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Chapter 13: The Tryst

"Ho there, slow down, you’ll tire an old man out!" Arrus called after the children as they raced one another across the pebble-strewn sand. The sun had begun to heat the rocks, and a slight steam was beginning to rise from the rocks, standing moist in the receding tide.

"We’re racing for the cliff!" Saheris called back over his shoulder, and, sparing a brief glance for his brother’s eager face, desperate to catch him, he pressed ahead with all of his strength, his eyes fixed upon his goal, the dark wall of rock that rose before them. The clatter of his feet against the stones, the thudding of his heart against his ribs filled his ears and he heard nothing more, as he collapsed against the shadowy cliff and sank down to rest in the shade. A few moments later, he saw Sahelis approach, face red, eyes bright with the effort of running in the sunny heat. He too, sank down against the cool wall, gulping for air.

"You are too fast!" Sahelis said. "I can’t keep up!"

"You will one day, Heli. The more we race, the faster you go. You were right behind me!" He put his arm around his brother then. "Remember, you are the son of the Khan, you are not just somebody! Everyone looks to the Khan to lead, and you must never show yourself weak!" At his sober words, Heli straightened his shoulders and raised his arm toward his brother. "Lead on!" he cried, and Saheris, recovering rapidly, struggled back to his feet.

They marched single file along the base of the cliff, which twisted and turned in on itself, casting them from time to time in deep shadow, unseen by Arrus, who was still far behind. Sahelis cried out in pleasure, and picked up a crab, whose stiff legs clawed the air as he held it aloft. "Crabs for dinner!" he shouted, and turned and ran back to give it to Arrus. Saheris walked onward, following what seemed to be a path through the larger rocks leading away from the water. There, right before him, a deeper shadow loomed, and opened out into what seemed to be a room carved into the rock. He took several steps forward, cautiously, his eyes straining to see in the impenetrable gloom. There was no light within. He listened; there was no sound but the occasional drip of water. He would need a torch to go further. His mind suddenly racing, he retraced his steps down the path, and sought for a landmark by which he could recognize the place that led to the cave, scanning upward above his head and back along the path he had followed. He tried to impress upon his mind the exact pattern of the cliff wall as it appeared from a distance, as he made his way slowly back to where Sahelis was holding his crab up to Arrus for inspection. Arrus was shaking his head.

"I found a pet for Heli," Saheris said.

"You did not!" Sahelis retorted. "I found him all by myself. I will call him Pinkeyes. I know my father will let me keep him, Arrus!"

"No he won’t, but he’ll show you how to cook him!" Arrus replied.

"I think I can find more in that pool over there," Saheris said. "He’ll be pleased if we bring back a load of crabs, won’t he Arrus?"

"Well... I don’t think we should stay out that long," he said. "This sun will burn you red as that crabshell."

"Why not?" Heli persisted. "This one was just walking right along! Heri can find his brothers, there has to be a whole family."

"Crabs don’t live in families, Heli. But I’m sure I can find more - let’s look over here!"

But they found no more crabs, though they waded through four more tide pools and into the shallows looking for them. After an hour of fruitless searching, they turned back, Sahelis rapidly growing tired and irritable as his pleasure waned. Saheris led the march, and Heli dutifully matched his pace, as they made their way back to their billet in Euxis.

"Did you ever want to change your name?" Saheris asked over his shoulder.

"My name? To what?" his brother asked.

"Didn’t you ever want to have another name?"

"No! That’s stupid!"

"Romans have three names, Bithynians have two."

"I want to have three names!" Sahelis pronounced. "Then I can be a Roman!"

"You don’t want to be a Roman," Saheris said. "Romans beat their sons every day. Ask Arrus!"

"Arrus, do Romans beat their sons every day?"

"Mine did. And they flog you in the army too."

"Do they flog you in the Khan’s army, Arrus?"

"No. No flogging. But if you run from battle, you might get an arrow in the back. So remember, don’t run from battle."

"I won’t!" The boys, in unison, came to attention and raised their arms in salute to Arrus, as though he was their chief. "I will never run from battle, commander!" Saheris cried.

"I will never run from battle either, commander!" Sahelis echoed.

Sahelis went to sleep almost immediately upon their return. He was not used to the sun – it exhausted him. Saheris, once again, proved more adaptable. He sat on a pile of wood outside the house, facing the dock, watching the fishermen pulling in their nets. Evening had come, and the light was fading gradually into twilight. He glanced around him – Arrus was nowhere in sight. Unobserved, he slipped down from the wood pile and went in search of a lamp, and soon found one hanging from a hook outside the kitchen door. Taking the lamp in one hand, and a flint and match in the other, he slipped along the edges of the houses until he found a large tree stump, and placed the items behind it, carefully out of sight. Then he strode rapidly back toward the house, and resumed his seat on the woodpile.

Saheris stole away from his room as soon as the lamps were doused, taking with him a spare match in case the one he had stolen had grown damp on the ground.

The place where he had located the cave was a long walk from Euxis; he hurried, driven on by insatiable curiosity. He could not share this secret with Heli - not until he found out what lay within. As he walked, he imagined a dark grotto full of wolves, or mythical sea beasts like the Kraken from the tales Cariana told him. Or the women with the faces of demons, who sang to sailors from the rocks and lured them to their deaths. He might even find the bones of men captured by the demon-women of the sea.

Once again, excitement fired Saheris’ heart to racing as he pressed on along the twilit path. He did not need the lamp yet to guide him, for the sky lay bright above with clear moonlight. As he gained the path to the shore, the moon broke free of the clouds and cast sharp shadows from the scattered rocks along the path, which appeared as squatting soldiers at camp, grown still in the strange light.

He stopped for a reckoning every dozen or so steps, watching for the particular shape of cliff against the sky which marked the approach to the cave. He had tried counting steps from the last tide pool to the shore path, but his conversations with Heli had broken his concentration too many times, and he had lost count.

He took another reckoning from the beach, and then knelt to fire the lamp. Carefully, he inspected the sand around him, and soon found the mark he had made by dragging a walking stick behind him. This was his trail. He followed the line he had made with the stick and found himself once again facing the implacable face of the cliff. He raised the lamp then, and moved along the cliff face foot by foot, certain now that he was near. He nearly cried out as his extended arm suddenly grasped air and he stumbled forward into the cave entrance.

He shined the lamp into the entryway. Though the cave mouth was narrow and low, making it nearly impossible to see unless one was nearly upon it, the cave itself was sizable, and seemed to extend for some distance beneath the cliff. As he picked his way carefully across the rough, damp floor, avoiding small puddles of seawater, he made out the shape of a low table, a camp chair, and to his great surprise, a pallet of wood, covered by a thick rug. Someone lived here! Or had lived here previously.

Candles lay half-used on the table, a wine cup had spilled its contents long since across the dusty table and made a hard, shiny stain, now dust-covered, sticking the cup fast to the table where it had fallen some time before.

The rug covering the pallet was thick and comfortable, but musty – still, it made a nice bed, and Saheris lay down upon it, to recover from his adventure.

He sat up abruptly. He had fallen asleep, and some sound, now unheard, had awakened him. His lamp, untrimmed, had gone out, plunging the cave into utter darkness. He strained to hear, and over the hissing of the tide, he heard a woman’s brief laugh, answered by another voice, male. They gradually grew audible as they approached the cave mouth, but for several minutes, Saheris could not hear their words. Were they coming in? Was this their cave? He grew wild with anxiety then – how could he hide himself? He could not see to hide!

The glow of an approaching lamp decided him; he scrambled from the pallet and felt with his hands along the wall, narrowly avoiding the chair, which barked his shin as he groped toward the black interior of the cave. Would the light of their lamp be strong enough to reveal him crouching in the shadows? The voices grew impossibly loud now, echoing eerily from the walls, and made his ears ring. He hugged the damp rock, inching slowly from the pallet into the safety of concealment.

"Not so impatient, my love," she was saying in Latin. "There is all night for that."

Boots scraped against the damp rocks, silk rustled – every slightest noise seemed to fill Saheris’ ears with sound.

"But it’s been so long..." the man’s voice boomed, so close it made Saheris jump. They must have been thirty paces from him. Glancing back, he could see their figures now, illuminated by the lamp she held, and as though to satisfy his curiosity about them, the woman turned toward him and advanced toward the chair, reached up the wall, and took down a torch, which she lighted from the lamp. The room brightened.

Saheris could see her full face now as she returned the torch to its bracket on the wall. She had small features, narrow eyes, and a cascade of jet hair that now fell loosely from her shoulders. The man, a Roman by his words and dress, stood a full head taller than she, though not large, and he loomed behind her, pulling at her robe with his hands. She grasped his hands with her own and leaned backward against his shoulder.

"So long after you leave me, now you want me?" she said, her voice thick, and she twisted against his hands. It seemed for a moment that they struggled together. And then to Saheris’ surprise, her companion pulled her robe from her shoulders and cast it to the floor, leaving her completely exposed in the flickering torchlight. He then lifted her bodily and set her down on the pallet, tossing his cloak away in one quick motion. The woman moaned as he seemed to fall upon her.

Saheris’ eyes burned as though filled with woodsmoke. He watched in tense fascination as the two figures grappled with or against one another, arms and legs entangled, in some grotesque and awkward parody of combat. He dared not move or make sound, and was unable to turn away. The stark image of the naked woman played before his eyes even as his senses were assaulted by the bizarre acts that followed.

While used to the casual nudity of bathing, and the sight of women partly unclothed at the river or nursing children, he had never before seen a couple in rut – this must be what they were about, it was little different than the rut of animals, but it seemed to him far more loud and frantic; to Saheris, it was both frightening and intriguing and he knew he should not risk being discovered.

The grappling of limbs grew confused then, as she pushed the man from her. He lay back on the bed, sprawled, still partly covered by his tunic, which he had pushed aside but not removed.

"You are always much too quick," she chided him, sitting up and reaching her arms toward him as though to embrace him once again. "Relax. I wish to know something."

"You always want to talk, Tanzin. Can’t the talk wait?"

"No," she shook her head, and the hair flew about her. "I have little time – he is gone for only a few days this time, and I had to see you."

"Come here," he pulled at her arm, but she pushed his hands away. "I can’t think right now..."

"I will do the thinking. I want to know one thing you have never answered in my letters. Why did you not return?"

"You silly fool, you know why! Now stop all this chatter. Come here." He pulled her onto him then, and Saheris heard the woman gasp as she straddled him like a rider mounting a horse, arching her back. "Ahhhh..." she sighed, "you know I prefer you this way," as she moved against him, "you fill me far better this way..." she trailed off as he seized her hips and rose up on the bed as they resumed their rutting.

The strangled sounds she made as she strove with her lover seemed to Saheris like those of a wounded animal rather than a woman, and he felt himself shivering even as his face grew hot. He closed his eyes, and then opened them again, unable to turn away for more than a moment.

The man, too, had closed his eyes, his knuckles whitening with effort as he struggled against the woman atop him. His trousers ha finally worked free of his feet, but his face was partly obscured by the tunic that had ridden up his neck. Thus he could not see, as Saheris did, the stealthy movement of her arm as she reached beyond him to grasp a dark object which she placed carefully upon the edge of the pallet, safe from their heaving bodies. She leaned over once again with a hard movement of her hips against him, and raised a short sword by its grip, which she set down next to the dark object. The man, lost to lust, eyes tightly closed, had seen nothing of this.

Saheris, now dizzy from watching their frantic rut, gasped at the sight of the sword, which now gleamed menacingly upon the bed a mere hand’s breadth from the man’s bare chest. She is going to kill him, he thought. He felt the heat in his face suddenly flee, leaving him numbly cold.

Saheris felt every part of him grow rigid as he watched the woman pick up the sword, even as her body kept up its insistent rhythm. And with great care, she slid the edge of the blade up against his neck and bore down.

Suddenly all movement ceased as he opened his eyes. Saheris could not see her expression, but the shock in the man’s eyes could have been his own. She remained straddling him, holding the blade firmly against the side of his neck. Every muscle in the man’s body stiffened then as it yearned away from her.

"What in God’s name are you –" he rasped, his voice gone dry in passion.

As if in answer, she raised herself upon her knees and thrust her hips back against him slowly, once, twice, still holding the sword against his neck.

"You should not call me a fool. That makes me angry," she said quietly.

"Tanzin –" he started, but cut himself off as she raised her free hand.

Once again, she moved against him, thrusting her hips against his with agonizing slowness.

"How would it feel," she said, starting once again the rhythmic motion of her hips, more deliberate and slow as she held the sword, "to die at the moment of climax?" She shifted the blade then, and reached with her free hand beyond his arm. He still had not noticed what she had placed behind him.

"Tanzin," said, his voice choked, "what is it you want?" Saheris could see fresh sweat beading on the man’s forehead and drip into his eyes. He blinked rapidly. Fear had taken him completely.

"Your life," she said simply. "You have displeased me, and abandoned me to be imprisoned like a slave. So first I will have my pleasure of you, and then I will have your life." She squeezed the object against his neck, and a dark fluid ran from her hand, trickling down upon his shoulder. "You feel that?" she said. "You are bleeding. Slowly, while I take my pleasure, you will bleed to death here on this bed, with no one to help you. Would you like to die that way?"

The man’s eyes grew wide with new panic as the liquid trickled down his neck.

Saheris could be quiet no more. There might be only moments before she dealt a mortal blow, and was determined to torture the man, who had somehow gone completely helpless. He drew his hunting knife and advanced partly from the shadow of the cave wall, careful of his footing. He positioned himself directly behind her, but out of her sword’s reach.

"Hold!" he shouted as loudly as possible. To his amazement, her hand did not falter on the sword, but she turned suddenly, attempting to catch sight of who had stolen up behind her.

"Throw down the sword!" he commanded, his own words resounding like thunderclaps in his ears.

The woman’s laugh was derisive. "A friend! So you brought a friend!" she addressed the passive man beneath her, who now peered toward Saheris in the darkness. "Did you enjoy our love? Wouldn’t you like to see the rest?"

He knew enough not to answer her taunts. He had to break the spell. "Throw down the sword now!" he shrieked. To his great surprise, she lifted the blade from the man’s neck, now smeared with a fluid that was not his blood. "Now what?"

"I said throw it down!" he shouted at her once again. The woman shifted her weight carefully, and Saheris saw the way she angled the sword as she turned. He knew that movement, and dropped to the floor and to the right as the blade swept past him, missing him by at least an arm’s length. She was immediately on her feet, seeking him with her eyes and blade. But her lover, released from his passive shock, had leapt for his own sword, and fell upon her from behind, knocking the weapon from her grip with a cruel blow of his fist. She felt heavily to the ground with a howl of pain.

Holding his sword over her, the Roman wrestled his tunic back over his chest with his free arm.

"You saved my miserable life, boy," he said to Saheris, who now stood shivering uncontrollably against the wall, knife still ready in his hand. "Where in the name of heaven did you come from?"

"Boy?" she looked up from her wounded arm, seeing Saheris for the first time. "It is an accursed child! I am disarmed by an accursed child!"

"And I am disarmed by an accursed whore!" the man roared, raising his fist again as though to smash it down on her. "Do I kill you now?"

"Why not?" She challenged bitterly. You will not live long enough to gloat. My father will have his dogs tear you into pieces!"

"Your father is gone, remember?" he replied, brandishing his sword over her head. "Besides, there is already a price on me because of you, you thieving whore!" he cried. His fear now past, his passion turned to rage. "Put your clothes on! And go before I whack your head off your neck!"

She rose, plucking her robe daintily from the floor, and slipping it around her shoulders. With exaggerated care, she fastened the clasps one by one.

The Roman stooped down to retrieve the sword he had knocked from her hand, and tossed it at Saheris’ feet. "There. That is your reward. Do you own a sword?"

"No," Saheris replied, picking it up.

"You do now. I say -- where did you come from?" He now worked his trousers up with his free hand, keeping the sword poised toward the woman, who had now turned away.

"Maduc."

"What is your name?"

"Ha - Heri" Saheris stammered. His voice was fleeing from him now.

"You have the voice of a commander, Harald," the Roman said, mispronouncing his name. "In such a small boy. You saved me you know. That is a blood obligation."

"He will need it," the woman hissed, turning toward them once again. "You!" she said, pointing directly at Saheris. "You will regret today for the rest of your miserable life. I will find you."

"Be gone, whore!" the Roman shouted once again, advancing upon her. "You will be damned for this insult to my person!"

Without further word, she disappeared into the shadows.

The man sat down on the pallet. "Come here, Harald. Sit down."

Saheris approached slowly, and sat.

"I need some wine. There is no wine. Curse that woman!"

"There is wine at my house," Saheris offered helpfully.

"There is wine at my camp too, though I doubt I can go there now. Who do you belong to, Harald?"

Saheris hesitated. Something in him told him to conceal himself from the Roman, for Saher had taught him how far to trust a Roman – not at all.

"A soldier named Arrus," Saheris replied, not exactly lying.

"And whom does he serve, this Arrus?" the man asked.

"The Khan of Asia," Saheris replied promptly.

"What do you think of the Khan of Asia?" he asked conversationally.

"He is a powerful king, and a skilled soldier," Saheris said sincerely.

"And have you seen the sons of the Khan?" he asked casually.

"Yes," Saheris replied.

"What do you think of them?"

Saheris shrugged. "They are just children."

The man laughed. "You are just a child!"

"Not that young!" he objected.

"Surely," he agreed, "not to young to defend a man who is about to die of stupidity."

"She was going to kill you with this sword," Saheris said.

"Yes, and that would have been stupidity!" he answered, putting his hands over his face.

"Do you want me to bring you some wine?" Saheris asked.

"No, child. I have to leave here quickly. I would tell you who I am, but I am an enemy of your Khan. You might have done better to let her kill me."

Saheris shook his head. "No. I couldn’t. I couldn’t watch you die."

"And that is fortunate for me! I can’t pay you, for that damned madwoman took all of my money already. But one day, I will. And we will be friends."

"Thank you," Saheris said. He looked down at his feet, embarrassed in a curious way.

He stood up then. "Let me bring you to the town road at least, in case Tanzin lies waiting to keep her promise."

They each took a lamp, Saheris lighting his match from the Roman’s lamp and firing his own. The man doused the torch by dashing it against the wall. One by one, the scattered embers winked out.

They parted on the town road, minutes from the house where Arrus had made their billet. "Stay safe, my boy," the man said, and hurried back in the direction they had come.

Dawn arrived long before Saheris closed his eyes again. Over and over in his mind, he saw the stark figure of the naked Tanzin, her thrusting hips, the flying hair as she rutted with her Roman lover in the cave; the terrible gleam of the sword in her hand. He held it in his own hand, comparing the size of his hand to hers, the blade gleaming dully in the grey light. His body grew hot and then cold with emotions he had never felt, and he found himself wondering what it was like to touch her as that man had done, to bury his flesh in hers and hear her moaning passion in his ears. He pressed his hands over his face to cool it, but he seemed afflicted with fever. Once again, he took up the sword, and pressed the point of it against his arm, as she had pressed it against the side of the Roman’s neck. What had that felt like? he wondered, pressing gently to the very threshold of pain. He sat up in bed for hours, as images tumbled one after the other in his mind, rhythmically tapping the point of the sword against the inside of his arm. If it were not for this blade, he thought, it would seem to have been a vivid dream, but the weapon remained cold and real against his flesh.

Eventually, sleep took him, and his dreams rose up in a confusion of twisting, heaving bodies, strangled moans, and a cascade of black hair.

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