Genghis: Empire of Silver - By Conn Iggulden
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