November, 1241—March, 1242, Tokaj, Kingdom of Hungary
They want to breed me like the mare, even after my first man gave me back. I see my father and my brothers talking to the other village men who each think they have the stuff to do it. I’ll plant her, I heard the head reaper say. I forgive my father; like the other farmers, he can’t know. My fate lies elsewhere.
Now more than ever, he shouts to me when I shake my head. He’s thinking of the unborn generations of our people who could outlast Them – the occupying army. I’m a Cuman, I remind him, but he spits on the hearthstone. I am sitting in the dark, fingering the path my stitches take. I’m like Them, in my deepest heart.
My father leaves the hut, his breath snagged in his throat. He used to slap me for talking this way; I preferred that; it was something. Like two children throwing stones at each other. But now he goes to sell me to another village man.
The Mongols wait out the winter here; we feed them, and they teach our best men how to ride. Their general keeps two cheetahs in a pen for the sick cattle. He walks through the mud and slush with the cats on golden leashes, so that our people will feel astonishment and fear. They call him Baatar. Twice now, I have walked across his path, alone, on my way to sheaving. They say he’s trying to breed the cats. But his experiment will fail.
I do not know how I know things, but I do. Of course there have been rumors since I was a child, from the northern tribes who pass through. And last year my mother’s kinsman, who is a Cuman and lives among horses in the old way, brought news of his people’s defeat, half their men slaughtered. But it was I who heard the Mongol armies moving a month before they came. I tried to tell my father but he laughed at me, a breeding failure, only just returned from old Jakob the Smith. I could feel it in the ground—a thousand thousand hooves—and our village in the way.
My mother left her people to marry into a tribe of farmers from seven generations. She died after my last brother was born. At the end, she crooked two fingers to bring me to her. Forget the old ways, she whispered; all my life she had followed my glance, set beyond the baking and the planting.
This afternoon, I made the oatmeal cakes and baked tomorrow’s loaves from the last of the beans and bran. I left the bowls dirty and hidden in the corner, so there would be time before going to their tents to serve them salty tea. Time to watch the cats in their pen, on their ordinary leashes. I feel them crouching inside themselves, as they walk back and forth and back, nothing more cruel than this, for I hear these animals are faster than the fastest horse, born below the great desert where there are more animals than people, where animals like them must be like gods.
Long ago, my mother whispered to me: Before the birth of Jesus, my people used to pray to the first animal they saw in the morning: hawk, antelope, it didn’t matter. The horses were our brothers. On long rides, she said, across the dry lands, a Cuman would sometimes cut a vein to bleed his horse; far from water, the man drank his brother’s blood.
I know how to breed the cheetah. First, cut the leash and let the female run south toward her own kind. Let her drink the wind, until it fills her and the stripes below her eyes are no longer a path of tears but are shafts of night-wheat blown open. The male will follow her, gathering chaff as he flies overland; collecting small stones between the pads of his feet as he springs up and down the high places. After months of captivity, he will grow stronger; cut and bloodied, he will stretch into himself over the hours he chases her, across the far distance toward what they were and are. If he overtakes her, she will be ready to receive. *
Baatar the Mongol general does not ask the village girl about breeding the cats, and she, whom he calls Ilonka the Hungarian, does not tell him, even after he takes her for his own, takes her away, onward to Croatia on his great march westward. She knows he will not reach his dream of the western sea. She will take what knowledge she can from him and his horse people. She will tell him nothing. Ilonka is 15 now, a prize among men. But she is from an old tribe and can see beyond the day. She rides with her wrist on the hilt of a Mongol sword. She holds her fate lightly, like the rein in her hands, ready to sense, in a moment, the prevailing wind—and run with it.