34: The Return
The ship that
brought the brothers south carried also Heklitis, and to Saheris's great
chagrin, the woman Atthis, whom he had last seen naked in his chamber
of confinement. Tethys did not attend them. The only person besides Spidios
whom he had seen in a month had been the slight youth Tethys, and he had
grown familiar with him. On the confined quarters of the ship, it was
nearly impossible to avoid the woman, although he tried, and deliberately
kept close company with his brother so as not to be found alone.
previous night, after his confinement had ended, he found he was still
under scrutiny, and followed by guards from Munduk's house, though Munduk
did not come to him. When he realized that he was being followed, he abandoned
any pretense of attempting to go into the town, and returned to the hall,
where, it seemed, no one was about. Eldana the Queen had left, Sahelis
had told him, as did Ildico - and he never did actually get to see either
of them! They had the evening together, and spent it talking in great
detail of all that had happened, and all that he did not know. Sahelis,
for his part, was little better informed than he, although he knew that
Stiven had been killed, and he told his brother how that happened.
"When they found
you had the vest on you, it was poisoned with pitchblende, and took Stiven,
the very night you were taken!" he said, his voice excited but hushed.
"And what did
they do to him? Who took him?"
"Munduk, and Heklitis
take a rabbit from a cage!" Saheris snorted. "Munduk then, but they went
Sahelis nodded thoughtfully. "In any case, they executed him, two days
afterwards, but that was not the gruesome part. I saw the execution, but
before that, they brought out the bodies from his house."
"Yes, the bodies
of the boys he sacrificed. And ten more boys who were in his employ were
given poison, because of the treponema."
"They too had
"As did Stiven.
It causes, in late stages, madness and fits, which is what was wrong with
him. He infected the boys he --"
His boy whores!" Saheris spat, revulsion overcoming him. He shuddered.
"And they were killed?"
"Yes, but before
this, they brought out the bodies of others. Boys he had tortured and
killed, who were cast in a midden under his house. At least a dozen."
"And Munduk had
not known? Didn't he know?" Saheris grew frightened and angry by turns.
"I should have done him in myself! They should have let me!"
brother, it was weeks ago. They say a dozen boys, and they brought the
mouldering corpses out for the citizens of Maeotis to see. And when they
saw them, and the boys who were condemned from illness, they tied him
outside the gate of the garrison and stoned him."
"And did they
gain his confession, as to why he wished me dead?"
"He had made a prophecy concerning a child of Sahera, and had assumed
that child to be first you, and after he saw that you were a Roman, then
determined it had to be me."
"Roman? How did
he learn this?"
"From his own
eyes, Munduk said. He recognized you immediately upon arrival as a member
of a Roman patrician family. It is your chin, apparently, and your fairness.
Though not the height, that is something of a mystery to them."
"And so he wished
to kill me and supplant me with you? You are already heir to half of what
Saher has. What difference could it make?"
"Heir to half
of Saher's kingdom, yes. But not heir to half of Munduk's."
"What has been
said of this?"
to marry his daughter to you, and you will become his heir."
He shook his head.
"Not Ruash. Ruash is the son of Eldana and the dead king of Moldova, he
is the heir to the northern reaches and has no claim on Scythia, or Pannonia,
or the realms of the Ugars or Unari."
"Why does Ruash
lay here with Munduk then?"
"No longer!" Sahelis
cried. "He has been recalled to the north, for their regency is ended.
In time, treaties are to be struck with Ruash and - either Munduk or yourself"
"All has changed
while I was imprisoned!" he groused. "But I did read much that Spidios
gave me. Did he also come to you and instruct you?"
"Oh, that," Sahelis
waved his hand. "I had already read much of what Spidios brought to me.
And I had more besides, such as Ptolemy and Hermes. He told me that I
was beyond my years in learning, and left me pretty much to myself."
Saheris was aghast.
"Truly? Is that what you did on all those long nights while I was
"Whoring in the
town catching the fevers, yes," his brother replied quickly and sarcastically.
"I was studying the mysteries."
a hand to strike his brother for his insolence, and then refrained. It
was too good to see him and embrace him once again! "Oh Sahelis, what
an ordeal, and that horrible garlic!"
"Would you rather
be dead like those poor boys of Stiven's? Even now, his corpse decays
outside the garrison. Munduk says it is a lesson."
"Where is Munduk?
Why has he not come to see me?"
"He is also no
longer here. He left for Amysos a week ago, and they awaited your recovery
for the rest of us to go with him."
Their return to
Saher began at first light the next day, their ship battling a vicious
east wind that chilled them to the bone. It was a grim journey, made more
grim by the company of the two physicians, who themselves were very quiet.
was not one to sulk indefinitely; at length he confronted Atthis on the
deck of the ship while he took a brisk pace on the second day, when he
had vomited out all the remained of his last good meal on land. "So -
how shall I call you, since I have never learned your true name? Spidios
said you were one of my teachers? Did you come to teach me sex, or merely
slightly at his derogatory words, and at first said nothing.
"I must conclude
that all you said to me on that night was falsehood, or at the least,
misrepresentation, and that you felt nothing for me but what your masters
chose to tell you to say."
She opened her
mouth briefly, and then shut it. And then began again. "Khan, my name
is Atthis. And I do not intend you any disrespect. But you are correct
in this: my actions with you were feigned to draw you into cooperation."
"You have already
been informed about this," she replied, evenly. "Speaking of it again
only serves to provoke embarrassment."
I am not embarrassed, are you embarrassed?"
"Truth to tell,
I am. I have never been asked to do the kind of work I did with you that
night, and it was very trying, both at the time, and since."
"Work?" he barked
a hoarse laugh. "That was work? No, I am not embarrassed, I just wished
to know, whether there was anything of your own feelings toward me in
anything that occurred, whether there was any desire for me in you."
Her eyes met his
own. "I think this discussion is at an end."
To Saheris's own
surprise, he seized her narrow shoulders in his hands and dug his fingers
into her arms. "You petulant bitch
" he seethed. She attempted to
pull away, in severe alarm, and he grappled her bodily, in attempt to
force his mouth against her own. "Tease me that way, and feign passion
" she made a loud yelping sound and escaped, momentarily from
his grip, then dealt him a crippling blow to the scrotum, and he fell
to one knee. "How dare you --" he gasped, holding himself, his body bright
with sudden, convulsive agony.
over him then. "You have made another mistake, Saheris." Beyond his now-fuzzy
sight, he saw Atthis adjust her cloak, and withdraw quickly below, out
of the wind. "For this, you will have to deal directly with Saher, who
will be waiting for us tomorrow when we land. Until then, you will have
to be placed under guard and disallowed the freedom of the ship."
shouted, but the thin physician had left him, and instead there stood
the immovable figures of the two ubiquitous guards of Munduk's household
who had followed him as shadows since he had again come out into the light
of day. And without a word, they ushered him below, out of the wind.
Munduk and Saher
sat late in a makeshift dwelling hastily constructed from thatch and pine
logs dragged from the thick forests outside of the garrison at Amysos.
"I hope for all our sakes that Saheris has not in his inactivity lost
those keen abilities you spoke about so glowingly, Munduk. I have need
of him now."
grimly. "I have no doubt he is twice the warrior you are, though utterly
lacking in true field experience. There is one thing he does not lack,
and that is courage. And I doubt he would run from anything that attacked
him. Saheris is one of those rare soldiers who does not flinch. It cannot
be taught, it must be inbred."
"Well he didn't
get it from me. I am an inveterate coward. It must be from the Alan side."
"Wherever it comes
from, it is there. You do not hold much stock in the stories that Spidios
spins, do you?"
Saher shook his
head. "It doesn't matter what he thinks, it matters that he intervenes.
Saheris has needed stronger discipline than mine, and better counsel than
His ally nodded,
sadly. "If it were not for some precautions, he may have been lost to
illness or treachery, and the blame, all mine. I had no concept of the
initiative the boy would take, and so therefore kept inadequate watch
on him. But this misfortune and blunder have, I hope, been adequately
rectified. You are satisfied with Spidios' intervention and report, then?"
The older man
sighed, a sound of resignation. "As much as can be expected. I am glad
his health is safe, and that the threat to all of you has been dealt with.
Now, I will lean on you heavily for this unprecedented attack. What moves
these Alani to attack in winter, I still wonder
"You are thinking
of the unexpected ally
" Munduk interjected. You still suspect Bellianus,
then?" he turned to Munduk, and scrutinized him over the dying firelight.
"You think he leads them in creating unrest in these borders?"
"I don't know,"
Saher said. "I do know that I am losing my strength to take the field.
I ache all night after riding all day. And if we were to actually engage
it is time for Saheris to lead."
"I agree. Then this is what we shall do. But you need to be very firm,
as Spidios says - he is a boy of great passion and will, and needs to
be guided. You are the only one he truly respects without reserve, and
he fears your displeasure. Use that. He fears you far more than me; I
have never inspired anything in him but lust and ambition, and that is
to my discredit."
"Don't blame yourself,
friend. I do not blame you. You gave the same treatment to his brother,
and he is none of the same in character. It could not be upbringing."
As the physician says. Nature." Munduk reached again for a bottle of strong
Median wine. "Speaking of nature
. Yourself?" He poised the glass
near Saher's cup, and Saher placed his hand over it.
"No - none of
that for me. You know I am an abstainer."
"Even after this
you will outlive me, I am sure."
"It is bed for
me, if I have any hope of leading tomorrow, I must lay my corpse down.
Oh, the winter digs me to the very bones!" Saher rose, in some pain, and
dragged himself to his pallet.
The day rose far
too early, and Saher exercised his stiff joints for some long minutes
in pain before he felt he was able to rise and stand. He did this surreptitiously,
for Munduk lay not five feet from him, still snoring loudly. It was time
to raise the alarum for the morning patrol; and if he was very unlucky,
battle. He had hoped it would not come today, for Amysos expected a ship
from the north, the long-awaited return of his only hope, Saheris.
The Alan hosts
lay hidden, for the most part, by thick copses and dense, rolling hills
in the northern Pamphylian forests that lay to the east and south of the
ancient territory of Paphlagonia, that borders on Ilitrahant, the easternmost
verges of Bithynia. Saher's scouts had failed to get an accurate count
of their cavalry, but cavalry they were, and all, it seemed, lethally
armed and armored, an innovation since he had last met the Alans fifteen
years before in Troya. This had led him to suspect they had received help
and supplies from a more advanced source; and he knew it was not Munduk,
for they had been under a treaty of alliance for this period of time.
And it could not have come from the east, for there were less and less
sophisticated nations, hardly nations at all, in fact, in that direction.
So it had to be from the west, some force actively, but secretly, fortifying
the Alans and causing them to leave their southern fastnesses to journey
north to oppose him at the unlikeliest time, when they would never fight.
But why? Even Munduk, who had arcane knowledge of many of the superstitious
religions of his own lands, was mystified. His own troops were put out
that they were not at winter rest, but he had brought five thousand of
them in any case, as a winter live training exercise in moderately rough
wooded terrain. It was a good opportunity for him to blood young troops,
and the best opportunity to bring Saheris forward. On this, they both
agreed. Waiting in garrisons on the frontier through the winter may prove
costly and frustrating, and bringing a large enough force to bear could
drive them out, avoiding the need to meet them again in the spring; or,
if there remained any resistance, it could be dealt with at greater leisure
when the enemy was rebuilding.
There were too
many questions to answer, too many puzzles unsolved, except that reconnaissance
he had received from three different scouting parties had spotted an officer
in Roman dress, on a roan-colored mare, in the area, and staying far from
both the roads and settlements. He did not know for certain this was Bellianus,
but he suspected that it might be. Perhaps Bellianus counted on mercy
from Saher now that time had passed; for there would be little enough
mercy from his own family if they learned the truth. He may have calculated
that the 'barbarian' Khan would have less to gain in revenge by executing
him. In this, Saher pondered, he may well be right. For Saher had one
important reason to spare Bellianus; one that Bellianus probably did not
With a rumbling
cry like the roll of deafening thunder, the Alans screamed in unison and
attacked through the dense forest, their mounts dodging fallen trees by
leaping over them and ducking their heads to avoid limbs hanging before
them. It was frightening and amazing to watch, and there was no time to
appreciate the daringness of danger of such an attack. Saher mounted,
and signalled his own column to form in a dense line to his left, well
protected by heavy brush that could not be breached by hooves. He had
more infantry than cavalry, here, which was an advantage in dense scrub,
and to dense scrub, he kept them, huddled. He suspected he greatly outnumbered
the invaders, but had no way to truly tell. Even now, as the enemy charged
raggedly, some of their horses staggering and falling in the undergrowth,
his own scouts were circling to the rear to count and assess them. As
always, Munduk waited far to the west, for the messengers that would bring
him the same intelligence they brought Saher.
The vanguard of
the Alani clashed at full speed into Saher's cavalry line then, and there
was a smashing of metal and horseflesh as they met headlong. The Alan
warriors were screaming constantly, which lent an air of unreality to
the wooded battlefield, where no open ground was truly visible. Horses
staggered and fell at random, and Saher rapidly called retreat to those
mounted who were not already committed against the front. Those who did
meet were haphazardly wounded or unhorsed, and men fell, crushed beneath
hooves, shouting, moaning, or screaming in their turn as sword, arrow,
pike, or hoof dismembered them. His infantry had safely withdrawn, and
that left a thousand horse, whose numbers were turning, slowly, from the
The invasion force
was smaller than it had seemed in rapid movement, for as they engaged,
Saher realized that two thirds of his cavalry had retreated rapidly, and
the rest had fully involved the enemy. This meant less than three hundred
Alans in the woods, three hundred fifty at most. And his men were gaining
ground, once the invaders had closed. They were winded with travel; his
men were fresh, they had staked their hope on putting Saher's troops to
immediate flight - and they had formed an orderly and strategic retreat.
Saher was on the far right of his cavalry, and still their line had not
broken open. Just as he was to gallop toward the nearest Alan archer,
he felt a sharp tug that told him he was hit. He pulled rein sharply,
without pausing to look at where or what, and swung in the other direction,
shouting for Arianus, the lead of his center, to take charge of his squadron.
He galloped west, then, to join Munduk and seek help. He was nearly unconscious
when his horse was stopped and reined, and he was helped down. He hurriedly
spoke to the messenger, and Munduk's cavalry charged forward while Saher
was helped to a litter. He was bleeding from an arrow wound to his upper
arm, and the bolt had gone through, shattering the bone. He was in great
pain, made greater by the snapping of the arrow as the therapeutus broke
the head and withdrew it through the front of the arm. They gave him a
strong, drugged drink, and he lost consciousness.
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