(Appeared between the end of Jusuf’s homecoming to the wake, and Aunt Rebekah asking after Shirin.)
Drums rolled, sending a long deep boom across the valley.
A thousand horsemen, each clad in polished shining scalemail, their felt surcoats brilliant with color, their lances tipped with fluttering pennants, rode slowly across the plain. Short grass waved under the hooves, bending in the face of a light wind. Each man looked ahead, his head high, his arm stiff holding the lance upright. They made a great hollow square. At the center rode the bier of the king in a great wagon. Six white horses, their manes curried and combed, their tails twined with red ribbon, pulled the wagon. A young woman and a young man led them, going barefoot in the grass.
At the center of the shallow valley lay a great mound of turf thirty feet high. It rose up from the bottom of a dry streambed and was surrounded by deep trenches cut into the loamy earth. When the first slaves had begun the excavation, they had cut the grassy turf out in squares and set them aside. The barrow had risen from the excavation of the bounding trenches, covering a small house of flat stones that had been hauled by ox wagon from the Sarkel district. Once the earthen mound was complete, the turf lad been laid over it. A tunnel had been left in the side of the barrow. Before the dark opening, two iron braziers burned, sending up curling trails of smoke that climbed to the heavens. In the trenches, a hundred horses and a hundred white sheep had been put to the knife. The great king would not go into the afterlife without provisions. Priests waited, flanking the sides of the door.
Horns sounded, wailing, sending up a mournful cry over the plain.
On the wagon, elevated on a platform of burnished wood carved with horses and sheep and oxen, lay the king, wrapped in rich cloth soaked with salt and aromatic spices. His face was exposed to the sky, still and cold, and his sword lay at his right hand. At his left, a long curved bow made of laminated wood and horn, with a sheaf of arrows, loose, fletched with gray goose feathers. Across his chest, now shrunken in death, lay the riding whip and a felted peaked cap. Below his feet, the skull of a noble horse, polished and ornamented with a jeweled bit and bridle, gleamed in the sun.
The drums rolled again, even as the sound of the horns faded. Echoes rippled back from the green hills.
As the mounted men approached the kurgan the moving square opened, half of the men passing to the left and half to the right. The two slaves continued, leading the horses to the entrance to the grave mound. There, the priests gathered at the wagon, each man taking the end of a long pole that jutted from under the bier. As one, they lifted it and bore the king up on their shoulders.
Now the drums in the distant hills changed their pitch and the pipes and horns joined in. The lines of mounted riders circled the great green hill. First they rode in silence and then, as they passed each other, they began to sing.
Sahul, the great king of the Khazars,
The son of Cis, the son of Ruth,
The ruler of the most courageous tribes;
Enjoying such power as had been unheard of before him,
He possessed the Scythian and Bulgar kingdoms alone
And terrorized both great empires of the Turk and the Persian
After conquering their cities, and
Placated by their entreaties
That the rest might be spared,
He took their tribute, leaving them their lives, in his mercy
His years ended, marked by the length of sacred cord
He died, not betrayed by friends or by illness
But in battle, in honor,
Happy and gay, without pain, for he was the bravest
Who would think this death, this glad flight?
He is gone, no one cries for revenge.
He is the great king of the great people. Praise him!
The riders, their lances now lowered, their heads bowed, completed the last circuit of the green hill. Now they stood, wither to wither, before the dark gate and the tunnel. The priests had taken the bier within, lighting the sloping ramp with torches. Two of the riders, each one having led a column, dismounted. As the slaves had done, they walked barefoot in the grass and they went into the hill.
On the hilltops that ringed the valley, the People rose up and walked over the ridge, covering the slopes with their numbers. Like the armored men down on the plain, they wore their finest, with flowers and garlands in their hair. The boom of the drums ceased, the horns falling silent. The musicians hurried over the crest as well, taking their instruments with them on their backs. Men looked through the crowd, finding their families. Children were hoisted up to sit on the shoulders of their elders.
In the dark tomb, the priests waited for the two men. At last, ducking under the plain stone lintel that had been raised over the coffin of the dead man, they arrived. The chamber was small, leaving only room enough for four strong men. In the floor, cut into the deep loam of the valley floor and lined with flat stones, was a cavity. Jusuf and Dahvos joined the two men that were already there and together they lowered a coffin of iron into the ground.
Outside the burial chamber, in the triangular roofed tunnel, the priests began to chant in low voices. Incense and herbs were cast into the bottom of the iron coffin. Coins and brooches were placed there.
Sweating, the four men carried a smaller coffin of oak chased with silver into the burial chamber. This fit into the first, sitting on short legs at the bottom.
Some of the priests, kneeling in the tunnel, cut their faces, letting the blood drip down, matting in their beards. The chanting rose, filling the tight enclosed space.
The third coffin was handed forward, each hand carrying part of its weight. This was of cedar and sandalwood, carried from far places in the caravans that came up from Persia, and it was lined with gold. Again, Jusuf and Dahvos and the two other men lowered it into the grave, fitting it carefully into the silver. Now pine and juniper and aspen leaves were laid in the bottom, and sheaves of grass cut from the high prairie and stalks of wheat and millet.
The chanting ceased and the priests took up the king’s bier. Hand to hand it passed, until Jusuf took one side and Dahvos the other. For the last time they watched the familiar face of their uncle pass and then he lay in the final coffin.
“Goodbye,” said Jusuf softly, as the first of the lids was laid in place.
The sun was setting when Jusuf and Dahvos turned, their duties complete, on the ridge. The valley below, where their uncle lay, was in shadow. The green hills were lit with red where the sun still fell, and swathed in purple gloom where night crept. All of the priests had left, the final sacrifices made, the tomb closed, the tunnel filled with ready stone and earth. Only one thing remained to be done.
Jusuf looked to the right, to the head of the valley, seeing that a group of men were gathered there, where the dry streambed came out of the rolling hills. The People were still assembled, sitting or standing quietly on the slope of the ridge. There would be a great and final feast tonight, where all the People – high born or low – would crowd into the citadel and drink and eat their fill. The strava was almost done and the last tears almost shed.
Jusuf raised his hand, and beside him one of the guardsmen of the city put his hand to his bow and drew. The bowstring thrummed as he loosed the shaft and it flew high, catching the last light of the sun on its silver head. It plunged into the valley, loosing a long wailing scream as the wind passed through the carved bone point. At this signal, the men at the head of the valley fell to their tasks.
The thud of hammers and the squeal of wood shifting under pressure came, clear and distinct in the still twilit air. Then a roaring and a rumbling echoed across the valley. Distantly, though they were now drowned in shadow, Jusuf could make out men running up the slope from the dry streambed.
Before construction had begun on Sahul’s tomb, a dam of logs and packed earth had closed off the stream. A counterpart, a heavy earthen berm of stone and dirt, closed off the other end of the valley as well. Now, with the upper dam collapsed, its supports shorn away, the waters of the stream poured in. Within the day, even before the sun rose again, the tomb of the great king would be under a dozen feet of water. A new lake would guard his resting place, shining and blue under the watchful eye of the sun.