(Appeared between Diana’s fight against the wild beasts and the Cat-Eyed Queen’s packing day)
“It doesn’t look like much.” C’hu-lo, yabghu of the T'u-chüeh, known to the Romans as the White Huns, picked some fish out of his teeth, sitting on a wall of squared white stones. He and his companions were on a green hill overlooking the dark waters of the Propontis. The hill was surmounted by a Roman villa, doubtless delightful in times of peace, a cool haven above the heat of the day. A steady cold wind came out of the north, reminding the T’u-chüeh of his homeland, far to the east, under the Rampart of Heaven.
“Sort of small,” commented one of his lieutenants. “Crowded and cramped.”
C’hu-lo laughed and swung down off of the garden wall. Any city would look small when viewed from a distance. Constantinople was over a mile away, across the waters of the strait. It was hard to see any details due to a thick haze of wood smoke that lay over the city. The nomad left the hilltop and descended a flight of pale gray steps that led into the main yard of the villa. His men lay sleeping in every room and under the plum trees in the gardens. Horses were stabled in the great dining hall and the outbuildings. Like most villas it had a fine collection of barns, gardening sheds and servants quarters. Sadly, the entire complex had been quite empty when the T’u-chüeh umen had arrived. Though C’hu-lo had seen no evidence of the Imperial army in weeks, the citizens of this suburb of the Capital had taken care to remove their belongings and valuables.
The T’u-chüeh spit, entering the house, and wondered where he was going to get food for his men. Forage for the horses was no problem, the Romans hadn’t been able to destroy the fields and vineyards and gardens that made this province so rich. Every granary that they had ridden past, however, had been empty. Not so much as a kernel of wheat or a pig left. It was troubling and heartening at the same time. It seemed that the Romans didn’t think they would be driving the invaders off anytime soon. Of course, they might just wait for C’hu-lo to get hungry and leave.
The yabghu entered a sleeping chamber and grinned, showing strong yellow teeth. He smoothed his mustache down and leaned against the wall, looking down at a man lying on a pallet of saddle blankets.
“You’re alive then? A pity – I was sure you’d die.”
A groan answered C’hu-lo’s cold humor. The Persian on the blankets was trembling uncontrollably, his face pale and sweaty. The T’u-chüeh squatted, putting the back of his hand on the man’s neck. His tattoos were dark in contrast against the pasty skin.
“How… how much did you lose?” The lord Piruz, noble diquan of the Persian realm and prince of the distant city of Balkh, opened his eyes and tried to grin fiercely. Instead, he looked slack-jawed and close to death.
“Two horses,” C’hu-lo shook his shaggy head back and forth, his mouth turned down. “Not so much.”
“You thought I’d live, then.” Piruz coughed, a harsh tubercular sound. “I’m disappointed.”
C’hu-lo ignored the Persian’s attempt at levity and stripped the top blanket off. The man was naked underneath. Four weeks ago he had been a strong, healthy man. He had been stripped of fat by their long, furious ride from Antioch. His thighs and buttocks were scarred and red, rubbed raw by long days in the saddle. C’hu-lo pressed his fingers against the sole of Piruz’ left foot. The diquan trembled and cried out in pain. That was a good sign. C’hu-lo pursed his lips and bent his head close, smelling the scabs and raw wounds. They seemed clean.
When the People desired speed, there were few other men that could keep up with them. Thanks to the generosity of the king of kings, the T’u-chüeh umen was flush with spare horses. The yabghu had been obscurely pleased to push his little army so hard. It had been a long time since any of the White Huns had done anything so daring. Raiding villages and farmsteads in the great valley of the Oxus, or slinking about the borders of civilization, working as sell-swords, was nothing to sing about around the campfires at night. Ah -- but taking the king of kings’ dare and riding farther and faster than any man had in decades – perhaps that was worthy of a song.
C’hu-lo replaced the blankets on the Persian. “Piruz, you cannot see it, but the city of the Romans is just across the dark waters. We have come in time, even before the fleet of these desert men. Your master will be pleased, I think.”
The diquan nodded weakly. “Lord C’hu … my saddle, my armor… are they nearby?”
“Yes.” C’hu-lo kicked the pile of baggage beside the bed with his foot. “They are here.”
“There is a scarf, in the gauntlet.” Piruz’ voice was very weak, barely a thready whisper. “Give it to me.”
Scowling, the Hun knelt and rummaged amongst the man’s goods. This was neither proper nor polite, but the Persian had gained some honor among the People. His companions had been left behind, in Tyana at the edge of the highland plains that covered Anatolia. They could not keep up. The prince of Balkh’s sense of honor was stronger. C’hu-lo knew that the man would have kept riding, even tied to the saddle, until they either reached the edge of the world or he perished. The gods smiled on him, placing the waters of the Propontis in their way. C’hu-lo’s fingers touched the scarf and his nostrils flared. With a delicate touch, he drew out the square of black silk. It made his skin crawl, for he could smell the taint of the corpse-walker on it.
“You want this … thing?” The T’u-chüeh did not bother to disguise his revulsion.
“Yes!” Piruz’ eyes were open again. C’hu-lo felt himself grimace, seeing the naked desire shining in the man’s eyes. “It has kept me alive.”
The Hun pushed the scrap of fabric into the man’s hands and stood hastily. He wiped both of his hands on his leather breeches. There was something repellent in the way the Persian’s face flushed when he took hold of the silk. Piruz clasped it to his chest, shuddering with effort. C’hu-lo backed away, seeing a kind of somnolence come over the man. Within moments, Piruz was asleep, his face twitching with dreams.
“Poor fool,” C’hu-lo muttered, leaving the room in haste. Now he knew why the Persian had been so desperate to join the umen of the People. The T’u-chüeh laughed to himself, remembering the ruin of his own ambition. He had once dreamed a great dream, like this boy that sought the favor of the Radiant Empress Purandokht. Didn’t the fool know that such things were beyond him? C’hu-lo shook his head in dismay. Doubtless the diquan would end his life puking blood in the burning ruin of some nameless frontier town, his body pierced by spears or arrows. He would not ascend the Peacock Throne, not even as a consort of the Radiant One.
“Only the great may do great things.” C’hu-lo’s mood lightened at the thought, his right hand curling around the red stone set into the hilt of an elegant silver dagger. “Which means great efforts. Noyan minghan to me! Rouse yourselves, dogs! Rise up, there is work for men to do!”
He stopped, standing in the courtyard and counting the days. Five weeks ago, the king of kings, the giant Shahr-Baraz had arrived at Antioch. There the shahanshah had found the city securely in the hands of the Persian army. Those forces, newly marched up from Mesopotamia, had relieved the Hun umen that had captured the city. C’hu-lo and his cavalry were already operating further west, on the plains around the Roman city of Taurus. Messengers had come to the T’u-chüeh captain, finding him on the heights of the Cilician Gates, where there had been some fierce work to clear the pass of Roman militia. By great good luck, the Imperial garrisons in that entire province had been stripped for the ill-fated campaign against the Decapolis.
The lord Piruz had been one of the messengers, bringing him a challenge from the Boar himself – to beat the Arab fleet to Constantinople – paving the way for the Persian army to advance in a daring thrust to the gates of the enemy capital. C’hu-lo had been impressed by the shahanshah’s recklessness – the Persians did not intend to occupy the lands between Antioch and Chalcedon, only to move across their vastness, and come to grips with their enemy at his heart. It was what C’hu-lo would have done. Crossing the countless leagues of Anatolia had impressed upon him the size of the Eastern Empire and its fundamental emptiness.
Generations of war and civil strife had wrecked many towns and cities, leaving the hinterland of the Empire desolate. The great cities along the coast remained populous. The valleys around them were still settled and filled with well-tended farms. But the center of the Empire, with its great wild mountains, vast prairies and desolate deserts, was a different story. In that land, armies might pass unhindered, unaware of each other. C’hu-lo had wondered if his own people might thrive there, in the grasslands of Bithnia and the plains that circled the salty lakes. The weather was far better than on the steppes under the Rampart of Heaven!
A dozen men entered the courtyard from various doors and through the breaks in the hedges. C’hu-lo looked them over with a fierce eye, seeing weariness, exhaustion and high-spirits on their faces in equal measure. Some of his sub-captains had been with him through his long exile, others had only recently come under his hand. The power of the dark citadel of Damawand stretched far in these times. Many of the White Huns made their way south, to serve under his banner and to grow strong. The brainless child Shih-Kuei was the lapdog of the Chin. He did not inspire his people to greatness. This was C’hu-lo’s gain.
“Have our scouts reported in?” C’hu-lo looked around, face grim. “No, not yet?”
There was a grumble of assent. Every man in the umen was ground down by exhaustion. Despite this, sentries and pickets had been posted to watch over the tens of thousands of horses and men that had thrown themselves down among the gardens of the Romans to sleep.
“Send out more,” C’hu-lo growled. “We are deep in the pastures of the enemy. It seems as if the Romans have fled back into their stone yurts, but there is no surety of it. If we are caught unaware, they will find us with necks bent for the knife, too weary to fight.”
The noyan minghan, the commanders of a thousand, nodded. They might have seemed an uncouth lot of savages to a Persian or Roman eye, little more than a rabble, but they were all veterans. Some had killed over a hundred men in single combat. They knew their business.
“The men will rest today, but tomorrow half of them are to quarter the shore from the Sea of Darkness in the north to the Mare Aegeum in the south. I want every boat, every skiff, anything that will float in our hands. Too, let us see what the Romans have left us. Anything edible or useful is to be brought back here. This will be our camp. Those men that are not foraging along the shore will watch over their fellows. At the first sign of an enemy, the entire umen falls back to this place.”
C’hu-lo continued, for there was a great deal to be done before the king of kings and the full army arrived. He would show these Persians the speed and skill of the Hun on campaign.
C’hu-lo was already awake and aware, his passage from sleep to consciousness seamless. One of the men set to sentry duty in the pre-dawn hours was squatting at the entrance to the captain’s yurt. The Hun rose silently, buckling on a leather baldric. His knives and straight sword rustled as he moved. He stepped outside into the chill air. It was very dark. The moon had set and the sun was still sleeping in her night-bed far to the east. A thin haze of clouds had covered the stars while he slept. In the courtyard of the villa, two lamps filled with pilfered oil were burning low.
“What is it?”
The scarred six-year veteran pointed down the road that led up to the cluster of buildings. C’hu-lo squinted into the darkness, but saw nothing. His ears brought him the news faster. A grumbling rattle and the squeal of wooden axles cut through the silence. Then there was the soft clip-clop of horses hooves on the dirt road.
“Ah.” C’hu-lo felt the night grow colder. Despite that, he did not pull his furred cloak from within the yurt. Instead he snapped his fingers at the sentry and pointed at the largest of the barns. “Rouse some men, get those doors open. Anyone dossing inside, get them out immediately.”
The T’u-chüeh captain sorted memories for a moment, then nodded to himself. The barn had a stone foundation and heavy brick walls. There were no windows and it was easily large enough to hold a big wagon. The horses could be quartered elsewhere. They were just horses. Seeing that the sentry had jogged off to see to these things, C’hu-lo walked down to the arched gateway that led into the villa yard. There were more sentries there, roused by the sound and disturbance.
“You men, go close the doors into the main house. Go inside yourselves. Make sure that no one is in the garden.”
Seeing the bleak look on their captain’s face, the men hurried off, heads low. The affairs of princes were none of their business and a quick way to get eyes or tongues gouged out. C’hu-lo paid them no heed. His men were swift to obey. Events following the seizure of Antioch had shown them that the yabghu accepted only instant and complete obedience.
The Roman city had been only lightly defended. The great prince Theodore was off in the south, chasing bandits and Persia was defeated, mired in civil war and famine. The luxurious city on the Orontes was still counting the coin that had flooded into its coffers as the victorious Imperial armies had returned from the east, taking their ease in its hospitable inns and caravanserai. C’hu-lo had entered the city himself, in disguise. Many barbarians had thronged the markets. The Armenian princeling Vahan had been there recently, hiring men for the campaign in the Decapolis. He was gone, but his agents remained, looking for likely men to swell the ranks of his forces.
C’hu-lo had taken great care to enter the lands of the Empire quietly. His men had been under strict orders to pay their way, to keep their hands off the local women, to ignore every insult and provocation. In this way, the T’u-chüeh had brought nearly two thousand men into the hills above the city without notice. With him, in the city, were almost a hundred of his best fighters.
When they had stormed the southern gate, it had been bloody but swift work. Within the day, the whole of the city was in his hands. Some of the men, those that had not ridden with him into exile, had tried to reward themselves. C’hu-lo had seen them hanged in the forum of the city. This was his justice, for he was under strict orders to leave the lamb unshorn.
Horses snorted and then canvas-clad wheels rattled onto the pavement. Eight strong-bodied geldings entered first, stamping their feet, fog blowing from their nostrils. C’hu-lo knew that they were of diverse colors, but in this tar-like night they were black against black. The wagon was equally difficult to see, a high-sided, enclosed box of painted oak, bound and secured with iron bolts. A figure sat on the driver’s seat, and the head turned towards C’hu-lo as the wagon rolled into the yard.
“There,” he said, pointing to the largest barn. Its doors were wide open, illuminated by a single torch. The driver turned away and the horses clopped down the little lane. The wagon had no windows. C’hu-lo followed it, looking about him in concern. No one seemed to be watching from the windows of the house.
At the barn, he turned and closed the doors carefully behind him. Two hulking figures were waiting inside, mailed gloves ready on the hilts of their swords. The light of the torch narrowed, falling across hard-packed earth littered with straw and chicken tracks. Then it was gone.
Slate gravel rattled under C’hu-lo’s foot and he adjusted his balance. Footing was difficult on the beach. There was no smooth white sand, not like the beaches on the southern coasts. This was well-worn pebbles and chunks of greasy slate. Even the sea here was strange, flat and listless. The T’u-chüeh wondered if all seas were this ominous – the great inland lakes under the Rampart were not. Still, the dawn air was very cold and sharp, carrying the brittle smell of ice on it. Water lapped around his feet and it was cold too. The T’u-chüeh splashed forward through deepening water. A dozen yards away, riding on the insignificant swell, was a low-hulled ship. It had come in the darkness, guided in by shuttered lanterns held high on the shore.
C’hu-lo had slept little since the arrival of the black wagon. His own efforts had redoubled under its encompassing pallor. The yabghu was sure that none of his men knew of the wagon’s presence, but they could feel fear in the air and see his impatience. Great strides were being made to secure the Asian shore of the Propontis. Even Piruz, though he was barely able to walk, had managed to crawl from his bed and set his hand to the task. The promise of the scarf drove the diquan like a whip.
The T’u-chüeh shook his head in disbelief, now wading in to his waist. The Romans remained in their city. They did nothing to resist the movements of his scouts and foraging parties. It was incredible. They must surely be fools, there in their stone town, to let him establish a fortified position and gather supplies. Yet, they had made no move against him. The only evidence of the enemy that his scouts had reported was the presence of their war galleys in the straits. The spider-legged ships patrolled constantly, staying well aware from the Asian shore.
C’hu-lo splashed the last yard to the ship and threw the bundle of armor and clothing he was carrying onto the deck. Two figures crouched there, swathed in black, barely visible against the slowly spreading pink of dawn. Incredibly strong hands grasped his arms and lifted him onto the ship. The T’u-chüeh did not acknowledge the shapes. They were beyond concerns about politeness or insult. With his arrival, the crew of the coaster began to work their harbor sweeps. Light on the water, without any cargo but the three men that now sat on the rear deck, the little ship moved away from the shore. The sailors began to run up the sail, waiting to catch the rising wind that would come rushing before the sun.
In the east, the sky was turning pale salmon, streaked with thin glowing clouds. The shore behind them was still dark and quiet, sleeping. Even the farmhouses along the coast were empty and lightless. Somewhere on the headland at the northern mouth of the Propontis, C’hu-lo knew that the black wagon was watching. He could feel the pressure of its baleful influence, even at this distance. The T’u-chüeh did not think that he needed to go on this mission, but against the will that guided him there was no argument.
His master bade him sail north, into the lands of the Avar Khanate, so he would. The two shapes at his side, for all their human features and limbs, would see that he obeyed. He knew that it could prove for the best – the Khan of the Avars might take it amiss if the shapes-that-were-not-men came before him. C’hu-lo, at least, could give a human face to the embassy. He was fluent in the Western Turk dialect that the Avars favored. That might mean the difference between success and failure.
C’hu-lo wrapped himself in a blanket, for the wind was beginning to rise, and closed his eyes. On his chest he clasped a silver dagger. It gave him some comfort, riding there, heavy on his breast. It was filled with memories of his youth. He dreamed, lying on the slowly pitching deck, of an ocean of green grass, waving softly in the wind, and the sound of horns and a tall man with a noble bearing that rode beside him. This had been his grave gift to that man, before the buboe Shih-Kuei had stolen everything from him. In his sleep, C’hu-lo’s face contorted in rage and he bared his teeth.
His companions sat, motionless, their dead eyes staring north, over the bow of the ship.