The Cold Face

February 14, 2013
By

“Genghis felt Borte’s eyes on him and waited until she had moved off and seated herself by the ponies. She still watched, but he did not want the boys turning to her for support. They had to feel alone to test themselves and for him to see their strength and their weaknesses.

“…’You will have heard of the cold face,’ he said to the boys. ‘The warrior’s face that gives nothing away to your enemies. It comes from a strength that has nothing to do with muscles, or how well you bend a bow. It is the heart of dignity that means you will face death with nothing but contempt. Its secret is that it is more than a simple mask. Learning it brings its own calm, so that you have conquered fear and your flesh.’

“With a few quick jerks, he freed his sash from his deel and removed his leggings and boots, standing naked on the edge of the river. His body was marked with old scars and his chest was whiter than the dark brown of his arms and legs. He stood without embarrassment before them, then walked into the freezing torrent, feeling his scrotum tighten as the water touched it.

“As he lowered himself into the water, his lungs stiffened so that each breath became a struggle. Nothing showed on his face and he watched his sons without expression as he dipped his head under the water, then lay back, half floating with his hands touching the stones of the riverbed.

“The four boys watched in fascination. Their father seemed completely at ease in the icy water, his face as calm as it was before. Only his eyes were fierce and they could not hold his gaze for long…

“‘In water this cold, a child can slip into sleep in six or seven hundred heartbeats, Even a grown man can become unconscious in a little longer. Your body begins to die at the hands and feet first. You will feel them grow numb and useless. Your thoughts become slow and, if you stay too long, you will not have the strength or the will to climb out.’ He paused for a moment, watching them. Jochi’s lips had turned blue and he still had made no sound. Chagatai seemed to be struggling against the cold, his limbs twisting in the water. Genghis watched Ogedai closest of all as he tried to copy his older brothers. The effort was too much for him and Genghis heard his teeth clatter together. He could not keep them there much longer and he considered sending Ogedai back to the bank. No, his father had not, though little Temuge had fainted toward the end and almost drowned.

“‘Show me nothing of what you feel,’ he said to them. ‘Show me the cold face that you will show to enemies that taunt you. Remember that they too are afraid. If you have ever wondered if you were the only coward in a world of warriors, know that they feel the same, to the last man. In knowing that, you can hide your own fear and stare them down.’ All three boys struggled to empty their faces of fear and pain, and on the bank, little Tolui mimicked them in earnest concentration.

“‘Breathe gently through your nose to slow your heart. Your flesh is a weak thing, but you do not have to listen to its cries for help. I have seen a man push a knife through his own flesh without blood falling. Let that strength come to you and breathe. Show me nothing and be empty.’

“Jochi understood at once and his sipping breath became slow and long in perfect imitation of his father’s. Genghis ignored him, watching Chagatai as he struggled to bring himself under control. It came at last, close to the time that Genghis knew he had to end it before they passed out in the water.

“‘Your body is like any other animal in your care,’ he told them. ‘It will clamor for food and water, warmth and relief from pain. Find the cold face and you will be able to shut out its clamoring voice.’”

“The three boys had grown numb and Genghis judged it was time to take them out. He expected to have to lift the limp boys to the bank and he rose to take hold of the first. Instead, Jochi stood with him, his body blooming pink with blood under the skin. The little boy’s eyes never left his father as Genghis touched a hand to Chagatai’s arm, not wanting to lift him after Jochi had risen on his own.

“…Genghis strode out with water streaming from his flesh, feeling life return to his limbs with a rush of energy. Jochi and Chagatai came to stand with him, gasping as their feet and hands came back to life. They sensed their father was still watching them and each boy understood and tried to control his body once again. Their hands shook beyond any control, but they stood straight in the sunlight and watched him, not trusting their shuddering jaws for speech.

“‘Did it kill you?’ Genghis asked them.’Your body does not rule you… it is a stupid beast that knows nothing of the works of men. It is merely the cart that carries you. You control it with will and breathe through your nose, when it calls for you to pant like a dog. When you take an arrow in battle and pain is overwhelming, you will press it away and, before you fall, you will return death to your enemies.’”

- Conn Iggulden, Lords of the Bow

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