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«Lords of the Bow», Conn Iggulden

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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.

- JEREMIAH 50: 41-42

 

PROLOGUE

T HE KHAN OF THE N AIMANS 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 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 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 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.


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