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In the summer dusk, the encampment of the Mongols stretched for miles in every direction, the great gathering still dwarfed by the plain in the shadow of the black mountain. Ger tents speckled the landscape as far as the eye could see, and around them thousands of cooking fires lit the ground. Beyond those, herds of ponies, goats, sheep, and yaks stripped the ground of grass in their constant hunger. Each dawn saw them driven away to the river and good grazing before returning to the gers. Though Genghis guaranteed the peace, tension and suspicion grew each day. None there had seen such a host before, and it was easy to feel hemmed in by the numbers. Insults imaginary and real were exchanged as all felt the pressure of living too close to warriors they did not know. In the evenings, there were many fights between the young men, despite the prohibition. Each dawn found one or two bodies of those who had tried to settle an old score or grudge. The tribes muttered among themselves while they waited to hear why they had been brought so far from their own lands.
In the center of the army of tents and carts stood the ger of Genghis himself, unlike anything seen before on the plains. Half as high again as the others, it was twice the width and built of stronger materials than the wicker lattice of the gers around it. The construction had proved too heavy to dismantle easily and was mounted on a wheeled cart drawn by eight oxen. As the night came, many hundreds of warriors directed their feet toward it, just to confirm what they had heard and marvel.
Inside, the great ger was lit with mutton-oil lamps, casting a warm light over the inhabitants and making the air thick. The walls were hung with silk war banners, but Genghis disdained any show of wealth and sat on a rough wooden bench. His brothers lay sprawled on piled horse blankets and saddles, drinking and chatting idly.
Before Genghis sat a nervous young warrior, still sweating from the long ride that had brought him amongst such a host. The men around the khan did not seem to be paying attention, but the messenger was aware that their hands were never far from their weapons. They did not seem tense or worried at his presence, and he considered that their hands might always be near a blade. His people had made their decision and he hoped the elder khans knew what they were doing.
"If you have finished your tea, I will hear the message," Genghis said.
The messenger nodded, placing the shallow cup back on the floor at his feet. He swallowed his last gulp as he closed his eyes and recited, "These are the words of Barchuk, who is khan to the Uighurs."
The conversations and laughter around him died away as he spoke, and he knew they were all listening. His nervousness grew.
" 'It is with joy that I learned of your glory, my lord Genghis Khan. We had grown weary waiting for our people to know one another and rise. The sun has risen. The river is freed of ice. You are the gurkhan, the one who will lead us all. I will dedicate my strength and knowledge to you.' "
The messenger stopped and wiped sweat from his brow. When he opened his eyes, he saw that Genghis was looking at him quizzically and his stomach tightened in fear.
"The words are very fine," Genghis said, "but where are the Uighurs? They have had a year to reach this place. If I have to fetch them . . ." He left the threat dangling.
The messenger spoke quickly. "My lord, it took months just to build the carts to travel. We have not moved from our lands in many generations. Five great temples had to be taken apart, stone by stone, each one numbered so that it could be built again. Our store of scrolls took a dozen carts by itself and cannot move quickly."
"You have writing?" Genghis asked, sitting forward with interest.
The messenger nodded without pride. "For many years now, lord. We have collected the writings of nations in the west, whenever they have allowed us to trade for them. Our khan is a man of great learning and has even copied works of the Chin and the Xi Xia."
"So I am to welcome scholars and teachers to this place?" Genghis said. "Will you fight with scrolls?"
The messenger colored as the men in the ger chuckled. "There are four thousand warriors also, my lord. They will follow Barchuk wherever he leads them."
"They will follow me, or they will be left as flesh on the grass," Genghis replied.
For a moment, the messenger could only stare, but then he dropped his eyes to the polished wooden floor and remained silent.
Genghis stifled his irritation. "You have not said when they will come, these Uighur scholars," he said.
"They could be only days behind me, lord. I left three moons ago and they were almost ready to leave. It cannot be long now, if you will have patience."
"For four thousand, I will wait," Genghis said softly, thinking. "You know the Chin writing?"
"I do not have my letters, lord. My khan can read their words."
"Do these scrolls say how to take a city made of stone?"
The messenger hesitated as he felt the sharp interest of the men around him.
"I have not heard of anything like that, lord. The Chin write about philosophy, the words of the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu. They do not write of war, or if they do, they have not allowed us to see those scrolls."
"Then they are of no use to me," Genghis snapped. "Get yourself a meal and be careful not to start a fight with your boasting. I will judge the Uighurs when they finally arrive."
The messenger bowed low before leaving the ger, taking a relieved breath as soon as he was out of the smoky atmosphere. Once more he wondered if his khan understood what he had promised with his words. The Uighur ruled themselves no longer.
Looking around at the vast encampment, the messenger saw twinkling lights for miles. At a word from the man he had met, they could be sent in any direction. Perhaps the khan of the Uighurs had not had a choice.
Hoelun dipped her cloth into a bucket and laid it on her son's brow. Temuge had always been weaker than his brothers, and it seemed an added burden that he fell sick more than Khasar or Kachiun, or Temujin himself. She smiled wryly at the thought that she must now call her son "Genghis." It meant the ocean and was a beautiful word twisted beyond its usual meaning by his ambition. He who had never seen the sea in his twenty-six years of life. Not that she had herself, of course.
Temuge stirred in his sleep, wincing as she probed his stomach with her fingers.
"He is quiet now. Perhaps I will leave for a time," Borte said. Hoelun glanced coldly at the woman Temujin had taken as a wife. Borte had given him four perfect sons and for a time Hoelun had thought they would be as sisters, or at least friends. The younger woman had once been full of life and excitement, but events had twisted her somewhere deep, where it could not be seen. Hoelun knew the way Temujin looked at the eldest boy. He did not play with little Jochi and all but ignored him. Borte had fought against the mistrust, but it had grown between them like an iron wedge into strong wood. It did not help that his three other boys had all inherited the yellow eyes of his line. Jochi's were a dark brown, as black as his hair in dim light. While Temujin doted on the others, it was Jochi who ran to his mother, unable to understand the coldness in his father's face when he looked at him. Hoelun saw the young woman glance at the door to the ger, no doubt thinking of her sons.
"You have servants to put them to bed," Hoelun chided. "If Temuge wakes, I will need you here."
As she spoke her fingers drifted over a dark knot under the skin of her son's belly, just a few fingerbreadths above the dark hair of his groin. She had seen such an injury before, when men lifted weights too heavy for them. The pain was crippling, but most of them recovered. Temuge did not have that kind of luck, and never had. He looked less like a warrior than ever as he had grown to manhood. When he slept, he had the face of a poet, and she loved him for that. Perhaps because his father would have rejoiced to see the men the others had become, she had always found a special tenderness for Temuge. He had not grown ruthless, though he had endured as much as they. She sighed to herself and felt Borte's eyes on her in the gloom.
"Perhaps he will recover," Borte said.
Hoelun winced. Her son blistered under the sun and rarely carried a blade bigger than an eating knife. She had not minded as he began to learn the histories of the tribes, taking them in with such speed that the older men were amazed at his recall. Not everyone could be skilled with weapons and horses, she told herself. She knew he hated the sneers and gibes that followed him in his work, though there were few who dared risk Genghis hearing of them. Temuge refused to mention the insults and that was a form of courage all its own. None of her sons lacked spirit.
Both women looked up as the small door of the ger opened. Hoelun frowned as she saw Kokchu enter and bow his head to them. His fierce eyes darted over the supine figure of her son, and she fought not to show her dislike, not even understanding her own reaction. There was something about the shaman that set her teeth on edge, and she had ignored the messengers he had sent. For a moment, she drew herself up, struggling between indignation and weariness.
"I did not ask for you," she said coldly.
Kokchu seemed oblivious to the tone. "I sent a slave to beg a moment with you, mother to khans. Perhaps he has not yet arrived. The whole camp is talking of your son's illness."
Hoelun felt the shaman's gaze fasten on her, waiting to be formally welcomed as she looked at Temuge once more. Always he was watching, as if inside, someone else looked out. She had seen how he pushed himself into the inner circles around Genghis, and she could not like him. The warriors might reek of sheep turds, mutton fat, and sweat, but those were the smells of healthy men. Kokchu carried an odor of rotting meat, though whether it was from his clothes or his flesh, she could not tell.
Faced with her silence, he should have left the ger, or risked her calling for guards. Instead, he spoke brazenly, somehow certain that she would not send him away.
"I have some healing skill, if you will let me examine him."
Hoelun tried to swallow her distaste. The shaman of the Olkhun'ut had only chanted over Temuge, without result.
"You are welcome in my home, Kokchu," she said at last. She saw him relax subtly and could not shake the feeling of being too close to something unpleasant.
"My son is asleep. The pain is very great when he is awake, and I want him to rest."
Kokchu crossed the small ger and crouched down beside the two women. Both edged unconsciously away from him.
"He needs healing more than rest, I think." Kokchu peered down at Temuge, leaning close to smell his breath. Hoelun winced in sympathy as he reached out to Temuge's bare stomach and probed the area of the lump, but she did not stop him. Temuge groaned in his sleep and Hoelun held her breath.
After a time, Kokchu nodded to himself.
"You should prepare yourself, old mother. This one will die."
Hoelun jerked out a hand and caught the shaman by his thin wrist. Her strength surprised him.
"He has wrenched his gut, shaman. I have seen it many times before. Even on ponies and goats have I seen it, and they always live."
Kokchu undid her shaking clasp with his other hand. It pleased him to see fear in her eyes. With fear, he could own her, body and soul. If she had been a young Naiman mother, he might have sought sexual favors in return for healing her son, but in this new camp, he needed to impress the great khan. He kept his face still as he replied, "You see the darkness of the lump? It is a growth that cannot be cut out. Perhaps if it were on the skin, I would burn it off, but it will have run claws into his stomach and lungs. It eats him mindlessly and it will not be satisfied until he is dead."
"You are wrong," Hoelun snapped, but there were tears in her eyes.
Kokchu lowered his gaze so that she would not see his triumph glitter there. "I wish I was, old mother. I have seen these things before and they have nothing but appetite. It will continue to savage him until they perish together." To make his point, he reached down and squeezed the swelling.
Temuge jerked and came awake with a sharp breath. "Who are you?" Temuge said to Kokchu, gasping. He struggled to sit up, but the pain made him cry out and he fell back onto the narrow bed. His hands tugged at a blanket to cover his nakedness, and his cheeks flushed hotly under Kokchu's scrutiny.
"He is a shaman, Temuge. He is going to make you well," Hoelun said. Temuge broke into fresh sweat and she dabbed the cloth to his skin as he settled back. After a time, his breathing slowed and he drifted into exhausted sleep once more. Hoelun lost a little of her tension, if not the terror Kokchu had brought into her home.
"If it is hopeless, shaman, why are you still here?" she said. "There are other men and women who need your healing skill." She could not keep the bitterness from her voice and did not guess that Kokchu rejoiced in it.
"I have fought what eats him twice before in my life. It is a dark rite and dangerous for the man who practices it as well as for your son. I tell you this so you do not despair, but it would be foolish to hope. Consider him to have died, and if I win him back, you will know joy."