Book 1 of the Empires Trilogy
By David Cook
Quaraband was a city of tents. There were no permanent buildings, only domelike yurts of white and black spread out in the shallow bowl of a valley. The little round shelters were scattered in dense clumps, large and small, radiating out from the river that meandered across the valley from the south. The space between each yurt was cluttered with heavy, wooden-wheeled carts, ox yokes, racks of drying meat, hobbled horses, and camels. Here and there were wicker corrals for horses and sheep. Thin trails of smoke drifted from the cooking fires between the yurts. Farther out were herds of horses, cattle, and sheep grazing on the greening grass of the spring steppe.
The stubby grass broke through the pitted crust of old snow that still dotted the plain. White snow, green grass, and brown dirt covered the flat ground in broken patches, stretching as far as one could see. There were no trees, only gently rolling hillocks that rippled to the horizon. Dark scars from old gullies made jagged cuts across the barren land. Small clumps of bright blue and pink, the blooms of early crocus and dwarf lily, struggled against the cold to bring the first signs of spring to the land.
Chanar Ong Kho, a general of the Tuigan, seemed to glisten as sunlight played off the burnished metal scales of his armor. The light emphasized the luster of Chanar's thick braids and the thin sheen of sweat on the shaven patch at the top of his head. The sword at his side, its scabbard set with sapphires and garnets, swung in rhythm to his mare's swaying steps, scratching out a beat as it scraped against the general's metal leggings.
Saddle leather creaked as Chanar looked back to see if his companion was impressed. The man, a gaunt rider on a black mare, lurched along, parallel to a long, winding file of mounted soldiers—a small part of the ten thousand men under General Chanar's command. The companion wore what were once bright orange robes, though they were now travel-stained and worn. His head was shaven, and around his neck hung several strings of beads, each ending in a small prayer case of silver filigree. The priest rode stiffly, bouncing with every jolt, not with the natural grace of his fellow horseman. Chanar waited with bemused distaste as the priest pulled alongside.
"Tonight, Koja of the Khazari, you'll sleep in the tents of the Tuigan," Chanar announced, as he leaned forward to stroke his mare's neck. "Even though it's only been a few nights under the sky."
"Three weeks is more than a few nights," Koja observed. The priest spoke haltingly, with a musical inflection, ill-suited to the guttural twists of the Tuigan tongue. It was a language clearly different from his own. "Even you, honorable general, must welcome a night in warmer surroundings."
"Warm or cold, Khazari, it makes no difference to me. The Blue Wolf gave birth to our ancestors in the bitter cold of winter. My home is where I stand. Learn that if you mean to stay with us," General Chanar answered. Snapping the flank of the dapple mare with his knout, the general urged his horse into a gallop toward Quaraband, leaving the foreign priest behind.
Koja let out an exasperated sigh as he watched the horse-warrior gallop ahead. Once again Koja had to put up with the arrogance of the Tuigan general. The priest was saddle-stiff, dust-caked, and sun-scorched after three weeks of constant riding. The Khazari had traveled with the general and ten thousand Tuigan warriors through forests, over mountains, and finally across the dry and empty steppe to reach the great capital of the Tuigan people. He had left the comforts of civilization far behind.
Now, the capital of these mysterious warriors, men who bedeviled the valuable caravan trade, lay ahead. This khahan, emperor of the Tuigan, could wait a few more minutes while he looked their city over.
It was primitive, rustic—and it took Koja's breath away. There wasn't a single stone building in Quaraband. The little tents—yurts—were dirty felt mounds, but the sheer number of them was awe-inspiring. There were thousands of the yurts set up upon the plain. Quaraband covered the valley floor, a mile or more in each direction. A gray smudge of smoke hung over the tents, the residue from hundreds of fires. It had an acrid tang that came from burning dung. This unpleasant fuel was a necessity, since there was precious little else to burn on the treeless steppe.
A cloud of dust swirled up in front of Koja, partially obscuring his view of the city. The line of troopers snaked past; the sound of snorting horses, grumbled curses, and creaking leather suddenly reminded the priest of where he was. General Chanar was well ahead, trotting toward Quaraband. Koja awkwardly spurred his own horse forward, hurrying to catch up.
Just at the outskirts of the tent city, the priest rejoined General Chanar. The warlord barely noticed as the dallying priest came apace. Instead, the general turned back to survey the dispositions of his men. The ten thousand riders were already breaking into smaller groups, directed by the yurtchis, the officers responsible for laying out the camp. Satisfied that his men were being taken care of, Chanar turned back to where Koja sat on his horse.
"Come with me. I must present you to Yamun Khahan," Chanar ordered. He spit on the ground, clearing the dust from his throat, then tapped his horse forward. Koja followed.
As they passed through the yurts, Koja studied them closely. The round tents were made from thick felt pounded into rugs and stretched over a wooden frame. Each doorway was covered with a loose rug that could be pulled aside to let in fresh air and light. The roofs bulged at the very top, where a smoke hole provided a little ventilation. Judging by the dirty exteriors, Koja doubted the yurts were bright and cheery inside. As they passed one yurt whose door was open, Koja caught the thick odors of sweat, grease, and smoke issuing from the inside.
A small troop of riders, rough-looking men with butter-colored skin, approached the priest and the general. The riders wore identical black robes and pointed, fur-trimmed caps topped with long red tassels. Each man carried a curved saber at his side. "Yamun Khahan sends these men to escort the valiant Chanar Ong Kho to the khahan's home. He asks Chanar to share drinks with him," hailed the lead rider as the men approached. As he spoke, the man eyed Koja curiously.
Chanar nodded in acceptance, then motioned toward the priest. "Tell the khahan that I've brought an ambassador of the Khazari along from Semphar." At the command of the lead rider, one of the escort galloped away with the message.
The group continued in silence. As they rode, women peered shyly from behind tent flaps and dirty, bare-legged children ventured out to see the stranger riding by. The riders skirted the cooking fires, where pots bubbled, filling the air with the strong odor of boiled mutton.
Soon they reached a palisade of simple wooden stakes. The fence was five feet high, and ringed the base of a low hill that stood alongside the river. Beyond the fence Koja saw five large yurts, bigger than any he had passed. The largest yurt, dark black, occupied the top of the hill. The others, clustered around it, were smaller and powdered white with chalk. Primitive figures formed a printed band around the top of each yurt.
"I've come to see Yamun Khahan, my anda," General Chanar announced formally to the black-robed guard at the entrance. Koja noted the curious phrase Chanar used, which apparently denoted some close bond between the general and the khahan.
The guard hurriedly pulled aside the simple gate and allowed the riders to pass through. Gray-robed servants ran forward and held the horses while Chanar and Koja dismounted. The general carefully straightened his armor, tugging at the hems of his grease-and sweat-soaked silk undershirt. Satisfied, Chanar turned to the priest and declared flatly, "You'll stay here until I send for you." Sharply he turned and strode up the small hill toward the large central yurt.
Suddenly stranded by his host, Koja stood awkwardly still. The men of the armed escort were nearby, in small knots, talking among themselves. At intervals, perhaps prompted by a word or a thought, one of the guards would suddenly look Koja's way, stare through narrowed eyelids for a little while, and then, just as abruptly, return to the conversation.
The priest stood, then squatted, then stood again. No one made any attempt to speak to him or show him the hospitality an ambassador was properly due. Koja was hardly surprised, given what he saw was the barbarism of the Tuigan. Still, he had hoped for better.
For a time Koja was content to study the men in his escort. They might have been young men, but their faces were so heavily weather-beaten that their actual ages were impossible to determine. Long, thin mustaches were the favored style among these warriors. They had no beards and a few of the older-looking men had long ago taken knives to their cheeks, scarring them so badly that their beards could not grow. Most wore their hair in long braids that hung down in front of their ears. This was not unusual, but the way they shaved the crowns of their heads was quite distinctive.
After the priest waited for an hour or more, dusk fell.
Koja roamed a little, slowly at first to see if the guards would notice. He walked a short way up the slope, toward the banner that stood halfway between the gate and the largest yurt. It was a pole, fifteen feet tall with a crossbrace at the top. From the arms hung nine long black horsetail plumes. Affixed on the very top was a human skull. Below the skull was a golden plaque, while small dolls made of red cloth stood at the pole's base. Bits of hair and leather were stuck to these. Koja studied the standard, guessing at its significance.
A man came down from the large yurt, dressed in a black robe with silk trim, clearly an officer. He stopped directly in front of Koja. "Koja of Khazari—come. But first, you must kneel to the khahan's standard."
Koja looked at the dolls. They were idols, he realized—some shaman's spirit guardians, probably the powers of earth and sky. However, they were certainly not any of the gods he knew from his training at the Red Mountain Temple.
"I cannot," Koja said softly. "I am a priest of Furo. These are not my gods."
The officer looked at him darkly, his hand sliding toward the sword at his side. "You must. It is the khahan's standard."
"I mean no disrespect to your khahan, but I cannot kneel to these gods," Koja said flatly. He crossed his arms and stood firm, gambling that the guard would not strike him.
"I cannot take you to the khahan's yurt until you kneel," protested the officer. "You must kneel."
"Then I shall not see the khahan," answered Koja. A strained look crossed the officer's face.
The black-garbed officer stood in indecision. The other guards came up to see what was happening. The men and the officer fell into a heated, whispered conversation. Koja discreetly pretended not to notice, returning to his examination of the idols.
Finally, the officer gave in. Turning to Koja, he said, "You will come, but the khahan will be told."
"Your courage is great," Koja praised, allowing the officer to save face. The priest pointed to the skull at the top of the pole. "What does that represent?"
"That is the khan of the Oigurs," the officer said with relish. "He attempted to slay the khahan by luring him into a trap. The Oigurs were the first people Yamun Khahan conquered, so he honored them by placing their khan there."