(C’hu-lo’s journey continues. This chapter occurs between the end of Diana’s fight against the criminals and the chapter with Alexandros’ men singing in their camp at Aquincum)
A light breeze ruffled the horsetail standards, drawing a rattling sound from the skulls and copper bangles suspended from tall poles. It was such a familiar sound that C’hu-lo was unaware of it, the gentle flapping of flags and banners fading into the background. The T’u-chüeh climbed a hill of green grass, following the line of skull-crowned poles. Atop the hill, surrounded by hundreds of men in armor, the khagan of the Avars was standing on a wooden platform, looking out over the marsh flats. The sky was a brilliant blue, streaked with puffy white clouds and the wind carried the smell of the sea.
C’hu-lo sprang up the steps, feeling gloriously alive. It was a perfect day. A day for racing horses, for feeling cold wind rushing in your hair as white hooves thundered on the short grass prairie. It was the kind of day when you could see the summits of the Rampart of Heaven, etched cold and white against the sky, even from the lowland plains. The T’u-chüeh carried a heavy wooden gorytos on his back, slung on a gorgeous dark brown leather strap. It was a fine piece of work, one that had come from the treasure houses of Ctesiphon. C’hu-lo felt odd carrying it – the bowcase had been a trophy of war, taken by the great Persian king Khusro the Just from the body of the Heptathalite khan Akhshunwaz over a hundred years before. C’hu-lo was sure that the Avar khagan would prize it highly.
Akhshunwaz had been slain by the Persian king in a great battle near Balkh on the Oxus. In the aftermath of that war, the Hepthalite tribes had been scattered to the four winds, not only by Persia, but by the rising power of the T’u-chüeh. C’hu-lo’s grandfather had been an umen commander of the war against the Hepthalites, winning much praise from the yabghu for his fierce pursuit of the defeated enemy. Many of the Hepthalites had fled to the west, crossing over the steppes north of the Mare Caspium and then down into the grasslands of southern Sarmatia. In time, after recovering their numbers and subjugating the Slavic tribes that lived in those lands, the Hepthalites had grown powerful once more, conquering both Moesia Inferior and Superior from the Romans. In these latter days, they were called the Avars.
This Avar khagan Bayan, he was the great-grandson of the dead Akhshunwaz. The bow-case was the perfect greeting-gift. C’hu-lo grinned inside, hiding his amusement behind a stoic face, as he stepped onto the wooden platform itself. It seemed unlikely that Bayan would recognize the token. C’hu-lo appreciated the sly humor in the offering.
“Hail,” he called, his voice clear and strong. “Hail, Bayan, son of Jubudei, khagan of the Avars, master of the Slavs and the Romans!”
C’hu-lo bent one knee, making the sign of greeting, his neck exposed between his oily black hair and the top of his laminated armor. The Avar khagan snorted, turning from his place at the edge of the platform. “Rise, emissary of the Persians.”
The T’u-chüeh stood, his temper leashed. The khagan was in a foul mood, as were his advisors, a grizzled set of older men that stood close by. They glowered at C’hu-lo, fingering their weapons. Persia was no longer a friend of the Avars, not after the disasters of the previous spring.
“Great lord, my master sends you warm greetings, offering you gifts and tokens of his friendship.” C’hu-lo pulled the gorytos from his back in a smooth motion, laying it down on the rough-hewn planks. In the bright sunlight the bowcase gleamed a rich dark red. The horsehide had been carefully treated, rubbed with preserving oils, the nap of fine hair arranged just so. Leather edging surrounded the mottled red and white hide, punched with signs representing the sky, the wind, the gods, the horses and the people. Skilled craftsmen in the court of the king of kings had repaired some small abrasions and nicks that the bow-case had endured over the years. “The king of kings thinks you will find this small gift, the least of gifts, pleasing.”
Bayan did not even bother to look at the case, his face dark with anger. The khagan was a stout man, shorter than his advisors, with one arm hidden in the folds of his fur vest. His other hand, his left, tugged at a thin patchy beard. Like his captains and advisors, he was wearing a long peaked cap, made of green felt, and a fur-lined cape. Armor of riveted iron rings covered his barrel-like chest and hung down past his waist. His features echoed C’hu-lo’s own – a flattened nose, high cheekbones, a slant to his eyes. To the Eastern eye, there were subtle differences; the Avar khagan wore his long black hair in two plaits, where the T’u-chüeh favored one. C’hu-lo thought his own features were sharper, cleaner, not so round, and decidedly more handsome. “You are not pleased, lord of men? Has the king of kings given offense in some way?”
The Avar advisors growled, bristling and one of them drew his curving cavalry sword. C’hu-lo ignored the dogs that yapped at the feet of this man. Below the platform, at the bottom of the hill, stood two of the Shanzdah and while they were within a bird’s call, C’hu-lo feared no one. If the khagan attacked the embassy of the king of kings, he would find that he had overreached himself.
“What is the cost of Persian friendship?” Bayan turned and looked down upon C’hu-lo, who remained kneeling on the pine planks. “You offer a single bow and the swords of the Romans will take ten thousand of my subjects. You offer fine words and promises of victory, but the Romans deliver fire and death. Three years we strove against the walls of the City. We had nothing for it but windrows of the dead. Where is the glory there? The prizes? The slaves? Cold and rotting in the ground with my sons, with the sons of my sons.”
C’hu-lo remained impassive; though the fury and hatred in the man’s voice was hot enough to set wood alight. In response, he unhooked the three clasps that held the bow-case closed. Deftly, he opened the case, revealing the bow and arrows within to the sky. C’hu-lo was looking down, intent on his hands, so it was easy to hide a smile when the men around him hissed in surprise. That was enough success already – that one or more of these men would see what was in the case and desire the weapon.
The bowstave was a sleek dark wood on the inner face, then glossy bone on the outer. It was of a full length, the ‘man’ bow of the Huns, with a long curving topstave and a short, thick, foundation. Coiled strings, shining with oil, sat in leather holders on the inside of the case. A sheaf of arrows, the shafts painted in blue, the fletching white and gray goose, filled the other half of the case. C’hu-lo stood, holding it in his hands. “This is the bow of a king, a mighty weapon.”
Bayan’s face darkened, turning a muddy red color. C’hu-lo matched his stare, wondering if the Avar would burst his heart and die, even as everyone watched. There would be a struggle on the platform then! The Shanzdah were waiting for just such an outcome. “Here, lord of men, take it, draw it, set your sight upon a pleasing target.”
Bayan could not even speak, so enraged was he. The man’s right arm, hidden in his vest, slipped out. It was withered, scored by a long curling scar that lapped over the elbow. C’hu-lo took the moment – the advisors had averted their eyes from their khagan’s shame – and stepped close, looking slightly down on the man. “Lord Bayan,” he whispered, “put your hands upon this weapon, feel the power in it! The king of kings offers you not insult, but a great gift.”
The khagan glared up at him, but then paused, seeing the urging in C’hu-lo’s eyes.
“My arm is too weak,” whispered the khagan. “You insult me before my men!”
“No, great lord,” C’hu-lo’s voice was low and urgent. “Here is the string, well waxed, a shaft, straight and true. Do as your fathers have done, string, draw, loose! Trust me and you will be delivered from shame.”
Bayan shook his head, refusing to touch the weapon. C’hu-lo knelt again, holding the bow above his head. His proud heart raged at the act – the khan of the T’u-chüeh making obeisance before the defeated whelp of the Hepthalites? His grandfather would revile him, driving him from the camp with a barbed whip! But C’hu-lo knew that from such small defeats, great victories sometimes rose. “If you do not find the weapon sufficient, great lord, then strike off my head.”
C’hu-lo thrust the bow into Bayan’s hands, forcing the man to take it, lest the weapon drop. No T’u-chueh, or Avar, would allow such treatment of a weapon. The T’u-chüeh bent his head to the planks, dragging aside his hair with one hand, exposing his tanned neck. His voice muffled, he said “This thing is in your heart, great khagan – your ancestors look down, see the pride in their eyes!”
Bayan grimaced, but the bow felt good in his hands. He looked around, seeing that his advisors – the lords of the Avar clans, the chiefs of the towns under his sway, his kinsmen, the friends of his youth – were still looking away in embarrassment. Among their people, it defied the gods for the khagan to be crippled or flawed in the body. But Bayan’s affliction had come late in life, well after he had established himself and sired many strong sons. Each day he cursed the chance Roman arrow. It had been such an insignificant skirmish in the depths of winter, too. There had been many victories in his youth and his legend was strong among the yurts and campfires of the people. His recent failures ate at him like a cancer. The Romans would be his slaves!
The khagan looked out on the marshlands, squinting into the sun. The land was green and verdant, filled with stands of aspen and willow, cut by hundreds of channels, sparkling bright under the sun. Egrets and herons filled the air, sweeping and darting in their numberless flocks. This was a rich land, filled with game. It pleased the khagan to know that true men hunted in these willow-breaks and fished in these plentiful streams. In the distance, there was a thundering of wings and a flock of geese suddenly bolted into the sky. Doubtless one of the wild cats that hunted in the estuaries had startled them up.
Bayan swallowed, then put the bow to his knee. A leather pad was sewn into his legging for just such a purpose. His fingers remembered what to do, at least, and he slipped the tightly wound string loop under the base of the bowstave. The other end hooked over the top and the wood of the stave began to flex. Despite gnawing fear, Bayan put the arrow to the stave, then – in a sudden hush – pushed it away from him, drawing, sighting, seeing the geese climbing into the summer sky, leading the leader, then -- snap! –the arrow was away, lofting into the sky.
The khagan shuddered, feeling nauseous, but the arrow rose and rose and then, reaching the top of its arc, fell gently, piercing the goose through the center of its great white and gray body. There was a burst of feathers and then it fell, plummeting, into the marsh below. Bayan’s mouth was open in surprise. He could not bring words to his lips.
“See,” whispered C’hu-lo, rising and leaning close, “the king of kings is mighty, his strength flows to your arms from his heart. In this way, all men that are his friends are exalted.”
Bayan watched as half-naked boys ran out from the base of the hill, leaping amongst the pools, running between the tall stands of green cane. Soon they would bring him his kill, the first of the season, and it would roast over a stone pit, a delicacy for all the warriors that thronged to his tent.
“Feel your arm, lord of men, is it strong?”
Bayan nodded, flexing the fingers of his right hand. The bowstave felt good in his hands, right and proper. His hand seemed powerful, not so weak and pale as it had been. Strong, like the Avar nation.
Firelight gleamed in C’hu-lo’s eyes. He tore a hunk of smoking red meat from a slab of beef with his teeth. The rich bottomlands of the Danuvius allowed the Avars to raise huge herds of cattle. The meat was thick with fat and far better tasting than the skinny deer or goat that C’hu-lo was used to. Even within the fastness of Damawand, the daily ration was bread and smoked meat, carted up from the Median highlands. The T’u-chüeh chewed and swallowed, then licked his fingers clean.
“This new king of kings, Shahrbaraz, the Boar, is a wise king.” C’hu-lo felt the close attention of all these men upon him, circling the fire within Bayan’s household tents. “The one before, Chrosoes the ‘Victorious’, was reckless, wild. He was brave, that one, but he fought with his heart, not with his head. Shahrbaraz is experienced, wily. He knows how to hunt the Romans.”
“Does he?” C’hu-lo did not see who spoke, not in this firelit darkness, not through the smoke. It did not matter. The same thoughts were on all these men’s faces. “How do we dig them out of their stone house?”
“Shahr-Baraz is a clever hunter, my friends. Before, when the Persians and the Avars attacked the stone houses, they were separated, divided by the waters.”
A growl answered the statement. The Avars had tried to launch a sea attack on the city, with rafts and coracles and barges their Slavic slaves had built. It was a dreadful failure, with countless men burned alive or drowned when the Romans turned their liquid fire onto the attackers. A subsequent Persian naval attack across the Propontis had failed too, smashed by the Roman fleet.
“You raged at their wooden ships that closed the water to you. You shook your fist, wasted many arrows, did nothing that could touch them. How could you? The Avars are not sailors! They ride, they do not swim or row these boats. How could Persia? A few boats were built, some stolen, but not enough to force a crossing.” C’hu-lo grinned, his teeth white in the darkness.
“This time, Shahr-Baraz comes with his own fleet, a Roman fleet! Yes, it is true. The king of kings has another strong ally, the town-men of the Decapolis and their great chief, the lord of the Arabs. They have a fleet, crewed with skilled men, a Roman fleet. In truth, they have already defeated the Imperial fleet once, scattering it. Soon their ships will fill the Propontis, making a bridge for our horses! Then Persian and Avar can meet, friends, clasping hand and hand, before the walls of Constantinople.”
There was more muttering. C’hu-lo knew that perhaps only one man in ten here believed him. Here he was, a stranger, an old enemy, come unannounced to their lands with only two companions. He did not bring wagons of gold, trains of slaves, silk robes. The T’u-chüeh watched the khagan, content to wait and see what transpired. Bayan still had the bow, kept close at his side. His right hand rested on it, fingers moving softly over the sleek bone and wood. C’hu-lo smiled inside, knowing that the power that dwelt in Damawand had a long reach.
“Many slaves live in the stone house of the Romans. They are like ants, swarming in a hill.” C’hu-lo made his voice light, like he related an amusing story for hunting companions. “They eat like ants, too. So many mouths to feed, always hungry. When the Arab fleet closes the wave-road to the city, there will be no more food for the ants. They will starve and die, inside their house of stone. They will grow weak. True men would find it easy, then, to enter the city.”
Bayan’s head rose, his eyes glittering. He clasped the bow fiercely.
“We will tear down the gray walls,” he rasped, voice thick with emotion. “We will break the gates, scattering the stones to the four winds. We will heap up their skulls, making a shrine for Tengri. The city of the Romans will be our city, where a true man may ride at will. The slaves will work hard, making us fine things. None of their cities will have walls. I say this, I, the khagan of the true people, the Avars.”
C’hu-lo did not react, save to make a seated bow. He had said the same kind of thing himself, once. That city was still standing, its citizens living their own lives, following their own gods. They were brave words, though. The other Avars muttered again and one of them half-rose, turning to his king.
“What of the harvest, lord of men? The slaves have not yet gathered the wheat of the field or the fruit of the trees.”
Bayan scratched his beard, thinking, then said “We shall take only half of our number, with only those slaves that can be spared from the harvest, the hunt and the threshing. There is odd news out of the north, too. My black birds bring me tales of strange riders. If this emissary of the Persians speaks truly, then many will join us, yes?”
C’hu-lo nodded, putting a hand flat to his chest. “It is so, lord of men.”
“Good.” Bayan stood, his movements strong and assured. “Then we will feast and sing and think of the Romans, kneeling before us, our slaves.”