LORDS OF THE BOW ? Contents
Thanks to John Flicker
Chapter 15 ?
About the Author
By Conn Iggulden
To my daughter, Sophie
Thanks to John Flicker, who kept Genghis on the right path and improved the battle at the
Behold a people shall come from the north, and a great nation. They shall hold the bow and thelance; they are cruel and will not show mercy; their voice shall roar like the sea, and theyshall ride upon horses every one put in array, like a man to the battle.—JEREMIAH 50: 41–42
THE KHAN OF THE NAIMANS WAS OLD. He shivered in the wind as it blew over the hill. Far below,the army he had gathered made its stand against the man who called himself Genghis. More than adozen tribes stood with the Naimans in the foothills as the enemy struck in waves. The khancould hear yelling and screams on the clear mountain air, but he was almost blind and could notsee the battle.
“Tell me what is happening,” he murmured again to his shaman.
Kokchu had yet to see his thirtieth year, and his eyes were sharp, though shadows of regretplayed over them. “The Jajirat have laid down their bows and swords, my lord. They have losttheir courage, as you said they might.”
“They give him too much honor with their fear,” the khan said, drawing his deel close
around his scrawny frame. “Tell me of my own Naimans: do they still fight?”
Kokchu did not respond for a long time as he watched the roiling mass of men and horses below.Genghis had caught them all by surprise, appearing out of the grasslands at dawn when the bestscouts said he was still hundreds of miles away. They had struck the Naiman alliance with allthe ferocity of men used to victory, but there had been a chance to break their charge. Kokchusilently cursed the Jajirat tribe, who had brought so many men from the mountains that he hadthought they might even win against their enemies. For a little time, their alliance had been agrand thing, impossible even a few years before. It had lasted as long as the first charge, andthen fear had shattered it and the Jajirat had stepped aside.
As Kokchu watched he swore under his breath, seeing how some of the men his khan had welcomedeven fought against their brothers. They had the mind of a pack of dogs, turning with the windas it blew strongest.
“They fight yet, my lord,” he said at last. “They have stood against the charge and theirarrows sting the men of Genghis, hurting them.”
The khan of the Naimans brought his bony hands together, the knuckles white. “That is good,Kokchu, but I should go back down to them, to give them heart.”
The shaman turned a feverish gaze on the man he had served all his adult life. “You will dieif you do, my lord. I have seen it. Your bondsmen will hold this hill against even the souls ofthe dead.” He hid his shame. The khan had trusted his counsel, but when Kokchu watched thefirst Naiman lines crumple, he had seen his own death coming on the singing shafts. All he hadwanted then was to get away.
The khan sighed. “You have served me well, Kokchu. I have been grateful. Now tell me againwhat you see.”
Kokchu took a quick, sharp breath before replying.
“The brothers of Genghis have joined the battle now. One of them has led a charge into theflanks of our warriors. It is cutting deeply into their ranks.” He paused, biting his lip.Like a buzzing fly, an arrow darted up toward them, and he watched it sink to its feathers inthe ground just a few feet below where they crouched.
“We must move higher, my lord,” he said, rising to his feet without looking away from theseething mass of killing far below.
The old khan rose with him, aided by two warriors. They were cold-faced as they witnessed thedestruction of their friends and brothers, but they turned up the hill at Kokchu's gesture,helping the old man to climb.
“Have we struck back, Kokchu?” he asked, his voice quavering. Kokchu turned and winced atwhat he saw. Arrows hung in the air below, seeming to move with oily slowness. The Naiman forcehad been split in two by the charge. The armor Genghis had copied from the Chin was better thanthe boiled leather the Naimans used. Each man wore hundreds of finger-width lengths of ironsewn onto thick canvas over a silk tunic. Even then, it could not stop a solid hit, though thesilk often trapped the arrowhead. Kokchu saw the warriors of Genghis weather the storm ofshafts. The horse-tail standard of the Merkit tribe was trampled underfoot, and they too threwdown their weapons to kneel, chests heaving. Only the Oirat and Naimans fought on, raging,knowing they could not hold for long. The great alliance had come together to resist a singleenemy, and with its end went all hope of freedom. Kokchu frowned to himself, considering hisfuture. “
The men fight with pride, my lord. They will not run from these, not while you are watching.”He saw a hundred warriors of Genghis had reached the foot of the hill and were staringbalefully up at the lines of bondsmen. The wind was cruelly cold at such a height, and Kokchufelt despair and anger. He had come too far to fail on a dry hill with the cold sun on hisface. All the secrets he had won from his father, surpassed even, would be wasted in a blowfrom a sword, or an arrow to end his life. For a moment, he hated the old khan who had tried toresist the new force on the plains. He had failed and that made him a fool, no matter howstrong he had once seemed. In silence Kokchu cursed the bad luck that still stalked him.
The khan of the Naimans was panting as they climbed, and he waved a weary hand at the men whoheld his arms.
“I must rest here,” he said, shaking his head.
“My lord, they are too close,” Kokchu replied. The bondsmen ignored the shaman, easing theirkhan down to where he could sit on a ledge of grass.
“Then we have lost?” the khan said. “How else could the dogs of Genghis have reached thishill, if not over Naiman dead?”
Kokchu did not meet the eyes of the bondsmen. They knew the truth as well as he, but no onewanted to say the words and break the last hope of an old man. Below, the ground was marked incurves and strokes of dead men, like a bloody script on the grass. The Oirat had fought bravely
and well, but they too had broken at the last. The army of Genghis moved fluidly, takingadvantage of every weakness in the lines. Kokchu could see groups of tens and hundreds raceacross the battlefield, their officers communicating with bewildering speed. Only the greatcourage of the Naiman warriors remained to hold back the storm, and it would not be enough.Kokchu knew a moment's hope when the warriors retook the foot of the hill, but it was a smallnumber of exhausted men and they were swept away in the next great charge against them.
“Your bondsmen still stand ready to die for you, my lord,” Kokchu murmured. It was all hecould say. The rest of the army that had stood so bright and strong the night before layshattered. He could hear the cries of dying men.
The khan nodded, closing his eyes.
“I thought we might win this day,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper. “If it isover, tell my sons to lay down their swords. I will not have them die for nothing.”
The khan's sons had been killed as the army of Genghis roared over them. The two bondsmenstared at Kokchu as they heard the order, their grief and anger hidden from view. The older mandrew his sword and checked the edge, the veins in his face and neck showing clearly, likedelicate threads under the skin.
“I will take word to your sons, lord, if you will let me go.”
The khan raised his head.
“Tell them to live, Murakh, that they might see where this Genghis takes us all.”
There were tears in Murakh's eyes and he wiped them away angrily as he faced the otherbondsman, ignoring Kokchu as if he were not there.
“Protect the khan, my son,” he said softly. The younger man bowed his head and Murakh placeda hand on his shoulder, leaning forward to touch foreheads for a moment. Without a glance atthe shaman who had brought them to the hill, Murakh strode down the slope.
The khan sighed, his mind full of clouds. “Tell them to let the conqueror through,” hewhispered. Kokchu watched as a bead of sweat hung on his nose and quivered there. “Perhaps hewill be merciful with my sons once he has killed me.”
Far below, Kokchu saw the bondsman Murakh reach the last knot of defenders. They stood tallerin his presence; exhausted, broken men who nonetheless raised their heads and tried not to showthey had been afraid. Kokchu heard them calling farewell to one another as they walked with alight step toward the enemy.
At the foot of the hill, Kokchu saw Genghis himself come through the mass of warriors, hisarmor marbled in blood. Kokchu felt the man's gaze pass over him. He shivered and touched thehilt of his knife. Would Genghis spare a shaman who had drawn it across his own khan's throat?The old man sat with his head bowed, his neck painfully thin. Perhaps such a murder would winKokchu's life for him, and at that moment, he was desperately afraid of death.
Genghis stared up without moving for a long time, and Kokchu let his hand fall. He did not knowthis cold warrior who came from nowhere with the dawn sun. Kokchu sat at the side of his khanand watched the last of the Naimans go down to die. He chanted an old protective charm hisfather had taught him, to turn enemies to his side. It seemed to ease the tension in the oldkhan to hear the tumbling words.
Murakh had been first warrior to the Naimans and had not fought that day. With an ululatingyell, he tore into the lines of Genghis's men without a thought for his defense. The last ofthe Naimans shouted in his wake, their weariness vanishing. Their arrows sent the men ofGenghis spinning, though they rose quickly and snapped the shafts, showing their teeth as theycame on. As Murakh killed the first who stood against him, a dozen more pressed him on allsides, making his ribs run red with their blows.
Kokchu continued the chant, his eyes widening as Genghis blew a horn and his men pulled backfrom the panting Naiman survivors.
Murakh still lived, standing dazed. Kokchu could see Genghis call to him, but he could not hearthe words. Murakh shook his head and spat blood on the ground as he raised his sword once more.There were only a few Naimans who still stood, and they were all wounded, their blood runningdown their legs. They raised their blades, staggering as they did so.
“You have fought well,” Genghis shouted. “Surrender to me and I will welcome you at myfires. I will give you honor.”
Murakh grinned at him through red teeth. “I spit on Wolf honor,” he said.
Genghis sat very still on his pony before finally shrugging and dropping his arm once more. Theline surged forward and Murakh and the others were engulfed in the press of stamping, stabbingmen.
High on the hill, Kokchu rose to his feet, his chant dying in his throat as Genghis dismountedand began to climb. The battle was over. The dead lay in their hundreds, but thousands more hadsurrendered. Kokchu did not care what happened to them.
“He is coming,” Kokchu said softly, peering down the hill. His stomach cramped and themuscles in his legs shuddered like a horse beset with flies. The man who had brought the tribesof the plains under his banners was walking purposefully upwards, his face without expression.Kokchu could see his armor was battered and more than a few of its metal scales hung bythreads. The fight had been hard, but Genghis climbed with his mouth shut, as if the exertionwas nothing to him.
“Have my sons survived?” the khan whispered, breaking his stillness. He reached out and tookhold of the sleeve of Kokchu's deel.
“They have not,” Kokchu said with a sudden surge of bitterness. The hand fell away and theold man slumped. As Kokchu watched, the milky eyes came up once more and there was strength inthe way he held himself.
“Then let this Genghis come,” the khan said. “What does he matter to me now?”
Kokchu did not respond, unable to tear his gaze from the warrior who climbed the hill. The windwas cold on his neck and he knew he was feeling it more sweetly than ever before. He had seenmen faced with death; he had given it to them with the darkest rites, sending their soulsspinning away. He saw his own death coming in the steady tread of that man, and for a moment healmost broke and ran. It was not courage that held him there. He was a man of words and spells,more feared amongst the Naimans than his father had ever been. To run was to die, with thecertainty of winter coming. He heard the whisper as Murakh's son drew his sword, but took nocomfort from it. There was something awe inspiring about the steady gait of the destroyer.Armies had not stopped him. The old khan lifted his head to watch him come, sensing theapproach in the same way his sightless eyes could still seek out the sun.
Genghis paused as he reached the three men, gazing at them. He was tall and his skin shone withoil and health. His eyes were wolf-yellow and Kokchu saw no mercy in them. As Kokchu stoodfrozen, Genghis drew a sword still marked with drying blood. Murakh's son took a pace forwardto stand between the two khans. Genghis looked at him with a spark of irritation, and the youngman tensed.
“Get down the hill, boy, if you want to live,” Genghis said. “I have seen enough of mypeople die today.”
The young warrior shook his head without a word, and Genghis sighed. With a sharp blow, heknocked the sword aside and swept his other hand across, plunging a dagger into the young man'sthroat. As the life went out of Murakh's son, he fell onto Genghis with open arms. Genghis gavea grunt as he caught the weight and heaved him away. Kokchu watched the body tumble limply down
Calmly, Genghis wiped his knife and replaced it in a sheath at his waist, his wearinesssuddenly evident.
“I would have honored the Naimans, if you had joined me,” he said.
The old khan stared up at him, his eyes empty. “You have heard my answer,” he replied, hisvoice strong. “Now send me to my sons.”
Genghis nodded. His sword came down with apparent slowness. It swept the khan's head from hisshoulders and sent it tumbling down the hill. The body hardly jerked at the tug of the bladeand only leaned slightly to one side. Kokchu could hear the blood rolling on the rocks as everyone of his senses screamed to live. He paled as Genghis turned to him and he spoke in adesperate torrent of words.
“You may not shed the blood of a shaman, lord. You may not. I am a man of power, one whounderstands power. Strike me and you will find my skin is iron. Instead, let me serve you. Letme proclaim your victory.”
“How well did you serve the khan of the Naimans to have brought him here to die?” Genghisreplied.
“Did I not bring him far from the battle? I saw you coming in my dreams, lord. I prepared theway for you as best I could. Are you not the future of the tribes? My voice is the voice of thespirits. I stand in water, while you stand on earth and sky. Let me serve you.”
Genghis hesitated, his sword perfectly still. The man he faced wore a dark brown deel over agrubby tunic and leggings. It was decorated with patterns of stitching, swirls of purple wornalmost black with grease and dirt. The boots Kokchu wore were bound in rope, the sort a manmight wear if the last owner had no more use for them.
Yet there was something in the way the eyes burned in the dark face. Genghis remembered howEeluk of the Wolves had killed his father's shaman. Perhaps Eeluk's fate had been sealed onthat bloody day so many years before. Kokchu watched him, waiting for the stroke that would endhis life.
“I do not need another storyteller,” Genghis said. “I have three men already who claim tospeak for the spirits.”
Kokchu saw the curiosity in the man's gaze and he did not hesitate. “They are children, lord.Let me show you,” he said. Without waiting for a reply, he reached inside his deel and removeda slender length of steel bound clumsily into a hilt of horn. He sensed Genghis raise his swordand Kokchu held up his free palm to stay the blow, closing his eyes.
With a wrenching effort of will, the shaman shut out the wind on his skin and the cold fearthat ate at his belly. He murmured the words his father had beaten into him and felt the calmof a trance come sharper and faster than even he had expected. The spirits were with him, theircaress slowing his heart. In an instant, he was somewhere else and watching.
Genghis opened his eyes wide as Kokchu touched the dagger to his own forearm, the slim bladeentering the flesh. The shaman showed no sign of pain as the metal slid through him, andGenghis watched, fascinated, as the tip raised the skin on the other side. The metal showedblack as it poked through, and Kokchu blinked slowly, almost lazily, as he pulled it out.
He watched the eyes of the young khan as the knife came free. They were fastened on the wound.Kokchu took a deep breath, feeling the trance deepen until a great coldness was in every limb.
“Is there blood, lord?” he whispered, knowing the answer.
Genghis frowned. He did not sheathe his sword, but stepped forward and ran a rough thumb overthe oval wound in Kokchu's arm.
“None. It is a useful skill,” he admitted grudgingly. “Can it be taught?”
Kokchu smiled, no longer afraid. “The spirits will not come to those they have not chosen,lord.”
Genghis nodded, stepping away. Even in the cold wind, the shaman stank like an old goat and hedid not know what to make of the strange wound that did not bleed.
With a grunt, he ran his fingers along his blade and sheathed it.
“I will give you a year of life, shaman. It is enough time to prove your worth.”
Kokchu fell to his knees, pressing his face into the ground. “You are the great khan, as Ihave foretold,” he said, tears staining the dust on his cheeks. He felt the coldness ofwhispering spirits leave him then. He shrugged his sleeve forward to hide the growing spot ofblood.
“I am,” Genghis replied. He looked down the hill at the army waiting for him to return. “Theworld will hear my name.” When he spoke again, it was so quiet that Kokchu had to strain tohear him.
“This is not a time of death, shaman. We are one people and there will be no more battlesbetween us. I will summon us all. Cities will fall to us, new lands will be ours to ride. Womenwill weep and I will be pleased to hear it.”
He looked down at the prostrate shaman, frowning.
“You will live, shaman. I have said it. Get off your knees and walk down with me.”
At the foot of the hill, Genghis nodded to his brothers Kachiun and Khasar. Each of them hadgrown in authority in the years since they had begun the gathering of tribes, but they werestill young and Kachiun smiled as his brother walked amongst them.
“Who is this?” Khasar asked, staring at Kokchu in his ragged deel.
“The shaman of the Naimans,” Genghis replied.
Another man guided his pony close and dismounted, his eyes fastened on Kokchu. Arslan had oncebeen swordsmith to the Naiman tribe, and Kokchu recognized him as he approached. The man was amurderer, he remembered, forced into banishment. It was no surprise to find such as he amongstGenghis's trusted officers.
“I remember you,” Arslan said. “Has your father died, then?”
“Years ago, oath-breaker,” Kokchu replied, nettled by the tone. For the first time, herealized he had lost the authority he had won so painfully with the Naimans. There were few menin that tribe who would have looked on him without lowering their eyes, for fear that theywould be accused of disloyalty and face his knives and fire. Kokchu met the gaze of the Naimantraitor without flinching. They would come to know him.
Genghis watched the tension between the two men with something like amusement.
“Do not give offense, shaman. Not to the first warrior to come to my banners. There are noNaimans any longer, nor ties to tribe. I have claimed them all.”
“I have seen it in the visions,” Kokchu replied immediately. “You have been blessed by thespirits.”
Genghis's face grew tight at the words. “It has been a rough blessing. The army you see aroundyou has been won by strength and skill. If the souls of our fathers were aiding us, they weretoo subtle for me to see them.”
Kokchu blinked. The khan of the Naimans had been credulous and easy to lead. He realized thisnew man was not as open to his influence. Still, the air was sweet in his lungs. He lived andhe had not expected even that an hour before.
Genghis turned to his brothers, dismissing Kokchu from his thoughts.
“Have the new men give their oath to me this evening, as the sun sets,” he said to Khasar.“Spread them amongst the others so that they begin to feel part of us, rather than beatenenemies. Do it carefully. I cannot be watching for knives at my back.”