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Chapter 21: Captives

The Bithynian party paused at the top of the steep rise separating the view of Pontus below from that of the city and lake to the north; this was Maeotis, named for the shallow marsh that extended as far as the eye could see before them. A chill wind pressed against their backs as they viewed what to their eyes was a mere garrison, Munduk’s winter headquarters on the far eastern edge of Scythia. The boys exchanged uneasy glances; the Khan’s palace at Maduc seemed like a dream of luxury compared to these sparse buildings and rutted pathways that passed as streets. This was no city; it was a camp, and as they passed a low building, hastening to keep up with Munduk’s rapid pace, they saw soldiers at exercise, in hand-to-hand combat with swords.

"Heri," Sahelis whispered - "look, they’re drawing blood!" He pointed frantically toward the sound of clashing metal. Munduk glanced back.

"You wish to see the exercise? Excellent!" He smiled broadly and waved them ahead to a clearing of beaten earth, where several dozen soldiers, dressed in much the same fashion as Munduk, fought hand to hand against huge fair opponents, startling in their appearance, with shocks of straw-colored hair. And as Sahelis had observed, this was no mere exercise – it was true combat. As one or the other of the combatants struck a blow and drew blood, both retired, the injured to treat his wound, the other to rest or to engage another waiting for a turn in the clearing.

"Khan," said Saheris politely, "who are these strange giant men?"

"They are the enemy, young Saheris," Munduk answered enigmatically. "Gepidae captives."

"And you let them free in your garrison with swords?" he gasped.

Munduk laughed. "Of course. We have turned them. Those who were not ransomed by their king we have taken into pay as mercenaries. Once their king has refused to buy their freedom, they have no love for him. And as the Gepidae king gets poorer, he pays for less and less of them. Then they become my soldiers."

Saheris glanced at Arrus, who averted his eyes. He turned again to Munduk: "they leave their own land? What of their wives? What of their children?"

"If they can send for their wives and their children, then they come. If they cannot, they can have new Ugar wives. In fact, I prefer it. They are far more loyal that way."

A great blond warrior, his fair skin reddened from the sun and his exertion, retired from his bout, and grinned widely at them as he passed on the way to a water jug that lay just beyond them. Munduk greeted him briefly in an unknown tongue. The Gepidae replied, and took a deep drink before returning to sit with his fellows in the shadow of the barracks. Saheris was awed by his size. He gazed long at the troop of Gepidae, calmly observing the combat, commenting to one another in low voices. Everywhere he looked, there was activity of some kind -–purposeful, organized, and yet, there seemed to be no guard present imposing order or commanding anyone. There was some extraordinary discipline at work here, which proceeded with or without Munduk’s presence – in fact, few took note of him or even nodded, as though he were another soldier rather than their king and commander. It was all very strange, and yet entirely expected by their new host.

"What of the ones that will not join you? Do you slay them?" Saheris persisted.

"What ones who will not join me?" Munduk countered, amused.

"Are there any who do not join you?"

"There may be."

"But are there? What do you do with them?"

"What should I do with them?"

"You should slay them!" Saheris said confidently.

"Good, powerful soldiers like these?" Munduk questioned, leaning down toward the boy with an incredulous expression.

"They are your enemy!"

"No, these men are not my enemy. Their king is my enemy, but only when he opposes me. If he does not oppose me, then he is my friend. You have much to learn about what makes an enemy, and what makes an ally."

"What makes Saher your ally then?" Saheris demanded arrogantly, strengthened by the knowledge that Arrus disliked Munduk.

"Saheris!" Arrus warned in a low voice.

Munduk raised his hand. "That is a fair question. Before me stands a young prince who will one day rule my borders with Pontus. However, around us are fifty men who would dearly like to know many things they should not, for it burdens them beyond their position, and makes them vulnerable to our enemies. Do you really wish to speak of these things before the soldiers of the army?" Munduk paused briefly, hand still poised, and moved his head slightly in each direction to indicate the busy yard around them, now noticeably quieter.

"No, excuse me," he blustered. "Let us go on then." Saheris was severely chagrined, and though Munduk had spoken reasonably, he felt as ashamed as when Saher had picked him up by his shirt and threatened to thrash him. There was cunning in this man, and power; and he could see why Arrus disliked him.

 

 

"Your face is full of questions, Saheris."

"I am full of questions," he replied glumly, rolling over on his bed and facing Arrus, who had entered the room with a trunk under each arm.

"Here, unpack these, you two. You were doing better when you were too frightened to say hello to him."

"I wasn’t frightened!" Saheris grumbled.

"I was," his brother interjected. "He looks like a bear!"

"I think he’d be flattered to hear you say that, Heri," Arrus chuckled. "That’s one of Munduk’s favorite ploys in the field – he has his men pull their fur cloaks over their heads and pretend to be beasts attacking on hind legs."

Heli doubled up with laughter. "I’d like to see that!"

"I wouldn’t," Saheris snapped. "I didn’t speak because I was too busy trying not to throw up. I hate ships."

"So what troubles you so quickly?"

"What are we doing here? You said he was our new tutor, what are we supposed to learn from him?"

Arrus sighed. "Whatever Saher asked him to teach you."

"What did he ask him to teach us?"

"I don’t know. Saher likes the results of the training his chiefs have been getting for three years now, so he must know."

"You’re not being helpful." Saheris put his head down into the bedclothes, which consisted of the same ubiquitous dark fur that seemed to cover everything. Perhaps it was bear.

"Thank you."

"Why don’t you ask Munduk? You’ll have to get used to doing that, I’m not going to be here much longer."

"No! Not you, Arrus!" Saheris wailed. "You can’t go back!"

"I’m retired, remember? I was to see you safely here, and to carry your letters back with me to Saher. I’m not spending the winter in this freezing place. It’s cold enough in Maduc in the winter. You are soldiers now, in the hands of the best soldier the Khan has ever known. Why complain?"

Saheris had no answer; everything had happened so quickly, and here he was suddenly in a strange land, with queer foreign ways. The nausea that had plagued him on the sea passage seemed to have infected his emotions, and he turned his face away to hide the tears that welled up in them.

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