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Chapter 26: Numis

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 brother’s 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 Munduk’s 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 Munduk’s 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 Munduk’s 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 Saher’s 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 Munduk’s 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.

 

 

 

Sahelis slipped 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 scholar’s 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 collector’s 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 scholar’s 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 Munduk’s 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 I’ll 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.

"Don’t bless 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."

"Greeks – pah. You want your flesh sewn back together, you have to see the sons of Habbakuk."

"Who are the sons of Habbakuk?"

"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."

"Maeotis isn’t a wilderness."

"Yes, boy, it is a wilderness. We’ll 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.

Incense filled 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.

"Despicable? What despicable things?"

"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 he grieved.

"And now you are all vexed! You hate the smell of putchapat, I should have known you would. You’re an Alan, what do you know of Asian medicine?"

"I am Asian!" he burst out. "Sit down, Numis, please. Don’t 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 ---"

"…with foreign 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."

"Your father! Then you aren’t an orphan! Oh you liar."

"No, no. Truly, my mother and father are dead. I saw my mother’s body laid out before they burned her, and they brought the ashes of my father back to lie in the tomb at Maduc."

"Maduc? Maduc is in…"

"Bithynia. Yes. 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."

"Numis, please. 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. It’s a wretched oil, and only improves with age. He told you it was better fresh didn’t he? Well it’s not. The older it is, the less wretched it smells. I hope he didn’t 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. "Munduk’s army?"

"He’ll let 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 Sahelis’s 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 Munduk’s 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."

"Don’t go back to Armenia, Numis!" he cried, tears suddenly filling his eyes. "That is the other thing I must tell you – listen and don’t 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."

"Pamphylia is near to Armenia, so what you don’t 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."

"Your 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, aren’t you?" She narrowed her eyes. "Saheris of the short, weak sword and the wicked temper." She said it without thinking.

"Short, weak… 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. Appetites, digestion…"

"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."

"You shouldn’t 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."

Sahelis slapped 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 Numis’s 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."

"Because Saheris 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 mother’s 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 Munduk’s hall for the evening meal.

"Visitors!" Sahelis muttered, sniffing the air. "Perfume. Women."

"Or Greeks…" 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 Munduk’s Ugar wife lived? When we had to sleep there? Something of pine needles and goat grease? It is the same."

Before Saheris could prepare a retort, Munduk appeared in the hall, greeting them with a wide smile and outstretched hands.

"Ah, excellent, you’ve washed." He wrinkled his nose briefly. "At least, somewhat."

Saheris found 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 Munduk’s own modest height, "now put on something clean and come right in to dinner. You have to meet my family."

"His family?" Sahelis whispered as they climbed the stairs to their rooms. "I should hope his daughters don’t have quite as heavy a beard as he does."

Saheris brought 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.

"I didn’t see any beard," Saheris remarked.

Dinner was a very different affair from their normal routine. Munduk’s 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 Munduk’s instruction, they sat before their filled plates, watching the steam diminish as the minutes passed.

"It’s dressing 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 –"

"Upstairs. Just now."

"Oh, yes, well, if it isn’t one then it’s 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 women withdrew.

"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.

Another, slighter 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 her mother.

"My family visits from Rukath, my summer home in Moldova, to the north. The snows disagree with them."

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. Munduk’s 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.

Munduk replied 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 the way."

Eldana coughed 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 girl’s 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 occupation."

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 – attend you… your wife and daughter…" he turned toward Munduk at the last, caught by the awkwardness of speaking to the women through Munduk.

"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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