, to cite the nether parts, stronger than toenails. He had learnt pride from Bartan, as he had learnt most things. Gossip? Beneath his notice. Nevertheless he was aware. “If I seek to change my circumstances, I am driven by my own needs. And I consult Goagchin’s needs, but the fact is, I never was Dolgor to her.”

  “That is a known syndrome with widows.”

  “Yes. However, I’d like to be...” He coughed. “I’d like to come first.”

  “Of course. The least of us have a title to be first at home, and you, Yesugei, though I say who sired you – I say in order that you do not misunderstand me – I’d offer you with conviction to a queen. The Queen of Persia – the Queen of India – I don’t care who she is, she can thank me for you.”

  This outspokenness was like Bartan. His negatives were outspoken too. Ye
sugei slipped his hat briefly over his eyes, a gesture towards modesty. “Perhaps, father, at the meet of the tribes, can you inquire for me? The meet, I know, is for sterner purposes. But the war we have ahead is just why I feel pressed upon, and press.”

  A gradual change came over Bartan Ba’atur’s face; again his eyes saw elsewhere and he grimaced, to see what he saw. “Weddings, Yesugei, weddings? I don’t know I can say let’s have a wedding, while Ambaghai lies unrevenged. It was a wedding trip he went on. To tie a treaty of friendship he led his daughter to the Tartars, and the Tartars led him in a yoke to China. Until I have spilt blood for his blood. Until I have forgotten in blood his tortures and their obscene pageant of death. Ask me then about weddings, Yesugei. Ask me then.”

  At this from the grief-stricken old hero, Yesugei felt grossly selfish and hung his head.

  Still, he had a struggle to sacrifice the idea, and he grizzled to his agha Mengetu. That’s what an agha’s for. “If only I had acted a month ago. Right now I’d give my left leg beneath the knee for a wife – the like of yours, Mengetu. Or Noikon’s or Daritai’s. Father’s a judge of an ujin. If only I’d left my fate in his hands. If only Dolgor had lived.”

  “You have the scrumptious Suchigu.”

  “Scrumptious is as scrumptious does,” sighed Yesugei, at his loosest of tongue with his agha. The senior brother is a semi-father, but then again, remains a brother.

  “Over-scrumpted, are you, Twig?”

  “Mengetu, if I told you about the woman I wish I had...”

  “Don’t start.”

  “I bet she exists, too. I almost know she does.”

  “You’re in a bad way, Yesugei.”

  “As I try to tell you.”

  Mengetu turned the problem over in his hands. “I can come up with only an old truth to give you, for you are not one to trample on our father’s feelings. It isn’t a true truth nowadays, but used to be: mares and women are what I lift my weapons for. There’s innocent days for you. War leaves widows – we hope theirs, not ours.”

  Yesugei thought much about this hint of Mengetu’s. War’s way to a wife might be his only way. His oath-brother had bequeathed him Suchigu; he might have to take bequeathal from a foe.

  The origin legends, which were told as a set of firsts, gave account of the Mongols’ first war. It was for horses. Horses in the first place, but in the second place a woman had caught Bodonjar’s eye. Yesugei told the tale to himself, in these days of his mood: the Tale of Daft Bodonjar.

  The five sons of Ulun Ghoa sat to share out her stock and store. Bol-Gunutei, Bel-Gunutei, Bull Qatagi, Bull Salji: these came to agreement on a fair division, but they agreed also to withhold Bodonjar’s share. “Daft Bodonjar?” they asked. “You can’t trust him with an animal. Whatever we gave him he’d lose.” They gave him nothing but his food from out their pots and their worst horse to ride, an old white dun with sores along his spine-stripe and almost no hair in his tail.

  Ill-used, elbowed out, Bodonjar grizzled to himself. “What am I to them? A half-wit, and less than half a brother. Why stay? No-one wants me here.” On the wretched horse he rode away alone. “Who cares what becomes of me? Who cares if I freeze or starve?” His tears dripped on the scrappy black mane. “Even this ugly plug doesn’t do what I tell him.” The lament was true: they had followed the Onon Gol down as far as Baljun Isle when the dun with the sores along his spine-stripe decided he had had enough and stopped. Where his horse stopped, Bodonjar spent the winter.

  Without a tent, he wove a hut from rushes. Without a creature in his hut to talk to he was lonely, for Bodonjar liked to prattle on. When he bumped into a grey falcon at gorge in the guts of a black grouse, he pulled out his horse’s last hair-tails, tied a snare and caught the falcon. Although she objected at first he kept her with him in the hut and talked to her and she grew used to him. In want of food, he began to trail behind the wolves on their hunts. The wolves were messy eaters and left scattered about remains of their feasts to be scavenged. Once in a while their victim escaped them up a cliff or tree, and after the wolves had slouched off Bodonjar, with stones or other missiles, often got his animal. Through that winter Bodonjar and the falcon ate or went hungry together, until at last the ice was over and they had not starved. Now the water splashed and the spring birds flew in – ducks and geese, storks and dragon’s-feet – thousands past a night, squalls and cyclones of birds. Bodonjar freed his falcon.

  In spring he stacked up the dead branches of winter to hang his ducks and geese. Such a glut caught Kill-Quick that his blighted timber reeked with the flesh, his racks stank to the sky. But he never thought he had too much.

  Twelve tents of Uriangqot journeyed down from the mountains to graze their mares in the meadows on Tungelig Stream. Greedy for the milk he had half-forgotten, Bodonjar roamed amongst the milch mares, where they gave him to drink straight from the pail. Daily he came at milking-time. The Uriangqot found their guest untalkative, almost dumb: he neither told them his name and clan nor asked for theirs, and never once did he dismount. But his tame falcon intrigued them and they made an offer, the falcon for his pick of the pregnant mares. He laughed them off and told them she was family. “I nearly believe she is,” they said when he had gone. “He has her eyes.”

  With spring, Bodonjar’s brothers dispersed in search of him. Qatagi happened on the Uriangqot camp, where he described the old white dun, described Bodonjar. “A mooncalf. Talks your ear off. You can’t mistake him.”

  Uncertainly they answered, “There’s our milk-guest. The horse fits your description. He has a hawk, too, schooled to hunt for him like a hound. Where he sleeps at night we don’t know, but when the wind’s north-west, feathers and down from the ducks and geese he catches blow here, thick as a blizzard of snow. And the pong, for he can’t kill enough, like a fox on a spree who’s once been afraid of starvation. Wait with us; he’s guaranteed to turn up at milking-hour.”

  When they went out to milk, a spindly figure on a white horse cruised through the meadows, and Qatagi recognised the truant. In his brief fashion he muttered about the anxiety he had caused, and led the boy and his bird straight home.

  Trotting at his brother’s heels, Bodonjar intruded on his taciturnity to interest him in an idea. “Agha, it is said, a head on top of your torso, and to close your coat a clasp.”

  Used to his noise for noise’s sake, Qatagi heard this with one ear and dismissed it.

  “It is said, my agha, a head on top of your torso, and to close your coat a clasp.”

  He can’t keep a thought inside his skull. It’s an infirmity. If I acknowledge him when his talk has significance, and otherwise don’t, he might learn.

  “Often is it said – oh agha – a head on top of your torso, and to close your coat a clasp.”

  Qatagi’s patience snapped. “God knows you say it often. You aren’t squatted with the wild geese now, that gaggle and can’t shut their throats. Spit out your purpose, Bodonjar, or else leave people in peace.”

  Bodonjar spat out his purpose. “That camp we left on Tungelig Stream. You saw how fat their mares in milk, and did you get a glimpse of their stallion? – the most glorious silver dun with stripes like tarnish on his knees. They don’t have a head-of-camp, but discuss the least decisions half the day: tried and untried, weathered and raw, head and hoof, every voice has to be heard. It’s called equality. They are easy. The five of us can seize their horses.”

  “Seize their horses?”


  “Rob them?” Qatagi sought to ascertain.

  Bodonjar gave a shrug or a rotation of one shoulder, much the way a hawk or falcon stretches the muscles in a wing. “Do the wolves rob the deer, or Kill-Quick the dragon’s-feet?”

  Slowly Qatagi nodded. “It is your falcon has taught you.”

  “Am I wrong to learn from the hawks and the wolves? I had no other to teach me how to live this winter past.”

  “I’m sorry about this winter past, Bodonjar. But I can see y
ou have grown up in it. Daft? You are like the beasts, and the old stalkers in their footsteps: you are Crafty Bodonjar.”

  For the first time Mongols went to war. Ahead of his brothers on scout, Bodonjar captured a woman of the camp. Like the mares whose teats swaggered she was fat, halfway through pregnancy: to his eyes she dripped milk and oozed honey. Only now, when he was at war, did he ask who his milk-hosts were. “We are clan Jarchiut, tribe Adangqa, of the Uriangqot people,” she answered. “And you?”

  He said, “I have been a Have-not. Now I am a Have. Your husband must be slain, that you can be mine.”

  One day, out in hills of a black bubble-stone above camp, a hawk on his arm, Yesugei crossed paths with a young couple newly-wed, on that trip together that newly-weds try to have to themselves, from her tribe into his. Though the hills funneled them closely by they didn’t greet him, no doubt because the husband was a Merqot. A Merqot in costume is hard to mistake. This specimen, big enough to begin with – he out-statured Yesugei – wore a sort of helmet-cage, the scaffold for four-foot antlers, and his cloak was sewn over with white feathers. Birds and deer are the Merqot symbols, amalgamated in their tattoos – winged deer – and they ride their stags like horses. He had a horse for this journey, only the one. His wife wore primrose silk, and drove a dainty coach with wind chimes and a handsome black camel in harness. Because of the camel cart in Kazakh style, traditional with them for weddings, he thought her Ongirat. And, because of her circumstances and his state of mind, he thought her his ideal ujin, come to life, just the ujin he had dreamt of for his wife. Her chin, her cheeks, the rear of her head were arcs of circles, with that ineffably lovely, that hypnotic symmetry of the moon – as in the songs. Her eyes were strikingly dark and startlingly light. They dwelt on him, and she gave him a nod for maintenance of the courtesies. You don’t ride by people without salute, whatever terms you are on, but the Merqot did, with an embarrassed scowl, as if he had an intimation, and Yesugei did, with a flagrant stare, because an idea had knocked him on the head.

  For things to be perfect he’d have been a Tartar. But a Merqot’s next on the hate-list. Yesugei didn’t give himself time to think: he knew where thought led and in this instance he declined to go there. It was his only chance. It was happenstance. It was too near perfect and you almost felt churlish towards fate to say no. That was his excuse.

  Obsessed with the Merqot and the ujin he galloped into camp, threw his hawk off his arm to the first candidate, skidded to a halt by Daritai’s tent. “Brother, are you home? Yesugei calls you out.”

  In half a moment Daritai was outside with his whip and his weapons. “Do you need me, brother?” He leapt onto the horse that awaited him at his door.

  They cantered to Noikon’s tent. “Hoi – Noikon – your brothers call you out.”

  At once he
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