In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 

A stately pleasure-dome decree

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round;

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery:


Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


* * *

“You see before your eyes Xanadu, Princess Altani,” the Captain of Five Hundred said, proudly, as we rode side by side over the low ridgeline, pausing a little after the crest to gaze down into the great valley before us. The Great Khan’s Summer Palace, Xanadu, lay spread below, vast beyond anything I had imagined. My escort, my guards, they reined in behind us as I halted, shielding my eyes from the red-gold glare of the setting sun reflected from the gilded roofs. There, before me, was my destination. My fate.


That was the name the Captain of my escort used for this sprawling city of stone built around that great Palace and the verdant park enclosed within those inner walls that I could see even from here. Shangdu. 上都. That was the name used by the Han for this place. My people, the Hu, we whom the Han named Xiongnu and the Mongols called Hunnu and others called Hun, to us this was the City of Stone, for my people had no cities, no buildings.

We were people of the steppe, our homes our yurts, our beds the ground, our roof the blue sky. People of the Wolf, we called ourselves, for we were wolves. Wolves of the plains, the great steppe that went on without end. But I, I was to be a wolf of the plains no longer.

I had been sent as a gift to the Great Khan, the Khagan, here in his Summer Palace.

His Xanadu. His Shangdu. His City of Stone.

Call it what you will, this great city constructed from the bones of the earth loomed before my eyes as we rode towards it at a fast trot, for dusk came down fast and we were at the end of our long journey. This night, this night that I had feared and dreaded over all these long weeks of travel, this night I would find myself within this city of Xanadu, no more travelling across the steppe and of that I was almost glad, for winter was falling fast. Snow lay sprinkled thinly on the ground now, white on the brown autumn grass and Xiongnu though I was and inured to hardship, winter is no time to be riding across the great steppe.


This was that city to which I was dispatched. I, my father’s only daughter, gifted as a concubine to the Khagan. The Great Khan, ruler of all the steppe tribes, ruler now too of the great empire of the Han, for the Han had fallen in defeat as had my own people a generation ago. Slaves, all were slaves to the Great Khan and though we Hu were of the steppe, my people had not escaped that fate. The Mongols had defeated us and I, I who was a Princess who fate might have destined to rule, now I was a mere gift.

Gifted to the Great Khan by a fool. I, a princess of the Hu, we that the Han named the Xiongnu and the Mongols named Hunnu and others called Hun. Bitter were my thoughts as I gazed down on those great walls of stone. Walls that stretched high and impassable across the grassland before me as we rode towards great wooden gates set in a fortress-like tower, one of half a dozen great towers that I could see.

Although my thoughts in that moment were bitter, I rode on without hesitation, my escorts on their shaggy steppe horses following in a long column for bitter though I was, I would show no fear. I would ride into this City of Stone, this Xanadu, this Shangdu, at the head of my escort, proudly riding beside the Captain of Five Hundred. I would ride at the front of my escort, not dragged or carried in as if I were reluctant, unwilling, forced.

I would not enter this city as a prisoner. I would enter as a Princess of the Xiongnu, leading my escort, fearing no-one, riding my great black stallion, my sword at my side, my bow in its leather case before me, my arrows slung across my back in their leather quiver, my steel-tipped spear in my hand.

I would ride into this City of Stone on my stallion, woman though I was, for I was no effete Han girl to be carried in a palanquin or to ride seated in a cart as the Mongol women were carried. I would ride, or I would walk on my own feet, for I was Xiongnu and in that knowledge there was pride as merchants and peasants drew aside to give us passage, turning their heads to gaze after me. Pride that turned to anger as Jiang Shunfu kicked his gelding ahead of me on the stone road, and the bearers of the palanquin that had travelled with us from the start jogged at his tail.

“Woman, you must take your place in the palanquin. It is unseemly that a woman of the Khagan’s should ride into Shangdu seated on a horse and carrying weapons.” Jiang Shunfu ignored my rank, my title, as he had ignored my rank and my title from the very start of this long journey.

He eyed my great black stallion askance, as he had eyed Aranjagaan askance from the moment I had been given over to his authority. He knew my title. He knew I was daughter of the old Chanyu. He knew my name. He knew Aranjagaan was a part of me for we were inseparable, as inseparable as a mother with her child. He knew all of that, and yet Jiang Shunfu showed no respect for me and I, I had showed none to him before and I would give him no respect or obedience now.

Jiang Shunfu.

How I cursed that name.

How I cursed my older brother’s name.

My older brother, now Chanyu, the ruler of our people. It was he who had sent me to the Khagan as a gift. Sent me out of fear, for with a husband at my side, all Hu knew in their hearts that I would be a far more capable ruler than my older brother, the fool. Thus, when this minor emissary of the Khagan, the Great Khan of the Mongol overlords, had arrived with a Han “princess” gifted to my brother as a wife, the fool had seen his opportunity to rid himself of the threat I posed to him.

Publicly, before all, he had gifted me to the Khagan in return.

“I am handing over to your protection my sister, the Princess Altani, as a gift to the Khagan.” Those were my cursed brother’s words to Jiang Shunfu, the Han emissary, but that twist of his lips, that malevolent smirk, that had been for me. A gift. A concubine. Not given even as a minor wife, but as a gift and a concubine; and the insult in his words brought a flooding rage and I would have killed my brother there, on the spot, but for his guards. There had been too many of them and my bloodlust had gone unquenched.

My brother had not been fool enough to stay and provide me with any further opportunity. Before the sun had set on that inauspicious day, my people were on the move, that pitiful Han “princess”, beautiful enough to please my brother but more than likely only some minor noble’s daughter who would forever weaken the bloodline of my father, carried weeping and wailing across the steppe.

“Curse that motherless fool,” were my parting words as the dust of my people clouded the horizon.

The Captain of Five Hundred had understood enough to chuckle. In my heart, I was well aware that no doubt the Khagan’s servant, this Jiang Shanfu, had another motive for separating me from my people for the Han was observant.

He had made his own assessment of my fool of a brother, of that I was sure. Perhaps he had made an accurate assessment of me, perhaps not, for women were of little regard to the Han. It mattered not, I was more than certain he had determined my older brother was a fool, and a fool leading the Xiongnu, that would serve the Khagan’s purpose well. Subtle indeed were the ways of the Khagan’s Han advisers and servants and in the end it made no difference to my fate.

Once gifted to the Great Khan, that gifting could not be undone, and Jiang Shunfu came with an escort of five hundred Mongol warriors commanded by their Captain. Only a fool would resist, only a fool would flee; and I, I was no fool. I knew, as my brother well knew that I knew, any resistance on my part, a call to those warriors loyal to me, and there were many; that would bring the wrath of the Great Khan down on the Xiongnu now that I had been gifted.

And so, cursing myself for not having foreseen the cunning of the fool and making myself absent, I sat my great black stallion, Aranjagaan, watching my people depart. Not a few of them glanced over their shoulders at me as they rode, and I promised myself to remember those faces, to remember who was yet loyal to me.

Weeks of riding had followed, endless league upon league across the great steppe, threading the high mountain passes, crossing the vast desert of the singing winds, the endless desolation where nothing lived and there was only sand and rock and more sand. I endured the long days, the freezing nights, the sudden sandstorms, drinking the brackish water from wells and oasis pools, struggling over the endless dunes, enduring the burning heat that I prayed would boil Jiang Shunfu’s brains within his misshapen skull and always, always I had ridden my great black stallion. Ridden when the Mongols had ridden. Lead my horse when they had lead theirs, walked when they had walked.

Never showing weakness. Never.

I was Xiongnu, and to weaken was to lose honor. Twas better to die than to lose honor.

“Keep your people’s ways to yourself, Han.” I had scorned Jiang Shunfu when he had thought to place me in a tent identical to his own on that first night, with guards at every corner as if he feared that his companions would kill him in his sleep. What use were those guards then? Who did he distrust? I knew not, and I cared not.

I had laughed in his face as I displayed my trust in my escort from the very first, placing my bedroll alongside the warriors who now guarded me as my father’s warriors had once guarded me. Sleeping on the ground as they did, warmed by the bodies of the men to either side of me for I was no Han, unused to hardship. Brushing the frost or the early snow from my covering in the morning, for winter was closing in now.

Out there on the great grasslands, my people, the Hu, the Hun, the Hunnu, the Xiongnu, call them what you will, they would be camped in sheltered valleys, feasting, singing our songs of courage and victory and glorious death in raids and in battle and of the stealing of Mongol and Tatar women and of the feuds that had gone on for generation after generation.

None here would have the temerity to attempt my virtue, close to them as I lay, for I was gifted to the Khagan. It would not have mattered if any had made the attempt. My knife would have ripped the throat out of any who attempted such an act, as I had ripped the throat from men of my own people before for such offences against me, smiling as their blood spurted onto the grass while my father laughed and praised his only daughter’s skill with weapons. My brother had had good reason to dispatch me thus, for assuredly his blood would very soon have fertilized the grasslands if I had remained with my people.

The Captain of Five Hundred had chuckled at Jiang Shunfu’s outraged protests. Chuckled, and silenced him with a look and a hand to the hilt of his sword, for all knew who were the masters and who were the servants in this great Khanate of the Khagan’s. The Captain of Five Hundred knew well that no warrior of his would dare touch me, for I was gifted to the Khagan, whether the Khagan knew or not; and I would come to the Khagan with my virtue intact.

I had laughed at that Han woman who thought he was a man as I rode my horse through the autumn snow, scorning the meals that the Han’s cook prepared. Instead, I took my food from the iron pots my guards shared, eating as they ate, drinking milk, hot and fresh from the teats of the mares, guided to my mouth by my own hands, drinking mare’s blood, thin and hot and fresh, my lips pressed to the pulsing neck vein as I sucked at the nourishing blood, staining my lips redder than any artifice those fragile and timid Han girls used to tempt men.

Smiling with those reddened lips at Jiang Shunfu, smiling as he recoiled in horror, smiling as I tore at the dried meat with my pearl white teeth while we rode, and in the evenings I wrestled with the men, as I had wrestled with my father’s warriors. Never did I win, for they were men and they were warriors; but often I forced them to exert all their strength and skill before I was defeated; and the Captain of Five Hundred oft silenced Jiang Shunfu’s incessant whining with a single gesture of his hand when his voice was raised yet again in protest.

“This must stop, it is unseemly for this woman to fight men.”

This as I gave Arslan a butt to his nose with my forehead that had the hot blood spurting onto my face and his, and in this I had an advantage, for none of these warriors would risk the wrath of their Captain or of the Great Khan by inflicting permanent damage on me. An advantage that I shamelessly used, and they knew it.

They knew it, and they knew that I knew, and they laughed, for my bravery and my skill and deceit at the wrestling and my skill and unerring speed and accuracy with the sword and at the archery won their admiration. Their admiration, but not their loyalty. They would kill me in a moment if the Captain of Five Hundred ordered it so, for these men were hand-picked men of the Khagan’s, loyal only to him. Loyal by blood and by oaths sworn; but I, I was gifted to the Khagan, the Great Khan, and their duty for now was to guard me. I had their admiration, they knew their duty well, and I was as safe with them as their own sisters would have been. Safer perhaps than their sisters, for they were, after all, Mongols.

“She is of the Hunnu, the Hu, the Xiongnu, the People of the Wolf, Han.” The Captain of Five Hundred deigned to respond. “She is of the Xiongnu, she is trained as all the Xiongnu women are, to fight as a warrior would fight, and she is a gift to the Khagan. We will deliver her to the Khagan as she is,” and the Captain was smiling as I took Arslan with a kick to the head that staggered him backwards and a second that almost took him down.

He recovered, he closed with a sudden rush, ignoring my knee and elbow strikes as I attempted to strike him to the ground where I should have danced backwards, and I cursed myself for my overconfidence when he grappled with me even as I doubled him over with a knee strike to his guts and an elbow to the back of his head. Despite those blows, he managed to fling me to the ground so that the blood burst from my own nose and I saw the stars even though the darkness of night had not yet fallen on the great grasslands.

“I give you best, Arslan,” I groaned, lying there watching the stars circle as he pushed himself to his hands and knees while I still lay there and he took my hand and pulled me to my feet and almost I fell and I would have had he not supported me.

“Almost she took you, Arslan,” Basan laughed, standing, taking my other arm. “Sit here, Princess.” For these Mongol warriors, they gave me honor and respect where the Han did not. “A bucket of water is coming. The shaman brings the tea for the bleeding.”