After her mother foretells an ominous future for her, gifted Borte becomes an outsider within her clan. When she seeks comfort in the arms of aristocratic traveler Jamuka, she discovers he is the blood brother of Temujin, the man who agreed to marry her and then abandoned her long before they could wed.
Temujin will return and make Borte his queen, yet it will take many women to safeguard his fragile new kingdom. Their daughter, the fierce Alaqai, will ride and shoot an arrow as well as any man. Fatima, an elegant Persian captive, will transform her desire for revenge into an unbreakable loyalty. And Sorkhokhtani, a demure widow, will position her sons to inherit the empire when it begins to fracture from within.
In a world lit by fire and ruled by the sword, the tiger queens of Genghis Khan come to depend on one another as they fight and love, scheme and sacrifice, all for the good of their family...and the greatness of the People of the Felt Walls.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
ALSO BY STEPHANIE THORNTON
Our names have long been lost to time, scattered like ashes into the wind. No one remembers our ability to read the secrets of the oracle bones or the wars fought in our names. The words we wrote have faded from their parchments; the sacrifices we made are no longer recounted in the glittering courts of those we conquered. The deeds of our husbands, our brothers, and our sons have eclipsed our own as surely as when the moon ate the sun during the first battle of Nishapur.
Yet without us, there would have been no empire for our men to claim, no clan of the Thirteen Hordes left to lead, and no tales of victory to sing to the Eternal Blue Sky.
It was our destiny to love these men, to suffer their burdens and shoulder their sorrows, to bring them into this world, red-faced and squalling, and tuck their bones into the earth when they abandoned us for the sacred mountains, leaving us behind to fight their wars and protect their Spirit Banners.
We gathered our strength from the water of the northern lakes, the fire of the south’s Great Dry Sea, the brown earth of the western mountains, and the wild air of the eastern steppes. Born of the four directions, we cleaved together like the seasons for our very survival. In a world lit by fire and ruled by the sword, we depended upon one another for the very breath we drew.
Even as the steppes ran with blood and storm clouds roiled overhead, we loved our husbands, our brothers, and our sons. And we loved one another, the fierce love of mothers and sisters and daughters, born from our shared laughter and tears as our souls were woven together, stronger than the thickest felts.
And yet nothing lasts forever. One by one, our souls were gathered into the Eternal Blue Sky, our tents dismantled, and our herds scattered across the steppes. That is a tale yet to come.
It matters not how we died. Only one thing matters: that we lived.
YEAR OF THE IRON HARE
He came in the autumn of my tenth year, when the crisp air entices horses to race and the white cranes fly toward the southern hills.
A single man led a line of horses between the two great mountains that straddled our camp. Startled, I set down my milking pail and wiped my hands on my scratchy felt deel—the long caftan worn by men, women, and children alike—as my father joined me, grunting and shielding his eyes from the last rays of golden sunlight. Visitors and merchants often found their way to sit against the western wall of our domed ger, silently filling their bellies with salted sheep fat until our fermented mare’s milk loosened their tongues. I loved to hear their tales of distant steppes and mountain forests, of clans with foreign names and fearsome khans. My father was the leader of our Unigirad clan, but life outside our camp seemed terribly exotic to a girl who had never traveled past the river border of our summer grazing lands.
I finished milking the goats and untied them from the line, watching the shadows grow, eager for the trader’s stories that would carry me to sleep that night.
“Borte Ujin.” My mother, the famed seer Chotan, called from the carved door of our ger, her gray hair tied back and a chipped wooden cooking spoon in her hand. I hated that spoon—my backside had met it more times than I could count on my fingers and toes.
I was a twilight child, planted in my mother’s belly like an errant seed long after her monthly bloods had ceased. After being childless for so long, my parents welcomed even a mere girl-child, someone to help my mother churn butter and corral the herds with my father. And so I grew up their only daughter, indulged by my elderly father while my mother harangued me to sit straighter and pay more attention to the calls of geese and the other messages from all the spirits.
My mother was by far the shortest woman in our village, but the look she gave me now would have scattered a pack of starving wolves. “Pull your head from the clouds, Borte,” she said. “The marmot won’t roast itself.”
I lugged the skin bucket of milk inside, ducking into the heavy scents of animal hides, earth, and burning dung. The thick haze of smoke made my throat and eyes burn. The felt ceiling was stained black from years of soot, and the smoke hole was open to the Eternal Blue Sky, the traditional rope that represented the umbilical cord of the universe dangling from the cloud-filled circle. A dead marmot lay by the fire, the size of a small dog, with prickly fur like tiny porcupine quills. Our meat usually came from one of the Five Snouts—horses, goats, sheep, camels, and cattle—but my father’s eyes sparkled when he could indulge my mother’s taste for wild marmot. The oily meat was a pleasant change.
“There’s a visitor on the path.” I hacked off the marmot’s head with a dull blade and yanked out the purple entrails. My father’s mottled dog pushed at my hip with her muzzle, but I swatted her away, daring to toss her the gizzards only when my mother wasn’t looking.
Mother sighed and rubbed her temples, squinting as if staring through the felt walls at something far away. “I knew about the visitor before he stepped over the horizon,” she said, the beads that dangled from her sleeves chattering with her every movement. Each was a reminder of a successful prophecy breathed to life by her lips, bits of bone and clay gathered from the spine of the Earth Mother to adorn her blue seer’s robes.
I glanced at the fire. Two singed sheep scapulae lay on the hearth, cracked with visions of the future. My mother’s father had been a holy man amongst our people, but he had passed to the sacred mountains the night I fell from her womb. There were whispers that my grandfather’s untethered powers might have found a new home in my soul, and his Spirit Banner still fluttered in the breeze outside our ger, strands of black hair from his favorite stallion tied to his old spear, so that his soul might continue to guide us.
My mother stuffed the marmot’s empty stomach cavity with steaming rocks. “These strangers will bring great fortune and great tragedy.” She spoke as if commenting about the quality of our mares’ dung, then pushed a strand of graying hair back from her face and glanced at my palms, slick with blood. “You’d best not greet your fate with foul hands.”
My skin prickled with dread. My mother was an udgan, a rare female shaman, and had cast my bones only once and then forbade me from speaking of the dark omens to anyone, including my father. Lighter prophecies than mine had driven other parents to fill their children’s pockets with stones and drown them. And so I had swallowed the words and promised never to speak of them.
The Eternal Blue Sky was bruised black when I stepped outside, and the scent of roasting horsemeat from a nearby ger made my stomach rumble. The water in the horses’ trough clung to the warmth of the day and I scrubbed until the flesh of my hands was raw. As on any other night, voices floated from the other far-flung tents. My cheeks grew warm at the grunts of lovemaking from the newly stitched ger of a couple freshly wed, the young man and woman who my mother claimed mounted each other like rabbits. The moans were muffled by a new mother crooning to her fussy infant and an old woman berating her grandsons for tracking mud into her tent.
And my father’s voice.
I started toward him but retreated into the shadows as a wiry stranger stepped into view. About the same age as my father, the man wore two black braids threaded with gray hanging down his back, topped with a wide-ruffed hat of rabbit fur. Five dun-colored horses grazed in the paddock, laden with packs, their dark manes cropped close. I strained to hear the conversation, but my father only complimented the man on the quality of his animals. The stranger patted the flank of a pretty mare, releasing a puff of dancing dust into the air. Early moonlight gleamed on the curved sword at his hip, an unusual sight amongst my peace-loving clan, but then the light hit his face. I stumbled back, nearly landing on my backside.
His right eye glittered like a black star, but the left socket was empty, a dark slit nestled between folds of wrinkled skin and at the exact center of a long white scar, likely an old battle wound.
“And I thought they called you Dei the Wise.” The man grinned at my father, revealing two lines of crooked brown teeth. “You didn’t think I’d come without something to trade this time, did you, Dei?”
This time. So my father knew this traveler.
I thought to stay and listen, but the stranger shifted on his feet and his gaze fell on me. I expected a one-eyed scowl, but instead the man’s bushy eyebrows lifted in surprise.
I shrank further into the shadows, pulling the darkness around my shoulders. My mother would have my skin if she knew I’d been eavesdropping. Learning more about this stranger would have to wait until he’d filled his belly with our marmot.
I scuttled back to our ger, feeding the fire with dried mare dung until it crackled and my cheeks flushed with heat. My mother bustled about, mumbling to herself as she set out five mismatched wooden cups.
“There’s only one visitor, Mother.”
She ignored me and poured fresh goat milk into two cups, then filled the other three with airag. I knew better than to argue what I’d seen with my own eyes.
My mother pulled the rocks from the marmot’s belly as the wooden door opened, ushering in a gust of cool air along with my father and his guest. Behind the man skulked a scrawny boy scarcely my height, dressed in the same ragged squirrel pelts as his father and fingering the necklace at his throat, a menacing wolf tooth hung from a leather thong. His black hair was cropped close to his head and his eyes gleamed the same gray as a wolf’s pelt. My father’s dog gave a happy bark and jumped up, paws on the boy’s shoulders as if embracing a lost friend. The boy’s hand went to the hilt of his sword, a smaller version of his father’s, and for a moment I thought he might stab the dumb beast. I dragged her away by the scruff of her neck and forced her to sit at my feet, prompting a raised eyebrow from the boy.
I turned my nose up at him and looked to the one-eyed visitor as he bowed to my mother. At least the father had manners.
“Chotan,” he said to my mother, straightening. “I bear warm words from Hoelun, my first wife and mother of my eldest son.”
My mother grasped the wooden cooking spoon so hard I thought it might crack. It took me a moment to recall the story of my mother’s childhood friend Hoelun, married to a handsome Merkid warrior who loved her. The story of her shame and dishonor while en route to her new husband’s homeland was still whispered around hearth fires, that a desperate Borijin hunter had been tracking a rabbit when he came across a splash of fresh urine in the snow, left by a woman. The man ignored the rabbit and hunted the woman instead, stealing her from her husband and claiming her as his wife.
A one-eyed hunter.
This man wearing a sword curved like a smile was no exotic trader, but instead a kidnapper of women.
The fire suddenly burned too hot, yet a cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck. I stepped toward my mother, well away from the men’s side of the tent. “And this must be your daughter,” he said, opening his arms toward me. “Her face is filled with the first light of dawn, yet her eyes are full of fire like the sun.”
It wasn’t my eyes that filled with fire then, but my cheeks.
“Borte’s soul is full of fire,” my mother snapped. “As was Hoelun’s.”
“Still is,” the stranger said with a laugh. “Fiery women make the best wives.” He elbowed the black-haired boy, still standing sullenly at the edge of the ger. “They’re certainly the best in bed.”
At least I wasn’t the only one with burning cheeks. The boy looked as if he wished the Earth Mother would open her maw and swallow him.
My father cleared his throat and handed the largest cup of airag to his guest. “You must be thirsty after so long a journey, Yesugei. Rest a while and then you can tell us why you’ve come.”
The men stuffed their bellies with so much marmot that my stomach still rumbled when I lay on my pile of furs later, listening to Yesugei’s wild tales. His son hadn’t yet spoken, only sat on the visitors’ west side of the tent as if forgotten by his father and crammed his mouth with marmot as if he might never eat again. His gray eyes darted about, no doubt taking in everything. I burned to know why this one-eyed man dared return to the village of the woman he’d kidnapped, but the heat of the fire pulled me into sleep. The furious whispers of my mother and father entered my dreams, but the rosy fingers of day pushed their way through the cracks of the ger when I next opened my eyes.
I wished I hadn’t woken when I heard what the men were discussing.
“Temujin would make Borte a good husband,” Yesugei said.
Temujin. So that was the boy’s name. It meant to rush headlong, like a horse racing where it wished, no matter what its rider wanted. He sat cross-legged by the door, sharpening a stick with a wicked-looking knife as his foot twitched. I had a feeling he was ready to bolt at any moment, to saddle a horse and tear across the steppes.
I might beat him to it.
“They’re too young.” My mother’s voice stung like a wasp. I peered through slitted eyes to see my father lay a gentle hand on her arm, the platter of dried horsemeat to break our fasts untouched between them. “I’ll not give the only treasure of my womb to a Tayichigud raider,” she muttered.
I wondered then if she wished she had told my father our secret instead of keeping it hidden all these years. Now it was too late.
“Since the days of the blue-gray wolf and the fallow deer, the beauty of our daughters has sheltered us from battles and wars. Our daughters are our shields.” My father’s words were an oft-repeated maxim amongst our Unigirad clan, yet Yesugei’s people were well-known as the lowest and meanest of the steppe’s families, as sharp clawed and sneaky as battle-scarred weasels. No single man ruled the grasslands, meaning that the belligerent Merkid, wealthy Tatars, fierce Naiman, and even the Christian Kereyids all fought continuous wars for supremacy.
“Borte,” my father said in a stern voice, but I kept my eyes closed. “Stop feigning sleep and come here.”
I sat up and my mother handed me a cup of goat’s milk to wash the bitter taste of sleep from my mouth, but I found it hard to swallow.
“I’d keep my little goat with us as long as possible, forever if I could.” My father twirled a strip of dried meat between gnarled fingers, then sighed. “But as much as I might wish it, it is not my daughter’s fate to grow old by the door of the tent she was born in.”
“My husband,” my mother said. “It is not wise—”
My father didn’t allow her to finish, only raised his hand for silence.
“I don’t wish to be married,” I said, praying the Earth Mother would send up roots from the ground to bind me forever to this ger. I had no desire to be saddled to the half-wild son of a barbarian raider. Surely my father would not match me to a boy so far below us, and thereby banish me to the farthest and most barren expanse of the steppes.
“One day I’ll give you my daughter, to keep the peace between our clans,” my father spoke over my head to Yesugei, his hand on my shoulder. I had no doubt that Yesugei might steal what he wanted, as he’d done before with Hoelun, thereby disgracing me forever. I waited for my father to nudge me forward, yet he didn’t move. “But that day is not yet born.”
I stared up at him, only then noticing the tick of blood fast in the vein on his neck. “Instead,” he said, “I invite you to leave Temujin with us for a while, to hunt and herd for me so we can get to know our new son.”
Yesugei gave a bark of laughter and clapped the boy on his back, grinning as if he’d just returned victorious from a raid on a neighboring village. “Do you hear that, boy?” he asked. “I just gained you a wife!”
In that moment I wondered if all girls’ hearts curled up in their chests and their knees threatened to give way upon hearing the news of their betrothals.
Many cups of airag later, Yesugei swung up unsteadily onto his horse’s bare back, then dropped the rabbit-fur hat onto Temujin’s head. “I leave my son to you,” he said to my father, then straightened and glanced at his boy. Temujin bore traces of his father in his bushy brows and the wry twist of his lips, but they differed in the set of their jaws and the slant of their eyes. I wondered if he favored his mother instead, or some ancestor long since passed to the sacred mountains. Yesugei circled his son on horseback, then bowed to my father. “I fear you’re not so clever as they say, Dei the Wise, for I have gotten the better end of this deal.” He turned his horse to leave, then called over his shoulder, “And you should know, this whelp of mine is frightened by dogs.”
Then Yesugei trotted away with his string of horses, heading back to his people, leaving behind a single dun-colored filly as a gift to my father, and a black-haired boy with a scowl like a storm.
My future husband.
* * *
Orange clouds streaked the sky that night and the air was so chilled that I jammed my favorite hat—tattered leather with ugly earflaps—over the snarls in my hair before going out to milk the mares. We had quickly learned that the filly left behind by Yesugei was an ill-tempered beast; I’d already been kicked trying to mount her. My father had only shaken his head and sighed. “I should have expected as much from Yesugei the Brave.”
I had hoped my father might send Temujin away after such a slight, but instead he made space for Temujin’s bed on the men’s side of the ger. The boy’s blanket was still rolled up, as if he was prepared to flee at any moment.
How I wished he would.
I knew in my heart that I should thank the Earth Mother that Temujin wasn’t older than my father, fat, and toothless, with a passel of snot-nosed children from other wives, old women who would box my ears and make me gather horse dung until my back broke. At least Temujin’s teeth were mostly straight and his skin was smooth—even if he was younger than me and his features seemed permanently etched into a glare. All women married, and I would be Temujin’s first wife, the position of honor girls daydreamed about and women fought for.
But I didn’t thank the Earth Mother. Instead, I cursed my father for promising me to the son of a one-eyed thief and my mother for not trying harder to stop him. And then it occurred to me—perhaps if Temujin knew what I did about my future, then he would no longer want me. For the first time I considered breaking my oath of silence to my mother.
I looked to the Eternal Blue Sky for a sign, yet the spirits were stubborn that night and the skies remained empty, without even a breeze to hint at the path I should take.
I had just come from telling my friend Gurbesu about my betrothal and my ears still rang with her shrieks of glee. Now I craved the quiet murmur of the river before returning home for the night. I emerged from the forest of tents and gasped at the sight before me. Temujin sat on the back of the dun-colored filly, his fists wrapped tight in the black mane and his ankles digging into the horse’s sides as it attempted to throw him. He leaned back just enough that it was impossible to tell where beast ended and boy began. I waited for him to fly into the fence, pondering whether I’d leave him in the dirt or help him up, when the mare slowed and trotted in a circle around the paddock. Temujin grinned then, an expression of such unfettered joy that I knew he thought himself alone.
He saw me when the filly rounded the bend. I took some satisfaction as his eyes widened and he released the horse’s mane to run his hands over his closely shaved scalp. The breeze ruffled the hem of my deel, carrying a whiff of my scent to the horse.
In less than a breath, she reared up and deposited Temujin on his rump in the dust. The animal snorted and cantered off, flicking her tail and dropping a pile of fresh manure on the packed earth.
Temujin scrambled up and glowered at me. “You startled her.”
“So you do speak.” I’d expected his voice to be that of a boy, but it already bore the deep tone of the man he would soon become.
“Of course I speak,” he said, brushing off his trousers. “Did you think I was mute?”
The thought had crossed my mind; after all, he’d done no more than grunt during the betrothal ceremony. I shrugged and folded my arms in front of my chest. “You shouldn’t be riding that horse.”
“Why not?” He bent his skinny arms to mirror me, then nickered to the filly. “She’s mine.”
“No, she’s not.” Then the realization filled my mind. “Your father left us your horse?”
He shrugged. “He would never leave behind anything of value.”
Still, he’d left Temujin behind, although his worth had yet to be measured. Yesugei was even slipperier than we’d expected. “She’s not even broken.”
“My father couldn’t break her. That’s why he gave her to me.” He called to the horse again. The filly’s ears flicked as if at a buzzing fly, but then she trotted toward us. “It was either that or eat her.”
Temujin vaulted onto her empty back and offered me a hand up. His hands were square and squat, much like the rest of him.
“I prefer not to break my neck,” I said.
“She hardly ever throws anyone.” He grinned, the expression transforming his young face. “At least not if you hold on tight.”
I ignored his hand, knowing I should leave, but instead I grabbed a fist of the horse’s mane and mounted behind him. The filly startled and sidestepped for a moment, but Temujin didn’t give her a chance to think. Instead, he kicked his heels into her ribs, sending her bolting straight toward the paddock’s rickety spruce log wall.
The scream that tore the sky came from my own throat; the paddock was built so tall that no horse could clear it. Yet with Temujin’s urging in her ear, the dun-colored filly leapt into the air, arcing over the fence and landing with a jolt so hard my teeth almost cracked.
And then we were tearing out of camp, racing past slack-jawed boys bringing in their goats and old men huddled together trading even older hunting stories. I thought I glimpsed my father, but I blinked as my eyes watered at the speed. I clutched Temujin’s bony ribs, feeling my hat fly away and my hair tumble loose behind me.
And then I laughed. Never before had I dashed barebacked over the steppes like this, scattering grasshoppers and racing the cranes overhead.
Temujin’s voice joined mine and he urged the horse faster. Only after the filly’s pace began to lag did he rein her in. The gers of my camp were tiny dots on the horizon, white cotton flowers in the distance.
“So you can laugh,” he said over his shoulder, mocking my earlier words. The filly ignored our conversation, more interested in the grass at her feet.
“Of course I can laugh,” I said, making a face at the back of his head.
Temujin seemed much easier now that his father was gone, as if every step Yesugei took away from our camp lightened his son’s heart. I wondered if the same would happen once I left my mother’s tent, but the very thought was like a weight pressing against my chest.
“One day I’ll be khan of my clan,” he said. “I’ll have a whole herd of horses like this one. Sheep, goats, and camels, too.”
“What, no yaks?”
He laughed. “Maybe a few yaks.”
I let my arms hang loose, noting the worn leather of his boot and the countless places where it had been stitched with sinews of various colors and ages. Many boys before him had probably worn the same shoes. I wondered how hard his life had been, how difficult mine would be once we were married. “Your father must be a good herder to be able to spare his eldest son.”
I knew even before his spine stiffened that it was the wrong thing to say. “My father is a terrible herder,” he said. “But he’s an excellent raider.”
I searched for something to say. “I suppose that takes skill as well.”
Temujin glanced back at me again, then laughed. “Are you always so polite?”
“Are you always so rude?” I scowled, but he didn’t seem to mind. “I should return home,” I said. “My mother will be wondering where I am.”
I feared he would argue, but then he urged the filly into a trot toward camp, forcing my arms around him again. “My father told me before he left that I should be pleased to have such an obedient wife,” he said. “I held my tongue.”
“You don’t care for an obedient wife?”
“I think you’re like this filly. You only act obedient,” he said, “because you don’t want anyone to see your true nature.”
I let my hands drop completely then, preferring to take my chances on being thrown than to touch him a moment longer. He felt my anger and glanced over his shoulder.
“I meant that as a compliment,” he said, his voice quiet. “I think there’s more to you than you show the world, Borte Ujin.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you don’t want to marry me.”
I sighed, wishing I was gathering stinging nettles or lancing a boil on my mother’s foot. Anywhere but here. “No, I don’t want to marry you,” I finally said.
“Because I’m coarse, rude, and beneath you in every way that matters.” His voice was angry, but his shoulders slumped under the weight of his words.
He spoke the truth, but I didn’t care to injure him further. My mother’s warning filled my mind, the words that had sworn me to secrecy years ago. There seemed so many reasons to tell him the prophecy, and so few to keep the truth hidden any longer.
I shifted behind him, unable to find comfort. “No, there’s something else,” I said, each word drawn out. “My mother cast my future when I was born.”
“So did mine,” Temujin said. “I was born with a blood clot held tight in my fist. My mother claimed the sign meant I was destined for greatness.”
I smiled sadly, glad he couldn’t see my face. “She may be right.”
Temujin seemed to sense my melancholy. “What was your prophecy?”
I hesitated, prompting a low chuckle from deep in his chest. “Consider who my father is, Borte Ujin. Nothing you can say will shock me.”
Still the words lodged like stones in my throat. Temujin deserved to know the truth if he thought to marry me one day. Or perhaps he might abandon me now and avert the whole tragedy.
“My mother cast my bones while bits of her womb still clung to me and blood ran down her legs.”
“And?” Temujin’s hand covered mine and he pulled it to his chest, as if giving me the strength to speak the words.
“I will cleave two men apart and ignite a great Blood War that will rain tears and destruction upon the steppes.” The words tasted like ash in my mouth, and my mother’s warning echoed in my ears. Suddenly it was difficult to breathe, as if giving voice to the terrible words had cost me more than I knew.
Temujin covered my arms with his, his fingers weaving between mine in the filly’s mane. I leaned forward, letting my head rest on his back and daring to breathe deeply of his scent. “I battled a wolf once to get this tooth,” he said, his bones vibrating with the sound as he touched my fingers to the necklace at his throat. “You can’t scare me away with a warning of blood and war.”
My head jerked up. “Then you’re a fool.”
“No,” he said. “I happen to think you may be worth fighting for.”
The air around me grew suddenly cold, and I shook my head at his audacity. “You’re worse than a fool, then,” I said. “You shouldn’t taunt the spirits with such jests.”
“It’s no jest,” he said. “I promise I would fight for you, Borte Ujin.”
I heard the spirits’ shocked whispers in the flutter of birch leaves and the shifting grasses at the filly’s feet. I wrapped my arms tighter around Temujin, needing his warmth to ward off the cold that had seeped into my bones.
“Still,” I whispered, shivering, “I pray it never comes to that.”
* * *
Temujin sought me out often over the next few days to ask my opinion about the goats my father set him to herding or to bring me a gift of brown partridges strung by their wings, each shot through the eyes by his arrows. Once he gave me a purple globe thistle he’d found while riding the dun-colored filly, claiming it reminded him of me. I had nothing to say to that, only stuttered as he smiled and sauntered off, pausing to rub the muzzle of each horse he passed.
It startled me to see the people of our camp warm toward this coarse youth from the Borijin clan, the flock of boys who trailed him and the indulgent smiles of old women as he waved to them each evening. Temujin possessed the talent of drawing people to him, a rarer ability even than my mother’s gift of sight.
A few nights later, an unfamiliar boy spattered with so much mud that it might have poured from the heavens pounded into our village, his chest heaving like someone dying.
But it was someone else’s soul that was about to be called to the sacred mountains.
I was outside our ger straining curds of yak milk through a cloth when the boy reined in his horse, a lathered old thing ready to fall over and die. A heavy autumn rain had drenched our village the day before, and the animal’s every step squelched with mud. The horse bent its head, lips smacking as it drank from a puddle.
The rider swung to the ground, head snapping back and forth so his thin braids slapped his shoulders like a drum. “Where is Temujin of the Borijin?”
My father set aside his work repairing a strap on my mother’s saddle. “Temujin will one day be my son-in-marriage,” he said, standing. “What message do you have for him?”
The boy had to tilt his head back to look my father in the eyes. “I’ve come to return Temujin to his father.”
The words felt as if someone had thrown a bucket of creek water on me. I stood rooted where I was as a crowd gathered, their gazes on me.
My father gave a minute shake of his head, as if to clear the visitor’s words from his mind. “May I ask why you seek to steal my future son?”
The messenger wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. “On his way home to his wife and younger sons, Yesugei stopped on the Yellow Steppe to join a Tatar feast.”
Temujin shifted next to me—I hadn’t even noticed his approach until then. He laughed under his breath, but the sound held no joy. “My father never would have feasted with the Tatars,” he muttered, his young mouth twisting in a glimpse of what he might look like years from now, a stooped old man with a scowl etched into his skin. “He defeated them in battle too many times.”
The messenger continued. “The Tatars bear no love for Yesugei’s clan. They recognized him and poisoned him. He is dying.”
Temujin swayed on his feet. Without thinking, I reached out and squeezed his hand, cool and dry to the touch. No one should face death alone.
“Where is Temujin?” the messenger repeated. “His father is asking for him.”
My father’s eyes sought him out. “If my friend thinks so much of his son, I’ll let him go.” He glanced at our clasped hands. “When he’s seen his father again, have him come quickly back.”
Temujin pressed his palms together and bent over them, his lips tight. He might not have been the image of a respectful son when his father was here, but then, Yesugei hadn’t been the image of a perfect father either. Still, the pull of blood remained.
“I promise to return before the next full moon,” he said, the ancient stars flickering overhead. “To you and your daughter.”
Temujin looked at me, the question plain in his eyes. The ancestors pushed on me from all sides, whispering conflicting words of duty and sacrifice in my ears. I swallowed hard, meeting his gaze. “I will wait for you,” I said. “I promise.”
Someone pressed an offering of milk into my hands and I looked up to see Temujin holding a bone cup. Together we poured the white liquid into the earth, sealing our promise to each other.
Temujin didn’t bid me good-bye—those sacred words would be spoken only right before death claimed one of us—but instead unclasped his wolf-tooth necklace and tied it around my neck. I touched its edge, feeling the sharpness of its promise as my betrothed mounted his horse. Temujin nodded and then kicked his heels, leaving the messenger scrambling behind him. Mud and tufts of soggy grass flew into the air as the horses took off.
I watched him disappear over the horizon, while the rest of the clan floated back to the warmth of their gers until only my father remained.
“He’ll return soon, Borte,” he said, squeezing my shoulder. “He promised.”
Temujin’s coming had shaken my world, as surely as a blizzard in summer or the mares dropping their foals on the darkest day of the year, but as his father’s eldest son, he might not return if Yesugei died. It would then be Temujin’s duty to provide for his mother and siblings, to hunt and herd as he’d promised to do for my father.
If Yesugei died, I might never see Temujin again.
Yet I felt my soul already bound to his. Whether he returned or not, I had only one choice.
I would wait.
YEAR OF THE YELLOW DOG
Temujin didn’t return.
At seventeen, I was nearly past the age of marriage; all the other girls from my childhood balanced infants at their breasts and at least one more at their hips. I let die the hope that I might be able to overcome the curse I bore and lead a normal life.
I thought myself very wise then, as the young often do, yet I knew very little.
For seven long years I had watched the empty horizon while the birth and death of the seasons forced me to grow into my breasts and hips. I spent the summer days scrying stories from sheep bones with my mother and the winter nights unfolding the messages of my dreams. The swirl of gossip claimed I was a dishonored woman, cast aside by the lowest of the Thirteen Hordes. Worse still, the truth of my curse had spread in all four directions across the steppes, whispered from clan to clan after Temujin left. I shed hot tears and cursed him for spilling my secret to the world, for I could no longer even draw water from the river without the old women of our clan averting their eyes or the young men spitting at my feet.
Still, although my name was stained, it was now Temujin’s that was blackened beyond repair.
As the seasons passed, travelers brought us ever-wilder tales, claiming that Temujin had returned to his mother after his father’s death, but their clan had abandoned them on the banks of the Onan River. He and his family were reduced to wearing the skins of dogs and voles, to eating roots and even the repulsive fish that ran in the rivers. It wasn’t until he took the anda blood vows with another young man that he gained an alliance with a second clan, likely saving both him and his family from certain starvation.
Then the stories took a sinister turn. A wizened traveler with a mustache like two silver snakes claimed Temujin had murdered his half brother, a boy who had shared his father’s blood, although their souls had unfurled in different wombs. My mind couldn’t reconcile the smiling boy in scuffed boots taking aim at his brother’s back with a bow and arrow, and the image haunted my dreams. How could I marry a man who had murdered his own brother?
Temujin went on to battle other clans until finally he was captured by the Tayichigud. They strapped a heavy wooden cangue over his neck and shoulders, a terrible form of torture meant to degrade the soul as he was forced to beg from his enemies, unable even to feed himself due to the awkward bulk of the contraption.
I’d be a liar to claim I shed tears for him, for some small part of me believed that Temujin’s dead brother and all the other spirits were having their revenge on this boy, whom I now realized I had scarcely known at all. I relished the thought that somewhere under the stars he suffered while I bore the dark stares and muttered curses of my clan. But somehow Temujin managed to escape, and people now whispered that the upstart son of one-eyed Yesugei sought an alliance with Ong Khan, the most powerful leader on the steppe.
All of it mattered, yet at the same time, none of it mattered.
The sheep bones scalded my fingers, but still I held them tight, scowling at their jagged lines, which spread like scars, before thrusting them back into the fire. The angry flames spit at me, the smoke and heat making my eyes water. A tiny grasshopper leapt onto a rock and then disappeared between the blades of green grass. I sucked my fingers, tasting the familiar tang of singed flesh and ash.
It was the taste of a war yet to come, a shadow of dead men and burning steppes. And the bones foretold that I would cause this war as surely as if I myself had wielded the bow and flaming quarrels that started it.
“Borte Ujin, you’re quiet as an owl in daylight.” Gurbesu hovered over my shoulder like a gaudy dragonfly, long turquoise stones jangling from her ears, as she tried to see the message of my fate. Gurbesu was as bright and bold as a summer day, the lone girl in our clan who paid no heed to the rumors about me, mostly because the gossip that swirled about her was just as plentiful. A herd of her father’s shaggy goats grazed nearby, doing their utmost to ignore us. “What do the bones say this time?”
A blind crone could predict the futures of every girl in our camp—they’d all marry men from distant camps and churn out lapfuls of wide-cheeked children who would learn to crawl, ride, and then run across the steppes. The only variation was an early death, heralded by the abrupt end of a fissure on the bone, as the girl struggled on all fours to usher new life into the world.
But the cracks in Gurbesu’s oracle bones told the story of a long life that wouldn’t end until most of her teeth had fallen out and her breasts sagged to her knees. Her sheep bones remained as white as polished ivory, but the marrow of mine always charred black, flaking away and staining my fingernails with the darkness of war and death.
My mother said it was the strength of my water element that allowed me to withstand the heat of the sacred fire and read the divining bones with such terrible clarity. I often wished I favored the air or earth instead of the most powerful element, for water feeds the Earth Mother, making it stronger even than the mountains. Yet my mother promised that one day I would be grateful for the strength of the rain and river, lakes and streams.
Gurbesu prodded me in the ribs. “What do they say?”
“Nothing about a man like a stallion in my bed. Sorry to disappoint.” I mustered a smile and stoked the fire, watching it devour the evidence of my bleak future.
“He doesn’t have to be a stallion.” Gurbesu giggled. “Maybe a snake, one with a quick tongue.”
“Gurbesu!” My ears burned. “The bones said I’ll soon have a visitor,” I said, fingering the wolf-tooth necklace that was always at my throat. It wasn’t a full lie; in my dream the night before, a foreign bird with long white feathers had landed on our ger, pecking holes in the thick felt until I chased it away. I’d almost mentioned it to my mother to have her make sense of it, but I thought better of it.
“We all have visitors, you silly yak,” Gurbesu said. “That’s the whole point of the Festival of Games.” She gestured with an open palm to the white gers that crowded our camp, the tents that covered the steppe like a snow-dotted lake. The men’s wrestling—Gurbesu’s favorite competition—would begin when the sun reached its crest in the Eternal Blue Sky.
Gurbesu shielded her eyes as she studied the men clustering around the empty horse paddock and ran the tip of her pink tongue over her full lips. Sixteen winters old and with the perfectly round, flushed cheeks so often lauded in love songs, my friend was everything I wasn’t—short, plump, and more than willing to let the village boys push open her deel and fondle her ample breasts behind the tall pine tree outside our summer camp. Gurbesu’s father would be hard-pressed to keep his only daughter from stealing off with one—or likely more than one—of the wrestlers tonight. One day my friend’s father would negotiate her bride-price and I’d be alone.
“Speaking of visiting,” Gurbesu said, “I noticed you with Degei this morning.”
“He needed a poultice. That speckled ewe bit his finger.”
“If I were his sheep, I’d bite him, too.” She looked at me through lashes as thick as a camel’s and we burst out laughing. There were rumors that Degei occasionally used his animals as a man would a woman, an offense typically overlooked in young men, but often prompting parents to find them wives before another season passed. Gurbesu flopped back in the grass, her hair gleaming in the summer sun like a river of ebony. “Degei follows you like a lamb.”
“He’s about as smart as one, too.” I shook my head. “I don’t think Degei can be counted as a visitor.”
“He might,” she said, grinning, “if he visited your bed.”
“Gurbesu!” I threw a stick at her, but it only served to make her laugh harder. A shaggy goat lifted its head, sniffed in indignation, and trotted off to the sound of tinkling bells.
Perhaps I should let Degei between my legs. Still, I liked to think I might do better than Degei, with his affinity for sheep and his breath like a rotten mushroom.
I emptied a skin bucket of water on the fire. “We’d best go or we’ll miss the festival entirely.”
Gurbesu brushed the dust from her felted skirt, the same vivid red as summer poppies. “Let me know if you’d like me to carry a message to Degei,” she said.
I rolled my eyes and stooped to gather my leather pouch of divining bones as Gurbesu danced down the path toward the well-trodden horse pasture, where almost all the clans had gathered. She elbowed her way through the crowd surrounding the horse paddock and I followed in her wake. An old man from our clan with an unkempt beard drew a sharp breath and stepped back when I passed. I cursed my uncommon height then, wishing I could disappear as he leaned away to avoid contaminating himself by brushing against me. A whisper traded with the foreigners at his elbow soon cleared our path. Even in a crowd as large as this, I would always stand alone.
I tilted my chin high and looked to the belly of the Eternal Blue Sky, heavy with the promise of rain yet to fall. Gurbesu had reached the paddock’s railing and now perched on the top rung, but I dragged her to the bottom after a man with fists like boulders threatened to throw her into a fresh heap of dung if she didn’t move. She didn’t notice; her gaze remained riveted on the crowd of wrestlers, dressed only in leather vests, breechcloths, and knee-high boots. The majority of the competitors were young, but a few had traces of gray in their beards and more hair on their backs than on their heads. Most wore their vests clasped with bone toggles, but some bare bellies reminded me of autumn hogs, hanging over the red and blue sashes tied around their waists. Of course, it was the men with chests that looked as if they’d been carved from stone that held Gurbesu’s attention.
The wrestlers paired off, some evenly matched, but others squared against opponents twice their size and a head taller. They waved their arms in the traditional dance of soaring eagles, then grasped their opponents’ waists or shoulders. Gurbesu giggled next to me, but my eyes were on a slender young man not far from us. The red felt of his vest and black leather of his breechcloth were well made, and his cheekbones were exquisitely high but not too narrow.
White boned then, one of the ancient and noble lineages. My family, like most, was born of the common black-bone clans.
He moved with the grace of a dragon as he finished the eagle dance. I watched as he and his opponent locked limbs, wincing as the larger man tried to trip him, and then losing sight of them as the other teams staggered about the field. It didn’t matter; the noble would be lucky to leave the field without a clutch of bruises to mar his fair skin.
Gurbesu and I cheered as the number of wrestlers in the paddock began to dwindle, the losers melting into the crowd with their bloodied noses and faces smeared with dirt as the victors faced off against each other until only two remained. To my surprise, the white-boned noble from the first match stood victorious. He’d need the strength of the dragon he so resembled as he faced one of the crowd favorites, a battle-scarred warrior from a distant western clan.
The two performed the eagle dance and clasped hands before using their shoulders to ram each other. They remained locked in what might have been an embrace between old friends for so long that the crowd grew restless, but neither man was able to force the other to his hands or knees to claim victory.
“I hope that smelly ox doesn’t drop the young one on his head,” Gurbesu whispered. She and I had both seen plenty of matches end that way over the years, leaving men with bruised eyes and broken noses. I forced myself to unfurl my fists, but Gurbesu clutched my damp palm. “It would be a shame to waste such a pretty face.”
Still the white-bone and the ox clung to each another. Finally the noble dared to lean back and lunge at his opponent’s stomach, locking his arms around the man’s thick waist and twirling him around. The surprise attack unbalanced the giant and he tottered, finally crashing to the ground with a puff of dust amidst a mixture of curses and cheers from the crowd.
The winner offered a hand to the giant, who roared with laughter and stumbled to his feet.
“Jamuka of the Jadarin is the winner!” An official in a blue vest bowed before the victor, offering him a wooden cup filled with fresh milk and a pointed blue velvet hat trimmed with sable. The white-bone accepted the headdress and took the cup, pouring the milk into the earth in an offering to his ancestors while the judge tossed traditional cheese curds to the spectators.
The crowd cheered and men rushed forward to clap the winner on the back, likely the ones who had placed bets on his victory. Others grumbled under their breath and stuffed their mouths with cheese, drifting off to watch the horse races or gamble over impromptu games of knucklebones thrown in the dirt. Gurbesu lingered, making camel eyes at several wrestlers still damp with sweat, their knees and hands smeared with dirt. “You go ahead,” she said. “I don’t want to miss the horse races.”
“The races don’t start until the sun hits the top of the Black Mountain,” I said.
“Then stay,” she said, an evil glint in her eye. “I’m sure I could find a visitor to entertain even you.”
I rolled my eyes to the dark clouds overhead, feeling the first drops of rain on my cheeks. “I’ll find you before the races.”
“Meet me at the river,” she hollered, fluttering her fingers as she pulled her deel tighter around her breasts. A wrestler in snug brown breeches stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of her. I ignored the stab of envy at my friend’s easy confidence as Gurbesu laughed and crooked a bold finger at him.
Today our camp had swollen to the size of many villages, filled with the last happy conversations and laughter of reunited friends and family before the first frost killed the grasses and winter’s snows cut us off from one another.
And yet I’d never felt so alone.
* * *
“It’s unfortunate that white-bone didn’t join the horse races yesterday.” Gurbesu lay on her stomach in the grass along the river, feet kicked up to reveal the skin of her legs while she braided daisies into a chain. I traced the imprint of hoofprints stamped into the earth, mostly dry after today’s brilliant sunshine. Gurbesu had met me here after the Festival of Games’ final horse races, her normally sleek hair mussed and her deel terribly rumpled.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“I’d have liked to see him on a horse—I’ll bet Jamuka of the Jadarin can ride more than just a filly.”
I threw a twig at her, but she dodged it.
“I wonder if he’ll join any of the other wrestling competitions,” Gurbesu mused. “I rather liked seeing him in his leather breechcloth.”
“I’d have thought his breechcloth was too much for you.” I nudged her foot with mine, but she only grinned wider.
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t open your deel for him,” she said. “I’ll know you’re lying.”
I rolled onto my stomach to hide my scarlet cheeks. It didn’t matter what I thought; I hadn’t seen Jamuka since the wrestling competition and likely wouldn’t before he finally left after the Festival of Games.
Gurbesu and I lay in silence long enough that the murmur of the river and the warmth of the sun had almost lulled me to sleep, when a branch suddenly snapped behind us. Jamuka stood there, dressed in black breeches and a red felt caftan open at the neck.
I scrambled to my feet, but Gurbesu only raised herself to an elbow, shifting to show all her curves to their full advantage. “Hello,” she said, her voice huskier than normal. She grinned when Jamuka only stared at her. “You’re Jamuka of the Jadarin clan, are you not?” she asked, as if questioning a simple herder and not one of the white-bones.
Jamuka blinked and his jaw clenched. “I am.”
“We watched you win the wrestling tournament,” Gurbesu said, a sensuous smile spreading across her plump lips. “A thousand congratulations on your well-deserved victory.”
Jamuka ignored her and his gaze settled on me instead, reminding me of the way heavy snow settles on the branches of a birch tree in winter. I clasped my hands behind my back to avoid picking apart the wool of my sleeve. Even with my height—unnatural for a woman—Jamuka was almost a head taller than me, yet another thing I found disconcerting about this white-bone.
“Are you Borte Ujin?” he asked.
I glanced at Gurbesu, but she only raised her eyebrows. “I am,” I answered.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he said. “Daughter of Dei the Wise and the famed seer Chotan.”
My heart thudded in my chest. Why in the name of the Eternal Blue Sky had this man sought me out?
Gurbesu stood and crossed her arms over her ample chest. “And I am Gurbesu, daughter of Inancha Bilge,” she muttered. But my friend pouted only a brief moment, recovering quickly from the slight. “I just realized,” she said, flashing me a wicked grin. “I forgot to milk the goats.”
Liar. Gurbesu had so often forgotten to milk the goats that her father paid a girl half our age to care for their herd. My pampered friend could scarcely manage to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.
My glare was sharper than an arrow, but Gurbesu winked and scampered off, pausing only to call over her shoulder, “Don’t forget the archery competition in the morning.”
Jamuka watched her go, and for once I wished Gurbesu’s hips didn’t sway like poppy blossoms in the wind. I thought he might follow her, but he turned back to me, studying my face for so long my cheeks began to burn. “I understand that you’re a seer as well?”
It should have come as no surprise that he wanted his future read—few would speak to me if it weren’t for my skill with the bones now that my prophecy was known to all.
Still, a spirit whispered to me not to read Jamuka’s future. To divine for this white-bone would only court danger.
“I was trained by my mother.” I avoided his eyes and brushed off my brown deel, a sparrow next to a dragon.
“Chotan is well respected, even amongst my clan.”
Far off in the pasture, a goat bleated. I shrugged. “She might still see your future if you ask.”
“I’d ask you instead.”
I stepped around his shadow, wishing to avoid even that slight contact with him. “You might ask,” I said, “but I’d refuse.”
He reached out as if to stop me, but his hand fell away at my sharp inhale. “Please,” he said. “Chotan is renowned over the steppe, but there are murmurs that her daughter is even more gifted.”
I knew I should deny him, yet his words spoke to something within me, dry and withered but not yet dead.
“I’ll need a fire.”
I produced my knucklebones and a handful of flat sheep scapulae from my pocket, a few old and bleached white, others still soft and the color of mare’s milk. Jamuka’s eyes widened and I shrugged. “A good seer is never without her bones.”
His lip twitched into a smile. “Then I’ll make the fire.”
The wind shifted as he walked away, and I caught a trace of his soul’s scent—horse, pine, and strength. I stiffened at the intimacy and exhaled, unwilling to carry even the slightest fragment of him within me.
I watched Jamuka from the corner of my eye as I gathered grass and dried goat dung while he struck his flints together to start the flame. He seemed a man who would be as comfortable at the elbow of a khan as wrestling with the men of his clan. Yet his interest in seeing his future seemed more than idle curiosity. I wondered what it was this man wished to hear.
It didn’t matter what his ears and heart yearned for. I was merely the mouthpiece of the Earth Mother and the Eternal Blue Sky. I would speak the truth.
I waited for the flames to beckon with their heat. Too little warmth and they would hold tight to their secrets; too much and they’d rush to spill their message, irrevocably singeing and ruining the bones, and perhaps even the bearer’s future days.
“Choose your messenger.” I held out the bones like precious offerings. I expected Jamuka to choose the palest of them all, to match his white-boned lineage, but instead he chose a thick yellowish shoulder bone, one taken recently from an unblemished black ram with great curled horns.
I washed the bone in the river first, then rubbed it with dirt and offered it to the Eternal Blue Sky, so it would carry the remaining three elements into the fire. Balancing the bones over the flames with a greenwood stick, I watched them reveal their secrets, not the soft curves foretelling a life of ease that I expected, but two jagged black fissures intersecting each other. They unfurled like miniature storms to the edge, cleaving the bone almost in half as I yanked it from the heat. Tiny fractures no wider than the hairs of an infant ran toward the two great cracks.
I glanced at Jamuka, but his expression was as smooth as river rock. For the first time I wondered if the Earth Mother might forgive the gift of a lie.
“Perhaps you should choose another bone?” My voice wavered and Jamuka’s eyes flicked to mine. Too late, I dropped my gaze.
“You’ll never hide the truth with eyes like those, Borte Ujin.” His voice was gentle. “I don’t shy from the future. Neither should you.”
“Only fools rush headlong into that which they cannot see.” The bone whistled as it cooled in the summer air, a high squeal akin to the warning cry of a chickadee on her nest.
“Tell me what you see.” A note of impatience crept into Jamuka’s tone, but there was something more in the way he clenched his jaw. I wondered if he already knew the words I must say.
“Two thick lines stride across the bone without wavering,” I said, trying to soften the blow. “Men are drawn to you like sheep to their shepherd.”
“I’m ambitious and men will follow me.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve been told this before.”
“But you will betray one of those men.” I brushed the place where the lines intersected, feeling their sharp grooves with my thumb. A gentle knock cleft the bone in two, a perfect fracture along the lines. I’d seen marrow that black only on the divining bones of one other person. “And one of you shall destroy the other.”
His hands covered mine, strong and insistent. I thought to draw away, but instead I hesitated, letting his warmth linger. “I cannot say. The bones show only the skeleton of the future.”
Not for the first time, I wondered if divining only half-truths was worse than facing the future blind.
Jamuka’s mouth tightened and his expression hardened into a glare aimed at the horizon. “Always the same prediction,” he said, his voice rough as he withdrew his touch to rub his cheeks. I folded my fingers over the bones, drawing their heat into my flesh to replace his warmth. “Thank you for the confirmation, Borte Ujin. I trust that you’ll not speak of this to anyone?”
Never before had I been asked to keep a vision secret, but I understood all too well the import of keeping quiet such a dark future. I nodded. “You have my word.”
“Thank you.” He stood and walked toward the forest, picking up a long stick with which to beat the unfortunate bushes on the side of the path.
I watched him go, then threw water on the dying fire, jumping back at its burst of white smoke hissing like an angry spirit. The ashes caught on the breeze and I contemplated the burning flakes for a moment before walking back toward camp, the leather pouch of fresh bones clattering in my pocket like old friends.
Sometimes the spirits offer us a warning of the storm to come.
It’s not their fault when we’re too blind to recognize it.
T he Festival of Games was almost finished, and soon our village would empty of its visitors, leaving only memories and the trampled grasses to bear testimony to their existence. I’d caught glimpses of Jamuka in the days since I’d read his prophecy, and occasionally I felt someone’s eyes on my back, only to find him watching me. Yet we’d not spoken since we stood before the divining fire, and I realized that was how he wished it to remain.
Jamuka had used me for what he needed and now scorned me like everyone else. Although I should have expected as much, I was disappointed to realize that he was no different from all the others.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Gurbesu said, flopping down onto the pile of wool I was beating into felt. My friend’s hair was braided with vibrant red threads, but the fibers of dull brown wool I’d been beating clung to my braids, like nettles of scratchy wool the color of freshly turned earth.
I dropped the beating sticks to stretch my aching back, but Gurbesu snatched them and dangled them out of reach. The other women of our clan typically worked throughout the spring to make felt from the freshly sheared sheep, their songs and gossip binding them together as surely as the fleeces were pounded smooth. Yet I worked alone into the summer. Once the wool was flattened, my father would help me roll it so it could be pulled behind our horse and turned into felt panels.
I gestured to the low sun and paused to sprinkle water onto the wool. “You must be ill to rise this early.”
I expected Gurbesu to pull a sour face, but she only stood and sighed, chewing on her lip. “I haven’t slept all night,” she said, staring at my stick and then tossing it onto the grass. “Not since Father told me.”
“Told you what?” I retrieved the stick, startling a speckled orange butterfly that had landed on a nearby boulder. It fluttered away, its beauty fleeting. “Did he finally manage to sell you to a slave caravan?”
“Not quite.” She avoided my eyes. “I’m getting married.”
I had to reach out a hand to steady myself. It had been only a matter of time before Gurbesu married some sturdy herder with an eager smile and an even more eager member between his legs, but a part of me still trembled to learn that I would soon be left alone.
“I’m sorry, Borte. I didn’t think it would be so soon—”
“Don’t be silly.” I hugged my friend, trying not to cling to her as if she were already gone. Our clan was surrounded by peoples anxious to fly the black banner of war, shed men’s blood, and steal their horses, but we flew the white banner of peace, preferring to marry our daughters amongst the constantly warring tribes and create bonds not easily broken by war. I should have realized that the Festival of Games would provide Gurbesu’s father with the perfect opportunity to forge an alliance with a new family.
The Unigirad girls were shields meant to protect the clan. Yet if the bones were to be believed, one day I would become the sword that would spill the clans’ blood across the steppes.
“I’m so happy for you,” I said. “This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
She moved back, studying my false smile. “You’re a terrible liar, Borte Ujin.” Her face softened. “But I am happy.”
My eyes stung when she told me that her bridegroom, Chuluun, was a member of the fearsome Naimans, who lived at least a week’s ride west of our nearest camp, farther than either Gurbesu or I had ever traveled. Her marriage would keep the peace between our clans, but I would likely never see her again.
I gathered the courage to ask the question that had been tormenting me. “When will you leave?”
Gurbesu bit her lip again, suddenly entranced with the leather thong that held the end of her thick braid. “In three days.”
“Three days?” My screech sent a cloud of grasshoppers flying for safety. “But Chuluun still has to work off your bride-price—”
Gurbesu shook her head. “Chuluun is a widower with a young daughter, so my father agreed to forgo the bride-price in return for my permanent position as senior wife.”
“You’ll be a wife and a mother?” I asked, aghast. Gurbesu was less maternal than a weasel; I pitied the poor girl who would soon call her mother.
She shrugged and flicked her braid over her shoulder, the glossy hair capturing the sun’s weak light. “My esteemed father traded me for five of Chuluun’s best horses.”
We stared at each other, then burst out laughing. Such a trade was more than generous.
Gurbesu touched my hand, suddenly serious. “Perhaps if you talked to your father, he could arrange your marriage into the Naiman clan.” She bumped her hip against mine and a grin tugged her lips. “Chuluun has a handsome brother—”
I turned away, making a halfhearted attempt to beat the wool again. “You know I can’t do that.”
Instead, I would honor a promise I’d made long ago and try to avert the war foretold years before. I would not rain death and destruction upon my people, no matter what the bones said.
Gurbesu pressed her forehead to mine. “Oh, Borte. Who is going to make you smile when I’m gone?”
“Perhaps Degei,” I offered weakly, but Gurbesu didn’t laugh. “I’m happy for you,” I said. “Really, I am.”
“If this is what you look like happy,” Gurbesu said, cocking her head to the side and folding her arms across her chest, “it’s no wonder you frighten away all the men.”
I gave her a gruesome grin and she giggled, draping an arm around my shoulders and pulling me down into the cloud of wool. She twirled a downy tuft between her fingers. “I know you think your fate is set—”
“I’ll stuff this wool in your mouth if you don’t let me finish,” she threatened, shaking the brown clump over my face. “The bones only tell part of the future,” she said. “You have to live, Borte Ujin, something you’ve never been very good at. Search for happiness and I think you’ll be surprised by what you find.”
The words were pretty, but they rang false. “I’ll try,” I said to placate her. “Still, I think you’ll have enough happiness with your warrior for both of us.”
She giggled. “I certainly intend to. Chuluun is built like a stallion, at least where it matters most.”
“Gurbesu!” My shock only made her laugh harder. “Please don’t say you two are already rutting.”
“Just because you won’t let me say it doesn’t make it less true.”
I couldn’t help myself; I drew her into a fierce hug where we lay, never wanting to let go. Gurbesu was bold, impetuous, and terrible trouble. Still, she would take a part of my heart with her when she married. If I wasn’t careful, soon there would be nothing left.
* * *
The days before Gurbesu’s marriage blew away like the seeds of a cotton flower in the breeze. Gurbesu and I slept under the stars each night, curling into each other’s warmth and talking long into the dark despite our heavy limbs and tired eyes. We both realized these were the final moments of girlhoods about to be set aside forever.
The day of Gurbesu’s departure dawned fair and clear with a scattering of black storks in the sky, a good omen for the long future I’d glimpsed so many times in the oracle bones. She wore her mother’s red wedding headdress and laughed at the ribald jokes of married women as they washed her hands and feet and brushed her hair until it shone like a raven’s wing. She would leave today with her father and bridegroom, never to return to our clan. I smiled and forced my voice to be light, but Gurbesu pulled me to a corner while the mothers and old women reminisced about their own weddings. “This isn’t good-bye,” she said, her hands on my shoulders. “We’ll meet again.”
All the words I might have said lodged in my throat. I pulled her into an embrace and breathed in her soul’s scent, the traces of tallow, smoke, and hope. I sniffed and dashed my sleeve across my eyes. “Don’t tell me you’ve decided to become a seer, too.”
Gurbesu touched my cheek. “I feel it, deep in my heart. The Earth Mother wouldn’t bless me with such a sister only to steal her from me.”
And so I watched Gurbesu leave to marry her Naiman warrior. Chuluun was a straight-backed soldier dressed in his finest felts, and he wore at his throat a silver talisman of the foreign god who had died on a wooden cross. I’d touched the wolf necklace I always wore and thought to ask him more about this god of his, but then Gurbesu had laughed at something he said and the words died on my tongue. One by one, the people I cared about left. It was only a matter of time before I was truly alone.
I waited until they disappeared over the horizon, unable to speak from the emptiness that pressed on my chest and made it difficult to breathe. I couldn’t force myself to linger a moment longer with our clan’s drunken well-wishers. Instead, I ducked my head as if against a winter storm and strode toward the Black Mountain. I climbed until my legs burned, running to and from something at the same time.
At the top of the rocky hill, I curled with my back against a white boulder, its stolen warmth from the day seeping into my flesh. A brown spider skittered across a stone at my toe and tiny white flowers nodded in the breeze.
The tears wouldn’t stop once they started, a barrage of sobs and salt water that I was powerless to stop.
I wallowed in my self-pity as the air chilled, letting my sadness consume me until the Earth Mother opened her mouth to swallow the sun.
Wolves howled in the distance and an owl called overhead, searching for a meal of shrews. A branch snapped nearby and pebbles crunched underfoot. I scrambled to my feet, heart thudding in my ears as I waited for a wolf to emerge from the darkness. Instead, a man stepped into view.
The breeze swirled toward me, bringing the familiar scent of pine needles, horse, and man.
“I was beginning to wonder if you’d decided to pitch your ger up here,” he said, offering a rare smile.
I rubbed my eyes. “I wanted to be alone.”
He ignored the hint. “It seems to me you’re always alone,” he said, handing me a leather waterskin and a hide blanket, one that smelled of horses and the northern forests of our winter camps.
I opened the skin, expecting the cool scent of water, but instead wrinkled my nose at the familiar tang of fermented mare’s milk. “No, thank you,” I said, but Jamuka pressed the flask into my hand and wrapped the blanket around my shoulders.
“They’ll ward off the cold,” he said. “Unless you were thinking of returning to the celebration?”
I winced and opened the waterskin, filling my mouth with the pungent and slightly cheesy tang of airag. It burned the back of my throat and I coughed, grimacing as Jamuka chuckled in the dark.
“Not accustomed to airag?”
“Today is an exception.” I took another sip, feeling its warmth spread through my limbs like a summer breeze. I offered it to Jamuka and he took a long draft.
Jamuka sat and crossed his legs neatly in front of him, every movement precise, a testament to his white-boned ancestors. Next to him I felt like a mangy dog. One with fleas.
We sat in silence for so long that I could hear his even breathing. I prodded a stone with my toe. “You’re wondering why I’m up here.”
“It’s not my place to wonder.”
I plucked several blades of grass and began plaiting the strands together. “Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine what might have been.”
“This life is too short to dwell on what might have been. Focus instead on what still might be.”
For one terrible moment, I wished he didn’t know of my prophecy, yet it didn’t matter. Although word of my curse had spread across the steppes, I’d sworn never to speak of it again.
“Mine is a shadow I won’t soon escape.” I tried to sound nonchalant but failed.
“Perhaps not.” Jamuka shook the flask, still partly full, and handed it back to me, his thumb brushing mine and lingering, and my heart became lodged in my throat. I could feel the heat of him, as if he carried some part of the sun. “Black shadows follow us all. It’s our decision whether we allow them to darken our days.”
We finished the rest of the airag in silence, but I was loath to leave. I smelled his scent again. I breathed deeply this time, wanting to remember this moment, when the mare’s milk and the man next to me held the loneliness at bay.
For one night I wanted someone else to be strong for me. Tomorrow I would bear it all again and return to shouldering my past and my future. But tonight I wished to forget, to live as Gurbesu had told me to.
The warmth of the airag made me bold, and I dared graze the smooth skin of his cheek with my fingers. He flinched and for a moment I feared he’d turn away, but his eyes grew hot and he drew a shuddering breath. I knew what I wanted, and for once I would reach out and grasp it.
I took his hands and brought them to my breasts under the blanket, trembled at the pressure of his palms through my deel, and felt the smoothness of his chest under his felt shirt. I wondered for a moment if it was true what they said, that women were made of the cool surface of the moon, and men the scorching heat of the sun.
I waited for him to push me away. Instead, he pulled me to him, his lips on mine tasting faintly of mare’s milk. A warmth I’d never felt before rolled over my body, making me gasp with pleasure. I understood now why Gurbesu had met with boys under the pine tree.
Jamuka’s lips caressed my neck and then his fingers traced the leather thong at my neck, lingering on the wolf tooth at my throat. He drew away, leaving me suddenly cold. “We can’t do this,” he said, heaving a ragged breath. “You don’t belong to me, Borte Ujin.”
“I belong to no one.” I leaned into his hand as he tucked a stray hair behind my ear. “I can do as I wish.”
How easily the lie fell from my lips.
Jamuka crouched in the darkness so I couldn’t see his face. “That’s not true,” he said. “And you well know it.”
My heart stalled for a moment, then pounded to the rhythm of a galloping horse. “You think highly of yourself,” I said, my voice sharp, “to rebuke me as if you were my father.”
Jamuka looked at me with an expression of such sadness that I wanted to touch him again, to ease the heaviness in both our hearts. Yet his next words froze my hand at my side.
“I know you can never belong to me because I am Temujin’s anda.” Jamuka’s tone was quiet, the same tone a man used when announcing the death of a revered elder.
Temujin. A man I hadn’t seen in seven years.
Anda. Blood brothers.
Jamuka and Temujin had swallowed each other’s blood, sworn sacred vows before the ancestors so they were closer than brothers of the same womb. The man before me had been Temujin’s only ally after his father’s death, and it was his support that had ensured the survival of Temujin and his family.
I will cleave two men apart and ignite a great Blood War that will rain tears and destruction upon the steppes.
Such was the curse I bore, the prophecy I refused to fulfill.
I stifled a sob as I clambered to my feet, but the darkness chased me as I stormed down the hill, silently cursing Jamuka while ignoring his pleas at my back. I ran until I could breathe no more and collapsed onto the cold riverbank, pounding my fists and screaming my frustration into the Earth Mother, feeling her silent rebuke.
Still Temujin sought to ruin me, even from afar.
M y mother claimed the steppes had echoed with my laughter as a child, yet as a young woman of seventeen winters, I walked through this life with a heavy spirit, plucking the whispers of the ancestors from the winds and weaving the jagged cracks of bones into warnings and prophecies. The heaviness of the future and the weight of my past stooped my shoulders like an old woman’s, despite my soft cheeks and unlined skin.
And then Jamuka had come.
And I, being the fool I was, had allowed that hope to smolder to life again.
There was no trace of Jamuka the morning after our kiss, and I soon learned he had departed camp under the cover of night. I couldn’t rail at him for deceiving me but had to content myself with gathering soot from his cold hearth to curse him. And Temujin.
My shouts into the Eternal Blue Sky startled a flock of brown sparrows before I turned the curses on myself. They were black words I could never undo, just as I could never take back my moment of weakness in Jamuka’s arms. I swore to the Earth Mother that I would never waver again, that I would bear my necessary solitude like a sturdy oak. I sanctified the promise by adding drops of blood from my palm to the tears already splashing on the ground. It would be far better to water the earth with my own blood than with that of countless men.
The short golden season burned itself out and I spent the long months of winter in dark silence. It was a bleak season full of angry winds that cut through the walls of our ger and threatened to crack the skin of our sheep-stomach churn as I pounded our meager supply of winter milk into butter. The wolves grew daring as temperatures plummeted, and men often had to chase the beasts away from our ever-scrawnier herds in a perpetual struggle for life over death. That terrible winter also stole my mother’s vision. Her eyes flickered and the light finally went out on the solstice. Since then her tongue had become sharper and her temper flared brighter, but I tried to keep my patience as the darkness of eternal winter surrounded her.
Finally, a false spring warmed the air, teasing the snow into melting so the fields filled with slush and, beneath that, rich, beautiful mud and the first tufts of new grass for our grazing herds. It was a hint and a promise of better days to come.
Yet some promises are easily broken.
The mountains on either side of our camp were still asleep under thick white blankets of snow on the morning I slung a dented iron milk pail over my shoulder, my father snoring beneath a mound of hides. A constant chill had settled in his bones, so deep that the earth below our tent had trembled with his shivering the night before. I dropped a feather-light kiss onto his brow, and another on my mother’s forehead, wishing I could smooth away the frown lines etched so deep around her lips that not even sleep could erase them.
I stepped outside into the bracing air, heading toward the paddock. I’d never taken much interest in my father’s herd before, yet over the winter I’d studied all the animals, learning which ewes had the thickest wool and what horses had the softest hooves. My father had no sons or brothers to take me in when my parents passed to the sacred mountains, but I was determined not to meet the same fate as Temujin’s family, cast out for my worthlessness. I would provide my own milk and meat, and my gift of sight might prove valuable to my clan. Already girls came to me eager for their futures, and one of the old women had sought me out to read the winds on the equinox to determine the best day to move to our spring camp.
I would not be cast aside again, not while I still drew breath in my lungs.
I neared the paddock and set down the pail, blowing onto my hands to warm them and stomping my feet. My father’s white mare whinnied and threw back her head, as if to warn me of an encroaching storm or nearby beast. She was too late, for the danger had already come.
Across the field, a straw yellow mare with a hairless tail snorted, steam curling from her nose in the chill morning air. On her back sat a man with broad shoulders and two black braids hanging down his back. I’d have recognized his gray eyes anywhere, stolen from some brooding wolf.
After seven years, Temujin had finally returned.
My blood turned to water and I dropped the milking pail to clutch the rough gate of the paddock, relishing the bite of the splinters as they burrowed deep into my skin. I knew then the feeling of a deer being stalked by a predator and wished that I could flee from what was to come. At the same time I wanted to unleash the pain and fury of the last seven years, to make Temujin suffer as I’d suffered. Instead, I stiffened my spine and hardened my face into stone, hoping he couldn’t hear the drumming of my traitorous heart.
And he wasn’t alone. Two men flanked him, one with a penetrating stare above his frothy white beard and a ragged squirrel-skin hat framing a weather-beaten face. The other I knew too well, the burning dark eyes set over aristocratic features as he sat stiff-backed in a polished leather saddle decorated with gold coins.
I shuddered and pulled my cloak tighter against Jamuka’s gaze, even as my heart thudded in my chest. I’d imagined this scene many times, yet the words I’d rehearsed fled, leaving my tongue empty.
Temujin swung his leg over the horse in one fluid motion, landing with a thud that shook the ground. He was built like a battering ram meant to conquer some far-off city. I stood rooted in place, powerless to stop my future as it strode toward me.
“Borte Ujin.” He reached out his hands, but when I didn’t move they fell empty at his sides. Temujin was a hairsbreadth shorter than me, so I had to look down my nose to meet him eye to eye. “It took longer than I planned, but I’ve finally returned to you.”
My mind felt frozen in the grip of a winter storm, unable to comprehend this man before me. “When you left you promised my father that you’d return by the next full moon. It seems time got away from you.”
“Life sent me some unexpected surprises along the way.” He rubbed his wrists, and for a moment I imagined them circled by the rough wood of the cangue. “Still, I promised I’d return.” He glanced over his shoulder at Jamuka. “And I always keep my promises.”
I didn’t answer. A fragment of my soul cried out with joy that I hadn’t been forgotten, yet another piece of me wanted to hurl a handful of horse dung in Temujin’s face. Instead, I drew myself as tall as I could while I gathered my thoughts, refusing to betray a glimmer of emotion before these men.
The silver-bearded stranger inclined his head toward me, his black felts rustling like the wings of a vulture and rattling the beads sewn with jagged stitches onto his deel, bits of ivory earned by a shaman for successful visions. It was only then that I realized he was crippled, his right leg withered and bent at a painful angle.
Temujin caught my recoil at the man’s impure energy. “Teb Tengeri has been with me since I left the Tayichigud,” Temujin said. “It was he who decreed this was a favorable time to ride to you. Much has happened since we last spoke.”
I did my best to ignore Teb Tengeri’s probing stare and recalled the children who made a promise under the stars so many years ago, wondering now if anything of that naïve girl still remained.
“I heard of your brother,” I told Temujin, watching his expression carefully. “I was sorry to hear of his passage to the sacred mountains.”
His passage at Temujin’s hands. I stared at those hands now, stained with dark shadows like smears of blood. A flicker of emotion lit his eyes, but it passed too quickly to name.
“Begter was more thief than my half brother,” he said. “I could manage his thieving when he stole food from me, but when he stole meat that was meant to feed my family . . .” His voice trailed off and his eyes grew distant; then he blinked and looked at me. “My brother, Khasar, and I killed him to save my mother and younger sister. I became a murderer to save my blood family.”
The way Temujin tilted his chin told me he’d do it all again if he had to. My first reaction was revulsion that he had shed his brother’s unclean blood and touched death, but when I imagined watching my own mother die of starvation, her eyes growing sunken as her flesh melted away . . .
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling the inadequacy of the words, but Temujin only inclined his head toward Jamuka and the crippled man still inspecting me from atop his silver-white gelding.
“You already know my anda, Jamuka,” he said. “We’ve been blood brothers almost since I could ride a horse.”
“Yes,” I said, not meeting Jamuka’s eyes. “I believe you sent him to spy on me.”
Temujin had the decency to look flustered. “Not to spy, only to confirm what Teb Tengeri had predicted.”
I scowled. There was room for only one seer in each clan, and I would not relinquish my gift, certainly not in exchange for becoming Temujin’s wife.
“And what did Teb Tengeri predict?” I asked, folding my arms across my chest. A nod from Temujin, and his seer and Jamuka backed away, out of earshot. There was no doubt who led this band of men, although Temujin seemed an unlikely choice to lead a white-bone and an accomplished shaman.
Temujin turned to me, his eyes warm. “Teb Tengeri traced the sweep of stars on the last new moon and read the blood of a newly slaughtered goat to determine that now was the best time to fulfill my promise to you. I wasn’t taking any chances.”
The fury at his presumption screamed through my veins, but I turned to stroke the nose of my father’s mare, letting the gentle nuzzle of her lips soothe me. “I still carry the curse I once warned you of,” I finally said. “Would you bring a storm of death onto the steppes?”
Temujin shrugged. “My strength in battle has already been tested. With you as my wife I will become a great and powerful khan, and our children will multiply and rule from the Great Lake to the Great Dry Sea.”
I snorted. “Did your shaman tell you that?”
“He may have.”
I knew not whether his seer was a fraud, only that my curse still clung to me like a branch of thorns. Temujin moved closer, his thumb brushing the sensitive skin on the inside of my wrist. “I want you by my side, Borte Ujin. I had hoped you might still want me, too.”
“I don’t want anyone,” I snapped. “Least of all a man who slanders my name from mountains away.”
“What?” Temujin drew away, his eyes narrowing. “That’s a heavy charge to lay at my feet.”
“Heavy, but just,” I countered. “My mother and I were the only ones who knew of my curse until I spoke of it to you. Now it’s common knowledge from Lake Balkash to Mount Burkhan Khaldun.” I hoped that I’d been mistaken, but my heart fell as the color drained from his face.
“I did speak of your prophecy,” he admitted slowly. “But not in the way you think.” I gave him the insult of my back, but he caught my hand and moved so I had no choice but to face him. “Please,” he said. “Listen before you condemn me as the worst sort of villain.”
I gritted my teeth and yanked my arm away, but I didn’t leave.
He sighed. “I told my clan your secret after my father’s bones had been returned to the earth. I thought little of the prophecy, but the elders believed differently. They argued that I must renounce the bond with you and your people, but I refused. The next morning they broke camp and left us on the riverbank, unwilling to sully themselves with a future war.”
My hands trembled so much that I had to clasp them around my elbows. “That’s why you were abandoned?”
Temujin closed his eyes, as if to shut out a painful memory. “My mother chased them with my father’s Spirit Banner, yelling at them to honor their promise to provide for my father’s widow. A few hesitated, but the elders urged them on. We were left desolate, with only our shadows to stand at our sides.”
“Your family almost starved that winter,” I said, recalling the travelers’ stories. Numbness spread up my body, the acrid taste of guilt filling my mouth as I touched the wolf-tooth necklace I still wore at my neck. “Because of me.”
Temujin’s eyes lit when he saw the necklace, and he touched it, brushing the hollow at my throat. “We became experts at catching fish and digging wild onions.” His hand covered mine, square and rough like the rest of him. “But I always hoped it wasn’t all in vain.”
I struggled then. I’d spent the last seven years watching everyone around me live their lives while my days trickled away like drops of water off melting river ice. I wanted to live, to plunge into the vibrant, ever-changing world I’d always held at bay, but there was still the prophecy, a dark shadow I could never escape.
Temujin seemed to read my thoughts. “Jamuka has pledged that his clan will support me, and our marriage will enable me to seek an alliance with Ong Khan.” This was no small thing, for among the chiefs of the scattered steppe tribes, Ong Khan was viewed as the strongest leader. “Not long from now,” Temujin continued, “your gift of sight and your father’s herds will be prizes many men will seek to steal. Marrying me will not start the war you fear. In fact, it may avert it.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Tiger Queens
“A gripping epic…Kept me riveted from beginning to end!”—Michelle Moran, bestselling author of The Second Empress
“It is a testament to Thornton’s writing prowess that she can so intricately whittle heroines that are both compassionate and ruthless…a stunning achievement!”—Barbara Wood, New York Times bestselling author of The Serpent and the Staff and Rainbows on the Moon
“Be prepared to be swept away by Thornton’s richly drawn epic of an empire.”—Renée Rosen, author of Dollface and What the Lady Wants
“Historical fiction at its best.”—Gary Corby, author of The Marathon Conspiracy
“A vivid depiction of warrior women…Gripping stuff!”—Alex Rutherford, author of the Empire of the Moghul series
Praise for the novels of Stephanie Thornton
“Thornton’s heroines...make me want to stand up and cheer!”—Kate Quinn, author of Lady of the Eternal City
"This is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. A remarkable story, remarkably told." —Kate Furnivall, author of Shadows on the Nile and The Russian Concubine
“Well-conceived and engrossing...exalts a historical figure of ‘true grit.’”—Library Journal
“Exquisitely crafted....I couldn’t put it down.”—San Francisco Book Review