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Chapter 14: The Fugitive

Arrus stayed in Euxis with a small party and the Khanís heirs for two days, waiting for Saher to join them. The Khan had gone west, bypassing Euxis, to join a party of mercenaries who had been provided for his summer campaign in Galatia, from his new ally from the north. No word had been received as yet, but the Khanís arrival was imminent.

Saheris woke late after his vigil, and found his brother in the yard chasing and being chased by a trio of young dogs, under the dour eye of the Roman guard.

"Heri, you look like youíve been trampled," Arrus remarked dryly.

"I was. The bed was too hard, and I couldnít sleep."

"You should have slept in my bed!" Heli sang. "Itís nice and soft Ė and Pinkeyes slept with me!"

"Echhh..." Saheris spat. "I wonít get into bed with a creature."

"Heís not a creature," Heli objected loudly. "Heís my pet now."

"At least until your father orders him boiled," Arrus added.

"Arrus, men in the road!" Saheris shouted. His throat filled with a sudden, indefinable panic. Arrus lifted his sword from where it leaned against the fence, and waved the children toward the house.

"In, and quickly. Iíll be in shortly. Bardis! Come out right away! We have visitors! Stay in the kitchen, you two."

"Is it my father?" Saheris asked, trailing Arrus out of the yard.

Arrus turned on him. "Go!"

Saheris stopped short, glaring angrily at Arrusí receding back, then turned toward the door.

The sound of horses approached swiftly, and Saheris heard the shouts of the Khanís soldiers greeting Arrus. At this, his anxiety increased.

Disregarding Arrusí instructions, Saheris ran up the stairs to his room, where the sword lay hidden in his pack. What would happen if he were found with it? His anxiety increasing by the moment, he rolled the sword in his spare cloak, and tied it with a bootlace pulled from his new boots. Wrapped this way, the bundled appeared to be an innocuous black parcel. Now Ė where to put it? He flung open the shutter and looked down Ė below the window lay a thick hedge growing beside the kitchen door. He dropped the bundle, handle side down, into the center of the hedge. It disappeared completely into the thick leaves.

He made his way downstairs quietly.

"Where did you go?" Sahelis asked from the kitchen door.

"Nowhere," Saheris retorted.

"You went upstairs. Why?"

"I fouled my clothes. I had to change them."

Heli burst into loud laughter. "You are a baby, shitting in your trousers!"

"Yes, Iím a terrible baby," Saheris replied darkly, kicking aside his brotherís feet dangling across the threshold. "Can you hear them talking from here?"

"No, I tried. Itís Cliny and the doctor from Maduc."

"Heklitis."

"Him."

"Where is Father?" Saheris pressed, straining to make out the shape of the figures huddled together in the street. Arrus was gesturing angrily and pointing back toward the house.

"Heli, you have to do something for me." Saheris grasped his brotherís shoulders and looked into his face.

"What? Donít squeeze Ė" he pushed Heriís hands away. "That hurts!"

"You sat up with me last night when I had a bad dream."

"No I didnít."

"You have to say this."

"Why?"

"For Arrus and Cliny. If anyone asks you, you have to tell them you were up with me."

"All right."

"Just say I woke you up because I had a dream."

"Thatís easy."

"You will remember?"

"Yes! Iím not stupid. Iíll remember."

"What was the dream about?"

"I donít know."

"Horses. I had a dream I was being chased by horses."

"Were you?"

"Yes," Saheris said emphatically. "And I was crying, and woke you up."

"I will tell them."

"Now letís find something to eat."

 "Are the children safe?" Heklitis asked, jumping down nimbly from his horse. His face betrayed exhaustion Ė he had not slept that night.

"Of course theyíre safe, whatís happened?" Arrus said. "What are you two doing here? What of the Khan?"

"He left for the west these two days past, we expected he would have arrived here already," Cliny replied. "He has not?"

Arrus shook his head. "We expect him today. Tell me what happened!"

"Sahera has gone," Heklitis said simply. "She seduced her guard and has been gone a day and night. We didnít find out until last night, when I went to see her."

Cliny said "Iím surprised it hasnít happened before, actually."

"That may be because I had forewarned the previous guards about her. I must have overlooked this one," Heklitis wiped his face with his sleeve. "It was bound to happen in time. That wonít make the Khan any happier."

"Do you know where she went?"

"Strangely enough, we expect she came here. The Khan learned of a hiding place she kept in the sea caves, and mentioned it in a letter she sent to her Roman lover, whom she intended to meet her sometime this summer. Likely, she is there, or may have met him there," Heklitis explained.

"Bellianus, you mean," Arrus added.

"Then you know."

"Oh yes. There is little Saher keeps from me. There is a ransom on Bellianus from the time the baby was born."

"Does anyone know where this hiding place might be?" Cliny interjected.

"One of her lovers might know..." Arrus said.

"It might be better simply to search instead of wasting time trying to find someone who had been there with her," Heklitis added.

"I agree," said Cliny. "How many men do you have with you?"

"Six," Arrus said. "Plenty to find one girl and one Roman in the cliffs."

"I should hope so," Heklitis said. "Better to leave at least two men here with the children, and we can all go. We have sent a message north to the Khan already to meet us here, if he is not already on his way. He would return immediately."

The Khan did return immediately Ė he was already preparing for departure when he received a message from Maduc, and rode for Euxis without retiring. He arrived at the billet in Euxis within hours, to find Isolt and a second guard alone with the boys.

"They are out on the beach still, Khan," Isolt said as Saher came into the house.

"Where are my sons?" Saher removed his cloak, thick with dust, and shook it. The trip had been a hasty one, and he was filthy.

"Here we are, father!" Heli pounced on him, trying to scramble up his back.

"Enough, enough! Iím too old to be climbed like an olive tree!"

Saheris greeted the Khan more quietly.

"You donít look good," Saher observed.

"Father, why are Cliny and Heklitis here? What has happened?"

"They brought some news from Maduc, thinking I was here. That is all."

Saheris shook his head. "Why did the doctor come? Is my mother ill?"

"If she was ill, he would be attending her. No, Saheris, there is nothing that should concern you."

"I just want to know what happened..." Saheris insisted, frowning.

Saher sighed. "When I know, I will be sure to tell you. There is nothing to tell as yet. Fair enough?"

"Well..."

"You are much too curious for your age. And you donít look well. Travel bothering you again?"

"Yes, and I donít like this house. I canít sleep in it."

"Well youíll have to for at least another night. Then we go on to Ilitrahant."

"Father," Heli cut in, "is there going to be a war?"

"Unless the emperor signs a pact with the eastern hordes, yes, there will be a war."

"Can we go?"

Saher shook his head wearily. "You wouldnít want to go. You will be staying with Arrus in Ilitrahant. You were there when you were a baby, do you remember?"

"I do," Saheris said grumpily. He was still musing over the happenings outside the house, and all he could do was wait.

"How long will you be gone?" Sahelis wheedled, swinging the Khanís arm back and forth and pulling on it. Saher gently drew his hand up and away. "Heli, I am very tired right now. Can you bring me a cup of good water?"

"Of course, father! Heri is tired too. He didnít sleep at all last night!" The younger brother cast the remark over his shoulder as he danced into the kitchen to find Isolt and the water pitcher.

"What is this, Heri?" the Khan said. "Is this what has put you out?"

"I am not put out. I just want to know what is happening. Everyone was in such a hurry to find you, now you are here, and they are gone."

"I asked you a question, Saheris."

A look of dark defiance crossed Saherisí face rapidly, and passed. "I did not sleep well."

"Was there a disturbance here? Tell me."

"No," he answered truthfully. "All was quiet inside. I think the sound of the sea is too loud though. It keeps me awake."

"You need to get used to it then. All there is in Bithynia is the sound of the sea. It can prove relaxing, and the salt air is good for your health. Thereís a boy!" Saher cuffed Heri affectionately on the head as he brought a large cup brimming with water.

"He had a dream that horses were chasing him!"

"Shut up, Heli! Father doesnít need to know everything of my dreams."

"And he dreamed of a woman who came at him with a sword!" Heri added. Saher stared at his oldest child.

"You what?"

"I did not. Heís making that up!"

Heli shook his head fervently. "I heard him, this morning. He was fending her off with his knife - this way, that way. He shouted ĎDrop the sword!í and it woke me right up!" Heri plopped down on the floor at the Khanís feet, and began to untie the laces of his boots.

"Not so soon, child, I may yet ride again tonight. Heri, what are these dreams your brother speaks of?"

"I donít remember any dreams like these," Heri said, but his face was crimson with the denial.

"I see. And Heli, did this woman have a name?"

"Yes, he called her by her name, what was it - Tanya, Tanda, I think."

"You are rather young for such fantasies, I think," Saher remarked, scrutinizing Saheris carefully, who dropped his eyes. "Is there something you wish to tell me?"

"There is nothing, Father," Saheris said, eyes fixed at a point behind the Khanís shoulder. He dared not look at him, and he hoped fervently that Saher would not demand it of him now.

He did not. Saher took a long drink from his cup and set it down empty. "How about another?" Heli hopped up immediately and took the cup to replenish it. Heri followed him.

"You little beast!" he growled, pinching Heli on the arm until he yelped and pulled away.

"What? You had a bad dream, a real bad dream, I was there and heard it!"

"So what, did I tell you to say that?"

"No. What difference does it make?"

"It makes a difference. Why donít you learn when to keep your mouth closed?" Saheris was furious beyond all reason, and any moment, he felt he was about to dash his brother onto the floor and kick him bloody. He forced himself to grow quiet, observing with an acute alarm the violence that had welled up so suddenly within him.

Sahelis drew back, his eyes wide with terror. "Whatís wrong with you? Youíre mad!" The boy stumbled backward, escaping from his brotherís rigidly clenched. "Father, Saheris has gone mad!"

The Khan appeared in the doorway and placed a heavy hand on Saherisí shoulder. "What is this? I ask for a cup of water and it is cause for a brawl? I didnít know I was so popular!"

"He is mad because I told his dream, and he didnít want me to!" Heli whined.

Saheris stood still, feeling as though something had frozen within him. In his clenched hand, he could almost feel the cold handle of the sword, and wished he held it now. He closed his eyes.

"Saheris, answer me." He opened his eyes, to see the face of his father gazing into his own.

"What is it?" he answered, his own voice sounding very distant from him.

"What has happened to you? Are you ill? I will have Heklitis look at you when he has returned."

"No, there is nothing. I am not ill," Saheris shook his head wanly.

"It is my decision. Now go up to your room, I want you to rest. You are not yourself."

He was definitely not himself. But he did not object to being sent upstairs alone; it would give him time to consider once again, to ponder the confusion of images that even now were taking on the dimensions of a dream in his mind. Was it a dream? No, his cloak lay in the hedge next to the kitchen door, concealing a sword that was all too real. The flint and match and lamp he had fired, the smell of the oil on his hands... this was no dream. And yet Saheris had awakened from his trip to the cave changed, as though he himself had fallen asleep, and could not awaken.

The room had grown dark; somehow, Saheris had fallen asleep, no one had come to waken him, and the day had come and gone. He felt stricken with a chill, and could not stop shivering. He pulled the rug closer about his shoulders, his teeth chattering. What was wrong with him? He felt along his forehead with his fingers, he was damp with sweat, and the room felt frigid. He could not get warm.

He dared not venture out, for fear that removing the rugs he huddled under would cause a new bout of chill; he lay still, drifting, his mind, so full before, was empty and blank.

He tried to piece together the recent past, and found himself instead, absurdly considering the face of his brotherís poppit which lay at eye level on the bed opposite. Its head was misshapen and appeared to be a sort of birdís beak, with two clumps of black yarn in place of eyes. The little woven eyes seemed to stare and wink at him as he watched, and he blinked several times, yet the impression remained. Then it seemed to move slightly. ĎAh,í he said, speaking to himself, Ďthis is what madness is, when you lie abed and watch things that cannot be alive wink and nod at you.í His eyesight blurred with confused tears, and he wept quietly, wondering all the time why he was weeping. What was there to weep about? And still he wept, unknowing, feeling an indefinable comfort as one by one, strange sobs escaped from somewhere deep in his chest. Gradually, he tired, the sobs ceased, he coughed, and fell back into a heavy sleep.

 

"He sleeps, Khan. He is in fever, and needs to sleep."

"Is this a normal thing with youth?"

"If it is a germ, then Sahelis will fall ill within three days and suffer the same symptoms. If it is a chill, then it will run its course and we need do nothing. It could be something simple, the overexcitement of the journey, the change in the air, the salt, or the food. It is easy to fall ill from strange food."

"What is so strange about this food?" Saher held up the thick joint of a crab before cracking it open. "This is the best food a body can eat. Keeps you young!"

Heklitis smiled tightly. "Yes, but it contains substances the children are not used to eating in large quantity. It can cause them to sicken for a time until they grow used to it. You may have forgotten how delicate children are, when they seem so energetic."

"Maybe so. You will watch him then, and tell me if he worsens?"

The Greek inclined his head. "I am far more worried about your daughter, Khan. She has gone to great trouble to plan this escape, and has done so in a way that would be sure to anger you the most."

"Oh, I donít know. Killing my guards would anger me the most. But she might reason that I would find that a reason to execute her."

"Does she think that poorly of you?" Heklitis asked then, sadly.

"I donít know what she thinks. I have infuriated her by keeping her under guard in Maduc, that is certain. But I have no other choice. She is a danger to me, and now, it appears she is a danger to others as well. Perhaps that idiot Bellianus as much as anyone. Has anyone caught sight of him in the city?"

"Arrus has not yet returned from his inquiries. I do not know."

Saher set aside his plate. "That is enough. Perhaps youíre right about the shellfish. They are so easy to prepare badly, and Heri might not have gotten a fresh piece at dinner. I hope that is all it is. His brother told me he had some garish dreams about a woman with a sword."

"Could it be from his encounter with Sahera in his room in Maduc last month?" Heklitis mused.

"He never told me she was armed, simply that she came to him in his room and seized him bodily. No, he would have mentioned it if she had been armed."

"It is hard to tell what fires the imagination of a child, particularly a child like Saheris."

"He is exceptionally intelligent, but very moody," Saher commented. "What do you make of that?"

"I think his mother occupies his mind far more, now since they have met under such bizarre circumstances. I donít know how we could change that, however. It is done."

"I know how we can keep it from worsening. We have to get them both out of Euxis, and find that cursed girl before she does kill someone, or worse, gets pregnant again. Now THAT would aggravate me beyond all reason. Just when the first two are of manageable age."

"We will have to make sure that doesnít happen then," Heklitis replied.

 

 

They found the cave, and aside from an unused hunting knife without its sheath, a flint, and the remains of a burned and scattered torch, there was no true evidence pointing to the missing princess. Cliny insisted that the long hairs he found on the bed were from the black tresses of Saheraís head, but Arrus was skeptical. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of black-haired women in Bithynia, any of them could have had an assignation in that cave at any time, he said, dismissing the hair. Only the knife could serve to identify someone, except that it was an ordinary knife, without any particular feature that would identify it or its owner. They took it anyway to show to the Khan.

Saher set the knife down upon the table as the servants cleared away the remains of his late meal. "Has anyone learned anything of substance?"

"There has been no sign of a Roman, and no word of a woman of your daughterís description," Arrus replied tiredly. "But that means next to nothing. The entire town is on the water from dawn until dusk in this season, and they are nearly blind from sunshine when they return. Sahera could walk right past a dozen fishermen in a tavern and they might never see her there."

"I see," Saher replied, growing restive. "So now what do we do? You found the cave, and nothing in it except this knife?"

"A table, a chair, a bed, some hair..." Arrus added, with a sidelong look at Cliny. "Cliny says its her hair, but I donít know how he could tell unless she gave him a lock at one time."

"Thatís enough, Arrus," Saher rumbled. "She has seduced more than one of my servants with intrigue, drink, and sheer force, and just because she has not tried with you..." Arrusí face grew red. Cliny put his hand over his mouth to conceal an ill-advised smile. "Letís work on the problem now shall we? We can either search for her, or try to divine where she might go. It might prove easier to find her lover, but we still donít know if she met him or not."

"If I might suggest," Heklitis spoke quietly from his seat at the Khanís left.

"Go on..."

"She may be following the children."

"What?" Saher was genuinely surprised. "I thought you told me she had the desire only to murder me."

"I didnít say murder, I said follow. Curiosity. Your removal of the boys so rapidly from Maduc may have convinced her of the necessity to follow, and make an escape to determine where you would send them. She did not follow you to Moldova - she followed them to Euxis. Or at least, it appears that way."

"Thatís a good point. So you think she lies in wait to follow?"

"It is as good a theory as any. At any point on the road she might send a message to her lover to meet up with him, but it may be her goal to keep the children in sight, either to take them or to encounter them again."

"I think the Greek is right," Arrus said, sitting down heavily.

"Then if I want them concealed, I should not go to Ilitrahant with them. Perhaps I should make as though I am bringing them with me east to Iberia to meet Beshanís main force, and flush her out of hiding on the road."

"That might prove to be a great deal of work," Cliny said.

"How much work will it be to try to find her if she disappears completely? Do we want a repeat of events in Moesia? This child is capable of anything!" Everyone stared at the Khan, and no one said a word.

"I am very concerned, particularly for Saheris," he added hastily, covering the awkward silence. "He has been troubled by dreams, and it would seem the dreams are of his mother. I myself have had similar dreams. No matter how many times a man has challenged me at arms, or sent a spear flying at my head, not one of them has terrified me like a woman at arms." His voice turned hard and decisive then. "We must find Sahera, even if it means changing our plans, and our route. And I want a guard up all night at this house until we depart."

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