Authors: Conn Iggulden
To Katie Espiner
He trudged through a landscape of gers, like grubby shells on the shore of some ancient sea. Poverty was all around him: in the yellowing felt, patched and repaired endlessly over generations. Scrawny kid goats and sheep ran bleating around his feet as he approached his home. Batu stumbled over the animals, cursing as water slopped from the heavy buckets. He could smell pungent urine in the air, a sourness that had been missing from the breeze over the river. Batu frowned to himself at the thought of the day he had spent digging a toilet pit for his mother. He had been as excited as a child when he showed the results of his labour. She had merely shrugged, saying she was too old to go so far in the night, when good ground was all around her.
She was thirty-six years old, already broken by sickness and the years passing. Her teeth had rotted in her lower jaw and she walked like a woman twice her age, bent over and limping. Yet she was still strong enough to slap him on the rare occasions
Batu mentioned his father. The last time had been just that morning, before he began the trek to the river.
At the door of her ger, he eased the buckets down and rubbed his sore hands, listening. Inside, he could hear her humming some old song from her youth and he smiled. Her anger would have vanished as quickly as always.
He was not afraid of her. In the last year, he had grown in height and strength to the point where he could have stopped every blow, but he did not. He bore them without understanding her bitterness. He knew he could have held her hands, but he did not want to see her weep, or worse to see her beg or barter a skin of airag to ease her misery. He hated those times, when she used the drink to hammer herself into oblivion. She told him then that he had his father’s face and that she could not bear to look at him. There had been many days when he had cleaned her himself, her arms flopping over his back, her flat breasts against his chest as he used a cloth and bucket to scrub the filth from her skin. He had sworn many times he would never touch airag himself. Her example made even the smell of it hard on his stomach. When its sweetness was combined with vomit, sweat and urine, it made him retch.
Batu looked up when he heard the horses, grateful for anything that would keep him outside a little longer. The group of riders was small by the standards of a tuman, barely twenty horsemen. To a boy brought up on the edges of the camp, it was a glorious sight for a morning, a different world.
The warriors rode with very straight backs and, from a distance, they seemed to radiate strength and authority. Batu envied them, even as he ached to be one of their number. Like any other boy of the gers, he knew that their red and black armour meant they were Ogedai’s own Guard, the elite warriors of the tumans. Stories of their battles were sung or chanted on feast days, as well as darker tales of betrayal and blood. Batu winced at the thought. His father featured in some of those,
which prompted sidelong glances at his mother and her bastard son.
Batu hawked and spat on the ground at his feet. He could still remember when his mother’s ger had been of the finest white felt and gifts had arrived almost daily. He supposed she had once been beautiful, her skin fresh with youth, where now it was seamed and coarse. Those had been different days, before his father had betrayed the khan and been butchered for it like a lamb in the snow. Jochi. He spat again at the word, the name. If his father had bent to the will of the great khan, Batu thought he might have been one of the warriors in red and black, riding tall among the filthy gers. Instead, he was forgotten and his mother wept whenever he talked of joining a tuman.
Almost all the young men of his age had joined, except for those with injuries or defects of birth. His friend Zan was one, a mix-blood Chin who had been born with a sightless white eye. No one-eyed man could ever be an archer and the warriors had turned him away with kicks and laughter, telling him to tend his flocks. Batu had drunk airag for the first time with him that night and been sick for two days. The recruiters had not come for him either, not with the betrayer’s blood running in his veins. Batu had seen them out looking for strong lads, but when their gaze passed over him, they shrugged and turned away. He was as tall and strong as his father had been, but they did not want him.
With a shock, Batu realised the riders were not passing through. He watched as they stopped to speak to one of his mother’s neighbours and he took a sharp breath in amazement as the old man pointed in Batu’s direction. The horsemen trotted towards him and he stood rooted, watching as they came closer. He found he did not know what to do with his hands and folded them over his chest twice before letting them dangle. From inside the ger, he heard his mother calling some question, but he did
not reply. He could not. He had seen the man riding at the head of the group.
There were no pictures in the poor gers, though one or two Chin paintings had found their way into the homes of the wealthiest families. Yet Batu had seen his father’s brother once. On a feast day years before, he had crept up close, peering between warriors for a sight of the great khan. Ogedai and Jochi had been with Genghis then and time had not faded the bright memory, among the most bitter-sweet in all his young years. It had been a glimpse of the life he might have had, before his father threw it all away for some petty squabble Batu did not even understand.
Ogedai rode bareheaded, in armour lacquered shining black. He wore his hair in the Chin style, as a heavy rope falling from a topknot on a bare, shaved scalp. Batu drank in every detail of the man as his mother’s voice called plaintively again from inside. He could see that the great khan’s son was looking directly at him and speaking, but Batu was tongue-tied, dumb. The yellow eyes were bright up close and he was lost in the realisation that he was staring at his uncle by blood.
‘Is he slow-witted?’ one of the warriors said. Batu shut his open mouth. ‘My lord Ogedai is speaking to you, boy. Are you deaf?’
Batu found himself flushing with great heat. He shook his head, suddenly irritated to have such men ride up to his mother’s ger. What would they think of the patched walls, the smell, the flies in the air? It was humiliating and his shock turned quickly to anger. Even then, he did not reply. Men like these had killed his father, his mother said. The life of a ragged son would mean little to them.
‘Have you no voice at all?’ Ogedai said. He was smiling at something and Batu responded crookedly.
‘I have,’ he said. He saw one of the warriors reach down,
but he did not expect a blow and he staggered a step as a mailed glove connected with the side of his head.
,’ the warrior said without heat.
Batu shrugged as he straightened up. His ear was burning, but he’d known worse.
‘I have a voice, my lord,’ he said, doing his best to remember the warrior’s face.
Ogedai discussed him as if he wasn’t present. ‘It wasn’t just a story then. I can see my brother in his face and he’s already as tall as my father. How old are you, boy?’
Batu stood very still, trying to collect himself. Some part of him had always wondered if his mother had been exaggerating his father’s position. To have it confirmed so casually was more than he could take in.
‘Fifteen years,’ he said. He saw the warrior begin to lean forward again and added ‘my lord’ quickly. The warrior leaned back in his saddle and nodded to him complacently.
Ogedai frowned. ‘You’re old to be starting out. Training should begin at seven or eight at the latest, if you’re ever to draw a good bow.’ He saw Batu’s confusion and smiled, pleased to be able to do such a thing. ‘Still, I will be watching you. Report to General Jebe tomorrow. He has his camp about a hundred miles to the north, near a village by a cliff. You can find it?’
‘I have no horse, my lord,’ Batu said.
Ogedai glanced at the warrior who had struck him and the man raised his eyes to heaven before dismounting. He passed the reins into Batu’s hands.
‘Can you ride at least?’ the warrior said.
Batu was awed as he took the reins and patted the muscular neck. He had never touched an animal as fine.
‘Yes. Yes, I can ride.’
‘Good. This mare is not your horse, understand? She will carry you to your post, but then you will take some old sway-back and return her to me.’
‘I don’t know your name,’ Batu said.
‘Alkhun, boy. Ask anyone in Karakorum and they’ll know me.’
‘The city?’ Batu asked. He had heard of the stone thing rising from the soil on the back of a million workers, but until then, he had not believed it.
‘More a camp than a city at the moment, though that is changing,’ Alkhun confirmed. ‘You can send the horse by the way station riders, but tell them to go easy with her. I’ll take any whip marks out of your hide. Oh, and welcome to the army, boy. My lord Ogedai has plans for you. Don’t disappoint him.’
The air swirled with marble dust that glittered as it caught the evening sun. Ogedai’s heart was full as he guided his horse down the main thoroughfare, taking in every sight and sound around him. There was a sense of urgency in the cacophony of hammer blows and shouted orders. The Mongol tumans had gathered outside the city. His generals, his people had been summoned there to see what two years of labour had created: a city in a wilderness, with the Orkhon river tamed and bent to his will.
Ogedai reined in for a moment to watch a group of workmen unload a cart. Nervous under his gaze, the labourers used ropes, pulleys and sheer numbers to manoeuvre blocks of white marble onto low sledges that could be dragged into the workshops. Each milky block was subtly veined in a light blue that pleased Ogedai. He owned the quarry that had birthed the stones, hundreds of miles to the east, just one of a thousand purchases he had made in the last years.
There was no doubt he had been extravagant, spending gold and silver as if it had no value. He smiled at the thought, wondering what his father would have made of the white city rising in the wilderness. Genghis had despised the anthills of humanity, but these were not the ancient stones and teeming streets of an enemy. This was new and it belonged to the nation.
There had never been a treasury like the one he had inherited, amassed from the wealth of China and Khwarezm, yet never spent by its khan. With the tribute from Yenking alone, Ogedai could have sheathed every new home in white marble or even jade if he had wanted. He had built a monument to his father on the plains, as well as a place where he himself could be khan. He had built a palace with a tower that rose above the city like a white sword, so that all men could see the nation had come far from simple gers and herds.
For his gold, a million men had come to work. They had crossed plains and deserts with just a few animals and tools, coming from as far off as Chin lands or the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Kabul. Masons and carpenters from Koryo had made the journey, called to the west by rumours of a new city being built on a river of coins. Bulgars brought stocks of rare clays, charcoal and hardwood in great caravans from their forests. The city filled with traders, builders, potters, foodsellers, thieves and scoundrels. Farmers scenting a profit brought their carts for days of travel, all for the strings of metal coins. Ogedai gave them gold and silver from the earth, melted and shaped. In return, they gave him a city, and he did not find it a bad bargain. For the present, they were the colourful crowds of his city, speaking a hundred tongues and cooking a thousand different foods and spices. Some of them would be allowed to stay, but he was not building it for them.
Ogedai saw green-handed dyers flatten themselves against the walls, their red turbans dipping in respect. His Guards cleared the way ahead, so the son of Genghis could ride almost
in a dream. He had
this place from the camp of gers his father had known. He had made it real, in stone.
It still amazed him. He had not paid for women to travel with his workers, but they had come with their husbands and fathers. He had wondered for a time how he would establish the businesses every city needed to thrive, but traders had approached his chancellor, offering horses or more silver to lease new properties. The city was more than a simple collection of houses. Already it had a vitality of its own, far beyond his control.
Yet not completely. A quirk in the plans had created an area of small alleyways in the south of his city. Criminal gangs had begun to flourish there until Ogedai heard. He had ordered eight hundred buildings torn down, the whole area redesigned and rebuilt. His own Guard had supervised the hangings.
The street fell quiet as he passed, the labourers and their masters bowing their heads as they saw the man who held the power of life and death and gold over all of them. Ogedai took a deep breath of the dusty air, enjoying the taste of it on his tongue and the thought that he was literally breathing in his creation. Ahead, he could see the towers of his palace, crowned in a dome of gold beaten thinner than the paper of his scribes. It raised his spirits to see it, like sunlight trapped and held in his city.
The street widened as it grew before him, its stone gutters polished. That section had been finished months before and the bustling crowds of labourers fell behind. As Ogedai trotted on, he could not help glancing at the boundary walls that had so confused his Chin architects and labourers. Even from the low vantage point of a saddle, there were moments when he could see over them to the green plains beyond. The walls of Yenking had not saved that city from fire or siege, he knew.
walls were the warriors of the khan, the tribes who had brought a Chin emperor to his knees and razed a shah’s cities.
Already, Ogedai loved his creation, from the vast expanse of the central training ground, to the red-tiled roofs, the paved gutters, the temples and churches and mosques and markets and homes by the thousand, most still empty and waiting for life. Scraps of blue cloth fluttered in the plains wind on every corner, a tribute to the sky father above them all. In the south, green foothills and mountains stretched far away and the air was warm with dust as Ogedai rejoiced in Karakorum.
The twilight was deepening into a soft gloom as Ogedai handed his reins to a servant and strode up the steps to his palace. Before he entered, he looked back once more at the city straining to be born. He could smell fresh-turned earth and, over it, the fried food of the workmen on the evening air. He had not planned the herds of livestock in corrals beyond the walls, or the squawking chickens sold on every corner. He thought of the wool market that had sprung up by the western gate. He should not have expected trade to halt simply because the city was unfinished. He had chosen a spot on an ancient traders’ road to give it life – and life had begun pouring in while whole streets, whole districts, were still piles of lumber, tile and stone.
As he looked into the setting sun, he smiled at the cooking fires on the plains surrounding the city. His people waited there, for him. His armies would be fed on rich mutton, dripping fat from the summer grass. It reminded him of his own hunger and he moistened his lips as he passed through a stone gate the equal of anything in a Chin city.
In the echoing hall beyond, he paused for a moment at his most extravagant gesture. A tree of solid silver stretched gracefully up to the arched ceiling, the centre point open to the sky like the ger of any herdsman. It had taken the silversmiths of Samarkand almost a year to cast and polish, but it served his purpose. Whoever entered his palace would see it and be staggered at the wealth it represented. Some would see an emblem
for the silver people, the Mongol tribes who had become a nation. Those with more wisdom would see that the Mongols cared so little for silver that they used it as a casting metal.
Ogedai let his hand slide down the bole of the tree, feeling the metal chill his fingers. The spreading branches reached out in a parody of life, gleaming like a white birch in moonlight. Ogedai nodded to himself. He stretched his back as lamps were lit by slaves and servants all around him, throwing black shadows and making the evening seem suddenly darker outside.
He heard hurrying footsteps and saw his manservant, Baras’aghur, approaching. Ogedai winced at the man’s keen expression and the bundle of papers under his arm.
‘After I have eaten, Baras. It has been a long day.’
‘Very well, my lord, but you have a visitor: your uncle. Shall I tell him to wait on your pleasure?’
Ogedai paused in the act of unbuckling his sword belt. All three of his uncles had come to the plains around Karakorum at his order, gathering their tumans in great camps. He had forbidden them all from entering the city and he wondered who would have disobeyed him. He suspected it would be Khasar, who regarded orders and laws as tools for other men rather than himself.
‘Who is it, Baras?’ Ogedai asked quietly.
‘Lord Temuge, master. I have sent servants to tend him, but he has been waiting now for a long time.’
Baras’aghur made a gesture to indicate a sweep of the sun in the sky and Ogedai pursed his lips in irritation. His father’s brother would be well aware of the nuances of hospitality. Simply by arriving when Ogedai was not there to greet him, he had created an obligation. Ogedai assumed it was deliberate. A man like Temuge was too subtle not to grasp the slightest advantage. Yet the order had gone out for the generals and princes to remain on the plains.
Ogedai sighed. For two years, he had readied Karakorum to
be the jewel in an empire. His had been a splendid isolation and he had manoeuvred to keep it so, his enemies and friends always off balance. He had known it could not last for ever. He steeled himself as he walked after Baras’aghur to the first and most sumptuous of his audience rooms.
‘Have wine brought to me immediately, Baras. And food – something simple, such as the warriors are eating on the plain.’
‘Your will, my lord,’ his servant said without listening, his thoughts on the meeting to come.
The footsteps of the two men were loud in the silent halls, clicking and echoing back to them. Ogedai did not glance at the painted scenes that usually gave him so much pleasure. He and Baras’aghur walked under the best work of Islamic artists and it was only towards the end that Ogedai looked up at a blaze of colour, smiling to himself at the image of Genghis leading a charge at the Badger’s Mouth pass. The artist had asked a fortune for a year’s work, but Ogedai had doubled his price when he saw it. His father still lived on those walls, as well as in his memory. There was no art of painting in the tribes he knew and such things could still make him gasp and stand in awe. With Temuge waiting, however, Ogedai barely nodded to his father’s image before he was sweeping into the room.
The years had not been kind to his father’s brother. Temuge had once been as fat as a feasting calf, but then lost the weight rapidly, so that his throat sagged into flaps of skin and he looked far older than his years. Ogedai looked at his uncle coldly as he rose from a silk-covered chair to greet him. It was an effort to be courteous to a man who represented the end of his time apart. He had no illusions. The nation waited impatiently for him and Temuge was just the first to breach his defences.
‘You are looking well, Ogedai,’ Temuge said.
He came forward as if he might embrace his nephew and
Ogedai struggled with a spasm of irritation. He turned away to Baras, letting his uncle drop his rising arms unseen.
‘Wine and food, Baras. Will you stand there, staring like a sheep?’
‘My lord,’ Baras’aghur replied, bowing immediately. ‘I will have a scribe sent to you to record the meeting.’
He left at a run and both men could hear the slave’s sandals clattering into the distance. Temuge frowned delicately.
‘This is not a formal visit, Ogedai, for scribes and records.’
‘You are here as my uncle then? Not because the tribes have selected you to approach me? Not because my scholar uncle is the one man whom all the factions trust enough to speak to me?’
Temuge flushed at the tone and the accuracy of the remarks. He had to assume Ogedai had as many spies in the great camps as he had himself. That was one thing the nation had learned from the Chin. He tried to judge his nephew’s mood, but it was no easy task. Ogedai had not even offered him salt tea. Temuge swallowed drily as he tried to interpret the level of censure and irritation in the younger man.
‘You know the armies talk of nothing else, Ogedai.’ Temuge took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Under Ogedai’s pale yellow eyes, he could not shake the idea that he was reporting to some echo of Genghis. His nephew was softer in body than the great khan, but there was a coldness in him that unnerved Temuge. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
‘For two years, you have ignored your father’s empire,’ Temuge began.
‘Do you think that is what I have done?’ Ogedai interrupted.
Temuge stared at him.
‘What else am I to think? You left the families and tumans in the field, then built a city while they herded sheep. For two years, Ogedai!’ He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. ‘There are some who say your mind has broken with grief for your father.’
Ogedai smiled bitterly to himself. Even the mention of his father was like tearing the scab off a wound. He knew every one of the rumours. He had started some of them himself, to keep his enemies jumping at shadows. Yet he was the chosen heir of Genghis, the first khan of the nation. The warriors had almost deified his father and Ogedai was certain he had nothing to fear from mere gossip in the camps. His relatives were a different matter.
The door swung open to reveal Baras’aghur and a dozen Chin servants. In moments, they had surrounded the two men, placing bronze cups and food on crisp white cloth before them. Ogedai gestured for his uncle to sit cross-legged on the tiled floor, watching with interest as the older man’s knees creaked and made him wince. Baras’aghur sent the servants away and then served tea to Temuge, who accepted the bowl in relief with his right hand, sipping as formally as he would have in any ger of the plains. Ogedai watched eagerly as red wine gurgled into his own cup. He emptied it quickly and held it out before Baras’aghur could move away.
Ogedai saw his uncle’s gaze flicker over the scribe Baras’aghur had summoned, standing in a respectful attitude against the wall. He knew Temuge understood the power of the written word as well as anyone. It had been he who had collected the stories of Genghis and the founding of a nation. Ogedai owned one of the first volumes, copied carefully and bound in hard-wearing goatskin. It was among his most prized possessions. Yet there were times when a man preferred not to be recorded.
‘Give us privacy, Baras,’ Ogedai said. ‘Leave the jug, but take your scribe with you.’
His manservant was too well trained to hesitate and it was but moments until the two men were alone once again. Ogedai drained his cup and belched.
‘Why have you come to me tonight, uncle? In a month, you
can enter Karakorum freely with thousands of our people, for a feast and a festival they will talk of for years.’