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Chapter 18: Young Soldiers

The campaign into Galatia had made it clear to Saher that it was time to rededicate himself to a military life, and to build up his army once again. While his veterans had remained in top condition, continued exercises and a lack of small campaigns mean that most of the Bithynian army had no field experience whatsoever. Following his return from Galatia, he began a routine of border patrols to northeast Galatia, to northern Illyricum, and south into Pamphylia.

And at long last, Saheris was given into the care of Saher’s master of arms, Wynan, to learn the sword and other weaponry. The boys now lived full time at Maduc, in the quarters formerly belonging to their mother, Sahera, so it was convenient to begin his training there.

The most difficult weapon to master was the sword, and this was where Wynan began with Saheris. And to Saheris’ great surprise, and disappointment, Wynan started the nine-year old, not with a real sword but a foil, a flexible piece of iron with no blade, and which resembled a sword only in its grossest qualities of length and breadth.

The first lesson was an even greater disappointment, for there was no battle practice at all. Wynan merely showed him a series of postures to copy, which he did, although reluctantly. The remainder of the first week was spent with the troops in running, exercising, and mending tack, which task Saheris had already become expert in, having learned from Arrus.

Though mad with impatience, Saheris practiced his postures with the foil, imagining himself holding the deadly blade Sahera had wielded above his head that unforgotten night in Cormorin. When Wynan called for Saheris, he demonstrated his fencing postures to perfection, and the master of arms was very pleased.

"How strong do you think you need to be to wield an actual sword?" Wynan asked Saheris. "Do you think you have the strength?"

"I don’t know," Saheris said. "I think I do." Wynan picked up his sword from where it lay and tossed it, grip first, toward Saheris. He caught the grip, but could not hold it, as its weight bore down against his wrist. The blade twisted slightly and it flipped over onto the ground.

"Pick it up," Wynan said.

Saheris bent down and picked up the sword with his left hand.

"What are you doing?" Wynan demanded. "You used the wrong hand!"

"This hand is stronger," Saheris replied.

"Then you will have to strengthen the right more. Most commanders signal with the left hand and attack with the right."

"Why?" asked Saheris.

"Because the right hand is the normal hand for the sword."

"But what if the left is stronger?" he argued.

"Then you train until the right is just as strong!" Wynan bellowed. Saheris lowered his eyes and held himself in check, transferring the sword to his right hand. It swayed in his weaker grip.

"Your lesson for today is to carry that sword for one hour. Now - hold it up!"

"An hour?" He could hardly hold it up for a minute!

"Yes, that should keep you occupied. How long do you think a soldier must hold a sword in battle – just hold it – not including strokes!"

"Two hours?" Saheris ventured, his wrist aching painfully.

"Ha!" Wynan shouted. "Eight - ten hours! Sometimes from daybreak to sunset, holding a knife, a bow, and a sack of bolts, plus a pack of provisions!"

Saheris sagged. "Then it will be daybreak to sunset," he murmured. Despite the wrenching pain in his right wrist, Saheris did not put down the sword again until called for the midday meal. He set it down carefully, massaging the spasm in his wrist. And when the meal ended, he dutifully raised it again in his right hand. He did not lower it again until sunset.

By then, his entire arm was a solid spasm from shoulder to elbow, from elbow to wrist. But he had done it.

At dinner, Saher joined his sons and asked Saheris about his training.

"My right hand is weaker than my left," he said. "But I am training it. I held a sword all day today."

Saher stopped eating. "Wynan made you hold a sword all day?"

Saheris shook his head. "No, only for an hour. But he said soldiers often have to hold a sword from daybreak to sunset."

"He said that?"

"Yes, father. And if I am to command your army I have to be able to do that."

"At the age of nine?" Saher was amused.

"Why not?"

"Why not? I can’t see it will harm you - much."

The following day, Sahelis followed his brother around, armed with a wooden foil upraised in his right hand in imitation of Saheris’ posture with his sword. They gazed at one another for long minutes, until gradually Sahelis’ grip on his toy weapon faltered, and it dropped from his hand.

"Let yours go, Heri," he said. "I dropped mine, now let yours go."

Saheris shook his head. "I haven’t grown weak yet. You grew weak."

"Let it go!" Heli insisted, reaching toward Saheris’ blade.

"Don’t Heli, you’ll hurt yourself. It is a real sword." Saheris drew the blade away from his brother’s hand, but Heli lunged toward him. Saheris pushed him away, growing angry.

"Let it go! I am not weak!" Heli shrieked, once again lunging across Saheris to grab at the sword in his hand and break his grip.

Saheris did not see how his brother’s hand struck the edge of the blade, or if the reflex of his own arm had caused it to shift, but the air exploded simultaneously with a shower of blood and Sahelis’ high-pitched scream. Saheris dropped the sword, grabbed his brother by the shoulders, and pulled him down. A gush of blood rose like a tide from a garish wound on the back of Heli’s left hand, which twitched with each gush. The child’s screams deafened him. He clamped his hand over the wound and held fast, holding the elbow with the other. "Father!" he shouted. "Arrus! Heli is bleeding! Hurry!"

There was an interminable wait, it seemed, while the terrified boy trembled, sobbing, in his brother’s relentless grip. He dared not slacken his hold, for even holding the hand as hard as possible, fresh blood continued to well up between his fingers. Saheris sat in a slow panic, and waited for help to arrive.

He could not recall who arrived first, but eventually found himself staring incuriously at Heklitis, who was attempting to pry his fingers from the back of Heli’s hand. "It’s all right, you can let go. I have it staunched at the wrist and elbow." Slowly, Heklitis’ words cohered into sense, and Saheris relinquished his rigid grip on Heli’s hand. The younger boy had fainted.

"It runs in the family," he said, his voice weak.

"You saved your brother’s life," Heklitis said. "Now quickly, I have to sew it together before he wakens and begins to scream again."

"I don’t want to watch," Saheris said, rising. Looking down at himself, he saw that he was covered with blood from head to foot. "Better wash," he mumbled. "Are you sure he’ll be all right?" Heklitis nodded, and patted Saheris on the shoulder.

"He grabbed the sword, didn’t he?" Heklitis said, as he threaded his surgeon’s needle.

"Yes."

"It looked that way. Now perhaps he’ll be careful of them. And perhaps you’ll stop taunting him by letting him near real weapons."

Saheris opened his mouth to answer, then closed it. He wandered outside, still dazed, to find the water pump and rinse off the blood now crusting on his skin and clothes. As he rubbed his hands under the stream, the water ran red with gore. He retched once, the vomited his dinner onto the ground.

Saheris’ lessons in weaponry were moved to the main barracks following the accident, and Saheris would ride a mile to where he would meet Wynan each morning. Sahelis’ wound was bound in a bandage that made his hand look like large ball with tiny fingertips protruding. The scar would be impressive, and once the severe pain subsided, he began to take a certain pride in the wound, as though his struggle with Saheris had been an actual duel.

Saher did not discourage Heli’s bragging; to him, it showed a healthy attitude toward his body – while injuries should always be avoided, the results should not be a source of shame. "You just need to learn to battle with your sword, not against it, Heli," he would say. The accident was not an unusual one. Saher’s brother had had lost a finger in his early training; Heli was more fortunate.

Saheris proved to be a superior student at arms. The strength in his right hand and arm grew, as did his confidence, and before a month had passed, he had started work with the bow and spear as well. His precision was uncanny.

Saheris knew how well he pleased his teacher, but it was not the master of arms whose approval he sought; it was Saher’s. After several glowing reports on Saheris’ progress, Saher began to attend some of his lessons, and offer suggestions on technique. The sword was Saher’s preferred weapon; he avoided the bow as much as possible, because he was slow at aiming. As a result, Saher’s battle strategy was to lead a column of mounted archers ahead of his own column, and himself conduct a charge of swordsmen on foot once the lead force had engaged an enemy. Saheris showed no such prejudice against the bow; and took to each weapon as readily as the next. With the additional training, he became equally competent with either arm. In due course, Sahelis began the same training, and by the summer of Saheris’ thirteenth year, the two young soldiers were prepared to enter field training.

Saher had so far not brought either of his sons to his increasingly frequent summer campaigns in the south and east; they summered while Saher was away at Euxis, when the Khan brought his army to battle against the encroaching Gepidae, the Avars, and the Alans, who were once again harrying the borderlands of Pontus and raiding the rural provinces under Saher’s rule.

In one such campaign, Arrus, Saher’s personal guard, was severely wounded in the arm, and was forced into retirement. He returned early in August, to everyone’s surprise, his shoulder bound and plastered. Saher had given Arrus a second career during his convalescence, to serve as a military advisor and tutor to his heirs; for the time was approaching that they would take to the field themselves, and learn to lead a cavalry army.

During his slow recovery, he began their tutelage by taking them on long rides on horseback, into the hills far south of the city, where he showed them how to assess distances and the condition of terrain. After they had completed their observations, they would ride and measure the distance in stadia, take a close look, comparing their distant observations with the closer ones. At distance observation, Sahelis proved superior; his eyesight was very keen, and he could detect movement and objects long before Saheris could.

"You will need Heli to be the scout," Arrus remarked. "He could spot a rabbit before an eagle does."

When Saher returned with his weary army at harvest time, Arrus gave a favorable report. "They should not be held back any longer, they are ready to train with the army."

Saher shook his head. "Must childhood end so soon?" His face, already lined with the weariness of battle, grew sadder at Arrus’ news. "We are perpetually at war, it seems. But I would like them to spend some time with Beshan in the north, he is a very clever general."

"Send them to Maeotis?" Arrus made an unpleasant face.

"Why not?" Saher demanded.

"Do you trust Beshan with your own children?"

"He has served with me now in three campaigns, and is entirely trustworthy. His field command has saved us hundreds of lives against the Syrians just this past month. If there was such a thing as a genius in military matters, it is Beshan."

Before the week ended, Saher dispatched a letter across the Euxine sea to Maeotis, where Beshan had retired for the season, and requested his help in training his children in military matters.

Maduc was once again alive with the victorious return of the army; not all had returned with Saher, a force had been left at Tarsus to handle a situation with some hostages who had claimed rights to landholdings in Pamphylia under the law of Julian. Saher kept ten thousand troops in the area in case the claimants made a plea for military assistance to the Avars to the east or the Alans to the west.

The barracks that had stood empty since the end of spring was being cleaned out, as the soldiers without families moved back in. The streets were busy with talk and the loud scrape of boots.

"Soon, we’ll be in the army," Saheris told his brother, as the two sat on a wall overlooking the barracks. "But we will have our own separate lodging - we won’t have to share with the rest of the soldiers."

"Will I get a sword like yours?" Heli asked, pulling Saheris’ weapon from its sheath and comparing it with his own.

"Not until you’re taller. You have too long a sword, you can’t control it," Saheris told him, pulling the grip gently from his brother’s hand and returning the sword to its sheath. "You have to be more careful," he chided.

"Heri, look down there, it’s Isolt."

"Are you sure?" Saheris could not make out the figure.

"Yes, he’s with someone. Come on, let’s see where they’re going."

"Why?" Saheris wasn’t interested in sneaking through the grasp just to spy on Isolt.

"They might be going to meet their whores," Heli said. "Come on!"

They clambered down from the wall into deep grass, which concealed them completely. Ahead, Heli peered from time to time in the direction the men had gone. If Heli had not had such perfect eyesight, they would have lost the trail of the men completely in the grass. Then, abruptly, Heli held up his hand. "They’ve stopped by that tree. They’re probably going to wait for them there. Let’s see if we can get a better view."

A small knoll rose to their left, covered, with small shrubs, about thirty or forty paces from where the two men now stood. The boys lay flat, and peered out of the bushes, unobserved by the two men below them. The man with Isolt was obviously a soldier, older, with a beard that showed grey here and there. For a few moments they conversed, and then sat together in the shadow of the tree.

"This is genuinely boring, Heli," Saheris said, laying his head down on his arms. "I’m taking a nap. You let me know when the women show up." He closed his eyes.

"I don’t think they’re waiting for the women," Heli said, slapping Saheris on the shoulder. The older boy opened his eyes.

The man had sunk to his knees before Isolt and was loosening the front of his trousers. Isolt put his hands on his shoulders, as though to steady himself. The look on Isolt’s face was beatific; as much was evident from a distance. Saheris pulled on his brother’s arm. "We shouldn’t be watching. Let’s go."

"How come? Sahelis was genuinely surprised.

"Don’t look, Heli. It’s not right." To him, it seemed what they were witnessing was terribly wrong

somehow. "It’s not right for men to - do that to each other."

"Why not?"

"Then watch if you like!" Saheris said angrily, and turned away. "Heklitis explained it all to me. It’s called buggery."

"What is buggery?"

"Where a man uses another man as a woman."

"That sounds painful," Sahelis replied philosophically.

"It probably is, but it doesn’t stop them."

"Stay, Heri, please? I don’t want to be up here alone. What if they catch me watching?"

"Then they’ll strip you and bugger you too. And you’ll get some terrible disease of the bowels."

"Please Heri?" Sahelis hung onto his brother’s arm. "You already know all about it, and I don’t."

"I don’t know all about it, Heklitis explained to me about catamites and why they are a bane."

"What is a bane?"

"Something to stay away from. I’m going," Saheris repeated, and jumped down from the knoll, striding off rapidly in a private fury, back to the house, where he could be alone.

 

 

The moon still hung high in the sky when Saheris woke and sat up. His brother sat on the edge of his bed, observing him quietly. The sight of Sahelis startled him.

"I can’t sleep," he said, seeing Saheris awake.

"Well I can. So let me."

"I need to know something."

"What now? Why can’t it wait until morning?"

"Because it’s keeping me awake."

"Then what is it?"

"Why would men want to screw each other instead of have a wife or a whore?"

"Why don’t you ask Isolt? He would know."

"I couldn’t. Then he would know we saw him."

"Why don’t you ask Isolt to bugger you and see if you like it?"

"But how would I know?" Heli replied seriously. "I haven’t had a girl yet!"

"Maybe you won’t want one after that," Saheris said sarcastically.

"Maybe not," Heli replied. "But I should have a girl first. Besides, you said Heklitis says it causes disease."

"Right."

"So it’s not a good thing."

"Heli, if you’re so curious, go ask Isolt to bugger you, and see if you like it as much as he does! Now go to bed."

Sahelis left with a murmured good night, leaving Saheris wide awake. Secretly, Saheris wondered how he would feel if a man knelt down before him and unfastened his trousers. Would he respond? Did he want to find out?

He decided he did not want to find out. He had his answer, years before, beside a fire in the woods of Cormorin.

To Saheris’ amazement. Sahelis had taken his advice and returned with a report in two short days. They were polishing swords in preparation for their lessons, which were soon to resume once the town had gotten settled and its armory restocked. "So I asked him," he said.

"So you asked who, what?"

"I asked Isolt why he would want a man instead of a woman."

"You did?" Saheris dropped the cloth he was polishing with. "What did he say?"

"Well, first he was embarrassed and didn’t say anything. Then he said if I really wanted to know, he would tell me. So I said I really wanted to know."

"And..."

"And he said it was because he did not feel drawn to women."

"That’s it?"

"That’s all he said."

"Well did he ever try? Did he ever have –"

"Heri, I didn’t ask him."

"Did you ask him to –"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I got the answer to my question," Sahelis said.

"And that satisfies you?"

"Yes. Because I am drawn to women. All the time. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about them. So - that’s that."

"So why were you so curious about Isolt?"

"I just wanted to know. You saw them. I wanted to find out if Isolt felt the same way about men that I do about women."

"You should decide that when you have one."

"That’s what I decided," Heli said. "I’m going to ask Arrus to bring me to his whore. If you want to go, you can go too."

"He won’t."

"Yes he will. He already told me he would."

Saheris was amazed. "Well of course I want to go! But I’m older, so I should go first."

"It was my idea, so I should go first."

"Let’s ask Arrus, and he can decide." They abandoned their task, and went in search of Arrus.

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