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Chapter 20: 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 Beshan’s care, but Arrus was evasive.

"Father says that we will join him for his spring campaign. Will we be part of Beshan’s army then?"

Arrus shrugged, yawning widely. "That is up to your father and Munduk. Ugars prefer to be called by their given name, not their surname, Heri."

"Munduk then. Is he a great commander, as Father says?" Saheris persisted.

"The Khan thinks he is."

"What do you think?" Saheris studied Arrus carefully; he had come to trust the old soldier’s 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.

"Mercenaries do 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.

"Pacts!" Arrus spat, then stood to check the thin door that separated their cabin from the rest of the quarters where Munduk’s 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 won’t. Munduk knows too much of the Khan’s feelings toward Constantinople and Arcadius, and this makes him dangerous to us if he were paid to oppose us."

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 Ugars?"

"They are not like Bithynians, or Illyrians, Saheris." He sighed. "You will see when you get to Maeotis. The Ugars - they’re not like Asians."

"Romans think 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 don’t know. You will have to find out for yourself."

Saheris slapped his hand impatiently against the edge of the bed. "Curse you, Arrus, why can’t you answer a simple question? You don’t 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.

Saheris threw 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 Munduk’s 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 Munduk’s 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 he’s 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."

"It’s not his skin, it’s his face," Stiven said. "I’ve seen a thousand of them - that jaw, that chin. That’s no Bithynian. What’s more, it is probably just as obvious to any Roman who saw him, too, manners aside."

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.

"Well, let’s 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.

From the private papers of the Khan:

From the moment I set foot onto Munduk’s 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 Saher’s 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.

My sense 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 Munduk’s son as a hostage to Rome.

 

Arrus’ elbow 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 self-conscious.

Munduk smiled 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.

Munduk turned to Arrus. "Have they learned to speak as yet?" he chuckled. "There’s no need to be afraid, my boys, the Ugars aren’t the rough beasts your Roman teacher would have you believe we are."

Saheris opened 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."

Munduk leaned 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, it’s a steep walk, but there’s 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. They’ll be staying in my house."

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