"Ho there, slow
down, youll 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.
for the cliff!" Saheris called back over his shoulder, and, sparing a
brief glance for his brothers 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 cant 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
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 wont,
but hell show you how to cook him!" Arrus replied.
"I think I can
find more in that pool over there," Saheris said. "Hell be pleased
if we bring back a load of crabs, wont he Arrus?"
"Well... I dont
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."
live in families, Heli. But Im sure I can find more - lets
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.
ever want to have another name?"
"Romans have three
names, Bithynians have two."
"I want to have
three names!" Sahelis pronounced. "Then I can be a Roman!"
want to be a Roman," Saheris said. "Romans beat their sons every day.
"Arrus, do Romans
beat their sons every day?"
"Mine did. And
they flog you in the army too."
"Do they flog
you in the Khans army, Arrus?"
"No. No flogging.
But if you run from battle, you might get an arrow in the back. So remember,
dont run from battle."
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.
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 womans
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."
against the damp rocks, silk rustled every slightest noise seemed
to fill Saheris ears with sound.
been so long..." the mans 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.
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.
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.
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. Cant 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 cant think
"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.
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 hands breadth from the
mans 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 mans eyes could have been his own. She remained
straddling him, holding the blade firmly against the side of his neck.
Every muscle in the mans body stiffened then as it yearned away
"What in Gods
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.
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.
his voice choked, "what is it you want?" Saheris could see fresh sweat
beading on the mans 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?"
eyes grew wide with new panic as the liquid trickled down his neck.
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 swords 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
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? Wouldnt 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
mans neck, now smeared with a fluid that was not his blood. "Now
"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 arms 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
"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?"
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
"What is your
"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!"
word, she disappeared into the shadows.
The man sat down
on the pallet. "Come here, Harald. Sit down."
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,
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.
"What do you think
"They are just children."
The man laughed.
"You are just a child!"
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."
his head. "No. I couldnt. I couldnt watch you die."
"And that is fortunate
for me! I cant 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 Romans 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
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 Romans 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
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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