Arrows of Desire

It’s the last day of Quiltbag Historicals’ giveaway of queer historical fiction books. Prize drawn tomorrow: enter here.

For the Twelfth Day of Christmas I am set the theme ‘Drummers drumming’. Here’s a musical interlude from the battle of Tolgoyn Balgas.

As for fuel, that they found, inexhaustibly, in their war music. Those on spell didn’t sleep – they were orchestra and choir, and if the Hirai royal ordo slept that night they did so to Tartary ballads, lays and odes, to lutes and bone-flutes and curly bugles and drums. Now this, Temujin knew, to fight to music, harked back to Tiriet and Zubu, their true barbarian days.

[two nonstop days of battle later]

At dusk that day, after the constant minstrelsy of the Tartar army, the Ba’atud tried their hand at a song.

They had now no quarter from which to hope for aid. They knew they were alone.

The nagoras, the great signal drums, beat a halt. There was a tendency to pause for sunrise and sunset and the Tartars didn’t argue a disengagement but leant on their battleaxes. The Jirgin congregated, and Qadaq scaled one of his barricades to stand above them. This was a halt, not a treaty, but nobody shot him in the shoulderblades. Why not? There’d have been trouble from Jirgin. That was Temujin’s excuse too: he didn’t need to provoke a fight. When they began to sing the Tartars suspended their own music, flutes and lutes, and gave them silence for their voices without instrument. Under a transition sky, a torch on the horizon and big crystal stars, Qadaq, arms out for balance, conducted with his sabre. It was a hymn that Temujin had heard in church, but had not heard sung by a tumen of wounded heroes, who hereby made commitment to fight on until the end, although the end be in no doubt.

Bring me my bow of burning gold;
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear; oh clouds unfold,
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
Where walls of Tolgoyn Balgas stand.

That wasn’t how the hymn concluded in church. The Tartar audience, generously, whooped and whistled, to hear they had yet a way to go to get through the Ba’atud. And graciously, with a very Hirai elegance, Qadaq acknowledged them over his shoulder and swept an arm and bent his head, before he jumped down from his barricade.

As for Temujin, his vitals were wrenched and he wept outright. True, he hadn’t had any sleep for two nights. To his sleep-starved eyes, where Qadaq had waved a sabre, in his other hand he held aloft a tuq, a tuq only by the thinnest tissue of cloud invisible, and that his men saw and sang their hearts out to, in a vow of self-sacrifice. What was its name? What beauty had he wept for?

Its name wasn’t Nilqa. They didn’t fight for him.

That night’s fight, at least to Temujin, who had started to hallucinate, might have been fought in the stars, so close were they, so imminent. They hung over him and he asked them, what ideal do we die for?

In the morning he went to ask Qadaq. People had wondered why he hadn’t. “Talk him round, Temujin.” As if he had arts to talk the stars down from the sky, but he hadn’t. He got nowhere with Qadaq. It didn’t help that he suffered from a bad case of the infirmity he had told Bo’orchu about [he crushes on heroes — Ed.]. He was starry-eyed and swoony, though Qadaq was the one with a forehead split to the bone. What he was meant to tell him? That he was being pig-headed? He was being spectacular. He had won Temujin over with that hymn. Talk him round? He felt more fit to kneel and pour milk on the ground at his feet, as you do in worship of the dead.

Nevertheless he made an effort, and he almost convinced himself. “This has been a valiantly fought battle, Qadaq Ba’atur. But the result has become clear. When that is so, to persevere, that had been admirable, is flagrant waste of lives. Both your men and mine are too valuable to stack on as fuel to a dead fire.”

“I won’t dispute, Tchingis, that the home fires are out, and I’d gladly spare my remnant, on a bottom line of terms. On two clauses only. Can you meet me? Toghrul’s life and dignity of treatment?”

“Of course. Of course. How often do I have to – ? Here.” He plunged his hand in his shirt. “You know what this is. This is his blood.” He kissed the thimble.

“Nilqa’s life and liberty?”

“No.” That came out as from a catapult.

Qadaq nodded. “Like I say. Bottom line.”

He didn’t object that Qadaq despised Nilqa. Qadaq knew he despised Nilqa. “You have oath, I understand. But the dukes who ceded yesterday had oath, and I do not brand them dishonest. Do you?”

The hero wiggled the end of his nose on the rear of his wrist. “They weren’t on duty.”

Even so, he didn’t swoon; he stood in energetic contradiction. “Is he to go scot-free? As if his crimes aren’t crimes? – that men like you, Qadaq, have no yardstick to be measured by. In the winter Hirai and Mongol were friends. From the butchery on Evil Undur, to the throats I had to slit to get here undetected – every person slain on either side this spring – his fault.”

“That seems to be a no from me and a no from you.”

Indeed. He hadn’t quite asked his question. By what name do you call your tuq, your tuq of the spirit that I glimpsed in your hand? He was too shy. Instead – “Before I go, baghatur. On the first day of our combat, in memory of his late anda’s friendship with you, Jurchedei swore to stand and watch while you live and fight. So he does. He confesses to me you’ve run him ragged even though his part isn’t strenuous.”

On this Qadaq took a moment or two, and screwed up his eyes to see into the distance. Temujin caught a chest-heave. “Tell the Chief of Uru’ud from me, I’ll be proud to ask his anda to clasp arms, today, tomorrow. And then have a kip. Oh, and Tchingis.”

“Yes?”

“The right man won.”

He had no fortitude to turn away. Like a girl. Qadaq turned away.

#

I believe this my boldest piece of creative anachronism, and I usually bury it 530 + 440 pages into my trilogy. Today we’re flaunting it. These verses are thinkable for steppe Christians in the late 1100s: an imagery of bows, arrows, spears and chariots are their familiar language; the sky, fire and gold speak to steppe religiosity, while Jerusalem is a misty myth from liturgy. Metaphors, extended metaphors, even metaphysical-style conceits are found in the poetry of the Secret History of the Mongols [see my blog post ‘Milk in his veins’: Mongol slang].

William Napier decided Blake’s Proverbs of Hell had previously been bilig of Attila (bilig: a steppe word, ‘wise sayings’) [Attila Trilogy Two]. The wonderful Julian Rathbone has his inventive Quint quote lines from Yeats’ Byzantium poems while in that city circa 1066 [The Last English King].

I admit I’m enthralled by such creative acts of anachronism — a different animal than the inadvertent anachronism that’s made the a-word dirty in historical fiction circles. If, to portray Attila as an original mind with a reverence for energy, you assign him the philosophy of Blake (‘exuberance is beauty’; ‘the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’; ‘the tygers of wrath are greater than the horses of instruction’), I’ll follow you, and I appreciate the cheek.

Nothing less than the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ was called for, I thought, at the last stand of the Jirgin Ba’atud (a steppe word: heroes), as they dedicate themselves to an ideal that Tchingis cannot quite grasp but sees as a visionary tuq (steppe word: a banner with horse or yak hair, invested with spirit).

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