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Chapter 15: The Abduction

Saheris had recovered by morning. His brother had been removed to another room, in case Saheris grew delirious or carried a contagious germ that could affect him, and he spent the night alone. He was surprised at how cheerful he had awakened; the shadows that had afflicted him, the heavy weight of anxiety had, with the Khan’s return, somehow mysteriously fled.

The Khan’s household was preparing to depart as soon as breakfast was finished. Sahelis was conducting a funeral in the garden for his crab, which had perished when he had rolled over on him in bed and broke off his legs. He had finished lighting a small pyre for the beast when Saheris came down into the hall.

"And how is the young prince today?" Arrus greeted him heartily. "Recovered from your dreams?"

Saheris scowled, his mood already going sour from its bright start. "What dreams? I had a fever, that is all. I’m perfectly well now."

"The Khan seems to think you dwell too much on things. Any things in particular?"

"No," he lied, sidestepping the big Roman in his path, moving around him to get into the kitchen. "Is there anything left to eat?"

"You mean, besides Heli’s friend Pinkeyes?"

"Yechhh... he seems to be preparing for burial now. No, I need some real meat. I am hungry as a dog today."

"Then I’m sure we can find a bone for you," Arrus replied good-naturedly. "It would do Saher good to see you looking so much better. He is out tending to the horses."

"So soon? When do we leave?"

"As soon as your highness finishes eating, I suspect," Arrus swept out the door and strode into the yard. "Khan, the young Saheris has recovered nicely. We can leave anytime."

The route east was not a true east, along the Euxine, to where the coastline curved gradually north and ended, the Via Egnatia turned southerly and the local road straightened into a pathway toward the denser forests of eastern Bithynia, northern Galatia and the eastern forests hugging the coasts of Pontus. Unlike their previous travel from Illyricum, their present pace was more leisurely, and from time to time a dozen or so soldiers would drop back out of sight of the party. Saheris noticed this about the third time they changed the guard, and considered asking Saher about it, but feared he would not receive an answer. They were supposed to be going to Ilitrahant, but if they were, they would have stayed on the Via. This much he knew from his exercises in map-making on the road to Constantinople, the Via ran east and west, only loosely following the coast, at least as far as Maduc, and he was told it extended all the way to the borders of Armenia.

At the next change of the guard, realization finally hit him - they were patrolling! He had never seen a guard on patrol before, and with his new wisdom, he surreptitiously observed the comings and goings of the guard, and the whispered report made by their chief to Saher as he moved forward into formation and then back after giving his report. After several iterations of this proceeding, Saheris put his heel to his horse and trotted up next to Saher to pose his question.

"Why are the soldiers on patrol?" he said.

"This is not safe territory, Saheris. You should know that the countryside is just now learning that my army will be marching soon. Not all the soldiers on the road can be assumed to be friendly." Saheris regarded the Khan for a long moment. He was not satisfied; but something told him there was more to this patrol than Saher’s quick explanation indicated.

He let his horse slacken its pace so that he moved back to his former position beside his brother and Isolt, the ever-present soldier-nursemaid Sahelis had adopted. He had no friend such as Sahelis had in Isolt, the young soldier had very nearly adopted Heli as his younger brother, and Saheris felt a sense of loneliness and jealousy at how the younger boy clung to him. Isolt was friendlier than Saheris, and bigger, and stronger, so it was natural that Sahelis would look up to him with more devotion than he did Saheris. That did not make him feel any better, however. He could have that type of friend in Arrus, but Arrus was always teasing him, and seemed always to know far too much about what was going on in Saheris’ mind - and he didn’t like that. Arrus was far too keen a soldier to be easily led or distracted, and Saheris had much to keep to himself, lately.

At their billet, the first night out from Euxis, Saher put Saheris in a separate room once again, without explanation. He appeared to be still concerned about the possibility of contagion, though Saheris rode well all day with no sign of exhaustion, and Sahelis did not show any symptoms of catching the fever. Heli was placed in a room with his ever-present guardian, Isolt, and Saheris found himself once again alone in a small room near the head of the stone stairwell in their modest billet. When alone, he unwrapped a lengthy pack containing his clothes, which he had packed himself. It had not been disturbed. From it, he withdrew Tanzin's sword, and placed it for some time on the bed. At length, he rewrapped it carefully, after curing the blade with oil he had taken from the supplies in the stables, and dropped it carefully out his window, as he had done in Euxis. He looked down into the darkness for long minutes, and then retired for the night.

The quiet of the empty room disturbed him. From his earliest memory, Saheris had fallen asleep to the comforting noises of his younger brother always beside him, and the soft bulk of his little body huddled nearby. Now in a day and a night, with the onset of his fever, that presence was removed, and the silence of the empty bed provoked him again and again to wakefulness.

At this latest awakening, he sat up for what seemed an hour before slipping from the unfamiliar bed and following the stairs down in search of the cool night air.

The sound of the sea had grown so distant it was completely covered by the accumulated noise of the thickening forest. Soon, they would enter the frontier of Galatia, yet another country he had never seen, working their way toward the advancing army of Saher’s new allies, the Ugars. There, they would train with Saher’s troops until ready to march into eastern Galatia to meet the Avars.

He leaned his forehead against the cool stone lintel, and took a deep breath. Here, the brooding presence of the forest enclosed him in a dark embrace, and seemed to afford him some safety he had not felt by the sea. He was at home in the woods. Surely in these dense thickets, protected by the Khan’s patrols, the black-haired murderess could not find him!

He left the house, and wandered a short distance into the road that led back and upward toward the Via. This was too rural a place to be called a town; he knew that somewhere a short distance to the south there was a crossroads and a sign marking a garrison now abandoned by the mighty Roman troops of a now-dead emperor.

A night bird called and noisily took wing. He glanced up, eyes drawn by a movement half-unseen, and more rapidly than he could follow with his eye, a figure appeared before him, barring his path.

"I know who you are, Saheris El Maduc," hissed a terrifyingly familiar voice. Saheris, arrested mid-stride, made as though to turn, when the figure, dressed in a dark cloak and trousers, advanced upon him at an impossible speed. "And you know me as well, don’t you?"

The voice came back to him as though from a nightmare, half-recognized; there was something different in its quality – lower, huskier, as though deliberately disguised, or hoarse from shouting.

"The woman in the cave," he whispered, his words escaping from him as a gasp.

"Ares has punished me by changing me into the form of a woman, but I am no less a soldier for that!" she snapped, drawing from its scabbard a long and deadly blade, raising it as though to cut him down. "And you are now my prisoner, Saheris El Maduc." With this, she seized him bodily in one arm, and with the other, she placed the sharp edge of the blade against his exposed throat, hissing intimately into his ear. "If you call out, your life will flee from you more quickly than a guard could come to your aid. So do not cry out. My sword is thirsty and has not yet drunk."

Numb with panic, Saheris found himself absurdly concentrating upon the smells now assailing his nostrils; the thick, cloying odor of woodsmoke and the tang of sweat from her clothes, and from her boots, the musky reek of horse dung. Horses! This thought brought a new flood of panic through Saheris as his captor carried him, blade still poised, into the inky darkness, and away from the safety of the small house. If she has a horse, she can take him away quickly, and the Khan might never find him!

Then, a part of his mind grew cool with reason, and his awareness grew keen: unless he could find a means to escape her, he would shortly die.

She carried him a good distance before stopping to catch her breath in gasps, and as she leaned against a tree near the path, she loosed her hold upon him slightly. This was an opportunity. "Lady," he ventured. "Lady, what is it you want of me?"

"Lady!" she snorted, her voice either amused or disgusted, he could not tell. "That’s a fine word. Here, sit down." She released him suddenly from her grasp, holding up the sword, and sent him sprawling onto the ground before her. "And if you flee, I will run you clean through!" Saheris did not flee.

"Lady I do appear, though less so in the clothes of your Roman friend. I daresay, he found himself missing some provisions when he returned to his camp. You may not call me Lady, you may call me Shar, for that is the proper title for princes of the Alan tribes." She paused, awaiting a reply.

Saheris nodded meekly. "What do you wish of me, Shar?" he addressed her by the new title – she seemed easily flattered by such simple obedience. She smiled at the words.

"Much better," she said, relaxing her posture against the tree, sliding down to a squatting position, as a soldier does before a campfire. She rested the sword lightly against the instep of her boot – he recognized the gesture, but could not place it. It reminded him of someone, but he could not remember whom.

"What do I wish, let me think, what don’t I wish? Well first –" she straightened up to a standing position, slapping the side of the blade against the inside of her boot with a loud whack, which made Saheris start. "What I wish most is the life of my enemy, the Khan Saher. Can you deliver him to me?" She pointed the sword directly at Saheris’ face. Frightened back into silence, he said nothing.

She continued as though she had not noticed his silence, or as though he were not there. "No, I think not. He is very powerful, this Khan. And he is always attended by his loathsome Greeks, his traitor Romans, and now his smelly Ugar herdsmen! How could a single swordsman stand against such a force?"

Again, Saheris did not reply; again, she continued as though in comfortable dialogue, reasoning with herself as with another, unseen person. "One could not. One can only strike at him indirectly, wounding him through others he holds dear. Perhaps an abduction, holding the prisoner for ransom, to force him to come forward in personal combat?"

At this last musing, Saheris abandoned all cunning and imposture, and cut through Tanzin’s reverie. "The Khan Saher would never attack a woman!" Shocked by his own forwardness in replying so, he drew his legs up toward his chest, bracing himself in anticipation of the death blow that he was sure would follow.

It did not come. "I fear you are greatly mistaken, child," she said calmly. "Oh yes, you could not be more mistaken." She appeared suddenly sober, shaken briefly from her solitary rambling to focus upon Saheris once again. "I have seen him with my own eyes murder a woman holding a newborn in her arms."

Saheris was so stunned by her words that he forgot his fear completely. "This cannot be!" he cried, nearly rising to his feet in indignation. Tanzin gazed at him more closely, her face sober to the point of sadness.

"Horrible, I know. Yet, you need only to ask him. He will not deny it. Such is the conscience of this monster, he sleeps undisturbed with this crime upon his head. And someone must pay. Someone must."

Saher fought the sudden urge to cover his ears with his hands to block out the stream of unbelievable words uttered so calmly and with such gravity. I must remember all she says are lies, he told himself wildly. How could they possibly be true? He looked up from his own reverie at the woman, who now stood still, listening for some sound he could not perceive.

"You are a cunning child. How easily you draw me into talk, so that you may delay me in my task. Be quiet now, or I will cut out your tongue!" She drew from her waist a thong of leather – her belt. Drawing his hands behind him, she lashed his wrists together tightly. "Now you walk ahead of me. Follow this path. Do not run, but keep a good pace. We must get far from here, the Khan has patrols out every hour."

A curse came to Saheris’ lips, but he bit it back, intimidated further by being bound. His fingers were quickly going numb, and he could not feel to touch his hands together. He kept moving them, working to loosen the knot and free himself, as she pushed him ahead of her into the darkness. "Now march, prisoner!" she growled, and then fell silent.

An endless time passed, in which Saheris seemed sensible only of the increasing pain in his wrists and the ache of his tiring legs. He stumbled once, and was roughly jerked back upward by the thong holding his wrists behind him. The second time he stumbled, she jabbed the point of the sword against his throat once again. "If you cannot go further, I will have to finish you here," she said resignedly, almost sadly. "It is your choice." Saheris struggled to his feet, the pain of overexertion lancing up through his calves. They resumed their march without comment. They went through areas of underbrush and trees, and occasionally the trees diminished into open clearings hemmed in by woods. He tried again and again to get his bearings, and counted three clearings and three dense copses that they marched through.

Abruptly, she yanked back on the thong to halt him. "We are near. Shh. Be still. There is the sound of water... yes." She pulled him off the path to the left, and took the lead, dragging him stumbling behind her, almost screaming aloud from the agony that lanced through his arms as they twisted about behind him. Fortunately, the mad dash through the underbrush ended as quickly as it started, and he found himself at the doorway of a tiny building, built somewhat like the outbuilding to a barracks. She pushed him roughly inside, and took up a lamp.

"Now let us see what we have caught for our dinner," she mused to herself, firing the lamp quickly.

The light came up starkly, and threw her dirt-streaked face into sudden relief. She looked more like a starved girl than a swordswoman in this thin light, hair full of grime, her forehead a mass of streaks and mats of tangled hair. She might not have appeared to be the same person, except for how closely Saheris had seen that face in the lamplight of the cave at Euxis. It was the same woman, though clearly lined and dirty from exertion and travel. Perhaps that gave him an opportunity, he thought, the calm flow of reason returning to him now that he had a brief chance to rest.

She held the lamp close to his face. "Not a bad looking boy, for all that you are related to the Khan. At least you do not have his weak eyes. That is his failing, those weak cow-eyes. Now there’s a fierceness in your eyes, that is much, much better. Now stand up. Let me see the rest of you. Not very big are you? You have a ways to go before you are ready to fight. You will be trained for a soldier, like as not. You’ll have to eat a lot more before you have the meat to be a soldier. And not much good to a woman as yet." If he were not already exhausted, and shocked beyond all ability to respond, Saheris might have reacted to what came next. The grime-covered woman raised her sword and tore his tunic, slicing it lengthwise from his shoulders, where it fell onto the ground, leaving him naked. Fighting the urge to fall back or to cover himself, he stood fast, and glared indignantly at his captor.

"Yes, much too young to be any good to a woman. You’ve never had a woman, then?"

Saheris did not reply. The cool night air had leapt upon his skin, and gooseflesh rose upon him everywhere at once. He began to shiver, and the shivering worsened until he could hardly keep his feet from the quaking of his limbs. The eyes of the woman Tanzin bore down upon him, and he felt for the first time in this long ordeal, utterly helpless.

"What do I wish?" she said, bringing herself back to Saheris’ original provocative question. "Ah, what I wish," she repeated, taking a seat on a small chair next to the lamp. "Please, take a seat, are you cold?"

Again, he did not reply.

"You look cold. I’m sure I have something here - ah yes. Pris, you never forget the comforts, that is what I could always count on about you - the comforts." She picked up from a pile of goods nearby a small wool blanket , and tossed it toward Saheris. It fell at his feet. He knelt to grasp at it with his bound hands, and as she watched him struggle, she said "Well, since we have arrived, I suppose I could loose you now. But if you try to run... well, you know what I would have to do." She reached toward him lazily with the sword, and with one deft cut, sliced easily through two thicknesses of leather. The blade was deathly sharp, and she was demonstrating it to him this way. His hands were suddenly free, and just as suddenly, wracked with pain as the blood worked its way back into his fingers. He rubbed them together, tears springing unbidden to his eyes from the agony that assailed him.

"What I would wish," she continued, ignoring the child huddled in the blanket, desperately chafing his wrists, "is a woman."

Silence fell between them. Saheris, barely listening, thought he had misheard.

"I know what you must be thinking. But I am not as I appear. This form is only the curse I suffer, my true self is that of Shar Tanzin, prince of Byblos! In the press of battle, I often have need of comfort. Yes, that is what I would wish..." her voice trailed off strangely, and Saheris glanced up from his labor, the feeling now gradually returning to his hands. She had turned partly away, setting the sword aside, and was rubbing her hands along the inside of her arms, pulling the sleeves of the tunic up over the bare flesh as though cold. She seemed entranced. Saheris watched her warily, gauging the distance from her now-occupied hands to the forgotten sword, and the distance between himself and the doorway. He probably would not make it, but he would never forgive himself for passing up the opportunity.

Tanzin was now pulling at the unfamiliar clasps of the Roman’s stolen tunic, her wandering fingers exploring the flesh beneath as she seemed to writhe in the chair. A strange moan, a sound he remembered well from the cave, escaped her lips. He ran.

To his own surprise, he gained the entrance, cleared the doorway and was half a dozen paces from the concealing underbrush when her hands closed upon him and her voice hissed once again in his ear. To his amazement, her words were not angry but coy.

"You do not need to be shy, child. I know it must be confusing at first to see a woman in the throes of passion, but it is all part of life you will come to know, if the monster Saher does not have you slaughtered in battle before you take your first woman."

To have been so close to his escape and failed, Saheris found himself falling into resignation; there seemed to be no escaping from the horrible fantasy to which he was subjected. What did he care for her passion? A cold rage began to fill his belly, and boil upward into his throat, vile tasting as though he were about to vomit. He hated her; he hated everything about her, her narrow, dirty face, her ill-fitting man’s clothes, her deadly sword, everything about her he loathed until it overfilled him. He squeezed his eyes shut as her hands clenched down on his naked shoulders, now shivering again as he lay exposed to the night air. His loathing rose up in him like bile.

Resigned, he did not resist as she pulled him back into the lamplight, where she pressed him down onto the floor. There she knelt, tunic now completely undone, and in the play of shadow and lamplight he watched her slip the tunic from her shoulders to reveal her breasts, heaving with each ragged breath. In the center of his loathing he felt a sharp pang of desire, the return of the feverish confusion that had first attacked him in the cave when the Roman had suddenly unclothed her and revealed her naked to his watching eyes. Following his gaze, she smiled knowingly, and took his hand. A large, red welt lay across the wrist, and she brushed her lips against it.

"I didn’t mean that," she said softly. "Would you forgive me for that? I could not trust you not to escape, as you see. And you did try to escape after all. Do I need to tie you again?"

Unwilling to trust himself to speech, Saheris shook his head. She drew his hand toward her, and placed it over her breast, manipulating his fingers together to pinch the nipple between them. "Ah, perhaps you are not so useless." Eager now, she took his other hand and placed it upon the other breast, pressing his hands against her hardening flesh. A sigh escaped her.

A torrent of sensation raged through his body as he felt this uncanny flesh that seemed to change and grow hard beneath his fingers. Half unclothed, Tanzin writhed against him, still clutching both of his hands, making it impossible for him to pull away. A jolt shook him bodily, and sent a great pressure down between his thighs, where he felt the sudden shock as his flesh grew rigid. All of a moment, from the touch of his hands upon her breasts, his entire being ached with a new, uncontrollable want.

Caught up in her own sensations, she did not notice his hands fall away as she released them, and she fell slowly back upon the floor in the lamplight to touch herself, moaning with a private desire unknown to him. Her hands sought a place within her clothing, and she abandoned herself to this new occupation, forgetting him entirely.

Now free and unattended, he found he could not flee. From a fascination born of the flood of desire coursing through his body, he watched the impassioned woman, once so deadly, abandon herself to the movements of her hand between her thighs. She seemed to thrash, eyes closed, unaware of anything about her, and knocked over the lamp, plunging both of them into utter darkness. Even the sudden descent of darkness did not distract her, but the abrupt cessation of the vision broke its uncanny spell upon Saheris.

Keenly aware of the cold, he seized the remnants of his tunic from the floor, and the blanket which still lay beneath his feet, and crept from the building, this time making for the underbrush on the near side of the clearing. He could still hear her soft moans from a distance before the sounds of the night insects, and distance, obscured them. And then, he ran.

It was not until he saw the distant light of the Khan’s patrol that he came to himself and realized that he had been weeping all the while he was running, and that his thighs had grown sticky, as though he had urinated on himself. He wanted nothing more than to throw himself down before the slowly moving horses and raise an alarm, but the thought of his weeping face, his nakedness and his disheveled condition stopped him. He could find his way back unobserved; he did not need help. A deep sense of shame overcame him then, and he drew back into the shadow of the trees as the horses passed.

Shortly, he found the path to the kitchen door, and made his way upstairs, unseen. The night was nearly over.

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