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A Brother's Death

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It was a cold day. Much colder than they were used to, and that was saying a lot. They were men born of snow and long winters; the blood that flowed through their veins might very well be ice water. It was a bad omen, Temüjin thought, that the day's weather had them all shivering down to their bones.

Temüjin awoke at dawn, as he did most days. He threw his fur cloak over his caftan and made his way out of his yurt, taking a moment to breathe in the morning air. As he breathed out a cloud a white appeared in front of him. Beyond that he could see the flat land where they had set up camp, the grey and white mountain range beyond, and the big blue sky that seemed forever ready to fall down on top of them. He could see a horse several yards away, loose from where it should be tethered, digging through the glistening snow in search of grass.

Temüjin made his way to the large fire, where there were a few men already there and eating. Breakfast was a small portion of airag and goat that had been boiled the night before, served with onions that had been found growing nearby. Temüjin was eating, gathering warmth from food and drink, when one of his advisers appeared before him.

"My lord," the adviser said, "it's time. You shouldn't delay this any longer. You said yourself that you want to move camp by nightfall today. . . it makes little sense to carry him with us."

Temüjin said nothing in reply, and the adviser left. He knew that what the adviser said was true. He knew that, but. . . it didn't make it any easier for him to do. After eating he made his way to a singular yurt. Smaller than the others, the floor left as bare dirt instead of covered by rugs or hides. Inside the yurt, his hands tied behind him to a wooden pole, sat Jamukha.

Jamukha looked up, his lips spreading into a wry smile as he saw Temüjin standing there. "Being ruler of your empire must be an easy task, if you have time to visit me everyday."

Temüjin sat down on a low stool. He took a breath. And he started. "Jamukha-"

"You ask the same thing each day, and I say the same thing each day. No."

"Is it so detestable to renew our bonds? We were brothers, once. We can be brothers again."

Jamukha laughed at the notion. "How? Just as there is only one sun in the sky, there is only room for one Mongol lord."

"Why can't you fight by my side?" Temüjin asked, frowning. "Why can't you support me? Instead you betrayed me-"

Jamukha laughed even more. "Betray you? What have I done but try to further my own ambitions? The questions you ask me you can very well ask yourself. Why couldn't you support me in my bid of conquest? Instead, you not only turned your back on me, but on the traditions of Mongolia itself. What kind of empire allows even the sons of farmers and shepherds to hold high positions in its military?"

"Become my brother once again," Temüjin said, trying one last time. "I can easily find forgiveness for you if you can agree to support me."


Temüjin nodded. He had expected this day, though it had seemed to come too soon. He remembered better times, when they would drink and feast together, no worries between them. He remembered when Jamukha rushed to help him take back his captured wife, without asking for anything in return. Where, he wondered, had that brotherhood gone, and why was it so hard to get back? "This means your death, Jamukha."

"So be it," Jamukha said, and indeed he did look resigned to his fate. No doubt he had been preparing for this since his capture. "I only ask that I be given a noble death."

Temüjin nodded again and stood up. He was almost out the door when Jamukha called out for him again. Hope flared in his chest when he thought that his old friend had reconsidered; instead, it ended up being just a simple inquiry.

"The men who betrayed me," Jamukha said. "Where are they now? Made generals in your army?"

"Executed," Temüjin replied. "I have no room for disloyalty among my ranks."

Besides, he couldn't very well let the men who had betrayed his blood brother go unpunished. With a heavy heart he left the tent, where he found one of his generals waiting for him.

"We leave this site at sundown," Temüjin said. "Jamukha will be executed then. Prepare a noble death with no blood spilt."

The general looked vaguely surprised. "A noble death? But this is the man who boiled our generals alive-"

A sharp glare from Temüjin was all that was needed to cut off the general's words. His men knew that he appreciated their honest critiques and opinions, but they also knew his word was law. Jamukha's method of death was not negotiable.

By sundown the yurts had been collapsed and loaded for transport. The horses and livestock were gathered and ready to leave. And Jamukha was brought out and forced to kneel in the middle of a wide open space, his wrists tied to a long wooden pole. Temüjin could guess what would come next. They would use a simple lever to bend him backward, until his back broke, and leave him there to die. It wasn't a quick death, but it was one Jamukha was sure to face as the proud soldier and nobleman that he was.

Temüjin, sitting on his horse, couldn't bear to watch. Instead he looked up at the sky. The sun was setting, painting streaks of pink and purple among the clouds. It was almost a calm feeling. But when the crack of Jamukha's bones filled the air, it seemed to fill the entire, empty space of the sky overhead. Jamukha didn't cry out, and then there was only the sound of labored breathing.

Temüjin turned his horse around and focused on the horizon in front of him. He couldn't dwell on the past; he had a future to shape. With one word from his lips the entire camp stirred and lurched, hundreds of men and animals moving on his command, onward to their next location.