By Raihan Aituarova

Translated by Dina Shchekina, Eva Orlova, Olga Kireeva
The legend of Zhanbulat and Karabatur the Man-Eater
Under the fiery eye of Tengri, under the light of the sumless horses of the star shepherd scattered across the sky, there lied a land, flat as a dastarkhān. Free people wandered the Great Steppe. One of its chiefs was Agzamkhan. Three sons were born to his wife, the wise Gadelbanu, three young stallions free as air.

Large were their herds and verdurous were their pastures and even the poorest farmhand could bring beshbarmak and kumis to the table. But every feast has an end, just as every baghatur can become a crow's take. Grief came to the lands of Agzamkhan, Gadelbanu and their people. The harsh winter covered the earth with ice harder than horses' hooves, the cruel jute claimed half the herds. In the spring, Karabatur the Man-Eater invaded their lands, his warriors innumerable.

The eldest son went to fight with the invader and fell on the battlefield.

The second son went to defeat the enemy by cunning, but he himself fell from a deadly poison.

The third son went to make peace with the foe by buying him off with offerings, but returned in a cart, without the gifts, terribly wounded. His eyes and tongue were torn out and his face was slashed to pieces. Less than a week did the third son live after that.

Blinded by the pain of loss, Agzamkhan himself began to summon the rest of his people for a final battle with the enemy, but Gadelbanu put her hand on his shoulder.

"O my husband," she said. "You have witnessed fifty winters since your birth, and few warriors are left at your hand. Our herds are thinned, and our people are starving. Your grief is only a shadow of mine, as it was I who had borne three children taken away by the foe, and I wept for them. But all the people who follow us are my sons and daughters, too. We cannot defeat our foe today. Oak branches break under the weight of the snow, while willow branches bend to the ground, shaking off the snow, and remain intact. I will bring you a new heir."

Hearing the voice of reason, Agzamkhan fought to subdue his anger. He collected the rest of his people and travelled to new pastures crossing many rivers, hills, and a desert. In safety, their people enjoyed a peaceful live once again. But Gadelbanu remained childless. Both of them understood that the khan was not young and she was not much younger than him, and the people need a ruler just as the herd needs a shepherd who leads it to new pastures and protects it from wolves. The khaness confided her thoughts to Unai Khatun, who spoke to birds, animals, wind and stars and with her charms had the power to let weeds sprout or rot.

When she examined Gadelbanu, Unai Khatun said, "All it takes is to drink the fresh blood of a spotless snow-white in-foal mare, white, without a single dark spot. Then the khaness will give birth to a healthy and hearty child."
Immediately, Agzamkhan ordered to catch a spotless snow-white in-foal mare from his herds. Soon a horse was brought to his yurt, tall and beautiful, with its skin white as fresh snow. Three shepherds were restraining it with lariats. On seeing the mare, Gadelbanu took pity of it. She took a knife and only just cut its shoulder to fill a cup with blood, since the sorceress had said nothing about killing the animal. After that, the khaness presented the white horse to Unai Khatun, and both were pleased with each other.

Soon his wife conceived, and Agzamkhan's happiness was overwhelming. When the time came, he summoned akyns, shamans, magi and sages and treated them with a generous hand, so that they would predict the future in return. They feasted and praised the khan.

Kusoy the Blind, the guardian of traditions, reputed to be a prophet, overindulged himself with drinks and announced in a sonorous voice, "O great Khan! I foresee that the worthiest of your children will arrive tonight, and his name will be Zhanbulat, which means 'iron will'!"

Agzamkhan rejoiced and said, "If both my wife and the child will enjoy a good health, so be it!"

Immediately a maid came in, saying that Gadelbanu had successfully delivered a child. Seeing an omen in that, the first shaman stood up and interrupted the maid, saying, "I brought a spear as a gift as I predict: he will be a great warrior, invincible in battle!"

The maid tried to get a word in, saying, "But..."

But the second shaman stood up and said, "I brought greaves as a gift as I predict: he will be a reasonable ruler that stands firmly on the ground, and he will lead his people to prosperity!"

The girl indeed grew up a healthy child. And they named her Zhanbulat as promised. At the age of four, she mounted her first horse. At the age of seven, she could already bend a hunting bow and, releasing an arrow into the sky, she could shoot it down with the next one. At the age of ten, she was second to none of her peers in training fights on sticks.

At home she was lovingly called by her child name, Shatlyk.

When she was thirteen years old, her parents took Zhanbulat to a hilltop overlooking the steppe and the herds and yurts of their people.

"All your childhood I indulged your every pleasure," Agzamkhan began. "The deaths of your elder brothers taught me to appreciate what is more important than gold, and I have always taught you only the things you showed a disposition to. But the Khan's cap is a heavy burden."

"Look up to the horizon," the wise Gadelbanu continued, "this steppe belongs to you. As will the coming years. Neither of us is young anymore. No matter what was predicted, you can shape your own future."

Zhanbulat answered them wisely, like an adult, "People need a ruler just as a herd needs a shepherd who will lead them to new pastures and protect them from wolves. Changing dresses and weaving carpets attracts me less than feeling the weight of a spear in my hand and the wind in my hair, when a horse under the saddle flies across the steppe, trying to outrace a golden eagle."

"Mind you, from generation to generation only sons held the reins and the whip. It won't be easy for you, my daughter," sighed her mother.

Zhanbulat only smiled at this, and her brown eyes were the eyes of a snow leopard.


The years passed, and with each one Zhanbulat became more skilled, wise and far-seeing. With red-hot copper did she burn her right breast off, so that it would not grow and hinder her during archery or combat. No one could surpass her in wielding a spear, and taking after her farther she ruled with a firm hand and even changed some customs. She banned polygamy on her land, and some people blessed the khaness, while others growled and grumbled but eventually resigned as she stood her ground and led the people to prosperity.

Meanwhile, distinguished beys from all over the steppe began to arrive at Agzamkhan's yurt in order to seek marriage with Zhanbulat.

Chengiz-bey brought herds of fat-tailed sheep and fleet-footed horses. After a hearty meal, he turned to Agzamkhan, wiping grease from his beard, and said, "O great khan! This is only part of a bride's price. Give me your daughter in marriage and I will give you a sheep for every hair on her head."

"What do you think I am, a golden bowl with stones, so you can bargain about my price in my silent presence?", asked Zhanbulat. "Look me in the eye if you want to marry me, rather than my father! Chengiz the Rich people call you to your face; Chengiz the Fat Wineskin, they call you behind your back. You are much older and weaker than me. Get on any of your fleet-footed horses and drive all these herds without help. And if you fail, go away and only take the cattle that you can drive on your own."

Take it or leave it! Chengiz-bey mounted his horse and fell into a pit just a hundred paces from the threshold. He had to go away rather deprived of his fortune.

The sweet-voiced Mahmet came next and chanted praises to the khan's daughter, calling her a 'sirenic swan', praising her breasts and her 'moist eyes of a timid gazelle'. Having listened to that, Zhanbulat said with a menacing squint, "The way you describe me, I look like a wild goat with watery eyes. And one of my breasts resembles a small yellow fruit covered in fluff. And my voice is like the cry of a swan. Don't you know, songster, that swans are graceful only on water, while silent, but they scream worse than jackals? Take your pipe and leave with decency, or l can help you fly away like a falcon hit with my leg, as slender as an aspen trunk!"

Kurt-Baghatur was the third to come. Without further ado, he offered Zhanbulat to meet him in a duel. If she loses, she will become his woman.

Zhanbulat replied with a grin, "Even if I believed the rumours that you could defeat a hundred warriors alone, why should I fight if even with my eyes closed, I can do what you can't do with your eyes open?"

Kurt-Baghatur took this dare, as he believed no woman could do anything that he would not be able to repeat. Zhanbulat got up, took a handful of dry steppe soil with small stones in it, tilted her head back and spilled the soil onto her tightly closed eyes. The warrior had to leave none the richer.

There were more courters, but each one left empty-handed.

"Why are you so cruel to them?" Agzamkhan asked. "You could use a friend and a companion."

"A companion, maybe. But not a conqueror. How can you choose a wife by rumours and a couple of dates? I went to their yurts at night, the day before they all proposed. Though I am not tall, by the breadth of my shoulders and by my posture, I could be easily taken for a young man from behind. And in full armour, with a chain mail and in a helmet hiding my plait, no one can recognise a woman in me even if they were looking straight at my face. Before your eyes, my courters showered me with praises, but among themselves they said, although I was ugly and had the temper of an untamed mare, the khanate was worth it. About you, my father, they said that you did not have long left."

"But I believe there is a soul that will love you for your honour and good judgment," the wise Gadelbanu said.

"Rest assured, should I find myself in dire need for heirs, I will think of something. Meanwhile, my heart lacks nothing."

That was the end of it.

In due time, Death claimed Agzamkhan in his sleep.

Zhanbulat continued to rule with her mother, and none of her relatives, distant or close, dared challenge her. But soon came a fierce winter and took more cattle than before. Years and sorrows took their toll on the grey-haired Gadelbanu's health. On her deathbed, she told her daughter the story of her birth. Zhanbulat immediately saddled her horse Tulpar, for only the spells of her who spoke with the wind and the stars could help her mother.

It was dark when she arrived at the place where the bone of the earth rips the flesh of the plain. Unai Khatun was already waiting for the khaness beneath the rocks, covered with ancient drawings of horses, argalis, bulls and men, carved in the stone by many generations of the people wandering the Great Steppe. Over the years, one in-foal mare became three dozen mighty white horses grazing without bridle or leash.

"I know why you came to me, girl," Unai Khatun said. "Here is a medicine that will help your mother, but this is only part of what I must tell you. A great army is coming to the lands of your people. Karabatur the Man-Eater, also named Yndyrchi the Grave Digger, gathered a larger army than before. This your scouts will report to you, but they will not know that Karabatur is a black sorcerer. He turns into a black tiger, a black snake and a huge black golden eagle. He eats human flesh to preserve and multiply his male and magical powers, and he sends jute to his enemies' herds to weaken them before battle."

Zhanbulat returned to her yurt, these words echoing in her head. Unai Khatun's brew indeed cured the wise Gadelbanu from the illness, but not from old age.

Soon the scouts arrived with a report that the army of Karabatur the Man-Eater was moving towards them, the steppe groaning under the hooves of his numerous riders. Zhanbulat was not surprised, but pensive. She understood that her people would not have enough strength to win in an open battle. She sent the scouts back with strict orders to watch like falcons and listen like hares.

When they returned the second time, they said that although rumours hold that no one was able to defeat Karabatur, he was as cautious as a snake hiding under a stone. Even his ten wives lived in separate yurts and he was always surrounded by guards and did not allow anyone to approach him. For the third time, the khaness sent out her scouts, ordering them to inform her about everything, about every whisper, about every gossip in the enemy camp.

They returned, having found out that their enemy, Karabatur the Man-Eater, named also Yndyrchi the Grave Digger, had an only daughter. Toktar was her name and they said she was beautiful like sweet pepper, with her skin white as a full moon, her lips red as fresh blood, and her black plaits reaching her feet. But this maiden was so arrogant, so haughty, and so sharp-tongued that the third courter, Karabatur's commander, to whom Toktar was promised as a wife, abandoned everything, fled from the army and disappeared in the Great Steppe. By that, Toktar angered her father so greatly that he stopped the war and announced competitions: anyone who passed his three tests could marry the khan's daughter, even if he was the last son of a farmhand without a single scabby sheep to his name.

After hearing all this, Zhanbulat immediately gathered the elders and said, "For twenty days and nights, I am going to the desert to seek advice from the spirits of my ancestors. I will only take two horses with me. Meanwhile, you will gather warriors to fend off possible danger, and my mother will rule our people in my absence."

After the council, the khaness put on her battle armour, hid her plait under her helmet, took two horses, named Tulpar and Argali, the hardiest among her herds, and left that very evening. Only her mother, guessing the true purpose of that, shed salty tears, because it was predicted that her daughter would fight a fearsome enemy, but no one said that she would return alive.

Zhanbulat rode from west to east without rest, from north to south, changing horses so that they would not fall under the saddle, until she saw a huge camp with black banners.

The watchers called out to her, "Tell us who goes there, baghatur, as we do not recognise your face or your clothes."

She replied, "I greet you, worthy men of Karabatur! Shatlyk is my name and I have come from far places to bow to the great and mighty Khan Karabatur the Victorious and to fight for his beautiful daughter's hand!"

The guards stepped aside and let Zhanbulat into the camp where all the soldiers were sleeping. There she unsaddled both horses, wiped them off and let them graze. Only then did she spread out her cloak and fall asleep on a saddle put under her head. In a restless dream, she saw a fox sneaking among the sleeping warriors.

The first test was a battle with a rival chosen by lot among the other courters. Then were the horse races. Only a select few were allowed to continue the contest for the hand of the khan's daughter. From time to time, Karabatur the Man-Eater watched the competition, surrounded by a ring of guards. That was the first time Zhanbulat saw her enemy: he was tall and broad in the shoulders, with a smooth beardless face and sagging cheeks, with the belly of a commander who was used to send troops to their death, himself standing on a high hill far away. But he moved like a young man, as if he was nowhere near as old as her parents were.

The last test of the first day was shooting at targets chosen by the shooters themselves.

A sleek foreigner from distant lands stepped forward. On his feet were stylish red boots, his shoulders sported an embroidered cloak, and he wore a straight double-edged sword in a scabbard. He introduced himself as a prince, speaking with a strange accent, then set a marvellous target ornamented with red and white circles. For a long time, he boasted what a great warrior he was and how he would 'show the barbarians how wise and worthy people shoot'. Then he bent a wonderful, gilded and jewelled bow, pulled the string back — and the arrow flew past the target into the crowd. The people stepped apart, looking around curiously for the arrow and wondering where the prince aimed at, and someone from the back rows shouted angrily, "Squint-eye!"

Then the next baghatur came forward to show his accuracy and ingenuity. He aimed from a hundred paces at an apple placed on the head of his servant — this time, the crowd behind stepped apart in advance. But the warrior hit the apple in the very centre, and the servant fainted, apparently, from relief. The people laughed and rejoiced as if at a fair, as if the baghaturs were now fighting for torsyk with kumis or for a horse, not for a living person, and not for the lot of their future ruler.

When it was Zhanbulat's turn to shoot, she asked for a ring from a maiden's little finger, hung it on a thread in front of the shield, walked a hundred steps away, bent a mighty bow, and, glancing at Karabatur the Man-Eater, called Yndyrchi, she thought her enemies would long remember her accuracy. But even if she struck the black sorcerer with the first arrow in front of a crowd, she would not escape alive. Zhanbulat released the bowstring and the arrow intended for Karabatur passed through the ring, tore it off the thread, and pierced the shield. Although the crowd roared, pleased with the spectacle, the whole thing seemed empty to the she-warrior, and her very soul felt disgusted. Only six courters were allowed to continue the tests after the shooting and the races, Zhanbulat among them. If not today, she decided, tomorrow she would find a way to get even with the damned villain.

At night she dreamed of a fox again, but now Zhanbulat immediately opened her eyes just in time to see a shadow with burning eyes. In the pocket of her clothing, she found a message saying, "Greetings, daughter of Gadelbanu, congratulations on your victories. I am waiting for you in a grey yurt on the outskirts. There is a spear stuck in the ground at the threshold with a raven sitting on the top of it."

Zhanbulat burned the letter. Then she stealthily walked to the outskirts of the camp, where indeed she found a small yurt, covered with grey felt, and a live raven was sitting on the shaft of a spear, not tied. Gripping her sword, Zhanbulat opened the curtain tentatively, like a wolf that sneaks to the flock, even though it smells dogs and hunters. But the only person waiting for her in the yurt was an unusually tall, white-skinned maiden with plaits so long that they were tied to her belt so as not to touch the ground when walking. Two foxes were eating raw meat out of her hands.

"Did you order the foxes to follow me?" Zhanbulat asked.

Hearing her speak, the red-haired predators started, dashed into the shadows and hid, only their eyes twinkling like small golden moons. The khaness realized that these wild animals were not figments of her imagination.

"I did not order them, but asked for their help," the maiden said, rising. "The rumours did not lie about you, Zhanbulat," Toktar said in a deep, mellow voice. "You are valiant in battles, but the next test involves a different danger. Tomorrow those who have passed the tests will be summoned before my father's eyes, unarmed, because he is cowardly and weak in his soul, like everyone who boasts his masculinity, and the guards will be by his side. He will give you a full cup of kumis to drink and will command you to speak one by one, answering questions and presenting yourself. You will not be told that a magic potion was added to that drink which would not allow you to tell a lie even if your life depended on it. But charms are not omnipotent and words are elusive. Be careful."

"Why are you helping me?"

"All who came to compete for my hand only wanted wealth and power. You look for neither, only for the death of Yndyrchi the Grave Digger."

"And what is in it for you, his only daughter?" Zhanbulat asked, letting go of the sword hilt.

Toktar's lips curved, red as fresh blood.

"You know my father sends jute to the herds of his enemies," she said. "And you know that he is a sorcerer who turns into animals. But what you do not know is that a long time ago, Karabatur the Man-Eater was predicted to die at the hands of his own son. He had ten wives, and they all bore him sons, but my father waited until my brothers grew as tall as a cart axle and ate them alive. By doing this, he saved himself from death and increased his magical and masculine powers tenfold. I am only alive because I am a woman, which means I'm weak and I can't square off with him. But it is unwise to judge by appearances."

The daughter of Agzamkhan and the daughter of Karabatur met each other's eyes. Zhanbulat thought that the rumours about her beauty did not mention the main thing: at the bottom of Toktar's eyes, black as a moonless and starless night, there was a sharp and quirky mind.

"Truly bitter and unenviable fate you have," said Zhanbulat.

"Yes, but it's no use to grieve for it. If you achieve your goal, I will probably be the happiest woman in the whole Great Steppe!"

"But how did you manage to get rid of three courters, so that the last one fled the army during a war campaign? He is as good as dead now."

"Oh, there was nothing to it: a little female trick, a couple of hints... and a potion after which he woke up in a dark steppe and had everything spelled out to him there. While other girls did embroidery and sang songs, and boys learned martial arts, dashing across the steppe on horseback, I gained much knowledge and gathered faithful supporters, for they only serve my father out of fear and greed. None of his subjects like him."

"What awaits me in the third trial?" Zhanbulat asked.

"We'll talk about that when you pass the second one. Do not be afraid of my father, for though he is terrible, he is not omnipotent. May your will stay strong. Take this amulet: it will help you protect your thoughts from him."

With that, Toktar put a steppe stone with a symbol engraved on it in Zhanbulat's hand and wished her good luck.

They talked until dawn and discovered much in common between them, besides their intention. Quite unexpectedly, the daughter of Agzamkhan and the daughter of Karabatur parted with involuntary mutual affection.

As Toktar said, so it was: as soon as Zhanbulat returned to her camp and closed her eyes, she was woken up and escorted into a huge, twelve-winged white felt yurt, decorated with rich carpets and furs, where Karabatur the Man-Eater, also known as Yndyrchi the Grave Digger, was sitting. The sorcerer's black eyes examined his daughter's suitors gathered before him as if trying to penetrate their thoughts. Heavy as a mountain, that look was. To his right and left, stood his bodyguards, and they all looked like wolves.

A strange feeling came over Zhanbulat, as if through the entire yurt she smelled his breath on her face, as if from the mouth of a predator, the stench of death and rotten meat behind his yellow teeth. The khaness regretted that she had to leave her weapons behind, at the behest of the Man-Eater. Even the akinak that the guards took away would suffice: she would have enough time to break through to the Grave Digger and pierce his black heart. But she would still lay down her life, because even if she outfought these guards, the warriors outside the yurt would be alarmed by the noise and come inside.

Each guest was served a full bowl of kumis as a token of friendship, and the questioning began. The first to answer was a young man, who made himself memorable by his military prowess as well as his rich attire and lofty title. The groom began his speech by saying he was the heir to a wealthy khan family. An immediate grimace of pain distorted his face, and he added that their family had become impoverished, and that his father had seven other sons, and he was the youngest one. Then he put his hands over his mouth and bit his fingers.

Karabatur the Man-Eater nodded, and two guards forced the young man's palms away from his face, and the sorcerer asked almost affectionately, "How much money do you have now?"

"What little I had, I lost in dice games, and I owe the merchants for foreign wines, carpets and goblets. My father drove me away until I can pay for my debauchery myself."

So they made him leave.

The next groom honestly admitted straightaway that he was not from a noble family, but not a poor one either. The bey's son went into Karabatur's service looking for glory, but despite his great daring and military achievements... Then his whole body twisted, and he broke out in a rash of green and yellow specks all over.

"What's wrong with your daring, then?"

"My daring is not so great, o wise khan!" he exclaimed quickly. "I did not participate in all the battles that I mentioned... only in one," Thus he hastily corrected himself, sensing the onset of a second attack.

Then Karabatur sent for a centurion who could describe the groom's prowess in more detail, and he said that the young man was neither above nor below average in training battles, but he was the laziest and the least careful soldier, and after that one battle he was found under a cart in wet pants.

"How did you pass the previous military skill tests?" asked Karabatur the Man-Eater slyly.

"As soon as I heard that it is possible to marry into our sovereign's family, I sent a messenger to my village. My father has a friend who brews miraculous potions. I rubbed one into my skin and gained the strength of a hundred for a day."

This groom, too, was forced out of the yurt in shame.

No matter how the third warrior tried, no matter how deeply he bit into his tongue, still he had to confess that he specialized in theft and robbery, ruled a gang, drove away herds that belonged to weak clans, and killed many honest people in the fields. When he heard that anybody without kith or kin could get a khan's daughter as a wife, he bought himself opulent clothes and called himself a noble baghatur.

Karabatur the Man-Eater nodded to his private thoughts and allowed the robber to, who was rather sweaty by now, to stay.

"What's a bad name?" Karabatur said. "That's not what the cattle feeds on. You may stay for now, and if there is a more worthy bridegroom for my daughter, you will go to the army. But if I catch you lying again, you will lose your head."

It was Zhanbulat's turn to tell about herself. The sorcerer's black eyes stared at her face, and she felt as if she looked into a bottomless pit.

The daughter of the wise Gadelbanu firmly held onto Toktar's amulet in her pocket and said, "I am the fourth child of a khan family. Shaltyk is what my parents call me."

There was no obvious lie in that, for she did not say "my name is Shaltyk", and they really sometimes called her by her child nickname at home.

"Who is your father, Shaltyk?" asked Karabatur, for the speaker's face seemed vaguely familiar to him.

"Kusoy is the person who named me at the hour of my birth. He is reputed to be very wise among the people and is respected."

This was not a lie either. It was a tradition that the parents named the child, but she did not give away her father, because it was the blind prophet who gave her the name Zhanbulat. Agzamkhan only accepted that prediction.

The khaness fell silent for a moment in anticipation of payback for not giving a real answer to the Man-Eater's question, but nothing happened to her. She added, "Unai Khatun is the name of the woman who brought me to this world."

She who spoke to the stars helped Zhanbulat's mother during labour, for it was not easy.

"Who are your father's other three children? And what is your current wealth?"

"My people are rich, and great are their flocks. I had three elder brothers. The first one perished, for there is a greater force for every force. The second one died using villainy against a greater villainy. The youngest fell victim to a robber while trying to negotiate with him. So everything that my father has belongs to me.

Karabatur the Man-Eater suspected nothing — and he did not find out Agzamkhan's sons' story.

"How have you passed the first tests?" he asked.

"I have been riding since I was four. When I was seven, I could shoot an arrow and hit it with another arrow in mid-air. Your tests were not easy, but I see harder ones ahead of me."

"What is your opinion of my daughter?"

"I had only heard rumours about her before I arrived. I believe our desires are similar. I only want to make her the happiest woman in the whole Great Steppe."

Karabatur nodded, very pleased. But the warrior's gaze seemed too direct and too headstrong to him, so he asked one more tricky question, "Say, baghatyr, what do you think of my rule?"

Zhanbulat did not bat an eyelid and said, "I grew up listening to stories of your conquests, o great khan. All my people talk about you. Though it was my mother and father who bore and raised me, it is thanks to you that I wear a khan's cap, o great khan. Thinking of your deeds and of our future meeting gave me strength when military training seemed too difficult. I learned much when I arrived here, and you even surpassed my expectations, o great Karabatur! Believe me when I say I will try to repay my dept to you at the first opportunity."

A pleased Karabatur stroked his cheeks, shiny from mutton fat, and went on to question the next suitor. His arrogance blinded him.

While Zhanbulat was speaking, she thought that the murder of her three brothers is a deed that her people remember still. What gave her strength and stamina during training were the thought of meeting this monster face to face and the tears her mother shed for her sons' spilled blood. Yes, this debt must be paid. She never used masculine or feminine words to describe herself, but Karabatur never asked if this noble warrior was really a man. After the questioning, a final test was announced. Every suitor had two days to offer a gift of his own choosing to the bride's father, and then Karabatur would decide who would get his beautiful daughter as a wife.

That same night, Zhanbulat and Toktar met again. Karabatur's daughter congratulated her protectress with her success and told her that three suitors passed the test, but Karabatur liked her best of all. Toktar pulled out a mahogany box and handed her to Zhanbulat with the following instructions.

"There are three beasts that my father can turn into: a black tiger without a single orange stripe, a huge black snake and a black golden eagle. They are not really beasts but three of his magical lives, and he must die in every one of them. Otherwise, even a deadly wound will heal on him. Take the box: there is a two-sided mirror inside. When your turn comes, bring this gift and say, 'This is a special family heirloom. If you go to the Great Steppe at noon and reflect the light of Tengri's eye onto yourself, all your powers shall grow tenfold, and you shall keep them till death. Only then will the gift return into the mirror. But if, during the ritual, even one other person happens to glance in the mirror by chance, that person steals half the blessing.' My father is a greedy coward: when he takes the gift from you, he will go far into the steppe alone, without even his bodyguards. For he trusts nobody, and nobody is loyal to him. Follow him when he leaves the guards behind. I charmed the mirror so that when Karabatur the Man-Eater looks in it, it reflects his true self and lifts the magic he has been weaving around himself all these years. It will not kill him, because his three guises are still alive. But for as long as a tallow candle burns, he will turn into a very old man who will not be able to fight you in his nearly immortal guise.

"I see your feud is an old one, and you are very smart or very strong. But why did you have to wait for my arrival?" Zhanbulat asked.

Toktar sighed deeply, and her high breast heaved.

"I am not strong enough to challenge my father. I have never held a weapon in my life, and my magical powers cannot equal his. For I ate no human meat and I will not reject my humanity for the sake of might or magic. I put spells on this one mirror for seven full-moon and seven new-moon nights, and the stone I gave you is my own amulet. Karabatur cannot read all thoughts, but I had to protect my mind somehow or I would not last long with this monster anyway. This time, my parent truly intends to have me married, so I have no time for caution. Should you fail, know that I will take poison to avoid a fate that is worse than death."

Soon they parted so Zhanbulat could prepare herself and save her strength before the hardest of fights that fate had in store for her.

In the morning, Zhanbulat was the first baghatur to come to the twelve-winged yurt. She bowed the knee to Karabatur the Man-Eater and said, "I need not look for the right offering because I prepared it in advance. To pay homage to your greatness, o mighty Karabatur, I offer you an ancient relic that was passed from one generation of my family to another. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other relic like this in the whole world…" Then, Zhanbulat said everything Toktar told her to say, because Karabatur's potion had already worn off, thankfully.

Karabatur the Man-Eater accepted the gift graciously, his fingers sweaty with greed. With feigned indifference, he said he appreciated the effort and all suitors had to see him the following day to hear his decision, when he had had the time to examine all their offerings. Zhanbulat bowed respectfully and left. But she kept a close eye on the white twelve-winged yurt. Around noon, Karabatur left for the steppe with his usual guards. Zhanbulat mounted her horse and followed them from afar. Then her sharp eyes saw one rider leaving the group. She bypassed the guards at a safe distance and asked her horse to trot quickly.

When she went round a high hill, Zhanbulat all but crashed into Karabatur's horse in harness and saddle. The scared steed's eyes were jerking like mad, and it ran off in an unknown direction. A dark shapeless heap of Karabatur the Man-Eater's robes, decorated with gold and gems, lay on the ground. Underneath, as though thunderstruck, crouched an old man, thin as a stick, his back bent with age, his discoloured skin hanging in folds and covered in spots and scabs. His crooked fingers were clutching the mirror: the sorcerer got so used to being praised and flattered that he fell off his horse at the sight of his true face.

"Truly, though you took pride in your strength, you rotted inside long ago, just like the order you created, Karabatur the Man-Eater!" exclaimed Zhanbulat, taking off her helmet so her hair spilled over her shoulders. "I am Zhanbulat, daughter of Agzamkhan, come here to pay you for my people's blood and my mother's tears!"

"Deceitful wench!" hissed the sorcerer, slurring the words with his bare gums.

But that very moment, he started to grow white teeth, each one of them sharp and crooked. In no time did he turn into a black tiger without a single orange stripe, twice as large as a regular tiger. He roared in rage, stood rampant and knocked Zhanbulat's horse down with a single strike of his paw, his crooked claws the size of knives. Tulpar groaned heavily and fell down dead. The khaness had just enough time to jump out of the saddle, roll over on the ground and get up. Horrible was her foe, but it was a snow leopard's heart that was beating in Agzamkhan and Gadelbanu's daughter's chest. She spent many years learning to outsmart heavier enemies. She evaded his awful claws and mighty jaws as though she was dancing. The spear she held flashed here and there faster than a scorpion's stinger, but the monstrous tiger did not seem to feel the pain. The Man-Eater charged at his victim and tried to crush her with his own weight, but Zhanbulat propped the shaft of her spear against the ground and aimed the spearhead at her foe's heart. The spear broke. The enormous body swept the khaness off her feet and pinned her down. But the tiger was dead: he threw all of his weight onto the spearhead, and it pierced his black heart.

Zhanbulat struggled to push the dead tiger away and stood up. In a matter of seconds, her defeated foe started to shift his shape, and she saw a huge scaly snake slithering through the grass, deadly poison dripping from its fangs. With its bottomless red mouth open wide, the snake attacked. Zhanbulat shielded herself and struck with her short akinak, but the scaly body, flexible like a vine, evaded all her lunges. The serpent slid low in the grass and bit the warrior in the ankle. But his fangs failed to reach through the steel greaves, and that very moment Zhanbulat struck the snake's triangle head, pinning it fast to the ground with her sword. Already dead, the long body convulsed, coiled and jerked in the air and clasped its jaws. Zhanbulat jumped aside, leaving her sword in the enemy's flesh. In the blink of an eye, there rose a whirlwind of black feathers: the snake turned into an eagle.

Karabatur spread his mighty wings and soared high in the sky. He did not attack Zhanbulat now, but chose to hurry to his guards in shameful retreat. Quickly, she drew her bow, pulled the bow-string, bringing the feather to her cheek, and hit the eagle's neck with a well-aimed shot. She immediately took the second arrow so she could finish what she started when Karabatur the Man-Eater would turn human again. But the eagle flapped its wings one last time and dropped behind the hill like a stone. The warrior got her sword out of the ground and ran after the sorcerer.

When she climbed the hill, Zhanbulat saw her foe already surrounded by his guards, and a squadron was approaching from the camp on horseback, led by Toktar on a palm-colour steed.

The khan's daughter stopped her horse, jumped off and rushed to her father in tears, crying, "O dear lord, in my faithful heart I felt a disaster coming… What has the awful villain done to you?"

"This dung cake of a lame camel is no baghatur and not even a man — it is our enemy's daughter, a contemptible wench that dared pose as a warrior!"

Karabatur the Man-Eater waved his hand, ordering the guards to surround Zhanbulat. The spell was wearing off, and the sorcerer was beginning to look as usual. But rage clouded his mind, for he could not put up with the thought that a women dared fight him. Never before had he seen his own demise so clearly.

Seeing his opponent take up her sword and shield to fight him one last time, he said scornfully to her, "My rule is going to be eternal, for it was predicted that I would die at the hands of my son, but I devoured them all."

"Wrong, father," said Toktar, hugging him from behind. "I am your son."

Karabatur the Man-Eater, known as Yndyrchi the Grave Digger, horrified and disgusted beyond measure, looked in Toktar's face as if he saw if for the first time ever, and fell down dead. His heart could not bear the news and the dagger that pierced it. Everyone froze, dumbstruck with surprise.

"Lay down your weapons: I will decide your fate now, and my people outnumber you!"


Zhanbulat and Toktar were sitting in a white yurt, filled with bright light and open to guests, for there was no need for them to hide anymore.

"What do I call you now, khan?" Zhanbulat asked, reserved.

"What did you call me before?"

"You pulled the wool over many eyes, including mine."

"O great and terrible khaness, you do know that I had to be extremely careful, or else I would share my brothers' fate. I did not lie to you about anything else, and if I did not tell you the whole truth… does my appearance truly matter to you?"

"No," said the khaness, smiling. Indeed, could one know anything about a human soul by its face? Or by the fact that it was a maiden, or a man?

Zhanbulat mused for a bit and said, "I keep thinking that a newborn baby only knows how to suck the mother's breast. A child is like clay, and it has a few inclinations that nature put in it blindly, like inclusions in clay. What you become depends on how they bring you up, how they see you, how you see yourself.

Toktar chuckled, which he never did before, as if a sword had been hanging over his head all his life and disappeared. He pulled two large ripe peaches from under his shirt and threw one to the brave warrior, saying, "When I was a small child, a deceitful songster came into our camp and compared the female body to different fruit and animals. I ordered him to be whipped, of course, but he gave me a good idea."

"Well," said Zhanbulat, turned the peach in her hands and took a bite. "Those sweet-tongued liars have to be useful somehow. But still, Toktar, how did you manage to keep your father ignorant all those years?"

"My beloved mother, Tugzak Khatun, was one of Karabatur's younger wives. When the others told her what happened to their sons and she sensed a baby under her heart, the first thing she did was to ask some wisewomen to tell her fortune. She was told she would give birth to a boy, and started saying she felt weak and unwell long in advance. Under that pretext, she went to her homeland, where she said life-giving springs flowed from the underground. She gave birth to me there and bribed the healer that spied for my father: gave him a gold ingot the size of a horse's head. Then, the healer told Karabatur the Man-Eater that his wife gave birth to a girl and left for faraway countries with his fortune. The wise Tugzak Khatun hid me with all her wit and cunning. She protected me better than a bird protects its young until I acquired my own cunning and learned to protect myself. Mother dressed me as a girl, taught me everything that a girl has to know and named me Toktar, which means 'stay, do not die'. I got lucky with a feminine face, but I also relied on the knowledge of potions and creams that whiten your skin and redden your lips."

"What happened to your honoured mother?"

Toktar's face became inscrutable, just like water does when it freezes.

"Karabatur drove her to madness," she said. "But I repaid him for that."

"Speaking of which, I want to talk to you about the military campaign in my lands that Karabatur the Man-Eater started," said Zhanbulat, changing the subject to more current issues.

"I have already called it off. With the Grave Digger's death, strife and turmoil will ensue. Such is my inheritance, and it is for me to bring order to my land."

"If you ever need advice or help with the beys who find fault with your skirt or your decisions, send me a messenger. I am experienced and I can support you."

"Thank you for the offer," Toktar said. "All that I can manage: money, cunning and diplomacy are also a kind of weapon, and I have my magical powers, too. However…" Toktar's long-lashed black eyes sparkled with a slyness that Zhanbulat already recognized. "Do you really need a special occasion to send a letter to a friend?"

The next day, Zhanbulat went home. She let Argali walk at a leisurely pace and led beside her a second horse that Toktar gave her to replace the fallen Tulpar. Green grasses were soaking up the juice of youth, sprouting among last year's grey stems and dressing the earth's body in a new dress. Spring came to the Great Steppe.

The meanings of some Turkic names

Agzamkhan: Respected khan

Shatlyk: Parents' joy

Gadelbanu: Truth-speaking lady

Unai Khatun: Voice of the moon

Karabatur: Stern warlord

Yndyrchi: Gravedigger

Tugzak Khatun: Sorrowful lady

Kurt: Wolf

Kusoi: Prophet

Mahmet: Praiseworthy

Chengiz: Rich

Want to get involved?
If you want to create a new fairytale or to illustrate an existing one, you can find out more on the page for authors.
Other Fairytales