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Chapter 22: Childhood’s End

The only sign of worry Arrus betrayed while he waited for Saher was the quiet tapping of his fingers on the arm of the chair. He fought down the urge to stand and pace, and rehearsed once again what he would say and not say to Saher. After long minutes, he changed his mind and commanded himself to rise and depart; but he sat, the insistent staccato of his fingers playing against the unyielding wood.

"Arrus! You bring news of Maeotis – I had expected you some hours ago. The ship has long landed. What has kept you?" The Khan’s face was lined with worry.

"All is well," he assured him. "But there is a matter we need to discuss – this is what delayed me." Saher ushered him into his study.

"Sit, sit, don’t be so formal. The sea generally agrees with you better – you look positively green."

"Please," Arrus said, seating himself once again, suddenly weary. "This is not an easy task, and if I didn’t feel it was necessary, you would never hear these things from me."

"Speak, you have nothing to fear of my opinion." Saher composed himself and sat.

"Khan, as you might suspect, I have a woman in the town, I see a whore in the town. From time to time."

"What is this to me?"

"It is this. When I arrived, I arranged to see her, and she told me that Saheris had been to her."

"You had spoken to Saheris about this previously?"

"No, Khan. Of course not. He must have spied on me. He and Heli asked me about the subject before we departed, but it did not occur to me that I had been followed." Arrus glanced up. "I didn’t think you would find this amusing, I must say."

Saher suppressed the smile that crept across his face. "What excuse did he use with the woman?"

"He said he was a friend of mine. She of course recognized him; and did not believe she was in a position to refuse."

"Did Saheris know he had been recognized?"

"I don’t know that, Khan. I think he might have had other things on his mind."

"Do you trust her?"

"I trust her to be truthful. She is young, and means well."

"Then when next you see her, give her the sum I’ll give you, and tell her it will continue to profit her to refuse him – and his brother – in future. Tell her to use whatever excuse suits her."

"Thank you, Khan. What will you do about Saheris?"

"I imagine the winter will not pass in Maeotis without another such adventure. It is time for Heklitis to take a trip across Pontus and teach them the Greek remedy to prevent unwanted disease and pregnancy."

"The Greeks have a remedy to prevent pregnancy?"

"I think they stole it from the Jews, but yes. I purchased it many years ago – and behold, I have no unwanted children." Arrus stared long at the Khan, whose expression was unreadable.

"I have known you twenty years, and still you surprise me, Khan."

Saher smiled briefly. "I suppose this means that childhood is well and truly ended. Gone a fortnight and already I am sick for their company. You have letters? Tell me all that happened with Beshan – and of their reception in Maeotis."

 

 

 

"And so, Saheris, you wish to know the terms of my alliance with your father the Khan."

"If that is not offensive to you," Saheris replied, immediately on his guard. He paused at his meal, taken aback that Munduk had resumed as though a day and evening had not passed since his question had been asked in the exercise yard.

"Not at all. I, too, wish to know several things for my own part; perhaps we can come to an understanding which will help us both."

"What do you wish to know?"

"Ah!" Munduk held up the leg of the bird he was eating. "That is a mistake. I have offered you something – now you must try to get it, without giving me anything I have not earned, or do not require."

Saheris stared at his host. "What?"

Munduk chewed a morsel and put the bone back on his plate. "Insist I tell you all that you demand from me. Try it again."

"Yes, I wish to know the terms of your alliance with my father the Khan. In fact – I insist upon knowing." Saheris hesitated.

"You are an ignorant young fool – and you betray your ignorance by displaying it for strangers to see. I would not trust such a fool with any valuable information – seek it from your own people."

His meal entirely forgotten, Saheris turned beet red with indignation. Sahelis stifled a laugh.

"Come, eat. Surely it is not too soon to introduce you to the subject of politics? All men who wish to rule must learn something of them. If it helps, think of it as a game; one in which you balance deception and trust in equal measures. When you sense trust, you offer trust – when you sense deception, offer deception. War is, after all, based upon deception."

"War is based upon strength and skill!" Saheris declared. "Deceit is for cowards; there is no pride in deceit."

"Pride is most prevalent among the dead," Munduk replied nastily.

"You have invited us here to insult us?" Saheris rose to his feet, unable to contain his fury at the smug arrogance of his new teacher.

"It is you who choose to be insulted," Munduk replied equably, reaching for another helping of meat. "You’re not eating."

"I don’t wish to eat," he replied hesitantly, now acutely self-conscious once again. Munduk had once again caught him off-balance, and he could not recover himself. After a brief silence, he sat down once again. Munduk nodded.

"Young Khan, this has been a great change for you, I can see. Perhaps I have put too much stock in Saher’s own accomplishments that he had given you somewhat of an education in public matters. I should tell you that he places much faith in me, and has no concern about trusting me. Surely you see that. He has at times placed the lives of thousands of his men into my hands; and in sending you across Pontus into my care he has entrusted me with his most prized possession – the future of his realm. If you doubt any of this, send a letter back with Arrus and ask him. Be reassured. If I wished to conquer Bithynia I would probably have done so, and not by this indirect and crude method. If you cannot be at ease with me, then set sail back to Maduc and tell the Khan yourself. But if you have come here out of a desire to learn, as the leaders of the Bithynian army have done before you, if you wish to strengthen yourselves with my strength, then do it. Speak plainly, and keep your head. You should not let me ruffle you so easily – you are like a mad hen!" Munduk laughed then, and tossed back a large drink from his mug.

Saheris relaxed visibly. "It has been a tiring journey. I was sick on the ship. This is my first food since Maduc," he admitted sheepishly.

"Do you really attack in disguise as bears?" Sahelis asked, around a mouthful of meat.

"Who told you that?"

"Arrus did," Heli replied.

"Actually, no, as wolves. The hide of a wolf is very lucky to the Ugars; and to many other peoples. Do you want more? Do you need to rest now? It has been so long since Ruash was your age, I have to remember what it’s like." Where before Munduk seemed arrogant and contentious, he now took on an aspect of sincerity and solicitousness which amazed Saheris. In spite of his wariness, he responded to it, and by the end of the meal he had forgotten his earlier outburst. Soon, the boys were too weary to sit up, and were accompanied to their quarters by a silent servant who led them by lamplight up the narrow stone stairs in Munduk’s winter headquarters. Thus ended their first day in Maeotis.

From the private papers of the Khan:

We drilled. Everywhere about the mean camp they called Maeotis, in the rain, in the mud, and in the freezing wind, we drilled. We ran on horseback until our legs were afire with pain; we watched at all hours of the night for staged ambushes, crawled through thorny underbrush, and tasted the ashes of campfires to gauge how far we trailed an enemy. Ahead of us, with us, behind us, spurring us on, was the inexhaustible and irrepressible Munduk, his son Ruash, and at least a dozen of his chief officers, as well as newly-acquired Gepidae freedmen, and a cadre of Ugar boys as young as eight or nine. Most were our superior in skill, for they lived and breathed the life of arms, and never were seen without at least two weapons on their person. Under such intense pressure, we improved, and within weeks, it seemed, Sahelis and I were taller, stronger, and more keen in every way by the relentless exercise of Munduk’s ceaseless regimen.

His was a professional army; and Munduk betrayed himself to be a learned man, who had studied historical accounts of warfare, and could recite from Ugar lore of the exploits of their Khans, and the invasions into their countries of Alexandros of Macedon, the first to raise a professional army in Asia, across the inaccessible mountains to press toward the Hindu Kush – lands south and east beyond the rocky passes of Armenia. He fashioned himself as a student of military history, and an innovator in the techniques of hand to hand combat as well as mobile cavalry units. The Ugar and their related tribes had conquered wide territories to the north of Scythia with huge armies of horsemen, and he himself bragged that he could raise amongst his allies a combined force, between infantry and cavalry, of two hundred thousand. Even at the time, I believed he was lying extravagantly; but he was not, as I learned later. None of these were ever to be found in the same place at one time, but remained largely mobile during the favorable seasons, each selecting a wintering camp in which recruitment and training was accomplished before the spring heralded a new season of potential campaigns. And with the growing threat of military conflict from Constantinople, more of Munduk’s allies had moved west from the steppes, and occupied territories encroaching upon the Gepidae and Ostrogoths that lay between the empires.

When the early winter sunset brought an end to the day’s exercise, there was dinner and the evening’s discussion with Munduk, from which he was rarely absent. Though Sahelis was always with me, and his son Ruash frequently, Munduk addressed himself only to me; and never offered an explanation why.

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