Wrong Side of the Fray
Keytahn brandished his crook at the bleating goats that refused to move yet again from the crop.
“Yah! Yah!” he bellowed at them, startling them into action. They scampered away from his small, wiry frame and wispy silver beard, fearing the crack! of the crook on their behinds.
Stupid beasts, he thought with a warm fondness as he herded them away from the corn and across the grasslands. With the distraction of food gone, they followed him willingly. He let a wan smile of satisfaction spread softly across his features.
Gazing out across the sea of shifting green, Keytahn studied the lie of the land; the familiar knolls and hills that marked the outskirts of his tribe’s village. He squinted into the east.
An hour until dusk, he realised, picking up the pace just a little.
The wind buffeted him constantly, pressing the heavy pelts against him. Keytahn grunted with the effort of ascending the hills, leaning heavily upon his crook as he reached the summit of a hillock.
He fell to his knees, a cold hand closing around his heart. The goats bleated in panic and scrambled in fear.
Keytahn pulled himself to his feet and stumbled down the slope and across the plain. Screams were carried on the wind with the acrid scent of burning flesh and animal skins. The conflagration rose into the darkening firmament, closer with every step.
Even as he watched despairingly, fleeing women and children were skewered with arrows and dispatched with contemptuous thrusts of the sabre. Horses galloped chaotically through the village carrying Mongol soldiers and their sadistic laughter.
Keytahn let the tears cascade down his weatherworn features, carving paths in the dirt on his leathery cheeks.
Beyond the village, a tremor shook the horizon. Keytahn shuddered as he peered through the smoke. Ice filled his chest, chilling his blood and he sent a silent prayer to the God Mountain of Burkhan Khaldun. Rank upon rank of mounted men advanced, a cloud of dust rising behind them. There must be ten thousand of them.
Keytahn thrust them from his thoughts. “YENEDA!” He screamed, his voice breaking with anguish. “ILYA!”
He shouted their names into the night, searching every corpse he passed for the delicate, loving oval eyes of his daughter. The wry, knowing smile of his wife and the twinkle that lit up her face when she mocked him.
Keytahn bellowed their names over the crash of hoof into dirt and the greedy tongues of flame that consumed his entire life right before his eyes.
He screamed until their names sawed at the flesh of his throat.
Until the memory of them cut through him like a scythe.
Until incarnadine saliva ran from his mouth onto the burning pain in his chest where he knew his heart had been cleaved in two.
“Temudjin! We found a single survivor, Great Khan.”
Temudjin grunted, spurring his mare to a gallop. He curled his lip in disgust as the heavy smoke filled his nostrils and his gaze washed across the butchered corpses. Jamukha, that fool. Temudjin spat at the thought of his brother.
“He forgets himself,” Temudjin muttered, before turning to his scrivener and shouting, “Record Jamukha’s acts here tonight. His barbarism must end by my hand.”
“Of course, Great Khan.”
Nodding to himself, Temudjin followed the awful wailing sound that split the air and ground at his ears. After a minute of weaving through the village, he found the source.
Sitting against the burning supports of a yurt was an old man supporting two corpses. The light in
Temudjin’s eyes hardened as he made out the arrow shaft protruding from the man’s chest.
Quickly, he dismounted, unsheathing his sabre and grimacing as he watched the firelight dance upon the blade. Temudjin watched sadly as the man clutched jealously at the black hair of the two bodies in his lap. The old man spluttered blood as he tried to rise to his feet, his eyes wide with fear and anger at the approaching Mongol. Temudjin saw the man glance at a prone figure lying on the ground a few feet away and followed it with his own cautious gaze.
Temudjin let a deeply satisfied smile split his features. It was one of Jamukha’s men, impaled by the shepherd’s crook.
Temudjin started as the man began screaming past the blood he was choking on. Swiftly, he knelt beside him. “Hush my friend. I pray you accept my plea for forgiveness. I should have acted sooner to prevent this.”
Temudjin gripped the man’s face between his hands to stay his lolling head and lock their eyes.
“What is your name, friend? In my new age, it shall best the blade.”
Pressing his ear to the man’s lips, he caught between splutters of blood, “Key – Keytahn.”