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Chapter 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.

Throughout the 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 and Atthis."

"Heklitis couldn't take a rabbit from a cage!" Saheris snorted. "Munduk then, but they went with him."

"Probably so," 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."

"Bodies?"

"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 treponema?"

"As did Stiven. It causes, in late stages, madness and fits, which is what was wrong with him. He infected the boys he --"

"His catamites! 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!"

"Calm yourself, 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?"

Sahelis nodded. "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?"

"Munduk plans to marry his daughter to you, and you will become his heir."

"Not Ruash?"

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."

Saheris raised 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.

However, Saheris 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 deception?"

Atthis colored 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."

"Into seduction…" he fumed.

"You have already been informed about this," she replied, evenly. "Speaking of it again only serves to provoke embarrassment."

"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 for me…" 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.

Heklitis stood 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."

"Heklitis!" he 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.

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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."

Munduk smiled 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 yours."

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 them… it is time for Saheris to lead."

Munduk nodded. "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."

"Nature, then. 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 long time… 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.

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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 know about.

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 oncoming rush.

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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