Chapter 17: The Assassination

Saher faced the prisoner, his calm face did not betray any of the violent feelings that had erupted in his arguments with Heklitis over the previous days and evenings, nor did his gaze waver as he looked upon the sullen, defiant face of his daughter as she stood in chains before him.

"I have come to serve your sentence upon you," he said. "I swore only days ago that I would take the life of the person who had tortured Saheris in the brutal way that you have. But I have been convinced to take a more humane course, so that I might live with myself with some degree of peace from now on."

"There will be no peace for you as long as I breathe," she said. "As I live, I will seek your life, and you will never have a moment of rest."

"Sahera, Heklitis tells me that there is no true madness in you that requires my pity or indulgence, so I will not indulge it in this case. You are a cruel and conscienceless creature, and under other circumstances, your life would be forfeit. But you have left innocent lives in your wake, who could not be benefited by your execution. I will not execute you and leave that mark upon their childhood in this way. My clemency is not an act of mercy to you, but to myself and to them."

"How gracious you become in age," she replied acidly.

"I did not come here to spar with you, Sahera. I came to make a request; and afterwards you will be sent into confinement under Heklitis' care for a further period of time, until he thinks his efforts have proven utterly vain. He has not yet given up in his quest to improve you, though it is my opinion that only death may improve you."

"You wish something of me, after having me chained like a criminal?"

"You are a criminal, and under a commuted sentence of death. And will remain that way, in custody, for the rest of your life, unless you prove to be rehabilitated by Heklitis' arts."

She snorted contemptuously, and did not answer.

"Yes, my request. I wish you to speak with Saheris, and explain to him why you did to him as you did, and to apologize to him for misusing him."

"I will not."

"And why not? He is innocent of any wrongdoing you accuse me of, his only fault lay in having the misfortune to be born to you."

"He is a traitorous child who lacks his own will, and who has been spoiled by your indulgences to the point of waste. He deserves whatever fate befalls him. He was stupid to have fallen into my hands, knowing that I was abroad, and he got exactly what he asked for."

Saher shook his head, the anger he had placed so carefully aside beginning to resurface again under her abrasive arrogance. He no longer could afford to see her as the lovely, graceful, and talented girl-warrior who sat at his knee and poured his water-glass for him in the winter house in Ankra. She had disowned him, she had attacked and disgraced him, and had dishonored him in every way conceivable; he could no longer afford to feel the love he had for her - it had found its place instead with her sons, and there was no longer any affection left within him for her. "No. No child, not even you, deserves the harm served up to them by the revenge of others. It is your great trouble that your mother made you a victim of her war with me, and I will not allow you to make Saheris the victim of that continued war. I insist that you repair what you have done to that child."

"I will die before I do."

"Then he should know, in any case, who this person is he has the misfortune to call his mother. This I cannot conceal from him." Saher left, the guard closing the door behind him. Sahera, once again alone, resumed her seated position on her pallet

Shortly, Saher returned with her eldest son. The bandages holding his shoulders rigid had been removed, and he was wearing a clean tunic that covered all but the highest cuts upon his neck. As they entered the cell, Saheris stood apart from the Khan, so as not to appear to be leaning against him or hiding from her. Sahera's eyes narrowed as they fell upon Saheris.

"So your father says you wish something of me. Something more than your inheritance."

"Yes," Saheris replied. He looked sidelong at the Khan.

"Yes, I wish it, and Saheris wishes it," Saher interrupted. "I wish you to make apology to him for the injuries you inflicted, as they were unjustified and criminal."

She laughed heartlessly. "Criminal to you, perhaps, but heroic to the Caliph of Byblos. And I answer to him, not to you."

"You are not in the Caliphate of Byblos, nor will you ever be," Saher replied rapidly. "You are delaying. Either say what I have requested or do not. I wish for Saheris to hear your answer so that he is not left to wonder for his entire life why his own blood has done him ill."

"I would wish to know the same," she replied equably. "I would wish to know, in fact, why is it that you stabbed my mother to death in my very presence, with an infant in her arms."

"You know why, because I told you when it happened," Saher answered angrily. Saheris turned to the Khan with shock in his eyes.

"Father--" he began to say, and Saher waved him into silence.

"Enough of this baiting. Do you regret what you have done in torturing your innocent child and threatening his life, or do you not?"

"Yes, in fact I do." She fixed her eyes upon the tear-filled eyes of Saheris, who could not avert them from her face. "I regret that I did not cut you to ribbons the moment I thrust you from my womb," she growled. "I regret that I let you live when I could have cut you down and watched you bleed your life into the ground. Is that what you want to know?"

Saheris let his breath hiss from between his teeth in a burst of intense passion at her poisonous outburst. "Yes," he said. "That is what I want to know."

Saher placed his arm protectively upon Saheris' shoulder, but the boy shrank from his touch and stood clear, facing the prisoner as though an armed opponent, hands held out and clenched. "You do not love me."

She laughed in derision.

"You never loved me, and you never loved my brother. And you never loved your own father!"

She shook her head, smiling, as though he was delighting her with his anger.

"You have never loved anyone!" he cried, his voice rising to an incoherent shriek. "I hate you, and I shall never forgive what you have done to your father, and to me, and to my brother!"

"I don't wish to be forgiven," she replied coldly, deliberately taking a seat. "I do not care for the forgiveness of any Bithynian."

Saheris, his anger having reached its peak, turned then to the Khan and buried his face in his robe, weeping.

Sahera's voice continued calmly. "I have no pity on a child who is both a bastard and a traitor. And you are both. If you live to rule, your life will be forfeit in the hands of your enemies. This I promise." Then she grew silent, as though bored, and turned away from her father and son as though they had left the room.

"It is well for you there is still mercy in my heart for those you have injured, Sahera," Saher said, and pulled his weeping child from the room, slamming the door behind him with an air of finality.

And so began Sahera's imprisonment. For the Khan's own convenience, he left a force to attend to her confinement in Cormorin, with relief arriving each third week from Euxis.

By the time Heklitis had situated himself in a tiny house in Cormorin to attend the Khan's daughter, and Saher had gone east to join his exercising troops and arriving mercenary army, two members of the family of Priscus Septimus Bellianus, having learned of her attempt upon Bellianus' life, had discovered Sahera's whereabouts and arranged for the services of an assassin.

On a bright summer morning, two weeks after Saheris' final interview with his mother, Sahera died in extreme pain from poison introduced into her food from the assassin's vial. Heklitis' antidote, though administered properly, was too late to save her.

The message to the Khan preceded Heklitis' arrival by three days, as the army pressed forward toward the place of battle in eastern Galatia. They met at the Khan's tent, after a hard day of training. The Khan was covered with sweat, but looked to be in better health than he had seen in several years. As much as he dreaded arms and death, the intense activity and exercise had relieved his mind of the care that had consumed it over the previous months prior to his decision to imprison Sahera permanently.

A servant brought a large beaker of water for the two men, and Heklitis respectfully took his usual seat. "You have my message?" Heklitis asked.

"Yes," said the Khan, drinking deeply and seating himself.

"And my intelligence?"

"You believe that it was an assassination. Surely not by any one of my servants."

"No, that is very unlikely. A lifetime of imprisonment is a heinous punishment - I would say that there are few enough fanatics among your staff, they were well satisfied with your decision, and would have been protective of the children had you chosen to execute her. They would not have wanted to see her die, for their sake."

"Then who?"

"I suspect she had made another enemy along the way. Poison is far more customary a means of assassination in the Roman empire, I would look there for the answer."

"I will send an inquiry to Arcadius to speak on my behalf to Honorius," Saher said. "While I ask them to mete out justice against her killer, they need not know that this unplanned aggression against me has done me a great favor I could not do for myself."

"If they provide you with the assassin, then what will you do?"

"Execute him, of course. But first, I will thank him. He has taken a great weight from my conscience."

Heklitis regarded the Khan sidelong for a time. "But there is more to it than that."

"Oh, yes. But I have the rest of my life to weep for the daughter I lost. What died in that cell was not my daughter; it was a mockery of her."

Saher called his servant, who stood outside the tent so as to give the Khan privacy with his doctor. "Send Suwetus, I wish to write to Constantinople."

 The combined armies of Saher and Munduk El Beshan closed with a force of five thousand Avars on rough terrain in northeast Galatia, just south of the Halys river, which they had forded the previous afternoon. As Saher watched the dust rise from the hooves of the first wave of soldiers, he felt his pulse slowing with a palpable relief; the Avar army numbered half of what they had expected. "I must remember," he counseled himself, "that even today, men will die." He pushed his horse forward with his heels to lead his column into attack.

At full gallop, the Bithynian columns let fly with their saddlebows. On the rocky turf south of the Halys, they were near the volcanic badlands of Cappadocia, where mounted combat often proved impossible, yet Saher’s army remained mounted until they touched the enemy’s lines. The air sang with the release of thousands of bolts from all around him, and sank into the backs and flanks of the Avar horses, and the chests of the advancing spearmen. Horses bolted, maddened with pain, throwing their masters down among the churning hooves. Before Saher’s column, gaps grew in the enemy lines as the Avars fell.

About him, dust flew up from the hard landing of an enemy spear near the hooves of his mount, and he reared; another spear threw a sudden cloud of dirt up several yards ahead; but too few of the heavy weapons found their targets this far away; and they were too few; the Bithynians’ arrows flew too rapidly, out of reach of the slower, heavier spears, and within an hour, an Avar retreat was imminent.

Saher led his column to circle back behind as the remainder of his army began a rush in pursuit, and signaled for a flank of recruits to advance. As the Avar front crumbled, it was time to give the less experienced a taste of battle, to strike against the retreating line.

By early afternoon, the main Avar force had retreated beyond a large hill to the southeast, and established a perimeter on high ground. But despite repeated skirmishes by Saher’s cavalry upon the perimeter, the Avar chieftain did not mount a counter-attack; they had retired.

It was nearly time to parley.

Beshan had, by agreement, kept most of his own cavalry, as well as his foot archers, back from the initial battle. His was a mercenary interest, to provide an extra measure of security should Saher not withstand the Avars with the small army he had brought. So far, there was no need to engage Beshan’s men.

Saher reconnoitered with Beshan after retiring his army for the day. "What do you make of this?" he asked the Ugar chief.

"I do not think you have seen his main force," Beshan commented, waving a command to a scout to advance along the eastern verge of the plain. "I am sending one of my men to scout the south, where I think we will find another army advancing."

"Then this battle was merely to gain some time for the main force?" Saher asked.

"Possibly. Or they want you to think that, and hesitate."

"In any case, it would seem to be time to talk, to see what we can learn."

Beshan threw up his hands. "Talk, then! The more you talk, the less the number of my wounded. It is all the same to me."

Saher assembled his guard. "Do you wish to be known to them or unknown?" he queried Beshan.

"It matters not," he replied. "Whatever gives you greatest advantage." Saher kicked his mount to a canter, and his standard bearer raised a yellow flag as they advanced on the Avar perimeter.

A tight squad of grim-faced swordsmen greeted him in Syriac. He hailed them in their own language. "I will speak with your Khan," Saher said. "I wish to know if he will retreat, or if he will fight for the land between the Halys and the borders of Armenia."

"You make no claim to Armenia?" the foremost of the swordsmen replied.

"My border is the eastern verge of Caucasus, claimed by the Armenian tribes. Your army has invaded my lands. Do you speak for your Khan?"

"I am the chieftain of the Avars," the man replied. "We occupy this land now. "I am Kunin." He raised is sword in a sort of rough greeting toward Saher.

"I am Saher El Maduc, Khan of Bithynia and governor of the Imperial provinces of Galatia and Cappadocia by the grace of Arcadius and his father Theodosius, emperor of Eastern Rome."

"Put up, Saher El Maduc. I will speak with you."

Saher’s guard dismounted, and drove a stake for the yellow standard on the Avar line, to signal a truce. Once this was done, Saher dismounted, and gave over his reins to his attendant, relaxing palpably as Kunin turned his back and preceded him into the hastily-made camp. Kunin waved toward his waiting attendants, who quickly brought wine for the enemy leader and their chief.

Kunin took a large cup from his servant, who then turned and offered another of equal size to Saher. He took it and sipped briefly at the strong Asian wine.

"Saher El Maduc," Kunin began without ceremony, "My small army is not a match for twelve thousand excellent Bithynian archers." He smiled tightly, and took a draught of his cup. "We are lost in a contest of this kind."

Saher ignored Kunin’s guess at the number of his army. "I see no archers in your lines," he agreed. "Only spearmen."

Kunin nodded. "Bows are not our sort of weapon. We are mountain people. They are quite a marvel, though." Kunin was hinting to inspect Saher’s bow. Saher complied; Kunin could easily have obtained one from the battlefield if he were determined; there was no reason to refuse him. "And how many bolts can one of your excellent archers let fly in a single rush?"

"Depending upon his skill, sixty to eighty," Saher replied. "But it is difficult to do more than injure a man with a bow - they are meant to wound at distance, and can only kill at closer range."

Kunin nodded with deep interest, returning the bow to Saher. "Heavier than it looks, too." Saher placed it back on the harness of his horse’s saddle.

"You did not ask me here to talk of bows and archers," Saher remarked. The Avar chieftain smiled, and nodded.

"True, true, but they fascinate me. I am always interested in new things and new ways."

"And what more are you interested in?" Saher asked, taking another brief, polite sip at his cup.

"Well, well, you are a king of serious intentions, and not easily distracted," Kunin replied, somewhat more soberly. "You wish us to retreat to the verges of Armenia."

Saher smiled in turn. "Yes, I believe you understand me."

"There is a problem for my people in that case," Kunin replied, fixing his gaze upon the back of his hands as though studying them for some obscure sign. He then looked up again at Saher. "The Parthians wish us to remain to the west of this same verge. And we cannot at the same time do both."

"Perhaps they fail to understand your difficulty," Saher said. "Do they believe they can freely annex parts of Rome’s empire because they wish to expand into an area they believe to be poorly defended?"

"Annex?" Kunin’s face betrayed a look of hurt. "I don’t believe they would call it an annexation. Perhaps more of a repatriation. There is much open land here in Galatia, much more arable than the mountains to the east."

"With Galatians upon it," Saher added. "Galatians who have appealed to their provincial governor to run off the Avar army plundering their grain and slaughtering their sheep."

Kunin’s expression gradually hardened. "You expect a full withdrawal then."

Saher’s smile was cold. "You would, of course, have time to withdraw under truce, without hostilities."

"And what time might be granted for this withdrawal?" Kunin asked, eyes narrowing.

"I think one week would be plenty of time," Saher replied rapidly.

"One week!" Kunin was indignant. He paced briefly. His agitation was evident.

"That would be plenty of time for all troops you have billeted in the borders of Galatia. You would not, in this case, have any armies in Cappadocia or Syria..." Saher trailed off, watching Kunin’s expression closely. "Those, too, would have to be withdrawn."

Kunin said nothing.

Saher pressed on. "Of course, under the terms of a comprehensive peace, I might consider safe passage from troops from these outlying provinces to move east for up to fifteen days before engaging them."

"I will need to consider," Kunin replied at length.

"Is a night enough time for you to consider?" Saher replied immediately. "Longer than this night I could not wait for an answer."

"You shall have your answer by daybreak," Kunin grumbled, and waited for Saher to rise. Saher took one more leisurely sip on his wine, and handed the cup to Kunin’s waiting servant, then rose slowly.

"You may wish to take into account that my terms may not remain as generous if my army engages yours again,"

"Oh?" Kunin’s brows rose. "How so?"

Saher shrugged. "I will consider. Tomorrow, then."

"Tomorrow," Kunin repeated. Saher signaled to his guard. The standard bearer took up the flag, then joined their rear. They rode at a gallop north to the Bithynian camp.

Beshan’s man had not yet returned by the time the army set to their meal. As the two chiefs sat, Saher’s captain, Arianius, brought him a report of casualties; ten dead and fifty wounded of their own; two hundred dead and three hundred captured of the Avars, and at least five hundred wounded. Recruits still walked the battlefield, retrieving bolts and Avar spears.

"In a three-hour battle," Beshan observed. "I am impressed. And on such poor turf! Your soldiers were quite smart in training, but are even better on the field. That chieftain must know he cannot stand against you a second day. Did you tell him you had an army in reserve?"

"No," said Saher. "His was not a serious parley. He means to delay me, and fight when his flank arrives."

"Just so," Beshan nodded.

"Perhaps your man will be able to tell from which direction they come, and what distance they now stand."

"I say east," Beshan said with finality. "Look at the position of their camp. That is not accidental. There is a road leading from the east of that hill up to the plateau at Hyges, my secretary says. They would likely be supplied from that road. His troops will come from there."

Saher nodded. "I have given him until daybreak to give answer on a truce. I think by daybreak we should have our columns on that road moving east."

They sent three thousand of Beshan’s men in small parties, throughout the night, along the eastern edge of the plain, to reduce the chance of detection as they clambered up the ridge toward the eastern road to Hyges. During the night, Beshan’s scout returned, and reported twenty-five hundred to three thousand mounted men, and at least as many foot soldiers some miles behind. They were still at least ten miles east by the time the Ugars were all in position.

Dawn arrived too soon; it was time to meet Kunin. Saher rode once again toward the perimeter, this time tossing the flag before Kunin’s horse without dismounting.

"Your answer, Kunin?" Saher said, forcing a half-smile onto his face.

"You are impatient, Saher El Maduc." I wait for word from my adversaries, my messenger has been on the road all night."

Saher calmed his nervous horse. "You are delaying," he said flatly. "I think you are waiting for reinforcements from the east. There is no messenger on the road."

Kunin did not flinch as he peered up at Saher. "You think I would talk truce on those terms?"

"If it suited you," Saher replied. "The time for talk is over. Your answer."

"My army will defend its position, Saher El Maduc. And you will die today."

Saher signaled to his army. "No. Today is not my day to die." When Saher raised his hand, the soldiers lying at ambush below the Avar camp came to their feet and raised their bows, and the rider on the eastern road put his whip to his horse to send word to Beshan.

The Bithynians, positioned so closely to strike, clashed quickly with the less-ready Avars, with hand-bows and swords. Though a far more confused form of combat, the sword suited Saher far better than the rapid plunge on horseback. A battle may be easily lost through sheer dispersion of on a fast-moving front of archers. On foot, there was greater control and communication between soldiers, and more chance for negotiation and surrender. The clash of mounted archers was always more costly in men and horses. And on foot, the Bithynians once again pushed the Avars back.

Saher wounded and captured one of Kunin’s commanders, and dragged him from the line. Holding his sword at the Avar’s throat, he barked out his demand. "Will Kunin yield if he is told there is a second army at his back?"

The commander shook his head, eyes bright with pain. "No. He will not believe you. You would have told him before if you had."

"It goes badly for him," Saher insisted. "What will make him yield?"

"Kunin does not yield," the commander cried, his voice bitter. "Why do you think his army is so small? He has lost half his force in a year in Galatia."

Saher shook his head in disbelief. He called a litter to where the prisoner knelt, and his soldiers took the chief away. "He will surrender, eventually," Saher promised him, as the litter was borne away.

Saher moved his soldiers forward, swords already drenched in gore, and cut through the weakening lines of Kunin’s now-desperate army.

Far to the rear, Saher saw men turn. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the pace of the fighting slowed, as groups of Avars disengaged and retreated. Saher signaled for the cavalry to advance to take prisoners as their lines wavered. The Avars were pressed continually east, toward Beshan. Behind the rapidly advancing line, Saher’s recruits dragged away the wounded, and helped the more able to their feet. The fighting had grounded down into a series of local skirmishes.

Saher scanned the hills, watching for Beshan’s sign. Though he had a thousand more horsemen than the enemy, Beshan was still outnumbered. After observing the steady retreat, he signaled for his flank to ride east to join Beshan.

Then the signal came. His ally had engaged the Avars. It was time for Saher to move against Kunin himself. He called for his mount.

The Avar ranks were in disarray all along their line. Corpses lay everywhere, and upon them, the groaning mass of wounded, bristling with Bithynian arrows. It was difficult for Saher to determine whether any coherent ranks remained, as tight knots of Avars held off the harrying Bithynians in diminishing groups of five and six. Any sensible chief would have ordered a retreat or a surrender; instead, the rout of the Avars continued unabated. Kunin’s standard still flew, in the midst of a close crowd of fierce fighting. His head was bloody, but he still sat his horse, sword waving here and there to fend off attackers.

"You are lost, Kunin!" Saher shouted. "I have three thousand horsemen behind you! Half your men are dead! Take my terms, you cursed fool!"

"You will die yet!" the Avar screamed, and from a distance of twenty yards, it seemed the Avar chief had lost his reason. Arrows flew and missed their mark, skittering harmlessly against the dusty ground. Saher pressed his horse forward into the fray, his ranks parting to let him through. Kunin’s guard fell from his horse, an arrow protruding from his neck. As Saher rode toward his stricken enemy, Kunin was unhorsed and lost to view.

"Spare him!" Saher shouted. "He is of some use yet!" Saher’s soldiers dragged Kunin to his feet, blood streaming from his shoulder. His face was grey with dirt. "You don’t understand surrender," he said to the fallen chief. "I would have let you retreat in peace."

Kunin said nothing, his eyes stricken with pain. "Take him," Saher said.

At the sight of their chief’s capture by the Khan, a general retreat began, and Kunin’s remaining commander took horse and rode toward Saher’s position to surrender.

"Will you make terms with me?" he called out to Saher. Saher nodded, tiredly. At last, it was over.

Without the expected reinforcements from the east, the battle was a bloody rout. Two thousand wounded Avars sat, lay, or leaned against their comrades, wounds in various stages of dressing, under the guard of the Bithynians. The remainder of the ruined army retreated further south, and made a meager camp. Saher had taken the Avars’ hill, and waited for news of Beshan.

The battle had ground onward from dawn until noon, and as the day progressed, the sky grew grey and dense with clouds. Storms were frequent in these hills in summer. As the ranks retired to tend the wounded, the rain began, and the torn battlefield quickly filled with mud, washing away the blood on the grass.

Through the rushing sound of water came the sudden thunder of hooves, Beshan’s army, at leisure. They were not in retreat, Saher could see from a distance; but as they got closer he paused in astonishment. Not a casualty rode among them or was carried behind, but to a man, they were smeared from head to toe with black mud.

Beshan rode ahead, as filthy as the rest, and dismissed his chiefs. As he approached Saher, a pink grin became evident beneath the black streaks that obscured his face.

"We sent them running, and chased them ten miles into the mountains!" he cried gleefully, plopping down on the grass next to Saher’s cooking fire.

"And how did you get covered with mire?" Saher asked, aghast at both the sight and the smell of Beshan.

"Oh - that is what sent them running!" Beshan laughed, unable to contain his laughter. "I first tried this against the Goths in Moldova when we were desperately outnumbered. I had all our men smear themselves with mud and leaves, and their horses as well, and rise out of the bog, shrieking like corpses on the march. The Goths dropped their spears and galloped away without a backward look. They had us ten men to one."

Saher shook his head. "That is what you did?"

Beshan sat peacefully, dabbing at his filth-covered face with an equally grimy sleeve. "That’s right. There is a brook about a mile off that road, full of excellent black mud. I provisioned us well. Not a man is lost, unless he has choked on the weeds. It worked just as well with these Avars. Saves all the wear on the horses."

"Beshan, you are an uncanny tactician," Saher remarked, clapping his ally on his mud-soaked shoulder. "But you smell like a bog."

"And you smell like blood and death!" Beshan retorted. "So which is worse? It’s time we both cleaned up."

It took the remainder of the afternoon to transform the bog demons back into a semblance of Munduk’s army, but they were experienced with the stratagem; washing sand and grime from their hair and beards was far superior, in their view, to dressing and stitching and mopping up blood, and the mood in the camp was joyful. The victory, for Saher, could not have been more decisive.

Under the terms of Saher’s peace with the new Avar chieftain, Kunin was executed and replaced. As the Avars withdrew, their prisoners were released in groups to join them as the Avar army began an orderly but rapid retreat east of the Galatian frontier. Saher brought with him two of the leaders of the Avar force as hostages, to be released upon the fulfillment of their treaty.

Within a week, Saher and Beshan moved their armies back out of Galatia, Saher to the west, Beshan to the north to the seaport of Tyassis, to sail toward Maeotis, Beshan’s capital on the northern shore of the Euxine sea.

Beshan had been well paid, and had no casualties from his campaign with Saher. In their agreement, Beshan made it clear that he had no allegiance to Constantinople, but only to Saher, and would fight for him under the same terms if asked. In time, he assured Saher, the Empire would undoubtedly oppose both of them, and they would have to be ready for war with Rome itself.

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