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Chapter 24: 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 don’t 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.

Gradually, he 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.

"No."

"I’ll get Munduk to come up for you," he threatened.

"That won’t 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 brother’s room, which lay behind his own in Munduk’s 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 I’m 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. "Let’s see what Stiven has for me. Then we’ll 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 don’t wish to wake," Saheris replied. He could tell by his brother’s impassive glance that his manner was wrong – he had given offense. But he didn’t 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."

Again, Saheris 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 of fruit.

"A powerful madman, though," Sahelis replied. They ate for a few moments in silence, which was shattered by the clatter of Stiven’s 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."

"Arrows cannot 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.

Eventually, the 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 brother’s 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, didn’t you? This is not news to Scythia…"

Stiven’s 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 Saher’s. If you are so concerned, write to Saher and tell him about it. I’m sure he’ll 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…"

Sahelis’ face colored slightly at the insult, but he did not speak. Though infuriated by the priest’s insinuation, Saheris was suddenly struck by an idea, and as the priest’s 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 spring."

"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 Stiven’s 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!

Saheris’ 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.

Stiven’s eye’s widened slightly. "Young Khan… here, of course, with the deepest compliments of the metal forgers of Pannonia." He placed the article gingerly into the youth’s 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."

Saheris glared 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 brother’s arm.

"You want it?"

"No!" he laughed. "It’s some silly invention he wishes to try on your expendable flesh. Let it be yours."

"Not mine. I’ll give it to Ruash. He’ll try anything new. I’ll tell him it’s from Gallia." He laughed. "Sure it’s from Gallia. There is only one thing here from Gallia."

"That is?"

"Me!" They grinned at one another.

"You shouldn’t say that out loud, Heri. We are in a foreign land."

"I don’t 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."

"Let’s find 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 hunting.

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