ASPATA rose abruptly. Then, she saw the stooping backs of the people. The lavish light of the torches was playing on the dear, gold-woven garments, and the smoke puffs of the aromas mingled with the scent of refined leather, forming curls of light, transparent mist. Only the gentle crackle of the burning logs could be heard coming from the enormous fireplace. Her eyes wandered over the walls where exquisite knotworks of stone and wood were framed in paintings depicting feats of arms; as if some kind of proto-masculine pride was hidden in the warriors’ bodies, and they seemed to become alive, awoken by the dancing flames.
How she left her hiding place behind an imposing marble column, Aspata had failed to notice. First her skin and then her eyes made her feel she had been noticed. She had been noticed by someone yonder. It was a look full of boredom, haughtiness, contempt…and, now, curiosity. This look could not be seen by the backs of the guests and dignitaries. Aspata got startled by her own boldness and hurried to hide herself again behind the column.
So that was the ruler of the Bulgarians at the Danube. Hidden as she was, she could now observe him freely. The hall got agitated, because after the prolonged regards of honour, the ceremony of welcoming the messengers from Constantinople started, and the khan’s face was possessed by a solemn smile. He was sitting in a magnificent wooden chair with a golden back portraying the head of a raging lion. His legs were in high boots of red leather, a delicate golden diadem was glittering on his head and a majestic ring was glistening from his right hand, resting on his thigh. Emeralds and rubies, green and red were sparkling from his diadem; from the enormous belt, the sword sheath, the handles of the throne and the massive fibula of his crimson mantle glimmered against the light. The sparks then overflowed into the sumptuous folds of the heavy curtains that covered the apse of the Throne Hall.
Khan Omortag was deeply absorbed into listening to the Emperor’ messenger. His face remained still and only a careful observer could notice the lightning flickers his eyes would occasionally cast. Aspata lent her ears to the Byzantine’s words to grasp what had provoked the khan’s irritation. At that very moment, the messenger was explaining why his glorious master could not accept the Bulgarian help against Tome, the Impostor. The Empire considered that an internal problem and did not wish to disturb their honourable neighbour. As an expression of gratitude and sincere friendship, Emperor Michael gave the Archon1 Omortag a gift of silver-plated casket with precious stones and a fretwrought chest full of silk. It was a great honour on behalf of the messenger to personally present the Bulgarian ruler with the endowment. At his gesture, the other Byzantines opened the casket and the chest, and put them at Omortag’s feet, making a deep bow.
The khan did not even look at the gifts. He would not draw his eyes away of the messenger. Aspata could not see the face of the Byzantine, but he was obviously confused, because he remained quiet, waiting for an answer. The whole auditorium also subsided into deep silence.
1Archon – a title used by Byzantium to refer to foreign rulers.
"My glorious predecessor, Syubigi2 khan Tervel, twice helped the Empire in difficult times.” Omortag was talking in a quiet, sharp and even voice. He kept his eyes on the messenger, as if looking through him and his words rather searching for a non-attending listener. “He never forgot his oath to the Byzantine Emperor. I have not forgotten mine either. The country of the Bulgarians is a faithful ally to the Byzantine Empire. We never break our oaths. Health and long life to your master!”
Thus, the audience came to an end. After the longest of orations and the lowest of bows, at last the Byzantines withdrew. One by one, the Great Bouils3 from the Khan’s Council also left the hall. Only a row of soldiers remained by the walls. And by the throne of Omortag stayed the first minister – kavkhan4 Iratais, together with the three sons of the ruler, and a stranger.
“Master,” started Iratais, “let me remind you that together with the Byzantine messenger also came the kolober5 Stasis from the Old Lands6. He is waiting to greet you.”
Iratais’ voice startled the khan. He stood up at once, handed his diadem to the kavkhan, and not a single trace of his previous sternness could be discerned on his face. His companion was thin, of medium size, with grayish hair and dark piercing eyes looking at him, searchingly, with admiration and curiosity.
“I’m happy to see you, Stasis!” Omortag did not let the koliber make the low bow by placing his right hand at the left side of the koliber’s breast instead, as the old military custom had it. “These are my sons Ernavota, Zvintsa and Malamir. You have already met Iratais. Let’s go to my reception chamber to talk at ease.”
Omortag was just about to leave, when he noticed the young woman, who had unexpectedly appeared during the ceremony, from behind a column. Everybody turned their eyes at her while Stasis, embarrassed, was trying to stutter an explanation.
“Master, this is my daughter Aspata. She has been my companion in the long journey…She was so impatient…and I let her come in and observe the audience…”
“Come closer, Aspata!” Omortag ordered.
Aspata stepped closer, her head bent down, kneeled and touched the top of the ruler’s boot with her fingertips. She rose slowly, and just then did she face Omortag’s eyes:
“Enjoy a long and healthy life, my noble Master. May God bless you with eternal glory!”
2Syubigi khan – a ruler appointed by God (God-anointed).
3Boulils – pl., (bouila sg.) – a high circle of the aristocracy.
4Kavkhan – the highest dignitary, the first after the ruler.
5Kolober – priest.
6The old lands – The Old Great Bulgaria – Khan Kubrat’s country.
The hosts were staring at the guest with unhidden surprise. They were amazed not only by her appearance, but by her words as well. They were somehow untypical for that girl, dressed in a military leather suit with many long black braids coming out of her triangular hat and falling over her shoulders like the interlacing of a helmet. Her eyes were full of respect and not a single trace of fear glowed in them; her voice was surprisingly confident.
“Be welcomed, Aspata!” answered the khan. ”You have been expected in the women’s chambers. They have prepared a room for you. Malamir will take you there.”
“Excuse my boldness, Master, but allow me to come with you. I will not disturb you.”
This unexpected request, pronounced imploringly, yet with persistence, once again attracted everyone’s attention. “How bold of her,” thought Iratais. “She is out of her mind,” said to himself Zvintsa. “This won’t be left unpunished,” remarked tacitly Ernavota. “I hope he sends her away,” gloated Malamir, who was not happy with the task of escorting her to the women’s chambers, while the others would be talking. “Oh, God!” could only mumble Stasis.
“Be it as you say, come with us then,” said Omortag after a short pause.” And he granted Aspata’s enthusiastic look with a smile and a gentle tap on her shoulder.
They were hurrying along the quiet hallways in silence. The khan was striding first, followed by the princes, then Iritais and Stasis, and Aspata making tiny steps at the very back.
The reception chamber of the khan turned out to be small and cram-full of various things – manuscripts, maps, clay models, weapons, huge stone and marble pieces. The only free place was around the wooden table, where several wooden chairs, except for the khan’s armchair, were ordered. Omortag sat down and handed his crimson mantle to Iritais. He beckoned Stasis to sit by him with a gesture. His sons sat around them. They started talking and forgot about Aspata’s presence.
“Tell us, Stasis, what brings you here?” asked the khan after the obligatory questions of kindness.”
“After I tell you why I am here, syubidi khan, I would ask you to stay alone, because what I have to tell you is intended for you only,” said Stasis with unusual solemnity.”
“I will respect your request, Stasis, but the kanartikhin7 Ernavota will stay with us. He will come into my succession soon and I have no secrets from him.”
Omortag made a gesture and the other men went out. The soldiers of the guard also left the room, shut the door and the noise of their spears hitting the floor was heard from the outside. This was a sign that they kept watching. The khan looked at Stasis expectantly, but at this moment Ernavta pointed his eyes to the middle of the room, where Aspata was sitting on a bare skin and zealously reading something.
“What are you doing, Aspata? Don’t you have to leave the room with the others?”
7kanartikhin – successor to the throne
“I lost myself in reading the Strategikon, master,” the young woman rose quickly and approached the table. “Your glorious father khan Krum had consulted it often in the war against the Byzantines...”
“So you read Greek?!” could not resist Ernavota.
“Aspata is my assistant and she has been educated by the great priest Negabon,” broke in Stasis. “She can read Greek pretty well and now I would ask you, Noble Khan, to let her stay with us, because she knows why we are here.”
Omortag did not answer right away. He was looking with examining eyes now at Aspata, now at her father, but his expression remained the same, and one could not understand what he was considering at that moment. Ernavota, on the other hand, would not stop staring at Aspata. That he was surprised was not enough to say. He could hardly define what surprised him more – the fact that this woman was well educated, or her words, so explicitly said about his glorious grandfather, or the mere fact that she helped her father…
“Come sit with us, Aspata,” the khan invited her.
“As you command, Noble master,” said Aspata. Instead of sitting on the chair the khan had showed her, however, she sat on the ground by her father’s feet.
“We are listening to you, Stasis!” said Omortag.
He had assumed the same posture as in the Throne hall – his body bent forward a bit, his hand on his thigh, and a look of concentration on his face.
“An important mission, my Lord, is bringing me to you. By the will of the God-Sky, I am obliged to present you with a piece of great worth we have been treasuring in the Old Lands so far. You know, master, that when the Chazars* attacked Great Bulgaria, Syubigi khan Koubrat’s eldest son – Bayan – stayed there, in the Old Lands, and put up resistance for as long a time as his brothers could reach their new settlements. Thus, in the name of Tangra*, there are two big Bulgarias – this one, at the Danube, and that on the north, at Volga.” Stasis was trying to speak slowly and calmly, but his excitement would grow with every other sentence and he would stop to take a breath. “The Onogunduri tribe, from which the royal clan Dulo descended, followed Asparuh… But the royal library stayed with Bayan, and our ancestors’ Holy Sheaf together with the map of the Great Omen stayed in the Big Kapishte8...”
Aspata was listening to her father, but at the same time, she was carefully exploring the khan’s face. Still young, yet his face was covered with a number of wrinkles, mingling into an exquisite net. His cheeks, stuck tight to the bones, were cut by two upright lines, which added severity to his expression. It was deepened by his clearly moulded lips, which he kept clenched tight. The same profound wrinkles cut through his forehead as well. His eyes would cast tiny flames, which against the background of his swarthy skin seemed coloured in yellow and brown. “He does not miss a word, but he does not interrupt either,” remarked Aspata instinctively…
8Kapishte – a pagan temple
“The last male descendent of the royal clan Dulo in the Old Lands, the Great Priest Negoban, was gathered to his forefathers last winter,” continued Stasis. “He was the father of my wife, Erana, and the grandfather of Aspata. Before he died, he called me to his bed and said: “Take the map of the Great Omen to the ruler of the Bulgarians at the Danube. Our mission here is completed. The Bulgaria at the Volga and the Bulgaria at the Danube will fulfill the last part of the Omen – they will convey our Wisdom into the Worlds of Islam and Christianity…!”
At this point, the kolober’s voice trembled and he made a long pause. He was standing and his face emanated thoroughness and solemnity. Ernavota looked at his father and after a moment of hesitation asked:
“Make one thing clear to me, Stasis, why should the map of the Great Omen come here and not stay with the Volga Bulgarians?” Unlike Omortag, he was talking hurriedly and the emotion showed in his voice.
“The Danube Bulgaria will connect the Bulgarians with the whole West,” Aspata’s voice rang out. And because her father was still silent, engulfed in visions, she continued, “The Omen has already started happening, Bulgaria at the Danube is the third greatest country on the West, together with the kingdoms of Byzantines and Franks...”
“But the Bulgarians had been moving also into other parts of the world. Take for example Kuber, he settled in Kutmichevitsa9, Altsek – in the land of Langobards10, we have heard of Vund’s11 people, our brothers in Anatolic12 …,” broke in Ernavota questioning the faces of the others.
“In the World of the endless vastness where we come from, the peoples had always been on the move since the days of Old, young Lord,” struck in again Stasis. “They merge into one another like the waves of the sea, plentiful are their names, and countless their leaders. When a royal clan succeeds in spreading its power over its neighbours, the sea becomes rough and the waves break against the Great Empires’ beach. After the clash, the sea becomes calm again and this calmness lasts only till the next storm comes. To step on the beach means to cross the boundary, to live by its rules…For example, the Byzantine Empire has inherited the boundaries of the Roman Empire and everyone considers it to be a personification of the Eternal Order. Scores of peoples for hundreds of years had either crushed their spears into the shield of this Empire, and have disappeared forever, or they had become part of it and accepted their laws. Our people had mingled with the peoples from the Steppe, yet we are not one of them…”
Stasis made a long pause and it was obvious that he was making efforts to put his thoughts in order, so he could voice them as clearly as possible.
9Kutmichevitsa – today’s Macedonia.
10Langobards – a German tribe, originated in VI – VII century in a kingdom with a centre – the region of today’s Lombardia (Italy), conquered later by Karl the Great.
11Vund’s people – Bulgarians settled in Armenia in IV century, lead by their chieftain Vund.
12Anatolic – today’s Anatolia (Asia Minor).
“There are peoples meant to create new boundaries…,” the khan’s voice rang out.
Stasis respectfully waited to hear Omortag’s words, but when he felt that the khan encouraged him to continue his story, went on more confidently:
”The Avar* people, for instance, had power over the lands on the Middle Istar13 for quite long and did frequently threaten the Byzantine possession, but no one talks about them any more…because it didn’t respect the rule of the boundary. The grandeur of the Chazars*, who devastated the Old Lands, is also shaken although three generations ago their power seemed unyielding. The sea of the Steppe shall devour them and the Empire shall seek the friendship of the royal clan, who shall replace them in the provisional dominance over the steppe vastness…The Byzantine Empire is unshakable, while the power over the Steppe is transitory…
“Weren’t we, the Bulgarians, who held the power at the Gate of the Peoples14 at the reign of syubigi khan Koubrat,” interrupted Ernavota again, “...and then we had to succumb…”
“That’s right, my young Lord, that was part of the Great Omen I have been talking about.” The kolober paused a little and went on slowly and clearly. “When the Great Teachers from the Deep Mountain15 distributed the missions among the First Peoples, they charged the Bulgarians with the Mission of the Bright Messenger, which means that our people had to tread the way from Imeon16 to the Balkans, connecting four Great Empires, four Seas and four Mountains on the Old Land. The last stop of this journey, farthest in the West, is Bulgaria at the Danube. Here the people of the Bulgarians shall live forever! Here it built the new boundaries of its Great Kingdom.” Stratis’s voice was trembling and his eyes were chasing the wonderful vision that drew tears in his eyes. “Here, Noble Master, I’m passing the map of the Great Omen to your hands!”
And he took out a gold-woven bag from under the folds of his mantle, unbound the cord and carefully revealed a stone slab in dark colour. Then he looked at the slab, pressed it close to his left breast, kneeled in front of Omortag and handed it to him.
The khan stood up and carefully placed the slab on the table. Ernavota came closer. Stasis waited for a brief moment and started talking again:
“Here is the Way of the Bulgarians…It looks like a long and high-water river with plenty of branches. It starts from the first home Imeon, not far from the Deem Mountain: The Empire of the Khushans is on the left, the Yellow Empire – on the east and the kingdoms of Persians and Byzantines are on the west; it reaches the lands of the Caucasians and then it continues to the Balkan.”
13Istar – the Danube River.
14the Gate of the Peoples – the region northwards of the Caucasus and the Black sea where the peoples of Asia invade from.
15The Deep Mountain – Tibet.
16Imeon - the region of Pamir and Hindokush in Central Asia.
“It means that the small arrows are the branches which smaller groups of Bulgarians had taken in different directions and that thick line shows the main road,” cut in Ernavota. “ And these animal over here stands to show the places of the Bulgarian country along the way… ”
“When a new ruler ascended the throne, my young Lord, a new spear engraved with the sign of the dominating holy animal the same year, was added to the Holy Sheaf of our ancestors…It means that these were the holy animals at the times of the first rulers at each of the marked places. The Great Teachers of the Deep Mountain destined that the Bulgarians should stay more than two thousand years at the foot of Imeon, where their neighbours called them the Balks, the people of the country of Balkara. They were skilful builders, bred beautiful horses and the millet and wheat they produced were the best known ever…”
“Our forefathers from Balkara were able to build high in the mountains,” burst in upon the narration Aspata. “In order to get good harvest, they dug ditches on the higher places as well. When merchants passed through those places, they never missed the opportunity to load their caravans with various kinds of leather, because they knew they would sell them on the highest prices, so skilfully did the Bulgarians refined them…”
“We are wandering away from the subject,” Omortag interrupted her. “Finish off your story, Stasis!”
Aspata felt she had annoyed the khan with her untimely intrusion upon the conversation. At the same time, however, she was surprised to notice that his remark did not hurt her, as it usually happened when men reminded her she was too daring for a woman. “He is right, of course, I had to restrain myself! Shall I ever learn to keep to myself?” And in her head sounded her father’s words: “Remember, my child, that temperance is the beginning of all wisdom; the one who is a master of themselves, approaches God closer and closer.” And Negoban, as he was in his last days, appeared in front of her: “Omortag has inherited the wisdom of our clan, Aspata. His deeds come to show he is following Syubigi Khan Tervel’s way. Tangra never leaves us! Blessed you are that you can see the succeeding khan of Dulo. I can peacefully now retire into Eternity...”
“He is a god listener, yet he knows when to interrupt,” concluded Aspata, realizing she had missed the thread of her father’s narration engulfed in her thoughts about the khan. She had come to listen should her father missed something important.
“…it was the time of the next great movement of the peoples in the Old lands,” her father was explaining at that moment. “The Bulgarians had to leave their land in Caucasus and get themselves prepared for the most important part of the Omen. They had to lay the groundwork of the next Great Empire on the West. They settled in the lands northward of the Evskinski Pont17, at the Gate of the Peoples. They mingled with Turks, Old Huns, Goths and Slavs.”
17Evskinski Pont – The Black Sea.
“They lived on the frontier between the Steppe and its laws and Byzantine country – the kingdom of Divine order on the west. Peoples after peoples would pass from the east to the west. A wave of Bulgarians would follow each of them. In the reign of the Byzantine Vasilevs Iraclius, a war of life and death burst out between the Persians and Byzantines. To win a steadfast ally, the emperor offered the young Bulgarian khan to convert to Christianity and then he helped him stabilize his power in his lands and till the end of his life attested him friendship and support…Thus the Glorious reign of Syubigi Khan Koubrat came… ”
“However, both Iraclius and he had to experience the end of the old order and the huge wave of rearrangement in only one life,” said Omortag in a low voice and a moment later added: “Mohamed’s soldiers turned the world upside down and no one can disregard them any more, especially the Christians…”
“You are right, master,” replied Stasis. “The Byzantines still cannot set their minds at rest after that vortex. The caliphs18 on the other hand hurried to conquer everything – lands, wealth and knowledge like a voracious dragon gaping to devour the whole world…”
“Well, the dragon has already closed its mouth,” a smiled appeared on the khan’s face. “It has started digesting what it had devoured and is now seeking some repose…But when you are facing the vortex, have you not the right to think any storm is followed by an enlightenment?... Painful it must have been to Syubigi Khan Koubrat to retire into Eternity, when the Chazars started conquering his lands!” His smile had faded away and аn atmosphere of anxious concentration had enveloped his mien.
“My grandfather Negban was telling me, my Lord, that the kolober Chepa, the Memory of Dulo, knew from his forefathers that before khan Koubrat had died he had a vision,” Aspata started talking swiftly. “To him came an eagle who drank water from the Pont, then flew over the sea and alighted on the place where a big river emptied its waters in it. When he bent forward to drink again, blood trickled from his beak and the khan was aghast to notice that the eagle had been wounded by an arrow. Fire enveloped his body all of a sudden and up to the sky soared a beautiful bird. There, in the sunshine, it disappeared. Sybigi khan Koubrat left this world at ease, my lord!” concluded Aspata in enthusiastic confidence.
A smile appeared on the khan’s face again. He felt a mixture of fatherly warmth, brotherly endearment and friendliness to that almost unknown girl, who was gazing at him with sparkling eyes captivated by the mere desire to stroke him down, support him and make him happy. Suddenly, the image of Zemalda, his first wife who had died, sprung up in front of his eyes. Since she had left this world, no one has succeeded in making his blood tingle so calmly.
“So, the country at the Istar is the last step from the Great Omen?” interrupted the khan’s thoughts Ernavota.
18caliph – a Muslim religious leader / head and ruler of the Arab caliphate.
“That’s right, my young Lord,” said Stasis. “Khan Asparuh had been fulfilling the last stage of the Omen. Here, at the mouth of the Istar, is the beginning of the last, eternal Bulgaria. The Bulgarians of Kubers joined its people. Your glorious grandfather joined the Bulgarians from Panonia, thus all earlier waves of migration merged. The Bulgarians shall stay here till the end of the world!”
“And we shall have to reign without a Great Omen,” added as if to himself Omortag.
“I cannot understand your words, my Noble Master,” uttered Stasis in bewilderment.
“I do not make it out either,” said Ernavota.
“Here starts the most difficult, I say…But we shall discuss it some other time, Stasis,” the khan rose abruptly and started talking in a quick and sharp voice. “It is time for rest now. Iratais has been waiting outside to take you to your room. The women have been waiting for Aspata for a long time now. Tomorrow we shall go to Mundraga19 to visit the khan bouil kolober20 from the Main Sanctuary. There we shall leave the Great Omen. We shall also discuss what to do with the Emperor’s messengers…Let us sleep it over!”
“God himself outlines His Way in the souls of the ones he had chosen, my Lord!” said Aspata confidently, before she left the reception chamber with her eyes full with the already known enthusiasm.
Omortag remained silent. He only stared at her seriously for some time. What was it he was thinking of?
19Mundraga – Madara (to be further explained)
20khan bouil kolober – most probably the main kolober