Chersonesus, A Port on the Sea of Darkness

[ This is the original beginning to this chapter. ]

            High grass covered the downs like a fine green sea. Riding along the road to the city sprawling below, Jusuf watched the wind play across the rolling slopes, making the high grass bend and sway in long undulating waves. Unlike many of his clansmen, he had looked upon the true sea, even sailed on the dark blue waters of the girdling world-ocean. His spotted mare trotted along quickly, her head high, soft nose tasting the briny smells coming off the water ahead. Dahvos rode at his brother’s side, also attired in the long tunic and leather riding breeches of a merchant. Both had tied their hair up under peaked caps of embroidered wool.

            The Khazar host had reached the peninsula holding Chersonesus three days before, after a swift overland march from the port of Kerch which lay on the western side of the narrow strait that led from the Sea of Darkness into Lake Maeotis. Their journey by barge and raft down from Sarkel on the broad waters of the Rha had been without incident. The winter ice had broken months before and there was plentiful forage in the fields and woodlots that lined the river. As Jusuf had hoped, their army – numbering close to forty thousand men – had made good time by these means. At Kerch, he had sought to hire ships to carry the army on to Constantinople, but none had been available. A Khazar governor controlled the town on the straits, and he had recommended that prince Dahvos seek aid directly from the Eastern Empire in their enclave at Chersonesus.

            Jusuf caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned in the saddle. A fox was dancing between the tufts of high grass. It was a little fox, with a white ruff under its throat and a yellowish-red coat. If it lay still, it would blend invisibly into the mottling of the grass stems. Black-tipped ears pricked forward and it suddenly froze. Something rustled in the fallen grass and it pounced, leaping up into the air. A second later, it flipped its head and something small and dark gray squirmed in its mouth.

            A vole, thought Jusuf and turned away. Behind him, the fox’s fine white teeth crunched as they bit into the vole’s spine.

            The hard ride across the peninsula had been good for the men. They had gotten a little soft, lolling about on the barges and rafts during the voyage down the Rha. Jusuf and Dahvos had also taken some time to practice maneuvering the host of horsemen in two wings. Dahvos, as the prince and kagan of the realm, commanded the left wing, Jusuf the right. The two brothers had amused themselves with devising a new system of communication, based around the movement of banners and the sounds of trumpets. Such things had long been used by the Khazars, even when the Gok Turks had ruled them, but Jusuf had been impressed by the strict patterns and codes used by the Eastern army. Some advantage might be gained, too, by mastering a new set of signals that their enemies had never seen before.

            “I see no mighty fleet, brother, waiting for us here.”

            Jusuf scowled at Dahvos, seeing that the younger man smiling in the pale gold light of late afternoon.

            “Such things may be summoned,” he growled. “I have certain letters and assurances with me.”

            “Really? Are they daintily scented? Perfumed? Written in a lady-like hand?”

            Jusuf took a swipe at Dahvos’ head with his riding quirt, but the younger man goosed his horse and the gray mare bolted down the road, bushy dark tail snapping in the wind.

            “Insufferable brat!”

            “That’s no way to talk to your kagan,” Dahvos called back, smirking. “We’ll see if your violet-eyed Roman can sway with the world with a flick of those long dark lashes you go on about.”

            Jusuf sneered at his brother’s back and let his spotted mare pick up the pace. Night was close and he was sure that the gates of the Roman city would be closed at sunset. Chersonesus was an outpost of civilization perched on a barbarian shore. From time to time, Roman dominion extended to engulf the peninsula and the shores of Lake Maeotis. Currently, however, the towns and villages beyond Chersonesus were under the nominal sway of the Khazar realm. Such things were a matter of tax revenues and the regular shipment of wheat and millet to Constantinople. They changed like the seasons, as the fortunes of Rome and Khazaria waxed and waned.

            The city itself came into view, walls girdling three high hills perched above a deep bay. Greeks searching for amber and salt had founded the settlement long ago. A wide valley led up to the landward gates, filled with a sluggish river, little farms and gardens. Dahvos and Jusuf rode through deepening twilight, the air filled with the heady smell of fresh hay and roses and new wheat sprouting in the fields. This close to the sea there was a damp chill in the air, but compared to the winters in the north it was nothing to concern the two Khazars.

            Under the looming shadow of two round towers at the gate, they showed stamped bronze tokens to the guards and entered after paying a suitable ‘fee’. They were the last to enter the city, for the triple-beamed doors of oak faced with strips of iron were being rolled closed as they passed through the gate tunnel. Jusuf watched the guardsmen and the militia with interest. The citizens seemed on edge, attending to their routine with considerable energy.

            He frowned, catching Dahvos’ eye. The young prince had seen the reaction, but shrugged. Jusuf wondered if news of their army had reached the city. He had been careful, stopping their march a full day out from the walls and making camp among scrubby woods well off the road. Until he spoke with Anastasia’s agent in the city, and perhaps with the Roman governor, he did not want to cause a panic. Perhaps something else had put the Romans on edge.

            The house of d’Orelio maintained a far-flung network of trade, a considerable enterprise that provided the Duchess with coin of gold and information in equal parts. Jusuf was sure that the information gathered and swiftly dispatched on d’Orelio merchantmen and courier boats was worth far more than the riches gleaned from the trade in salt, grain, lumber, slaves, iron ingots, blocks of raw amber, mink and pine marten pelts that passed through this place. In Rome he had been given a list of names and places, which he had destroyed after memorizing. One of the Duchess’ agents was here, operating a tidy little business.

            “This is the place,” said Jusuf, reining his horse in before the doors of a three-story house. It sat beside one of the main avenues of the town, a cobbled street that sloped downhill towards the port. Like its fellows on either side, it was pillared in front with a deep portico at the door. Two slaves were sitting in the doorway on round stools and they sprang up as Jusuf swung off of his horse.

            “Greetings, masters. What are your names?”

            Jusuf smiled genially, handing the reins of his horse to the blond slave that had not spoken.

            “Jusuf and Dahvos, just come from Itil in Khazaria. Is master Nomes at home?”

            “He is,” bowed the black haired slave, “he is just sitting to supper. Will you join him?”

            “We will,” said Dahvos eagerly, doffing his peaked cap as he stepped through the door of the merchant house. “Hmm! Is that lamb and garlic I smell?”