Munduk El Beshan
The trip north
across the Euxine Sea took two days under a fair south wind. Had the weather
been foul, they would have kept near shore and proceeded northwest, in
case the storms drove them back to land; but the fresh breeze kept up
and headed them straight toward Maeotis. Sailing did not agree with Saheris,
but he had no intention of showing it to the crew, or to Arrus, who he
feared would find in his seasickness a new source of amusement. Arrus,
for his part, enjoyed standing on the deck by the hour, wind full in his
face, watching the misty horizon receding. Sahelis, too, had recovered
from his disappointment in Maduc, and was helping one of the deckhands
mend a net that they would use to catch fish. It was close work; but Sahelis
found such things intriguing, and his assistance made him an instant friend
to the men.
Below, he tossed
restlessly on the thin mat that passed for a bed, tugged gently back and
forth in the tide; above on the deck, the sight of the rhythmically heaving
sea made his stomach churn more forcefully, and he kept his eyes averted
from the restless water. When food was offered him, he refused politely;
the dull pang of hunger was easier to tolerate than the cramping seizure
of nausea. When the fall of night drove Arrus and Sahelis back into the
tiny room they shared belowdeck, Saheris tried to find out what future
awaited them in Munduk El Beshans care, but Arrus was evasive.
"Father says that
we will join him for his spring campaign. Will we be part of Beshans
yawning widely. "That is up to your father and Munduk. Ugars prefer to
be called by their given name, not their surname, Heri."
Is he a great commander, as Father says?" Saheris persisted.
"The Khan thinks
"What do you think?"
Saheris studied Arrus carefully; he had come to trust the old soldiers
opinions; they were rarely offered without soliciting them; and before
Arrus was retired, he had fought two seasons against the Avars and Parthians
alongside Saher and Munduk.
"He is a clever
man; he hates to lose men and horses. He fights always as though he is
outnumbered; and is careful not to waste time or men in foolish moves.
Saher is right to respect him for his cleverness. He is a Khan who fights
to win; but even so, he is a mercenary."
"So what is wrong
with mercenaries?" Saheris pouted. He found it disconcerting that Arrus
disliked Munduk; his words spoke admiration for him, but his expression
showed his prejudice.
not fight for themselves; they fight for gold. If tomorrow the Khan of
the Avars offered him one piece of gold more than the Khan of Asia, then
Munduk would raise arms against us in the next battle."
"But they have
a pact!" Saheris objected.
spat, then stood to check the thin door that separated their cabin from
the rest of the quarters where Munduks crew had begun to gather
for the night. He opened it slightly, then closed it again, apparently
satisfied. "Let me tell you something of pacts. For mercenaries, they
are only as good as the men who make them, and the gold that binds them.
He has not betrayed us as yet, but that is no guarantee that he wont.
Munduk knows too much of the Khans feelings toward Constantinople
and Arcadius, and this makes him dangerous to us if he were paid to oppose
Saheris had nothing
to say to that; Arrus logic was sound. But he suspected there was
something more to it than that.
"Why else do you
not trust Munduk, Arrus?" Saheris asked.
Arrus sat and
leaned back, and gave Saheris a long, appraising look. Sahelis had long
before fallen asleep, unperturbed by the rocking of the ship beneath him,
and leaned awkwardly against the bulkhead they shared. The child slumped
uncomfortably against Saheris shoulder. "Ugars," he said simply.
"What about the
"They are not
like Bithynians, or Illyrians, Saheris." He sighed. "You will see when
you get to Maeotis. The Ugars - theyre not like Asians."
that Bithynians are barbarians, Arrus," Saheris replied tightly, his chin
rising slightly. "Are Ugars more barbarian than Bithynians?"
Arrus shook his
head, unperturbed by the challenge. "I dont know. You will have
to find out for yourself."
his hand impatiently against the edge of the bed. "Curse you, Arrus, why
cant you answer a simple question? You dont like Munduk because
you think he is a barbarian."
"That is not my
chief reason. I told you my chief reason. He is a mercenary. More, I will
not say. As the next Khan of Asia, you have to make your own decisions
about who your allies are, without being influenced by a lowly subject
like me," he lectured, an edge of sarcasm slipping into his voice.
himself back onto the bed, dislodging his brother from his precarious
position. Sahelis woke briefly, blinked, curled up, and sank back into
slumber. He was exhausted from exposure to the sun and wind, and the exertion
of bending over the nets all afternoon.
"Good night, Khan,"
Arrus said quietly. Saheris did not answer.
The morning of
the second day brought them within sight of the northern shore.
Munduk El Beshan
stood, hand raised to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun on the
water, and squinted into the light. "There, the one coming down now, that
is the older boy," he said to the small man standing beside him.
"That is Saheris
El Maduc?" The small man, Stiven, was Munduks physician and soothsayer.
He drew in a breath, prompting Munduk to turn away from the scene below
momentarily and fix an eye upon him.
"Yes, I am sure,
he is taller than the other by a half a head, it must be the older. So
this is the boy who is to take all Asia, hey?" His tone was light, but
Stiven knew that the prophecy, which had been given him several years
before, was Munduks greatest worry; even greater than the growing
military threat from Byzantium. It was the basis of his ongoing alliance
with Saher, and his offer to bring his heirs to Maeotis for his personal
training; if the gods had marked this child to take his empire, then he
would not be seen to resist. Munduk, typical of his countrymen, was a
pious and deeply superstitious man, and for this reason, his power was
very nearly rivaled by that of the priest, whose omens and prognostications
could spell disaster for him at any time. Today, he was seeing disaster
in the flesh for the first time.
"No, the elder
is the shorter of the two," he mused. "They are of different blood. He
is a Roman!" Stiven sputtered, turning in his confusion to face Munduk.
"How is it the Khan of Bithynia has a bastard Roman for an heir?"
"A Roman? Are
you sure?" Munduk squinted more severely in the light. The boys, with
their party, and the debarking crew, were making their way without haste
onto the wharf, gathering their belongings onto a wagon to bring them
up the hill and into the city where Munduk waited. "Why do you say this?"
"Achis!" the priest
called to his servant. "That boy down there - the one who looks like hes
just puked his guts out - in the black cloak, tell me that is not a Roman."
"He is no whiter
than some of the Alans from Troya or Pontus..." Munduk added. "His mother
was an Alan."
his skin, its his face," Stiven said. "Ive seen a thousand
of them - that jaw, that chin. Thats no Bithynian. Whats more,
it is probably just as obvious to any Roman who saw him, too, manners
The two men fell
silent as they observed Saheris, who had positioned himself in front of
the wagon horse and was raising his hand imperiously, as though to slap
it across its long cheek.
go meet them then," Munduk prompted, and they climbed down the stone stairs
carved into the hill, and made their way slowly to greet the Bithynians.
the private papers of the Khan:
the moment I set foot onto Munduks ship, I had a premonition that
my childhood had ended; and that my long-awaited career as a soldier was
finally at hand. But more than this; just as leaving Illyricum for Maduc
had signaled the first great opening up of the world for me; so the crossing
of Pontus into Palus Maeotis, and a glimpse of greater Asia, and the armies
of Munduk wintering there was the first indication that once again, everything
in my world had changed; I was no longer a coddled, pitied orphan in the
house of the Khan, but a young soldier with his victories still ahead
of him. I was full of fear; I fought with the bile rising in my gut from
the heaving of the ship across the restless water, and I missed my father,
fearing I would not see him again. The presence of Arrus and Sahelis comforted
me but slightly, but I was determined to make no complaint; but to concentrate
all of my attention on the education that awaited me. Saher would not
have sent us away from him if there were not a compelling reason to do
so; I knew from our private conversations, which perhaps even Suwetus
did not share, that Sahers alliance with Munduk and the peoples
to the north were the mainstay of his stratagem against the unpredictable
political situation with the two Empires; and that they had pledged to
stand together against Constantinople and Rome if the former showed aggression
eastward against Pannonia and Scythia, or southward against Asia.
of destiny was acute; even so, I could not have known the bizarre fact
that I had already conquered this unknown country, and that it would be
ceded to me by the power of a superstitious Ugar king; and that my brother
would soon be lost to me for five years, sent in place of Munduks
son as a hostage to Rome.
dug into Saheris ribs for the third time with a now-painful stab
which at last drew his attention away from the disobedient horse staring
angrily back at him from the front of their wagon, and he looked up into
the piercing black gaze of the Ugar king who had borne down on him while
he had occupied himself with the horse. He dropped the hand grasping the
bridle and stood at attention beside Arrus and his brother, suddenly acutely
briefly and raised his arm in greeting. "The sons of my ally, and my comrade
Arrus once again," he said informally.
"Early and well
met, Munduk," Arrus replied. "Saheris and Sahelis El Maduc, none the worse
for your good ship and good wind." Arrus clapped each of the boys on the
shoulder and pushed them forward. "Your new tutor and master at arms,
Munduk, Khan of Pannonia and Scythia." Surprised at the friendly tone
of Arrus greeting, Saheris cast him a sidelong gaze before turning
once again to Munduk.
Though not tall,
Munduk gave the appearance of height and solidity; an imposing and fierce
figure, dressed simply but warmly in some dark fur, with a dark leather
helmet covering most of his head down to the brow. A thin wisp of beard
clung to his chin; a compact man, with a quickness in his features that
marked him as a keen observer. So very different from Saher in appearance,
there was that in him that reminded Saheris of the Khan.
"You are half
a day ahead, and ready for the midday meal," Munduk replied. "Are you
hungry?" At the suggestion of food, Saheris felt his stomach begin to
churn anew, and he felt that he must be once again turning green with
nausea. But he forced himself to nod politely.
to Arrus. "Have they learned to speak as yet?" he chuckled. "Theres
no need to be afraid, my boys, the Ugars arent the rough beasts
your Roman teacher would have you believe we are."
his mouth at last. "We are very grateful to the Khan for his hospitality
to his allies," he mouthed the prepared speech uneasily, but persisted
through it. "We will serve you as faithfully as we do our father the Khan,
and prepare to do battle with him in the spring."
down, as though he had heard none of what was said, and to Saheris
great discomfort, lifted his chin with one leather-gloved hand, and began
to scrutinize his face carefully.
"You have green
eyes." He turned abruptly to Sahelis and performed the same close inspection.
"Hm," he murmured, and then turned briefly back to gaze at Saheris before
turning on his heel, his short fur cloak flapping. "Come then, its
a steep walk, but theres hot food still in the kitchen. He let out
a loud whistle, and from somewhere, a half-dozen men appeared at either
hand. "Bring their trunks. Theyll be staying in my house."
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