[ This was the original beginning for this chapter. ]
A lone man rode east under an enormous empty sky. Grassland rolled away from him to each horizon, shimmering green and yellow under the afternoon sun. Soon, the sky would begin to turn golden as the sun set, but by that time he hoped to have come to his destination. He was rawboned and lanky, with the easy riding gait of someone born to the horse. Wind sighed across the high grass, ruffling his short-cropped blond hair and tugging at his shirt. The horse was new to him, purchased in the Imperial outpost of Tanais on the Sea of Darkness. It was a reasonable horse, one of the steppe ponies that the Bulgars rafted down the western branch of the Rha. The man had long familiarity with the breed.
Not one of ours, he mused, scratching the beast behind its quick, upturned ears, but more than good enough for me.
Three more horses of the same kind, long-bodied, hook-headed, with dangling brushy tails, ambled along behind the first, led on a braided horsehair rope. They were carrying his baggage in cloth sacks and wicker boxes. He had gambled that there would be browse aplenty, even in the early summer. While he rode, the man hooked one leg up onto his saddle and braided another length. There was no shortage of horsehair and he had time in plenty.
As the day passed the land began to change. The wide rolling hills that he had followed up from Tanaďs had broken two days previous, leading him down over a series of shallow chalk cliffs thick with scrubby pine and white-barked birch. Under the edge of the downs there was a broad flat plain of grass, some of it higher than the shoulders of the horses and bending heavy with long spiny seedpods. In that country, the man had made no fire, for the grass was dry. Fires on the high-grass prairie were very dangerous unless you had water to hide behind.
The lead horse snuffled, smelling something to its liking in the air and the man raised a tan long-fingered hand to survey the horizon. Ahead the air was smudged with a kind of transparent gray and the rider smiled, knowing that the river lay ahead. Within the hour the smell of peonies and larkspur came to him on the breeze. He swung his leg down, slipping a leather boot into the stirrup and put the rope away. Though he traveled in the heartland of his people, his fingers brushed the long cavalry sword sheathed in a wooden case at his left side and reached over his shoulder to touch the corner of a wooden bowcase he had purchased in Constantinople. He could feel the weight of the arrows and the horse-bow nestled within.
He felt naked without the slender ashwood lance of his people, but the Romans had none to sell, and he had lacked the time to cut and fit one himself. He clucked at the horse, and it ambled a little faster, coming out of the high grass onto a long low moraine of rock and gravel.
From the height of the ridge, he smiled, looking down upon the endless, bright-green cane fields of his people’s stronghold. Ahead, some eight or nine miles distant, hidden amongst the vast and spreading marsh, was the mighty body of the river itself. To the south, to the right as he craned his neck, eyes searching for traces of smoke, would be the broad expanse of the Mare Caspium. To the north, at the apex of the river delta, where the black-watered Rha split into a thousand muddy channels, was Itil, the ‘two-banked’, the capital of his people. He turned the horse with pressure from his knees and it trotted down the ridge.
His descent and the rattling of baggage on the other horses startled a flight of cranes from the wetlands below. For a moment the air filled with the thunder of their wings as they rose, an enormous cloud of black and white. They circled up, casting a moving shadow on the waving green cane, then wheeled away to the south. Beneath them, the marsh was alive with movement as smaller flocks of other birds; terns and pigeons and every kind of sparrow shot into the air.
Jusuf, prince of the Khazars, shaded his eyes and watched them go, blotting out the sun. He grinned in delight, for now he knew that he had come home.