Read Lords of the Bow Online

Authors: Conn Iggulden

Lords of the Bow


To my daughter, Sophie

Thanks to John Flicker, who kept
on the right path and improved the battle at the pass.

Behold a people shall come from the north, and a great nation. They shall hold the bow and the lance; they are cruel and will not show mercy; their voice shall roar like the sea, and they shall ride upon horses every one put in array, like a man to the battle.

50: 41–42


. 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 a dozen tribes stood with the Naimans in the foothills as the enemy struck in waves. The khan could hear yelling and screams on the clear mountain air, but he was almost blind and could not see 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 regret played over them. “The Jajirat have laid down their bows and swords, my lord. They have lost their courage, as you said they might.”

“They give him too much honor with their fear,” the khan said, drawing his
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 best scouts said he was still hundreds of miles away. They had struck the Naiman alliance with all the ferocity of men used to victory, but there had been a chance to break their charge. Kokchu silently cursed the Jajirat tribe, who had brought so many men from the mountains that he had thought they might even win against their enemies. For a little time, their alliance had been a grand thing, impossible even a few years before. It had lasted as long as the first charge, and then 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 welcomed even fought against their brothers. They had the mind of a pack of dogs, turning with the wind as it blew strongest.

“They fight yet, my lord,” he said at last. “They have stood against the charge and their arrows 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 die if you do, my lord. I have seen it. Your bondsmen will hold this hill against even the souls of the dead.” He hid his shame. The khan had trusted his counsel, but when Kokchu watched the first Naiman lines crumple, he had seen his own death coming on the singing shafts. All he had wanted then was to get away.

The khan sighed. “You have served me well, Kokchu. I have been grateful. Now tell me again what 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 the flanks 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 in the 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 the seething mass of killing far below.

The old khan rose with him, aided by two warriors. They were cold-faced as they witnessed the destruction 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 at what he saw. Arrows hung in the air below, seeming to move with oily slowness. The Naiman force had been split in two by the charge. The armor Genghis had copied from the Chin was better than the boiled leather the Naimans used. Each man wore hundreds of finger-width lengths of iron sewn onto thick canvas over a silk tunic. Even then, it could not stop a solid hit, though the silk often trapped the arrowhead. Kokchu saw the warriors of Genghis weather the storm of shafts. The horse-tail standard of the Merkit tribe was trampled underfoot, and they too threw down 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 single enemy, and with its end went all hope of freedom. Kokchu frowned to himself, considering his future.”

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 staring balefully up at the lines of bondsmen. The wind was cruelly cold at such a height, and Kokchu felt despair and anger. He had come too far to fail on a dry hill with the cold sun on his face. All the secrets he had won from his father, surpassed even, would be wasted in a blow from a sword, or an arrow to end his life. For a moment, he hated the old khan who had tried to resist the new force on the plains. He had failed and that made him a fool, no matter how strong 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 who held 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 their khan 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 this hill, if not over Naiman dead?”

Kokchu did not meet the eyes of the bondsmen. They knew the truth as well as he, but no one wanted to say the words and break the last hope of an old man. Below, the ground was marked in curves 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, taking advantage of every weakness in the lines. Kokchu could see groups of tens and hundreds race across the battlefield, their officers communicating with bewildering speed. Only the great courage 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 small number 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 he could say. The rest of the army that had stood so bright and strong the night before lay shattered. 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 is over, 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 bondsmen stared at Kokchu as they heard the order, their grief and anger hidden from view. The older man drew his sword and checked the edge, the veins in his face and neck showing clearly, like delicate 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 other bondsman, ignoring Kokchu as if he were not there.

“Protect the khan, my son,” he said softly. The younger man bowed his head and Murakh placed a hand on his shoulder, leaning forward to touch foreheads for a moment. Without a glance at the 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,” he whispered. Kokchu watched as a bead of sweat hung on his nose and quivered there. “Perhaps he will 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 taller in his presence; exhausted, broken men who nonetheless raised their heads and tried not to show they had been afraid. Kokchu heard them calling farewell to one another as they walked with a light step toward the enemy.

At the foot of the hill, Kokchu saw Genghis himself come through the mass of warriors, his armor marbled in blood. Kokchu felt the man’s gaze pass over him. He shivered and touched the hilt 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 win Kokchu’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 know this cold warrior who came from nowhere with the dawn sun. Kokchu sat at the side of his khan and watched the last of the Naimans go down to die. He chanted an old protective charm his father had taught him, to turn enemies to his side. It seemed to ease the tension in the old khan to hear the tumbling words.

Murakh had been first warrior to the Naimans and had not fought that day. With an ululating yell, he tore into the lines of Genghis’s men without a thought for his defense. The last of the Naimans shouted in his wake, their weariness vanishing. Their arrows sent the men of Genghis spinning, though they rose quickly and snapped the shafts, showing their teeth as they came on. As Murakh killed the first who stood against him, a dozen more pressed him on all sides, making his ribs run red with their blows.

Kokchu continued the chant, his eyes widening as Genghis blew a horn and his men pulled back from the panting Naiman survivors.

Murakh still lived, standing dazed. Kokchu could see Genghis call to him, but he could not hear the 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 running down 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 my fires. 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. The line surged forward and Murakh and the others were engulfed in the press of stamping, stabbing men.

High on the hill, Kokchu rose to his feet, his chant dying in his throat as Genghis dismounted and began to climb. The battle was over. The dead lay in their hundreds, but thousands more had surrendered. Kokchu did not care what happened to them.

“He is coming,” Kokchu said softly, peering down the hill. His stomach cramped and the muscles in his legs shuddered like a horse beset with flies. The man who had brought the tribes of 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 by threads. The fight had been hard, but Genghis climbed with his mouth shut, as if the exertion was nothing to him.

“Have my sons survived?” the khan whispered, breaking his stillness. He reached out and took hold of the sleeve of Kokchu’s deel.

“They have not,” Kokchu said with a sudden surge of bitterness. The hand fell away and the old man slumped. As Kokchu watched, the milky eyes came up once more and there was strength in the 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 wind was cold on his neck and he knew he was feeling it more sweetly than ever before. He had seen men faced with death; he had given it to them with the darkest rites, sending their souls spinning away. He saw his own death coming in the steady tread of that man, and for a moment he almost 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 the certainty of winter coming. He heard the whisper as Murakh’s son drew his sword, but took no comfort 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 the approach 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 with oil and health. His eyes were wolf-yellow and Kokchu saw no mercy in them. As Kokchu stood frozen, Genghis drew a sword still marked with drying blood. Murakh’s son took a pace forward to stand between the two khans. Genghis looked at him with a spark of irritation, and the young man tensed.

“Get down the hill, boy, if you want to live,” Genghis said. “I have seen enough of my people die today.”

The young warrior shook his head without a word, and Genghis sighed. With a sharp blow, he knocked the sword aside and swept his other hand across, plunging a dagger into the young man’s throat. As the life went out of Murakh’s son, he fell onto Genghis with open arms. Genghis gave a grunt as he caught the weight and heaved him away. Kokchu watched the body tumble limply down the slope.

Calmly, Genghis wiped his knife and replaced it in a sheath at his waist, his weariness suddenly 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, his voice strong. “Now send me to my sons.”

Genghis nodded. His sword came down with apparent slowness. It swept the khan’s head from his shoulders and sent it tumbling down the hill. The body hardly jerked at the tug of the blade and only leaned slightly to one side. Kokchu could hear the blood rolling on the rocks as every one of his senses screamed to live. He paled as Genghis turned to him and he spoke in a desperate torrent of words.

“You may not shed the blood of a shaman, lord. You may not. I am a man of power, one who understands power. Strike me and you will find my skin is iron. Instead, let me serve you. Let me proclaim your victory.”

“How well did you serve the khan of the Naimans to have brought him here to die?” Genghis replied.

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