Ever since discovering that my family has Mongol heritage, I've been looking into the history and culture and it's all so fascinating. The movie never explicitly stated it, but I'm convinced that Shan Yu the Hun leader is a Mongol. Mulan still remains as my favorite, of course. But my recent newfound interest in Shan Yu led to me expanding on this plot bunny. I've been wanting to do a Mulan fic for a while, but couldn't come up with any good ideas until now.
I had a lot of fun writing this; I hope you enjoy it too.
Pronunciation and terms guide:
Jelme-"GEL-meh" (as in hair gel)
Ger-Nomadic tent, better known as a yurt in the West
Deel-Traditional Mongolian tunic
Young Shan Yu and his family, or what was left of it, were reduced to a pack of starving wolves.
The death of his father, the khan of a small raiding tribe, prompted the others to abandon his widow and her 3 children. 16 year old Chagatai was helpless and seething as he could do nothing to seize back the herds, horses, and people that were supposed to be under his rule. The khan's former second-in-command quickly took the chance to usurp leadership. It was by his orders that the dead khan's family be left at the mercy of the windswept steppe, to die of hunger and exposure from the impending brutal winter.
The khan's widow Temulun looked to her 2 older sons. "Chagatai, Shan Yu. Find what you can so we may have hope of seeing tomorrow."
The boys responded to this grim order with grim nods. They shouldered their crude, self-fashioned bows and shuffled out of the ger that gave the family a roof over their heads.
There were children in Mongolia, but there was no childhood. With no father and no tribe, Shan Yu and his brothers were forced to grow up quickly. He and Chagatai had no time for play, which was why they often scorned their youngest brother. Little Jelme was soft and sweet, quick to cry and laze around. He stayed in the ger with Temulun; he would only get in the way of his brothers while they hunted.
Scorn towards Jelme was the only thing Shan Yu and Chagatai had in common. As soon as they left the ger, the 2 boys split off in opposite directions without a word. Shan Yu refused to work together with his arrogant, domineering older brother. He left Chagatai to take out his anger on the scurrying marmots, rather than him.
Shan Yu was unusually mature and hardy for a 12 year old boy. His eyes, sharp, keen and strangely yellow like a wolf's, swept the vast plains for something to kill. His arms were knotted with muscles, with his right shoulder disproportionately larger than the other from years of pulling back the bow with his dominant hand. He hardly smiled, and recent unfortunate events gave him even less of a reason to do so.
Dry, cold wind pulled back his long black hair and ruffled the fur lining of his deel. Shan Yu pushed forward, ignoring the gust. After an hour of roaming, he managed to shoot down a couple of rabbits and marmots. Stringing their hind legs together with thin rope, Shan Yu slung them over his back and headed back. A faint smile graced Temulun's cracked lips and Jelme beamed as soon as Shan Yu entered the ger.
"Well done, Shan Yu. Where is your brother?" Temulun asked.
"He prefers to hunt on his own," the boy replied tersely.
Temulun sighed, but made no further remark. She was well aware that the boys didn't get along. It didn't help that they were actually half brothers. Chagatai was the khan's son by another wife before Temulun. Shan Yu hated being bossed around, but for the sake of his mother he kept mostly silent. In this matter of life and death, Temulun was willing to dismiss their heated rivalry. If their separation was for the best and gave the family food, she had no complaint.
Temulun and the boys just finished skinning the animals when Chagatai finally returned. Shan Yu stopped what he was doing and rose angrily.
"What took you so long?" he snapped. "And why are you empty-handed?"
"There's hardly anything out there," Chagatai retorted. "Animals are hiding for the winter, and even if I could find something, I couldn't shoot it down. You're better with the bow than I am."
Shan Yu narrowed his yellow eyes suspiciously. It wasn't like Chagatai to give him a compliment. His older half brother always liked to flaunt his superiority when he had the chance. He never admitted to Shan Yu being better at anything. At least, until now.
Under his mother's eyes, Shan Yu forced himself to let it go and continue preparing the animals for cooking. All the while, he never took his intense gaze off of Chagatai.
A few weeks later, the exiled family ran out of provisions they had saved from Shan Yu's last kill. Temulun had something to say, but it did not concern hunting.
"Chagatai, Shan Yu, Jelme...its time that we settle once and for all who will head our family. Our tribe may have abandoned us, but without a leader we will not survive." A heavy sigh escaped Temulun as she stared back at the wary, unsmiling boys. "The khan, my husband, is dead. I must follow the law."
Shan Yu's eyes widened in horror. "Mother, no...you can't do this..."
"I must," she murmured.
"No!" he burst out. "Chagatai can't be your new husband! I won't have it!"
It was unbearable enough for Chagatai to be his older brother. But as his mother's husband, the head of the family...Shan Yu didn't think he could take it. He would rather die than live under Chagatai's rule.
According to steppe culture, the widow must take the male relative next in seniority to her prior husband. Chagatai was the oldest of the boys, and wasn't related to Temulun by blood. By law, and despite the age gap, he was eligible to take her as his wife.
Shan Yu was livid. He wanted to throw himself at Chagatai and beat him senseless. He shook with rage, his fists balled tight at his lap and nails threatening to draw blood from his palms.
"It's the law, Shan Yu. Accept it," Chagatai said smugly.
"I'm going to hunt," Shan Yu said through gritted teeth.
The 12 year old boy snatched up his bow and quiver and stormed out of the ger. He was so angry that on his way out, he ripped away the fur flap at the ger's opening, a highly offensive gesture. He ignored his brothers' gasps of shock and his mother's angry shout. Shan Yu scowled and pressed on, heedless of the consequences. Only blood will satiate his rage.
Killing a small antelope with well-aimed shots calmed him down. Shan Yu was loath to return, but he had a duty to his family. He wondered if Chagatai eventually went off to hunt as well, to make up for his humiliating lack of catching anything. Shan Yu made his way through a grove of trees when a sound made his ears prick. Feet on dry grass. A human's, or an animal's?
Shan Yu ducked into hiding, carefully unslinging the dead antelope. Peering from behind the cover of dry shrubs, what Shan Yu saw made his blood boil.
It was Chagatai, hunched cross-legged on the ground, eating something he caught. Eating for himself.
Shan Yu made up his mind, then. Chagatai had been lying the whole time. The greed and selfishness of his older brother would be the death of his family. Shan Yu would have to take matters into his own hands. There would be no mercy.
Feeling a chilling calm course through his body, Shan Yu rose with his bow drawn and arrow pointed straight at Chagatai. He fired. The arrow shot from Shan Yu's bow to punch through Chagatai's chest. The older boy reeled back from the blow, but did not fall. He stared down in shock at the shaft protruding from his body. Then he bared his bloody teeth and charged at Shan Yu with a bestial bellow. The younger boy quickly let loose another arrow, this time embedding it twixt Chagatai's eyes. Blood welled and ran down his forehead. Chagatai fell back heavily, his eyes glazed and mouth gaped open. Shan Yu grimly walked up to where his brother fell.
Chagatai was still alive, but barely. Shan Yu could still hear his ragged gasps, see the hatred glimmering through his foggy eyes. Shan Yu drew out his knife and made no parting words. In a single deft slash to the throat, Shan Yu ended the life of his older half brother.
No guilt or remorse plagued him afterwards. Shan Yu felt relief; finally, he was free of his brother's tyranny. He wiped his knife clean on Chagatai's deel and pulled the 2 arrows from his brother's body. He needed those arrows for future hunting. Nothing can be wasted. Shan Yu gathered his antelope and made his way back to the ger. He treated Chagatai's death the Mongol way: leaving the body for the wind, earth and animals, not for burial. He didn't fear his mother's anger; Chagatai was never truly her son. Why should she care for the offspring of another woman? She had little reason to mourn.
With Chagatai dead, Shan Yu was head of the family now.
In the midst of an unforgiving steppe, he was determined to keep his mother and little brother alive. And if, by some miracle, they survived the winter, Shan Yu would make plans to seize back his father's tribe. His birthright. He would strike back with a vengeance only death and blood could quench. His enemies would learn then, and too late, that scorning the cub would bring down the wrath of a brutal tiger. There would be no mercy.
According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Temujin (later Genghis Khan) killed his older brother Bekter in the same way and reason I've described in this fic.