2: The Mad Princess
This is how it
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.
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."
a patience born of long practice, the Khan touched his secretarys
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.
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.
returns, send him away."
" 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. Ive 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
"Wait, you will
see. Are you tiring? Arent 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, youre 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
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!"
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 didnt.
Arrus." The guard completed a brief search with the lamp, and then left.
Saher did not rise.
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
"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.
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.
"Then make her
barren. Or kill her. Whichever is easiest. How many men do you need to
his gaze, and for a moment did not speak.
"What is it, man?"
"Khan, I cannot
do either in such darkness."
"Then we shall
have light. Cliny will bring more lamps." He gestured with his right hand.
did not speak, and dropped his gaze once again.
voice rose in anger. The physician stood silent, the blood from the womb
of the Khans daughter lay drying on his face like a wound from a
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?
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."
the Greeks 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."
Khan; but my servants have traveled with me for 3 nights and have not
rested yet. I need to send a days 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.
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 hours 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?"
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 grandsons 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 daughters 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
"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 husbands perspective.
But surely you..."
It was the Khans
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. Isnt 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.
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
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 dont find them, I will release her, and that
then you can help her to get them back."
"Lie through your
teeth. Youre very good at it. Tell her anything to get her to talk
Saher left the
room, signaling Arrus to attend him. "They dont need you."
"Good," the big
man said. "If he had not punched her, I would have."
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."
"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 dont
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,
had already dismissed him.
"If you had told
me to kill her, I would have done it."
I didnt tell you," Saher replied.
I should have known that." He bowed again, a slight movement of the head
and shoulders, and was gone.
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