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Chapter 2: The Mad Princess

This is how it began.

The room was utterly dark. The Khan, attended by his secretary Suwetus, moved slowly into the room, the Khan leading, feeling along the wall until his hand found the lamp ensconced in the wall. It had been lighted and hastily extinguished, his burning fingers told him.

"Herrada," he spoke in a low voice toward the interior of the room. "I know you have just put out the lamp. Suwetus is with me and no alarm has been sounded. Light the lamp and show yourself."

Silence. With a patience born of long practice, the Khan touched his secretary’s arm, who then withdrew. He closed the door behind him. Once again, silence. A damp, cloying smell began to pervade his senses - he knew this smell, but could not place it.

In a brief moment, she leapt upon him from behind, knife against his throat, legs wrapped about his waist. Her right hand was in his hair, pulling his head back as far as her strength could hold, exposing his throat to the blade. She was immensely strong for her size; she had the strength of the mad.

"Now," she hissed in his ear, "I will trade your life for a promise." His only child breathed noisily into his collar, which grew hot with her rapid breath. She reeked of blood, and the touch of her hand was slick, as she began to lose purchase from her leap upon his back. He took a step, hoping she would lose balance, and the knife bit further into his throat. She had him.

"You’re alone with me now, old man," she whispered.

"And what is this promise so great you would threaten the life of your Khan and father?" he replied calmly, as slowly and deliberately as he could. He waited an eternal moment for her rage to communicate itself through the blade. He knew, since he had taught her at arms, that she could finish him with one strong slash. And if she felt desperate or angry enough, she would, even if it meant her death.

The moment passed, the tension eased; her breath continued unabated in his ear, as though she did not hear him. Darkness solidified around the two of them, standing unmoving, and in the interminable seconds Saher felt a great weariness settle upon him, a sadness that could not be quelled. The beast breathing noisily behind his ear, holding fast to his neck and waist like an eagle upon a rabbit, spoke again.

"When Suwetus returns, send him away."

"What promise –" he repeated – but his words were cut off by a hot stinging in his throat as the blade cut in. He gasped.

"Oh no," she growled. "Do not speak. I’ve heard too many of your words. When Suwetus comes, send him away, or you would be a corpse before dawn!"

He did not reply.

The long delay of his secretary convinced him that Suwetus had done the cautious thing and woke the guards.

"Suwetus is not returning," Saher gasped at last, choked by her gripping hand and gagging against the pressure of the knife.

"You lie," she hissed.

"Wait, you will see. Are you tiring? Aren’t you injured? Surely we can talk."

As if commanded in some curious way by his words, her grip slackened, if only slightly. He pressed on, thinking furiously. "You are afraid, you’re not thinking. Be calm, Herrada, whatever injury you have, I can help you. I can bring Heklitis to give you something."

"That smelly Greek!" she spat in sudden fury, and in the moment of distraction her hand wavered, and Saher grasped both her legs and tumbled her back onto the floor, drawing his sword and shouting to the waiting guards outside. She had forgotten to disarm him.

The door sprang open. Light poured into the room from their lamps, and before them the princess drew back and scuttled toward a bed in the still-darkened corner. She was pretty certain her father would not cut her down, or she would be dead already.

"Strip her," Saher said, rubbing his bleeding throat and seizing a lamp from the wordless Suwetus. "No. Wait. Bring Heklitis, get him to do it." Suwetus left to waken the physician.

Saher took a seat in the now-visible chair near the door, sword in his right hand, balancing it against the inside of his boot, easily at the ready. His two guards took position behind him, opposing his sword hand. For the Khan, these men were more than merely guards, they were messengers, scribes, and retainers; they retained the memory of private conversations they attended, and dictated them to the secretary whenever he was absent, in either Greek or Roman or both.

The Khan’s daughter retreated to the bed, which was dark and wet with blood, though nothing in her manner or movement indicated she was seriously wounded in any way. Was there a body in that bed?

He gave the lamp back to Arrus and gestured for him to approach her. She drew her knife on him as he advanced. He ignored her. She slashed at him from a crouching position, and Arrus spat in her face.

The Khan grinned in spite of his grief, as Sahera exploded in shouting and insults. She could never attack and curse at the same time, as Arrus well knew. Cursing, she was safe to approach. Arrus plucked rapidly through the blood-soaked clothes, shaking his head. No body, no body parts - wait. He held up to the light a bluish, bloody mass for the Khan to see.

"So, you have a child," the Khan said. Where have you put him?"

"It is a female!" she snapped.

"No, it’s not. It is a male. You would never hide a girl child and try to bargain for her life. You would have killed her."

"I did kill her."

"No, you didn’t. Arrus." The guard completed a brief search with the lamp, and then left. Saher did not rise.

Suwetus returned with the young Greek Heklitis. Saher had retained him partly to teach him the language, and partly to minister to his family. Ugar physicians were no better than Arian priests, burning branches and soaking twigs. The Greeks knew medicine best.

"How long since she gave birth?" he asked the doctor. Heklitis advanced cautiously toward the furious girl.

"I would have to.."

"Do it. Cliny, strip her and hold her down."

"You die tonight, old man!" she screamed as the guard tore the bloody robe from her back with a grin of satisfaction, and pinned her arms behind her, bracing one of her legs with his own. She kicked out wildly with a free leg, blood oozing in gluts from her womb and down her thighs as she exerted herself frantically, and splattered wet across the pale face of the Greek.

Heklitis paused, touching the drops on his face with his fingers, and scrutinized them. "An hour, no more, probably less. She still bleeds."

"Do you have your surgery with you?" Saher asked him.

"Yes, Khan."

"Then make her barren. Or kill her. Whichever is easiest. How many men do you need to help you?"

Heklitis lowered his gaze, and for a moment did not speak.

"What is it, man?" Saher demanded.

"Khan, I cannot do either in such darkness."

"Then we shall have light. Cliny will bring more lamps." He gestured with his right hand.

Again Heklitis did not speak, and dropped his gaze once again.

"Well?" Saher’s voice rose in anger. The physician stood silent, the blood from the womb of the Khan’s daughter lay drying on his face like a wound from a sword.

"You won’t kill me, old man!" Sahera shrieked triumphantly. "You need my sons, and they will avenge my death upon you!"

"More than one son then," Saher mused, externally unruffled, but internally at war with himself, fighting against a tide of anger, guilt, and grief. He needed time. How could he give himself time?

"Heklitis, can you tell from the caul if there was more than one infant?"

"Yes, Khan," he replied. A rapid look flew between the two men. Heklitis was lying. Let us hope, Saher thought wildly, that this Greek lies well.

"What do you need to determine this?"

"I will need my surgery, Khan. And some special supplies I must send for."

"Cliny, waken the Greek’s servants, and put them to work."

"Khan," the Greek spoke, this time entreatingly. Again, the doctor was lying. Saher could tell by his voice.

"What this time? You begin to anger me."

"My apologies, Khan; but my servants have traveled with me for 3 nights and have not rested yet. I need to send a day’s ride for my supplies, and it is senseless to wake them before I receive these things."

"You will never take my sons from me, old man! They will cut you to pieces in your bed, and raze your palace to the ground!" Sahera crowed.

Saher exploded at the young man. Even as he gave way to a tirade, he was internally considering the countryside, and the difficulties attendant upon discovering what was most likely an escaping horseman, a possible second person, a midwife, and an infant. And these with an hour’s head start.

"Since you have nothing to do but wait, then, "Saher growled irritably, "then you will clean up my whore daughter and attend to her during the night. Arrus will assist you. If she tries to stab you, you have my leave to kill her. Can you defend yourself?"

Heklitis replied meekly but promptly. "Only if she has no more weapons hidden in the room."

"Then search for them! Arrus, help this helpless Greek." Saher himself made no move to rise or leave the room.

"Leave me, old man!" his daughter screamed again, apparently to gain aid from beyond the walls. She did not know he had cleared the house, and that her retainers were even now being marched by foot back toward Illyricum as prisoners under his own guard. The extra planning had served him well, and his intelligence was accurate – she was ill and confined, and well gone in madness. He had fortuitously arrived within a hour of his grandson’s birth, and was well provisioned to mount a search for him. These were his mountains, and no one could stay on the road for long without being noted, particularly traveling with a midwife and an infant.

"I think I should stay," Saher replied, settling back into the chair as Arrus stripped the bed and searched for weapons, and the no-longer obsequious Heklitis advanced upon the naked beast, now huddled, shivering, in the corner of the room. "I would like to observe how my young physician attends the royal family at the birth of its first heir," he taunted her.

"He can go attend the birth of your new war-horse!" she cried. "He will not touch me!" She swung at the doctor and he expertly dealt a single blow to the side of her head. She fell like a sack, stunned. The Khan rose to his feet instantly, as Heklitis kneeled over the now-still girl.

"Loss of blood," he said matter of factly. "Arrus, will you bring some clean clothes and water? And wake Tethys, my assistant. He will have all of my draughts." Arrus departed. Heklitis took definite charge now, a meek smile on his upturned face as the Khan stood over him and his now-helpless child.

"Can she hear us?" Saher asked him, kneeling to take his daughter’s hand. Tears stood bright in his eyes.

"If she can hear you now, she will remember nothing of it after the draught I give her. She will be asleep for at least a day and a night. She may not remember her labor, or our words. Her state of mind is...extreme. The blow was a kindness to her," he added, apologetically. He worked with scraps of bedclothes to sop up the gouts of blood clinging to her belly and thighs, setting each aside neatly in turn, as they grew foul.

"Can you truly tell from your art if twins were born?"

"No, Khan, unless they each formed separate in the womb, and were born at separate moments. This is very rare among your people. However, within a short time, I can tell if she has borne a child previous to this. If there is another child, it was born previously.

"How do you tell this?"

"By the presence of scars or old wounds of childbirth in the womb or on the surface of her flesh. Or, by an interview with her... husband. He could tell from the feel of her loins before her labor whether she had previously borne a child. Childless women are much different, from a husband’s perspective. But surely you..."

It was the Khan’s turn to drop his gaze from the cold analysis of the Greek doctor, and his inevitable conclusion. Heklitis returned hastily to his task, leaving his inquiry unfinished.

"There are things," the Khan sighed, "I had hoped I would never have to tell you, Heklitis, and tonight, I realize my error. Tell me, how did you know to lie as you did in front of the girl?"

"Oh, that. One thing you have told me many times, Khan, was that the only good your daughter could do you in her present infirmity was to be fertile and to bear a son, to any man. And you would not reward her fulfilling your desire in the way you said, by ordering her death. You would seek out the child and make it yours. Isn’t this true?"

"Yes, it is true," Saher replied contemplatively. He took up a scrap of rag, and dabbed ineffectually at the sweaty brow of his mad child, who moaned weakly from time to time but did not stir.

Arrus arrived with a sleepy, wide-eyed young boy who carried a leather pouch and a pail of water. Arrus himself brought a stack of cloths he had raided from the laundry.

"Childbirth, Tethys," Heklitis said. "But no infant - as yet." The boy set to work, making up the bed to move the unconscious princess. He covered her breasts rapidly with a piece of linen, and smoothed it neatly. Heklitis nodded. Between the two of them, at last, they could impose Greek standards of modesty.

Saher spoke once again as he rose to his feet. "Find out what she has done with the children, Heklitis. And who took them. Tell her you can get them back to her by stealth and that if I don’t find them, I will release her, and that then you can help her to get them back."

"But – "

"Lie through your teeth. You’re very good at it. Tell her anything to get her to talk to you."

"Yes, Khan."

Saher left the room, signaling Arrus to attend him. "They don’t need you."

"Good," the big man said. "If he had not punched her, I would have."

"I appreciate your restraint," the Khan replied. "Now go and find those boys. She would have sent them away from Illyricum. They will be on the Moesian road or in the woods. Hurry, and bring everyone with you."

"Everyone?"

"Yes. And have Cliny go ahead and question the household for a description of the midwife. I want them all in Illyricum by daybreak, exhausted and afraid for their lives. Tell him not to leave them together to plan or to talk to one another. Make it a forced, silent march. Someone will eventually talk."

"The men have only slept two hours, Khan."

"Tell them the one who finds the child will have a thousand denarii from the next tribute, and every man who spends the night on the mountain will receive a bounty of a hundred until the search is done."

"Khan! This will break the treasury!"

"If I don’t name an heir, the treasury will be broken by bribing my enemies to stay out of war. What is the difference?"

"I see your point."

"Go - we can drink over it tomorrow in Illyricum, and count our debts. When all of us have slept." He gestured toward the room behind them.

"Yes, Khan." Arrus made a barely perceptible bow, an atavism from his days in the Roman military. He turned to go, and then stopped.

"One more thing, Khan."

"What?" Saher had already dismissed him.

"If you had told me to kill her, I would have done it."

"That’s why I didn’t tell you," Saher replied.

"Right. I should have known that." He bowed again, a slight movement of the head and shoulders, and was gone.




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