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, Munduks winter headquarters on the
far eastern edge of Scythia. The boys exchanged uneasy glances; the Khans
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 Munduks rapid pace, they saw soldiers at exercise, in hand-to-hand
combat with swords.
whispered - "look, theyre 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.
"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."
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
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 Munduks 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.
soldiers like these?" Munduk questioned, leaning down toward the boy with
an incredulous expression.
"They are your
"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.
warned in a low voice.
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
"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.
these, you two. You were doing better when you were too frightened to
say hello to him."
frightened!" Saheris grumbled.
"I was," his brother
interjected. "He looks like a bear!"
"I think hed
be flattered to hear you say that, Heri," Arrus chuckled. "Thats
one of Munduks 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. "Id like to see that!"
Saheris snapped. "I didnt 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
"Whatever Saher asked him to teach you."
"What did he ask
him to teach us?"
know. Saher likes the results of the training his chiefs have been getting
for three years now, so he must know."
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.
you ask Munduk? Youll have to get used to doing that, Im not
going to be here much longer."
"No! Not you,
Arrus!" Saheris wailed. "You cant go back!"
remember? I was to see you safely here, and to carry your letters back
with me to Saher. Im not spending the winter in this freezing place.
Its 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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