My brother is
dead, Andronicus. No matter how many times I say it, it seems no more
real than the half-remembered dreams of my childhood in Maeotis, as I
sat up sweating on the hard pallet that passed for a bed in the field
garrison of Munduk. How many times had I dreamed of the death of Sahelis,
lying inert on the cold ground, hands bound with the rough cord I remembered
so well cutting into my own wrists in the forest of Cormorin the night
I was abducted by Sahera
I knew, even then,
that it was not my brothers death I dreamed, but my own a
deeply impressed fear born of a few wild hours in the hands of the madwoman
who bore me. That one night seemed to crowd out the days and weeks of
winter training in Munduks camp, the exhaustion of endless exercise
swept away in a shrill moment when the dream was upon me as sudden as
a spell, and woke me in a hidden world where the dark-eyed enemy stalked
every shadow, and seized me in its arms.
It shocked me
and drew me equally I both dreaded and pined for sleep, and when
the spell passed, I always came awake, tense, angry, fearful but
more alive and more intent than I was on the parade field and twice,
thrice each week, with the dread image of my brother lying bound and inert
next to a drowned campfire.
You can see how
the knowledge of his death, so many seasons later, seems so unreal to
me, why I find it so hard to accept. Perhaps if I were to see his body,
examine the wounds made by his assassins, I would believe it more readily
than I do.
I have never been
a very realistic person, however. Perhaps even the sight of his body would
fail to convince me the way my childhood dreams had done, so many nights,
for so many months before I became a soldier.
Between the training,
and the political talks in the evenings with Munduk, and the dream-filled
nights, there was little enough time for Sahelis and I to pursue our private
occupation of seeking women, but somehow, we found the time. After our
first disappointment of confiding in Arrus, we kept to ourselves on this
matter. But we had our own horses, and our own pay, for we were, despite
being housed with the officers in Munduks house, treated the same
as the others in his mercenary army, and drew our pay the same, though
the wages were far lower than they would be on campaign. They were more
than adequate for our aims.
Maeotis had served
as seasonal host to thousands of Munduks professional troops for
many years, and had a far more extensive sex trade than we would even
have seen in Maduc or other garrison towns in Sahers country.
It was here that
we learned the subtler lessons of soldiery, in the arms of the Ugar natives
and Avar, Geipdae, and Scythian whores who were the collateral ranks of
Munduks vast continental army.
And it was here
that Sahelis at long last settled the matter of preferences, I was relieved
to discover that they were as normal as my own.
Despite the fact
that we ventured out together in the rutted paths that passed for streets
in the town, we spoke to one another rarely of our experiences; we had
few enough secrets from one another or Munduk the nights we stole
away from our beds and took to the shadows were private to ourselves,
and within each of us, and I found myself unwilling to speak of my sexual
adventures with my brother. And he did not volunteer any information himself.
And so, we pursued these lessons in our solitary way, until midwinter,
when visitors came to Maeotis and settled in with Munduk.
away from the shadow of his brother and made his way through the deep
rutted pathway where during the day, the goat-carts and small herds of
sheep would crowd out against the soldiers and townspeople pressing onward
to their daily tasks of provisioning, marketing, and commerce. Maeotis
was a small, dirty, but busy town, and Sahelis loved its quaint closeness,
brimming full with strange, exotic faces and weird smells. Travel agreed
with him, and each foray into the town from the stark garrison was an
adventure far beyond the single-minded pursuit of pleasure sought by his
brother. If he were early enough during the short northern winter evenings,
he could spy a shopkeeper who sold foreign books in tongues he could not
read: but this did not deter Sahelis, for he puzzled over the strange
script as though it were an exotic art which he would one day learn. Greek,
he knew, and some of Latin, as well as the few scrips of Syriac that were
committed to paper, but this did not help him in reading the cyrillic
characters of the Rus, or the backwards scrawl of the Persians and Urdu,
or the bulky square backwards characters of Hebrew. Each time he accosted
the shopkeeper, he asked him for something that was a special sale, and
made out that he was a poor scholars son. He reasoned with himself
that as Saher was a scholar, and he was his adopted (and orphaned) son,
he was not really telling an untruth. The true reason for his apparent
poverty was the ongoing expense of his collectors habits, as well
as his visits to his whore. But the shopkeeper was not a greedy man (at
least, not greedy for the brass Ares of a scholars son pressed into
the army of Munduk,) and he was wise enough to know that Sahelis returned
at the end of his night, not to the regular garrison, but to the officers
housing at Munduks home. Kindnesses had a way of being noticed by
those who counted in Maeotis. This day, he bought a book which the shopkeeper
told him was a great volume of wisdom by the ancient scholar and astrologer
Ptolemy, written in Greek. It was a particular find, because this Tetrabiblos
(four books, he translated), was supposed to predict the floods, seasons,
and characters of men, based upon the movements of the stars and comets.
Sahelis was fascinated,
and bought it immediately from him, wrapping the leather volume carefully
into a package with some string, and securing it to the inside of his
scabbard, which he had modified to hold a volume of a book whenever he
was on exercise. There was so much waiting to do in the field, there was
plenty of time to read. The price was two Ares. Sahelis tried not to seem
too eager, but as an afterthought said to the man, "I hope this is good
nourishment for the eye, for Ill have little enough to eat in town."
The old shopkeeper slid an Ares back across his table at the boy. "You
are a devil of an Asian, boy. I would fear to meet you at the bazaar,
or I would end up with my own purse empty and you arms full of my goods."
Sahelis grinned widely at the man. "I promise when I am a wealthy shopkeeper,
I will return you as good as you have given me, and sevenfold more!" he
pronounced, and held his left hand in the position of benediction he had
learned from Heklitis as befitting the Jews. The shopkeeper frowned.
me with your left hand, then it becomes a curse!" he sputtered.
"But I am left
handed," Sahelis said, crestfallen.
"That is the hand
also that is scarred," the old man commented, tracing his finger along
the ragged cut. "A knife or sword, I guess. And not sewn together all
that well. No Jew did that work."
"No, it was my
it was a Greek."
pah. You want your flesh sewn back together, you have to see the sons
"Who are the sons
"They are the
ones who have the old scrolls you want to see old books, you should
see the scrolls of Habbakuk! They tell of the prophecy of the Messiach,
who will come in 500 years to free us from our bondage in this wilderness."
"Yes, boy, it
is a wilderness. Well talk of this another day. Now get on to your
little black-eyed girl before the night is upon you." He winked at Sahelis,
who blushed crimson and bolted away from the little shop.
Then he stopped,
and turned. "How did you know about my
" but the loud, ringing laugh
chased him out the door.
the small, dark room from bottom to top, and almost choked Sahelis as
he pulled aside the wool blanket that served to staunch the wind from
the antechamber. Numis had a room in the very garret of a house which
was a tavern by night, and which served her well with a regular clientele
when she was so inclined. Recently, however, she had taken to spending
her evenings alone with Sahelis, and he paid her all his remaining pay
for the time they spent together, so she could afford to be at liberty.
Soon, if she were not able to pay her rent, she would have to leave or
begin again to take the men from the tavern, for she had no parents to
care for her, and no home. She, like Sahelis, was an orphan of the wars
with the Avars.
"Where do you
get that wretched stuff? It smells like goat dung!" he cried, his eyes
stinging mightily as he entered the tiny chamber.
Tiny hands grasped
his own and drew him into the dim candlelight. "It does not smell like
goat-dung. It is a rare herb, and I had to do despicable things to the
merchant to get him to part with it. Would you like me to do them to you
so that you know how debased I was for this herb?" she smiled coyly.
"I had to clean
his wagons." She laughed merrily. "I now have enough putchapat for a hundred
nights of love with Eosa, my Alan lover." Sahelis cringed slightly. As
soon as he had used the name and told her the story he had been given
and rehearsed by his mother, he had regretted it, and now he yearned to
take it back and to be himself, just Heli the orphan scholar from Maduc,
instead of this exotic warrior she imagined him to be. He had made another
lie as well that he would be leaving when the snows ended in the
east, to go on campaign with his captain, Saheris El Maduc. He did not
tell her that Saheris was his brother, nor that he was too young to fight
with Munduk. She could not tell his age, and believed him to be fifteen,
which was her own age. Now it all seemed so complicated, because when
he told her this, he believed he could cleanly escape the entanglement;
in actual fact, a soldier marching on campaign east would bring her closer
to her own people and the possibility of returning to Armenia and what
remained of her family there. Sahelis knew of Armenia his father
had fought there, and there was no end of orphans in Armenia. Numis should
not go back, and he should not have lied to her to make her believe he
could, or would take her. But now, now he was caught. And if he took her
to wife, she would always be with him. He knew this could not be, and
"And now you are
all vexed! You hate the smell of putchapat, I should have known you would.
Youre an Alan, what do you know of Asian medicine?"
"I am Asian!"
he burst out. "Sit down, Numis, please. Dont keep talking about
Alans. I have something to say to you and I am very unschooled in this."
The girl obeyed
without further comment, and settled herself cross-legged on the hard
neat pallet that served as her bed in the garret. The gable of the house
loomed above her, and Sahelis felt compelled to sit before he spoke.
"You are so beautiful
in the candlelight, Numis," he said as he sat, the mood of confusion momentarily
passing. "If I were the Khan of Asia, you would be
" he stopped
himself, checking his words suddenly, and wondering what madness had gripped
him in the moment he regarded the black-eyed girl sitting quietly before
him. I am the cursed Khan of Asia! He railed at himself. And she must
never know this! "Numis," he began again, his thoughts racing ahead of
him, but more slowly since he realized she had not asked him if he was
the Khan of Asia, nor reacted to his comment about her beauty. She had
heard it all, hundreds, thousands of times, and they were merely words
of preliminary flattery that meant nothing before she removed her clothes.
But Sahelis did not notice.
"First, I have
not been honest with you, and this was wrong. I have no excuse
for it, except that I am new to this country and believed I had to conceal
myself with ---"
whores," she finished, simply. "You said you thought of me as your friend,
as your lover, and not as your paid bed servant," she frowned, biting
her lip in spite of her apparent self-control.
"No, not with
foreign whores. With everyone. In this, I was instructed by my father."
Then you arent an orphan! Oh you liar."
"No, no. Truly,
my mother and father are dead. I saw my mothers body laid out before
they burned her, and they brought the ashes of my father back to lie in
the tomb at Maduc."
I am an Alan, but I am from Bithynia. Many of the soldiers of Bithynia
took Alan wives with the Alans sent their women to invade Pontus and Maeotis
from the south. I am the son of one of these men. I did not lie to you
about that. My mother was an Alan, and she named me Eosa at my birth,
which was the name she said Ares had given her when he lay with her. These
are the religious teaching of the Alan tribes of southern Asia, so all
of that is true."
"I thought you
were from Armenia!" she wailed. "I thought you would take me back to Armenia,
and I would have the protection of an Alan chief so that I would not have
to whore any longer
." She put her hands to her eyes and collapsed
onto the pallet. "Oh what a stupid fool I am. There is no end to stupid
foolishness for me. First the Chinese astrologer, then the Egyptian from
Byblos, and now an Alan from Bithynia! I will never, ever see my home
again, I will die a young woman, groaning under the belly of an overweight
Khan until I expire from the sheer exhaustion of it."
You will not have to whore again. I have already told you this. You did
not have to whore for me, or for the merchant with the putchapat. We call
it pogostemon, by the way. Its a wretched oil, and only improves
with age. He told you it was better fresh didnt he? Well its
not. The older it is, the less wretched it smells. I hope he didnt
make you "
"No, I really
DID clean his wagons. Sometimes washerwomen get paid better than whores,
Eosa," she said, wiping away a tear, distracted by the details of his
herbal knowledge. "If I could be paid to be a washerwoman all day, I would
do it. But the women here do their own wash, and Munduk makes all his
men wash their own clothes, so there is no work for washerwomen, only
whores. And sometimes, he makes his men do their own whoring, too." She
smiled weakly at Eosa. "But you already know all about that."
"Men do their
own whoring? What do you mean?" The image of Isolt and his old soldier
suddenly came back to Heli, and a strange sensation gripped him. "Munduks
the Gepidae and the Goths bring their wives with them, if they have them,
but the Scythians and White Rus have been trained to march with no women.
They say they take the boys early for practice, but they also take them
to whore. Some of the boys escape, and leave the army because of it. They
say they did not join the army for whore duty."
"This is a lie,
Numis. You say this just to wound me, because I am an ignorant Bithynian."
It was Saheliss turn to pout now, and he did, extravagantly.
She shook her
head vigorously. "If you want, I can introduce you to a dozen boys. They
work on the fishing boats now, after leaving Munduks army. Some
of them, when they grow older, will only bed men, still, but they will
not soldier, and will not whore for soldiers or for those horrible wizards
Munduk has around. They are the worst for whoring boys, and they beat
them too when they screw them.
"Maybe I am an
ignorant Bithynian. None of this happens in Pontus! It never happens in
Pontus. Except by accident."
"Now tell me the
rest of what you were going to tell me. Then we can talk of boy whores,
and maybe you would like to have one of them instead of me, while I go
try to find my Egyptian bookseller to see if he will take me back to Armenia."
back to Armenia, Numis!" he cried, tears suddenly filling his eyes. "That
is the other thing I must tell you listen and dont keep interrupting
me with stories and tales and horrors of whores." Once again, Numis composed
herself. "Please, now. Quietly, quietly. First of all, I wanted to tell
you that I would not be going to Armenia. We are going to Pamphylia."
near to Armenia, so what you dont go all the way!" she argued.
"Quiet!" he shouted.
Then more quietly, "please, this is hard for for me, and you make it much
harder. I mean, more difficult." He blushed again, but she did not as
yet register his embarrassment. "I mean to say, that my father
my grandfather has fought in Armenia, and so have my armies."
you sound so grand about it! How many armies do you command, Eosa el Maduc?
El Maduc? Oh my God. You are related to Saheris El Maduc, the Khan of
Asia, arent you?" She narrowed her eyes. "Saheris of the short,
weak sword and the wicked temper." She said it without thinking.
you have had him? He has been in your bed?"
"Oh yes, he has
been in every bed in Maeotis. I would have thought you would know that,
since every woman in Maeotis and half their husbands do. And he your kinsman.
You must know of his enormous appetites and weak digestion
"You talk in riddles.
"It is whore talk,
Eosa. He is a small man boy - Saheris is. I thought all Bithynians
were small like him. That is why I could not believe you a Bithynian.
You have half a head of him, and half again an organ."
be telling me all this," he said, aghast.
"But you need
to know, since you are in his army, and he your captain. You need to know
what kind of wicked graceless chief will lead you, spoiled in his very
youth, and ruined by his own hand. You will die under him, mark me, when
he takes a fancy to your wife."
her, then drew his hand back in horror, stammering. "Numis, never, never
speak of Saheris that way. He is he is my chief, and it is death
to dishonor him." The speech he had been preparing fell into tatters before
him. Saheris in Numiss bed. Saheris, small, weak, and intemperate
He knew of Saheris temper he himself had fallen under it
enough times, but with women? How could he? A soldier, trained at arms,
would he raise a hand to a woman, an orphan, a defenseless whore forced
into the street? His mind reeled. He would have to talk to Saheris about
it this was not a conversation for Numis to hear.
Numis sat quietly
once again, fingers resting against her face. "You Bithynians are quick
with the hand," she said darkly. "Saheris uses the right."
"Enough!" he cried,
tears springing from his eyes. "You have destroyed me this night, you
have destroyed me completely."
failed to spend his futile coin in my purse? I destroyed you? He slapped
me because I laughed at his great bragging and his incompetence. And I
laughed at him because he deserved to be laughed at. If he kills me for
laughing at him, then I will be taken up by my god and brought to my mothers
womb once again. So what is Saheris El Maduc to me? Perhaps he is my great
friend, to send me back to the land of the dead. It is easier to get there
than to get to Armenia."
It was Sahelis
turn to say nothing.
The smell of sweat
still clung to their skin like a sodden garment, as the boys, eyes shining
with exertion and the fresh chill of the rising winter wind, entered Munduks
hall for the evening meal.
muttered, sniffing the air. "Perfume. Women."
Saheris replied quickly. "They like to wear curious smells as well."
"No," his brother
stated with finality. "Women. You remember that vile scent that haunts
the front room where Munduks Ugar wife lived? When we had to sleep
there? Something of pine needles and goat grease? It is the same."
could prepare a retort, Munduk appeared in the hall, greeting them with
a wide smile and outstretched hands.
youve washed." He wrinkled his nose briefly. "At least, somewhat."
his voice, which had grown deeper in previous weeks. "We did as well as
we could before the water froze in the pump, and us with it."
"It will do, it
will do," Munduke placed a hand on one shoulder of each boy, now within
a head of reaching Munduks own modest height, "now put on something
clean and come right in to dinner. You have to meet my family."
Sahelis whispered as they climbed the stairs to their rooms. "I should
hope his daughters dont have quite as heavy a beard as he does."
up a warning hand. At the far end of the passage, stood a woman
perhaps an older girl, it was hard to tell in the gloom. She raised her
right hand in a vague hail, and both boys stopped and crossed left hand
to right shoulder in the formal Ugar military greeting.
She said nothing,
but passed out of the hall, leaving them along in the gloom.
see any beard," Saheris remarked.
Dinner was a very
different affair from their normal routine. Munduks staff had suddenly
been augmented by several serving women who brought little plates of curious
delicacies to the table where they sat, awaiting the new arrivals before
they could drink their soup. At Munduks instruction, they sat before
their filled plates, watching the steam diminish as the minutes passed.
that takes them so long," Munduk said, with an expression of mild embarrassment.
"The one I saw
looked fully dressed to me," said Saheris with a barely restrained smile.
"The one you saw
"Oh, yes, well,
if it isnt one then its the other
" Munduk had never
before appeared to them quite so tentative, he seemed almost indecisive,
as though the presence of women had upset some delicate, unspoken balance
of authority. This was a great curiosity to the brothers, who had almost
from earliest infancy been raised exclusively by men. Women belonged to
other households, they were the responsibility of uncles or cousins, and
drifted at the periphery of the everyday world. Otherwise, women belonged
to the night, to the stolen moments of quick murmurs and hot flesh, barely
seen faces, hardly-recognized voices. Their encounters with the whores
of Maeotis had not explained, but deepened the mystery of women for the
two, who could not recall when they last had sat at table with one.
A quick exchange
of looks betrayed a sudden rising self-consciousness in both of them,
worsened by the abrupt change in manner in their host.
What seemed like
several more minutes passed, but still Munduk had not raised his hand
to signal them to eat. Saheris stomach growled loudly in the silence.
"Ah!" Munduk cried
suddenly as a rustle of skirts became audible behind them. The serving
"Eldana, my wife,"
Munduk drew her forward gently by the hand, and she nodded briefly at
the brothers, then took her seat at the far end of the table opposite
to Munduk. She did not speak.
figure moved forward. "And Ildico, my eldest daughter of Eldana," he said
sweetly. Like the elder, the young woman nodded slightly, expressionless,
toward the brothers, and then retreated to the far side of the table beyond
"My family visits
from Rukath, my summer home in Moldova, to the north. The snows disagree
The woman Munduk
had introduced as his wife raised her spoon, and then he at last signaled
the boys that they could eat. Unsurprisingly, the soup had grown cold.
Despite his acute
hunger, Saheris checked himself while he ate, taking pains to appear fastidious,
stealing surreptitious glances at the girl at the far end of the table,
who was picking at some small, unknown tidbits provided by the new servants.
There was little
to see. Munduks women were swathed in a dark brown damask-like cloth
that hung around their shoulders like capes. Eldana wore in addition a
dark shawl over her head which cast most of her face in shadow. Saheris
only impression of the pair was of quiet expressions, dark eyes, black
hair, a shaft of light on olive skin. The less he could see, the more
intrigued he became.
Perhaps that was
the point of the dinner, he pondered. More curious than the shrouded figures
was the complete lack of conversation. They ate in silence for many minutes
before Sahelis shattered it with a loud question.
"So where is Rukath,
Lady," he asked with a careful politeness.
quickly. "It is about a thousand stadia to the northwest. It is hilly
country, and full of snow come the end of month. It has taken two weeks
for their party to ride from there, and the snows nearly caught them on
quietly. Neither of the women spoke. Once again, the brothers exchanged
glances, this time in open confusion.
"They, of course,
are familiar with our routine, and their presence here will not in any
way interrupt our training schedule," Munduk went on, as though replying
to unspoken questions. But he was not answering Saheris questions.
Why do they not speak? What does the girls voice sound like? How
old is she? How long will she be here?
"Of course, you
may be expected to attend a meal or two each week with my family, if that
is not disagreeable to you. Otherwise, they have their own time-filling
The women did
not reply, or gesture to acknowledge any word of what was said. They acted
as though they were both stone-deaf!
"Of course, it
would be perfectly agreeable!" Saheris said, perhaps too loudly for the
silent room. "My brother Sahelis and I would be very happy to ah
your wife and daughter
" he turned toward
Munduk at the last, caught by the awkwardness of speaking to the women
"Then that is
all well!" their host said brightly. "Now let us try some of these Scythian
things my wife has made, whatever they are
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