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 Khans return, somehow mysteriously fled.
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
his mood already going sour from its bright start. "What dreams? I had
a fever, that is all. Im 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
Helis friend Pinkeyes?"
seems to be preparing for burial now. No, I need some real meat. I am
hungry as a dog today."
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
"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
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
"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 Sahers 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 didnt 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
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 Sahers new allies, the Ugars. There, they
would train with Sahers 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 Khans
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
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, dont 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
"Lady!" she snorted,
her voice either amused or disgusted, he could not tell. "Thats
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.
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.
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 dont 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.
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?"
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 Tanzins
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.
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
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 theres 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. Youll 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. Youve 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
"You look cold.
Im 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
"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 Romans 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 mans 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
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.
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 Khans 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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