Mingan, the young Mongol boy, fastened his padded collar closely beneath his chin. The icy winds from the plains whistled around the great felt tents and drove dust into his face. He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he saw a ball of dust rolling across the plain toward camp and heard a faint jingle of bells. The cloud grew larger and resolved into a rider, his wide belt set thickly with bells, leaning close to his mount. It was a messenger from Kublai Khan!
Turning, Mingan lifted the flap of the nearest tent. “Father!” he shouted. “A messenger from the great Khan approaches!”
Prince Catu, Mingan’s father, pushed past him and shouted orders. Men hurried from their tents. The horseman, with a clatter and a jangle, slid from his snorting mount and handed Catu a scroll. A waiting herdsman seized the bridle of the messenger’s lathered animal and led the horse away to shelter.
Mingan leaned forward. “What does the Kahn say?”
Catu smiled. “We are honored! The new court commissioner will arrive today. Kublai Khan asks us to receive this new envoy with all courtesies and to supply him with an escort to Singui. I have heard good things about this man. They call him Marco Polo.”
“Is he a great warrior like the Khan, Father?”
“No, he is a fair-skinned agent from the kingdoms in the West. He has found great favor at court.”
“But aren’t all great men warriors?” Mingan asked. “The Khan surrounds himself with only great men.”
“Part of what you say is true, my son. The Khan does bring the most able to his court, but not all great men are warriors. You will understand when you meet Marco Polo.”
“He cannot be much if he has not been trained as a warrior,” Mingan muttered as he turned away.
“Wait, my son,” Catu said. “I will need escorts to accompany our honored guest to Singui. You will be one of them.”
“But, Father,” Mingan protested, “you promised I could go hunting with you tomorrow!”
“There will be other hunting trips.”
“But I wanted to show you what a good rider and marksman I am.”
Catu smiled. “I send you with Marco Polo because I know your skills. Now go. Tell your mother to prepare a feast to greet the new envoy.”
Mingan, full of disappointment, slowly headed for the tent. Now it would be many months before he could join the hunters. The journey to Singui would seem long when one had to jog beside a scrawny little man from the West. There would be no racing one’s pony and standing in the stirrups to shoot arrows at moving targets and no practicing turns at full speed—turns that could surprise and defeat an enemy. By the time the lookout sighted a thin dustline approaching, Mingan wished he had never heard of Marco Polo.
The dusty caravan drew up before the felt tents, and the riders dismounted. All the men were dressed in the padded winter clothing of the Mongols. Not until Mingan came closer and saw the fur flaps turned back from their faces could he distinguish between Marco and his companions. The face of this Westerner, bronzed like the rest, was young and smiling. His eager round eyes, resting for a second on Mingan, were warm and friendly. Marco laughed as he pushed back a lock of his curly black hair. How can any man laugh after the grueling journey across the plains? Mingan wondered.
Catu beckoned to Mingan as he said, “Worthy Commissioner, this is Mingan, my firstborn. He will be among the escorts who accompany you to Singui.”
Marco smiled and in the Mongol tongue replied, “I feel honored that the eldest son of Prince Catu will be with me.” He put an arm across Mingan’s shoulder. “He is a sturdy lad, and a fine horseman, I’ll wager.”
Mingan found himself warming to Marco. “I can handle a bow too.”
“Fine!” Marco said. “I shall have need of your skills to keep us in game between here and Singui.”
The feast was a happy one, much pleasanter than Mingan had anticipated. He found himself forgetting his disappointment over the postponed hunting trip as he listened to the many lively adventures Marco described to his attentive audience.
The wind had died down by dark. When the feasting was over, Mingan escorted Marco to his tent. The outside air struck Mingan’s face like an icy hand.
Marco stopped suddenly. “Look at those stars!” He swept his arm in an arc over his head. “Are they not brilliant tonight?”
“They are, indeed,” Mingan replied. “That one in the west is brightest of all.”
Marco spoke softly. “It would be tonight.” He sighed. “In my home in faraway Venice, it is Christmas Eve, a joyful night when everyone celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.”
Mingan turned and asked, “Was this Jesus one of your great warriors?”
“No, but He was the greatest man who ever lived.”
“How can that be?” Mingan asked. “Great men are always warriors.”
“You are right, Mingan, but not warriors as you know them—men who ride fast and shoot well. Christ never touched a bow or spear, yet He fought evil and injustice. His sword was truth, and His shield was a deep faith in God. He believed in doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and in peace and goodwill to all men!”
Mingan looked thoughtful. “Those are fine ideas to believe in, like the sayings of our wise men. But how can we live them?”
Marco faced Mingan and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “I wondered the same thing when I was your age, Mingan. I didn’t find the answer until I began to travel.”
“Did the great Kublai Khan reveal it to you?”
“Not the Khan alone, but many people—people like you.”
Marco nodded. “As I met people and grew to know them, I found I understood and appreciated and respected them. It was easy to do unto them as I wished them to do unto me, and to feel goodwill toward all men.”
Mingan was quiet as he gazed at the bright star near the horizon. At last he spoke. “On the way to Singui, will you tell me more about Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated tonight?”
Marco seized Mingan’s hand in a warm grip. “Indeed I will! Good night, my friend, and Buon Natale to you.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means ‘a good Christmas to you.’”
Mingan smiled. The trip to Singui would be long, but it promised much. Softly he repeated, “Buon Natale, Buon Natale.”