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Chapter 16: The Search

Rain approached with dawn, coloring Saheris’ room in gray. As the wan light filtered through the closed shutter of the upstairs window, he gradually woke to pain. Where his wrists had been chafed by the belt, bruises spread purple across his hands and forearms, nearly to the elbow. He tried to sit, and doing so caused stabbing pains to shoot through his shoulderblades where they had been wrenched on the forced march through the forest.

Had there been a mirror nearby for him to view himself, he would have seen a more garish sight – a score of cuts from the blade of the sword upon his neck and shoulders, which still oozed and pricked his skin as he moved his head. Wide scabs crisscrossed his shoulders where the deadly blade had touched him. Everywhere it had touched, it had left a slight wound, an undeniable script across his body.

It was this confusion of bloody wounds on his neck and shoulders that Heklitis saw first when he entered the room to rouse Saheris for breakfast; he stopped short in the doorway and called immediately for the Khan.

"What has happened to you, Saheris?" he gasped, rushing to the dazed child, bending to examine the sword cuts, picking up each of his hands to examine the welts upon his wrists and the puffy bruises covering his hands and arms.

"Don’t touch me," Saheris mumbled, pulling away from the doctor’s grasp. "Don’t look at me." He turned toward the wall then, and drew himself into a ball, dragging the edge of the rug up over his wounded shoulders.

"This won’t do, child," Heklitis said, sitting down upon the edge of the bed and placing his hand upon Saheris’ shivering back. "I must attend to you. Who has done this?"

Huddled into himself, Saheris did not answer. The words of the doctor seemed to buzz around him like the noise of insects rather than of a man speaking; he did not heed him. Yet, when Heklitis’ hand lighted upon his shoulder, he cried out sharply as a new, violent pang assailed him.

"Saheris, you are not helping yourself this way. You do not want your father to see you this way, do you?"

At the mention of his father, he stirred, and turned toward Heklitis in panic. "Don’t let him see me. Keep him away. He must not see."

"That is not possible," Heklitis said. "Even now he comes. Now you must tell me what happened."

"What is it now?" Saher entered the room in haste, and did not wait for an answer. He leaned over Saheris and spoke to him. "What has happened now?"

He had no choice but to answer the Khan. Slowly, with great caution, Saheris drew himself up as best he could, turned, and faced Saher. The Khan’s face registered shock as he saw what could only be the mark of a sharpened sword upon his grandson’s neck, and the purple flesh of his arms. "He has been tortured," he said, his voice flat.

"Without a doubt. But I don’t know why, or by whom."

"Speak, Saheris! Who did this to you, and where have they gone?"

Saheris closed his eyes, as though the words themselves were blows upon his head. "I - I don’t know," he replied, almost truthfully.

"Are you saying you did not see him?"

He shook his head.

Heklitis interjected. "He must have been carried out, there is no sign of struggle or blood here."

"How many were there?" The Khan persisted, eyes appraising the window ledge and door for signs of the intruder’s passing.

"One, there was one."

"But you saw him?"

"Yes," Saheris replied, almost coherent now. There was a strange relief in the rhythm of Saher’s interrogation.

"Khan, if I may, he should have the wounds cleaned and dressed, and I should give him something to reduce the pain. He must be in very great pain, and his shoulders may be more seriously injured. It is clear he has been bound and dragged."

Saher put his hands to his face then, sagging visibly. "Who can justify tormenting a child in this way? What reason could there be?" He gazed with tear-filled eyes upon the bruised and bloody form of his beloved child. "What else has been done to him? Can you tell?" he turned to Heklitis. "Was he –"

"I do not know as yet, Khan. He has not let me touch him."

"Saheris, let the doctor do what he must do. You are wounded. When you become a soldier you will get used to being tended to - it is just like the aftermath of a battle. Do you hear me? You must treat this as the wounds from a battle..." his voice broke then, betraying the extreme emotion that overcame him.

Saheris finally let Heklitis pull the rug from him, and examine him further. Saher rose and strode to the window. "What kind of man does this?" he repeated to himself. "This man will die, whoever he is."

"He was bound by the hands, and dragged some distance, and cut about the head with a very sharp blade, although not seriously - it looks far worse than it is. He does not appear to have been beaten, but the bruises on his legs and backside show he was thrown down several times. There is the bruise in the form of a hand upon his arm where he was seized. This is the hand of his tormenter," he held Saheris’ left arm toward the light, and Saher leaned close to examine it, placing his own hand nearby.

"That is the mark of a hand?" he asked. "How can that be?"

"It is a small hand, Khan. A youth, or a woman."

Saher fought back the violent urge to seize the boy bodily and shake an answer from him. "Saheris, son, tell me who did this to you."

"I - I do not know."

"What did he look like? Can you tell me that?"

"Khan, I don’t think you are helping matters. Look at him. He is dazed. He needs a draught for his pains, and he needs something put over these cuts. Can we pursue this later?"

Saher, furious with frustration, banged his hand on the windowsill and strode from the room, pausing briefly. "You are right, of course. The man, or youth, or woman -- the beast! -- who has done this to Saheris will die by my hand. This I swear!" He left then, and took the stairs two at a time, and shortly thereafter, the door slammed violently. From the distance of his inner misery, Saheris heard the Khan shouting to his guard, rapidly issuing orders. There was a sudden sound of galloping hooves, and then all grew quiet, except for the subdued sounds nearby of Heklitis carefully dabbing his neck with salve and winding a thin sheet of linen around his shoulder. He closed his eyes as the room grew still again, and the throbbings that assailed him from all around seemed to fade and dim. The draught he had been given had begun to work, and all went gradually grey.

 

The house and camp were quickly cleared of soldiers as Saher sent them into the woods, the town, and down the road in either direction to search for Saheris’ attacker. Heklitis, Isolt, and two others remained with Heli and the restive patient, who slept fitfully. Every smallest movement of his arms in sleep seemed to jar his shoulders and bring him back unwillingly to consciousness. Heklitis had pronounced them dislocated, and bound them carefully to limit his movements. As the day wore on, his wounds appeared to magnify, so that by sundown his entire body felt like a single mass of throbbing agony.

Heklitis’ bromides did not seem to be working; or rather, if they did, the pain without them must have proven intolerable, for Saheris noted little relief from each of the draughts he took. He could barely rest.

At last, when it seemed Heri could no longer lay still to recover, Heklitis allowed Sahelis into the room and left the boys alone. Heli climbed into the bed in his normal manner, and put his arms around his brother.

"Don’t!" Saheris cried, "you’ll kill me!"

"What happened to you? Father told Arrus you were attacked in the forest!"

"My arms were torn from their place. I’m all swaddled up," Saheris grumbled, turning to show his brother the bandages that held his arms rigid to his sides.

"Was it her? Was it the woman of the woods?"

Saheris stared at the innocent, inquiring face looking at him. "Who?"

"The woman of the woods. She didn’t say her name. She came into my room last night – she held a sword!"

Saheris reached out a swathed hand and, despite the pain it caused him, squeezed his brother’s arm tightly.

"What did she say to you?"

"She said ‘where is the other one, where is Saheris?’"

"What did you tell her?"

"I didn’t tell her anything. I thought I was dreaming!"

"You are lying."

"No!" Sahelis cried, pulling away then, his face suddenly red. "You always say that I’m lying! I never said a word to her! Then she was gone! Like a fox. It was her! She was looking for you. She found you, didn’t she?" he pressed, pointing at Saheris’ arms.

"Did you tell Father?"

"Tell him what?"

"About the woman with the sword."

"No – I told you. I thought I dreamed it. Then when Father said you were attacked – I knew. You’ve seen her before, at Euxis."

"How do you know?"

"Because of your dream. She came to you before, didn’t she? What did she want?"

"I don’t know, Heli. But we should not tell anyone."

"Why not?"

"Because - I don’t know why. Just because!"

"But Father is searching for her! He has all the soldiers looking!"

"Then he’ll find her himself."

"We shouldn’t lie, Heri. Father says not to lie."

"I know, but this is different," Saheris said. But his words were wasted on his brother. Sahelis, his dream now confirmed as truth, did not hesitate. "Heri, you are not well. I’m going to tell him."

"You do this and you are not my friend!" Saheris sobbed, his words dissolving into tears.

"I have to." Heli drew himself up with dignity, and left the room. Behind him, Saheris wept on helplessly, not knowing the true reason for his tears, while twilight gathered around him.

 

 

Heklitis left the guards to watch the children, with instructions to attend them personally to prevent a repeat intrusion, and set out south toward the garrison where Saher went to conduct his search. He found Saher seated, alone, in the main room of the unused barracks.

"Khan, Sahelis has just told me of an armed intruder who entered his room during the night seeking Saheris."

"Did he tell you what he looked like?" the Khan said, rising to his feet instantly.

"Yes, Khan. Please, sit. I am grateful to find you alone, I would not have wanted to –"

"Curse you to death, Heklitis!" the Khan shouted. "What did he look like?"

"It was a woman, Khan. I am certain now it was Sahera."

Saher grew abruptly still, and after several moments, moved slowly backward and resumed his seat. He said nothing for a time. Heklitis stood before him patiently in the gathering shadows.

Then Saher raised a hand and wiped it slowly across his face, letting his hand drop once again to his knee. "This curse does not end," he said, his voice now empty of all feeling. He looked up at the doctor then, his words betraying the emotion of sheer helplessness. "I thought you said she only desired my own death. Why Saheris, why now?"

Heklitis lowered his gaze respectfully, embarrassed by the complete helplessness he saw in the Khan’s eyes. "A physician does not always know these things, Khan. But I think that if Sahera had wanted to take his life, he would be dead now. She had another goal."

"Such as –?" Saher gestured impatiently, the color returning slowly to his face as his mind began to work on the problem.

"Such as abduction. If she wished to draw you out, taking Saheris from you would be the most effective way."

"And what else? I can tell by your face there is something more. How much more horrible does this get, Heklitis?"

He shuffled his feet, and spoke again. "There was some evidence of sex, Khan." He held up his hand. "I cannot say if it was prompted by the contact with Sahera, but there was semen upon him, as though he had been aroused and spent."

"But could that have been caused by –"

"Fear? Khan – men, and boys likewise, do not ejaculate from fear – the reaction is exactly opposite. The loss of passion is a reflex to self-protection when threatened. He must have been specifically aroused or seduced in some way. It is possible he may have indulged himself prior to her seizing him, but he is rather too young to have the urge come upon him naturally. When did it begin with you?"

"When my cousin Atridda disrobed and climbed into my bed at the age of twelve!" Saher retorted uncomfortably. "You think she seduced him too, don’t you?"

"I would say, given her personality and her sexual obsessions, it is likely. If she is capable of abducting, binding, and beating him, she is equally capable of –"

"Rape. Well we already know this, don’t we," Saher said flatly, completing the doctor’s inevitable thought. He rose once again and began to pace, his usual occupation when extremely agitated. "So I am to believe that the only child of my begetting is a rapist and kidnapper and a patricide. How do you think I must feel about that?"

"It should make you feel protective toward the children you have adopted. Do you not think there are conditions that are not carried in the blood, and may be otherwise caused? Do you believe you should be powerful in some way to have prevented her course?"

"I don’t know!" cried Saher in frustration. "But for me to think otherwise might drive me mad! There must have been something I could have done."

"Khan, I have tried every herb in the Greek pharmacopeia, and many in the Egyptian as well. I tried drugs that relax, compounds to take away dreams, remedies for subtle poisons that can mimic insanity, such as lead, arsenic, and belladonna. And I even used Hippolytus’ technique of dream interpretation. All of these methods I applied over three years’ time, with very little effect. Denying her wine and controlling her liberties had some effect of appearing to calm her, and little else. Your daughter may be one of those cases of deliberate lunacy."

"What do you mean, ‘deliberate’?"

"She may be one who enjoys her fantasies, because they are preferable to reality. She devotes herself to them in a conscious manner. She could easily be as sound of mind as anyone, and chooses not to be so, because it does not suit her."

"If this is true, Heklitis, then this is the cruelest news of all."

"I believe it is only fair to tell you my own hypothesis. I have spent more time with Sahera than I have ever spent with another patient. And that is my best conclusion. She is brilliantly intelligent and insightful, and she has chosen to seek refuge from the unpleasantness of her mother’s treason and death through a fantasy in which she must seek vengeance upon you."

"Enough now of theory," Saher said brusquely, bringing himself up short mid-pace. "Our task now is to find her. She is a criminal, and must be found and punished."

"Punished?" Heklitis echoed.

"Punished!" he shouted angrily. "Now let us talk about how we can go about finding her."

 

 

It was Heklitis’ notion that she would not give up her plot easily, simply because Saheris had escaped, and he was convinced she would conceal herself until the next opportunity arose. But he was not sure how cautious she might grow in reaction to the day’s intensive search. He suspected two likely methods she would use - stealth, or the riskier method of disguise.

The search had turned up the corpse of a partly-eaten rabbit, a doused campfire, and the pieces of a severed leather belt a mile from the billet. But there was no sign of additional provisions, bedding, or tracks, nor any horse in evidence.

Heklitis stood with the Khan on the kitchen doorstop of the house, with full darkness before them. There was no moon. "To Sahera," he was saying, "stealth and trickery are important. It would satisfy her deeply to hang from a branch a dozen feet above your head, unseen, knowing that your soldiers are seeking her on the road. It gives her a feeling of power, of superiority over her enemy. Even now, she may be listening to my words, and feeling satisfaction because, for this moment, she is the victor."

"And how does knowing this help us?" Saher replied irritably.

"It is likely she is nearby. If you call out, she may hear you. If you say something to provoke a response from her, she may show herself, and be apprehended."

"What should I say?" Saher dropped his voice so that only the doctor could hear him.

"Let me think. You might try telling her that you wish to bargain for Saheris’ life, because you fear for him."

"Bargain for his – are you mad?" Saher grew angry then. "I will not –"

"Khan, I am suggesting this as a ruse. Try to remember that. You must make it sound convincing. Do you think you can sound fearful and distressed? She has a great contempt for you, and any show of weakness in you may cause her to grow overconfident and will draw her out."

"Yes, yes, I can see that," the Khan said. "Let me have a moment. Have they withdrawn?"

"Yes, but there are two men at each side of the house, and two others behind the door."

"Make sure they understand not to move until they see my hand drop. Is that clear? She is as good as I am at detecting movement in darkness, curse the girl. From stop to a dead run. Stealth will not work."

"Yes, I have told them."

"Herrada," Saher called into the darkness, using the name he had called her as a child. "I know you are nearby and watching." Saher tried to make his voice sound strained and broken, pouring back into himself the grief and shock of the morning passed. "You know my men have tracked you and are in despair of finding you."

Silence.

"You have left me no choice, Herrada. I have come to you to plead the cause of Saheris’ life."

The velvet darkness remained impenetrable.

"I need only to know what you want from me in order to spare him from your vengeance."

Still, nothing. Could Heklitis be mistaken? Struck by a thought, Saher drew his sword and threw it down on the ground before him, then advanced slowly with his hands open, to show himself unarmed. "Perhaps this will convince you of my earnestness..." he let his voice waver, as though in fear of moving forward into the darkness toward her without his sword.

Something stood ahead of him, a darker black against the inky darkness. A voice hissed, barely heard above the riotous noise of the night insects.

"Do not call me by that name," she spat, advancing toward him several paces. Saher stopped, both hands still at the level of his waist, unmoving. "You will call me Shar Tanzin, for that is my true name."

Saher did not reply.

"If you wish the life of that weeping, gutless child, you will do as I say," she spoke more loudly.

"Very well, Shar Tanzin," Saher replied politely. "And is that all you require?"

She laughed aloud then, not moving from her refuge in the shadows. "Oh, no. Far more than this, I fear, my Khan. More than you would be willing to sacrifice." The air whistled with a keen sound – she had drawn her blade and brandished it toward Saher’s chest. He felt the air sing in front of him.

"You want to take the life of your father unarmed?" he gasped.

"My father!" she shouted angrily. "You think you are my father? This cannot be! I am the youngest child of the Caliph Teramijin of Byblos. This my mother told me, that she never conceived from your loins, but from the faithful seed of her true husband who served her at Ankra!" A derisive laugh echoed loudly from the stone walls of the little house.

"And you believed her, I see," Saher retorted, his pretense forgotten. "It helps you to see me as an enemy to believe this convenient but absurd lie. You are welcome to it. But you need only to look in a glass to know that you are my child, though your temperament is purely of your mother."

"You lie, old man," she spat, and the air sang as she once again smote the space between them violently with the sword. Saher lowered his hand.

She had barely time to raise the blade and turn toward the assailant to the left of her before Arrus’ flying leap brought her down flat on her back. He dashed her sword-hand against the ground and broke her grip. The tense air exploded then in a fury of Sahera’s curses as she struggled vainly against the immovable bulk of the Roman upon her.

"I rather prefer you in this position," Arrus remarked, catching his breath.

She spat in his face.

"I think that makes us even in saliva," he grinned. "Now what, Khan?"

"Shackle her. And have Didymus find her horse and provisions. And her servant if she has one."

Heklitis stood once again in the doorway, now flanked by Sahelis on the one side and the bandaged Saheris on the other.

"That is her!" Heli cried excitedly as Arrus prodded Sahera across the yard, arms bound behind her. "The woman of the woods!"

"That is your mother," Saher said tiredly.

Saheris collapsed then, and fell to the floor, unconscious.

From the Private Papers of the Khan:

The moment the Khan spoke those four simple words, it seemed that the world had come undone around me. I no longer trusted anything I had previously known. I have asked myself a thousand times, no - more! a hundred of thousands of times -- did I not know that the woman I saw in the cave was the same as the one who appeared in my room only months before? Did I not recognize her voice, her smell, something in the words she spoke? But the more I worried it, the more I tortured my mind, the less certain I was. The memories grew vague in my mind, and it seemed to me that this could not have been the same woman. I, who had spent altogether less than half an evening in total in the presence of this mad creature, each time I had seen her, or felt her presence, or heard her voice – she was so utterly changed, her aspect so reversed from what it had seemed previously, and even in the long morning during I watched Arrus exchanging taunts with her in the hallway as I hid above the stairs the next day, this cursing, malevolent thing appeared to me in yet a new and even more unfamiliar guise that could not be matched against what I had seen, and heard, and felt before. Was I such a poor observer, or had my own extremity of emotions blinded me so that I could not perceive her as I did others? I dared not approach her, for fear of angering the Khan, but more for fear of what she might say to me in front of these others. In truth, my greatest dread was that she would tell them of the incident in the cave, or of that moment in the woods when she had unclothed herself and placed my hands upon her. Did she know, could she see that I had responded? Did it matter? To be entirely honest with myself at last, there was mixed in with my fear and loathing of her, a bright core of passion which forbade me to think of her as my mother, who at some forgotten time had given birth to me and nursed me at that same breast. How could I reconcile the unquenchable torrent of passion she had awakened in me with the hard need of a child for its mother’s love?

I could not. For days, as the Khan argued with Heklitis about what to do with my mother, I watched from a safe hiding place the cold, distant, and unfeeling visage of the woman I both loved and hated. Sahelis, for his own part, was triumphant that his intelligence had led to her capture – he seemed insensible of the bald fact of her identity. It did not seem to matter to him - she was the enemy of the Khan and she was now bound, in his hands, and Sahelis no longer needed to fear the night. How easy it all seemed for him!

Beneath the throbbing pain of the wounds she had inflicted upon me, one unseen wound continued to ache unabated and did not heal, but opened afresh again and again in the form of an intense, recurring dream - the dream of reliving the moment when she took my hands and placed upon her breasts, when the first shudder of passion coursed unchecked through my loins, and the moans of pleasure escaped from her cruel mouth. And each time the dream came upon me, I would waken from it in full darkness, soaked to the skin with sweat and my own spent seed.

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