(Earlier episode: The Guest)
When he woke in the morning, the first thing the Kazakh did was to check his satchel. Satisfied, he joined his hosts. After some grunts that served as greetings, they ate breakfast, finishing off the previous night’s leftovers. The sounds of munching and lip-smacking made for conversation.
When the men were satiated and light, Subedei said, “You slept as a bloated child.” He made light of the man’s drug induced slumber and that provoked smiles all around.
“The sleep demon had me in her tight embrace,” replied the Kazakh, half-apologetic, half-embarrassed.
“A blissful embrace indeed,” said Subedei with a small laugh. “Your bones are rested and your horses watered and fed.”
“I’ve heard of the generosity of the Türmed,” the man nodded in gratitude. “Henceforth, I shall speak of it with conviction.” Then, with both hands, he offered Subedei a piece of silk as a gift. “By your leave, I depart from your protection.”
By the time the Kazakh was back on the road, the sun had started to draw out the first long shadows. The Mongols watched him disappear into the fast disappearing mist.
“He will speak of our presence here,” said Jumqi.
“Uproot your camp and leave enough to hint of your passing,” ordered Subedei and pointed to another hill a distance away. “Take up new positions there.”
The men busied themselves with breaking camp and Subedei moved away. He sat alone on a boulder and unrolled the parchment of paper on which he had copied the message discovered in the Kazakh’s satchel. He had with him a pigeon that had shiny feathers, in prime condition.
Quietly, Galtai joined Subedei but stood a discreet distance.
“The Kazakh knows that Subedei is on the Steppes and with only three bodyguards,” said the young khan, without looking at Galtai. “His masters are not thick and we can expect hunting parties on our trail.” He fed the bird some red beans and water. “What ransom would my father pay for my safe return?”
Galtai’s features stretched long, as in a death mask. He immediately dropped flat on his stomach and said, “Forgive me, my Khan, I spoke of your name with pride and knew not the danger it carried for your person.”
Subedei stood up, and stepped past the prostrate figure. He released the pigeon into the air and watched the frantic flaps of the wings gather lift and transition to smooth flight. The pigeon flew away, pulled into a speck and disappeared.
“Once spilled, one can’t pick up the words and even when we scrape, stains remain.” With an exaggerated gait of his hips, Subedei set off down the slope. “We ride to my father.”
“Yes, my Khan,” exclaimed Galtai and got up, as if given a new lease of life. He hurried ahead in short quick steps to make ready their horses.
The retainer bowed low and carefully handed the pigeon to Altan, who took it and stroked the bird’s smooth feathers. He removed the small leather pouch fastened to its foot, and held up the bird. The shaman stepped out of the shadows, collected the pigeon and retired behind the heavy drapes.
Altan unrolled the tiny parchment and leaning close to the oil lamp, he silently read. He pursed his lips tight and crunched his face, carving deep lines into his features.
He got up and went behind the heavy drapes where he found the shaman. The wrinkled old man, seated behind a low table, looked up and nodded. Spread in a bloody mess of wet feathers and entrails was the pigeon, neatly dissected and gutted.
The frightening old man, not much more than a skeleton wrapped in loose skin, prodded into the innards and pointed to the partly digested red bean mash.
Altan was satisfied. The bird had flown straight home and not waylaid by an interloper, for then, meals other than red beans would fill its belly. The message was from Subedei and authentic.
“Why these elaborate precautions, father?” Subedei had once asked.
“The value of a message, as in the words of wisdom, depends on its source,” had been his reply.
Altan half-turned and called over his shoulder, “Summon the five banners to sup at my fire.”
His retainers bowed and ran off to do his bidding.
************ Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2014 ************