The Old Black Fox
Saheris lay abed,
drifting into that uncertain zone that was neither dream nor wakefulness,
as his eyes gradually became aware of the growing light; and he woke.
His mind, still
dull with the exhaustion of excessive effort followed by sleep, registered
the dark panels of the room, the bristling black fur that covered his
bed, the moisture glistening on the dull pane of the window. Morning
too soon, and too suddenly.
He closed his
eyes, seeking once again that single point of stillness that would draw
him back to sleep, but as he did, the door opened and Sahelis burst in,
full of life, already dressed and apparently fed.
"Stiven is asking
for you in the hall, Heri," he said cheerfully. "He says he brought you
a gift from his metalsmith."
"Let me sleep.
We dont ride today," Heri grumbled, pulling the close fur over his
head and blocking out the too-cheerful visage of his brother. "I want
the gift of sleep. Can he give me that?"
Heli replied by
pouncing on him, pinning him down under the rug where he could neither
escape nor struggle. "Try to get out of that!" he cried triumphantly.
Saheris did not
struggle. He lay quiescent, his breath slow and growing hot against his
face under the fur. He breathed as shallowly as he dared, every nerve
aching to break free of the weight of the body bearing down on him. He
did not speak.
began to run out of air, but still he did not move. For a brief moment,
he went blank, as though fainting, but the moment passed.
A rush of fresh
air flooded over him as Heli pulled back the cover and released him. He
leaned back onto his haunches. "You are no fun at all," he commented.
Saheris said nothing.
"Come on, get
up!" he tugged at the cover now, pulling it away from the bed, leaving
Saheris naked in the cold light.
Munduk to come up for you," he threatened.
happen," Saheris said. Bored, Heli left the room abruptly. As Saheris
reached for his clothes, he tried to recall what Heli had said about Stiven.
Metal works? He had a sword! Was this some new weapon, some new training
he would be starting? And why would this be given by the priest instead
of Munduk or Ruash?
"Heli!" he called
through the door as he fastened his shirt, "where is Munduk today?"
No answer. Heri
went along the hall toward his brothers room, which lay behind his
own in Munduks house. Sahelis was already putting on his riding
coat and knife.
"I said, where
is Munduk? Was he at breakfast? Was Ruash with them?"
"No, they have
gone to meet a ship. They left us with Stiven today, and Im going
riding on Red Hill. There are foxes there. I want a fox hat like the Scythians
have. They capture them on Red Hill."
"Wait for me then,"
Heri said. "Lets see what Stiven has for me. Then well go."
The priest sat,
hunched over a bowl of some dark broth, sipping noisily as the brothers
entered the dining room together.
"You finally wake,
young Khan," he hissed. "I was beginning to think you ill."
"I like to sleep
when I can, and there is no reason to wake now if I dont wish to
wake," Saheris replied. He could tell by his brothers impassive
glance that his manner was wrong he had given offense. But he didnt
care; he did not have to please this odious man. He knew that Munduk disliked
him, and his own feelings for the man bordered on open loathing.
To his utter surprise,
the priest replied with an indulgent smile, setting down his bowl and
rising ceremoniously to his feet. "Please!" he cried, waving an open hand.
"Enjoy your leisure. Eat, I have had all this prepared for you. The sons
of Saher must be used to much luxury in the empire of Constantine."
bridled, hesitating as he approached the table. A dozen caustic replies
rose to his lips, but his brother shook his head briefly but decisively.
He sat. The priest, obsequious and animated, dashed toward the doorway
and called back to them. "I will be right back. Please wait for me." The
brothers exchanged puzzled looks.
"He is a madman,"
Saheris stated, pouring water from the pitcher and picking up a piece
"A powerful madman,
though," Sahelis replied. They ate for a few moments in silence, which
was shattered by the clatter of Stivens feet in the hall. In his
hands, he held a vest that glowed dully with the sheen of some burnished
metal. He held it out to the seated Saheris. "I had this made for you.
Do you know what it is?"
"A vest made of
iron chain," Saheris said, bewildered.
"It is soft, though,
it is woven metal. They use it in Gallia they call it mail. Arrows
cannot penetrate it."
penetrate silk, and silk is cool," Saheris said, unimpressed.
"Can silk stop
a spear?" Stiven retorted.
"You said arrows."
For a long minute,
the old man looked confused, as though about to weep, then his face brightened.
"Of course! Young Khan, take no offense at me, I have never been across
the sea to your empire, and seen the marvelous clothing of your people
of Asia. You are wiser than me, which is why you are the Khan and I a
mere physician." Stiven was wheedling now, rubbing his hands rhythmically
while he recited what was, to Saheris, empty flattery and lies. He let
him speak without interruption, pretending that he was Saher, listening
to the petition of a long-winded sycophant. Saher always heard them out.
empty wheedling came to an end. Saheris looked briefly toward his brother,
who still stood, patient, at the end of the table. Sahelis made a slight
shrugging motion with his shoulder, not noticeable to the priest.
"Did Munduk ask
you to give this to me?" Saheris asked.
"Why should he?"
Stiven countered. "Why do you ask so many questions?"
"Because my father
taught me that knowledge is more important than weapons, and that I must
always ask questions. Now I have answered yours. Answer mine." Saheris
stared at Stiven, whose face grew hard with defiance.
"No," he said
finally. "He did not. I wished to make a gift of my own to a great ally
of our people."
"Ally? You mean
allies." Saheris waved his arm toward his brother, who turned toward Stiven.
"There are two Khans of Asia," Saheris persisted. "There is myself, and
there is my brother Sahelis. Perhaps you have met him." Saheris raised
his cup in his brothers direction. Involuntarily, Stiven turned
toward the standing boy, and then back at Saheris.
"Two? There cannot
be two!" he sputtered. "That is not how the provinces are ruled!"
"Ours is a peculiar
nation," Saheris replied coolly. "Besides, do not Arcadius and Honorius
divide the Roman empire between them as brothers? In this way we are much
like the Romans. East and West. You know they divided their empire between
the brothers, didnt you? This is not news to Scythia
expression changed from disbelief to anger. "The older rules! That is
how it is done in Asia! You cannot divide your kingdom!"
"It is not mine
to divide, priest. It is Sahers. If you are so concerned, write
to Saher and tell him about it. Im sure hell be very interested
in your views," he added sarcastically. "In the meantime, unless you plan
to treat the two of us with either equal contempt or equal respect, you
can keep your gifts!" Saheris stood. "Shall we ride, Heli?"
"Wait! The priest
growled. "It is true you are both heirs to Saher, but only you will be
riding into battle this spring, true?" The brothers exchanged glances.
"I am sure Munduk
plans to keep the younger boy Sahelis safe behind the line,
to help perhaps with supply
but so young to meet battle, it would
never suit the Khan to put such untested youth to an unimportant campaign
face colored slightly at the insult, but he did not speak. Though infuriated
by the priests insinuation, Saheris was suddenly struck by an idea,
and as the priests gambit faded once again into an expectant silence,
he paused. Stiven held the vest as though it were an unwanted article
plucked up in error at the Sunday market, holding it from himself with
an air of slight distaste.
"What was it you
said, Stiven?" Saheris smiled slightly.
"I said, I only
had the one made because Munduk is bringing only you to Pamphylia in the
"He told you this."
It was not a question.
The priest rattled
the peculiar fabric as though it were a string of beads, impatient. "Curse
you, impudent waif. Were you my son I would " then caught himself
mid-curse, and fell silent. He smiled poisonously.
"I have never
been called a waif before. What is it that means, Heli? A lost child,
an orphan. How many waifs are there, I wonder, that are called Khan in
this empire, Heli?"
"At least two,"
Sahelis replied. "If you are a waif, then your brother is a waif."
"I did not mean
"I shall write
my father this night, and tell him how fortunate his son, the impudent
waif, has become to receive the gifts of the soothsayer Stiven of Scythia.
Are you going to give that to me or tear it to shreds, Stiven?"
The priest was
trembling now, unnerved by the cold attitude of the boy, who now stood
arrogantly before him, unmoving. Children do not stand so still, he found
himself thinking. If only he would move, or sit, or strike, then he would
have some advantage of him! But Saheris stood like a tree, his question
unanswered, his hand frozen in a beckoning gesture toward the mail in
Stivens hands. Loudly into his mind came the sudden thought: this
is no boy. His youth and small size are a deception. He, Stiven, had been
fooled. This subtle youth is a king, and cannot be easily tricked. He
must do better than this!
held out his hand, his long hours of carrying a broadsword had strengthened
him for stillness, and he kept his stance. Stiven is a fox, and I am the
hunter, he recited to himself. If I stand still, he will come and sniff
and stop his chatter. Come, fox. Come and sniff.
eyes widened slightly. "Young Khan
here, of course, with the
deepest compliments of the metal forgers of Pannonia." He placed the article
gingerly into the youths outstretched hand, which sagged under the
sudden weight. Saheris drew back slightly then, and waited.
"Try it on
if it is too large you are a small thing for all your talk
then you can have the links reattached there, at the shoulder, and the
sides " Saheris took two steps back from Stiven, who had suddenly
advanced as though to touch him.
"Keep back," Saheris
warned, his voice a low growl. The priest threw up his hands and stepped
back from him.
"No offense! As
you will, as you will! I am your servant."
at him, the proximity of the elderly man had filled him with a cold loathing
he could not explain. He knew this man; he did not know how, or from when,
but there was within him a flash of recognition so certain and so horrifying
that he nearly turned in fear from the sight. He had not felt this before,
but there was something in his voice, or in the rancid smell of oil that
seemed to reek from him, that he knew, and knew intimately; and hated.
"Come on, Heli.
We have foxes to kill."
"And letters to
write to the Khan," Sahelis added quickly.
"And battles to
linger behind in our tender youth
" Saheris taunted. The priest turned
away. They left the hall as quickly as they dared without actually running.
Saheris paused at the stair.
"What will you
do with THAT?" Heli asked, pointing at the mail draped over his brothers
"You want it?"
"No!" he laughed.
"Its some silly invention he wishes to try on your expendable flesh.
Let it be yours."
"Not mine. Ill
give it to Ruash. Hell try anything new. Ill tell him its
from Gallia." He laughed. "Sure its from Gallia. There is only one
thing here from Gallia."
"Me!" They grinned
at one another.
say that out loud, Heri. We are in a foreign land."
like being called a waif. I am going to find a very evil old fox and call
him Stiven. And then I will track him. And when I find his den I will
skin him and for a year, I will wear his flesh on mine. And that will
be the end of the old black fox."
"You should make
a song of it," Heli said. "That sounds like a song."
that old black fox first. Then kill him. Then make a hat out of him. Then
make a song out of him!" Saheris leapt up the stairs and tossed the vest
onto his bed, then hastened down to join his brother for a day of fox
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