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 Khans 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, dont
be so formal. The sea generally agrees with you better you look
said, seating himself once again, suddenly weary. "This is not an easy
task, and if I didnt 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
"It is this. When
I arrived, I arranged to see her, and she told me that Saheris had been
"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 didnt think you would find this amusing, I
the smile that crept across his face. "What excuse did he use with the
"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?"
know that, Khan. I think he might have had other things on his mind."
"Do you trust
"I trust her to
be truthful. She is young, and means well."
"Then when next
you see her, give her the sum Ill 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
"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."
at his host. "What?"
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
"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. "Youre not eating."
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 Sahers 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.
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
"Arrus did," Heli
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 its 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 Munduks winter headquarters.
Thus ended their first day in Maeotis.
the private papers of the Khan:
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 Munduks ceaseless regimen.
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 Munduks allies had moved west
from the steppes, and occupied territories encroaching upon the Gepidae
and Ostrogoths that lay between the empires.
the early winter sunset brought an end to the days exercise, there
was dinner and the evenings 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
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