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Chapter 37: A Tryst in the Woods

Sahelis sat at Saher's bedside, reading slowly. He was reminded, uncomfortably, of the long vigil he spent by his brother's bedside the night he was taken by the Eleusinians. His grandfather slept uneasily, his shoulder heavily bandaged, and still seeping occasionally with dark blood. The sight of the wound upset Sahelis, and he looked away. He knew Saher was in great pain, but he could not assuage it except with his presence, and even this was not enough, for he knew that Saher's thoughts were miles to the east, where Saheris had gone into his first battle against his own countrymen, the Alani.

There had been no word as yet on the course of their battle; and for all they knew, Saheris could be lying wounded in much the same condition, or worse, he could be dead. Tears of anguish escaped his eyes then, and he brushed them away. I know Saheris better than that, he hasn't endured a scratch! But he was not sure, and with the wounded Saher suffering in the bed before him, his greatest fear was that a messenger would bring grave news, and the grief would cause Saher's already delicate condition to worsen. And then, where would I be, Sahelis thought, my brother and my father, the two people I care most for in the world, dead? He felt a sense of desolation so complete that it consumed him. He put his head on his folded arms, and wept.

Heklitis watched from the outer room, and he too, worried, but not only about Saheris, but Atthis as well. The trip to Maeotis, and the events with Munduk, Stiven, and Saheris had taken a terrible toll on them. And Atthis, though skilled with midwifery and childhood diseases, had had few dealings with men, and had never done the type of intervention that had involved her becoming sexually involved. It angered him deeply, and had he known beforehand that this was Spidios' plan, he would have protested. Had it saved his his life, though? Of that, he could not be sure. Couldn't he have convinced Saheris to undertake the vigorous treatment he endured, another way? And did the mock trial really do anything to reform him from his promiscuity? Heklitis thought not. His previous counsel to the boys on prevention of pregnancy had impressed Saheris not at all, for three of the women they had examined were showing distinct signs of pregnancy. So Saheris was already near to being a father at least three times, and a fourth, if the story of Kara were to be believed. It is hard to tell in the case of a prostitute who the father might be, but Heklitis was relatively certain that, if she had neglected precautions in the case of one youth, thinking that he was not yet fertile, that would be the moment when she would become pregnant. Saher had taken her in, then, discovering her condition, and she was due to give birth in the spring.

Heklitis was appalled by Saheris; and did not understand how, considering his recent behavior, Saher and Munduk could risk putting him in such a highly responsible position as leading an army against the Alans in the dead of winter. And Spidios! Was the entire world blinded to the truth of what Saheris truly was: a spoiled, arrogant child, whose sexual appetite had grown to monstrous proportions in the very first months of his manhood? Heklitis found himself clenching his fists with anger, the image of Saheris kneeling over Atthis at the billet in Amysos came back to him repeatedly. Why did his eye have to light upon her? Emotions he thought he had never possessed, coursed through him, and he realized that he was for the first time, completely enraged. Agitated beyond reason, he withdrew from the room where his charge lay, and retired to his own private room. And there, Heklitis, too, wept.

The grim silence of the house, the comfortable dwelling of Petaz the Bithynian harbormaster, was suddenly disrupted with the sound of pounding fists on the main door. His wife, Bellona, opened to the sweaty messenger. "Victory!" he cried. "Saheris El Maduc has sent the Alans to flight and they are in retreat toward the Halys!" Heklitis ran down the stairs, followed closely by Sahelis.

"Where are they?" Sahelis asked the dissheveled boy.

"Cormorin, near Ilitrahant. There was a great battle west of the garrison there, in the fields beyond the wood. A thousand Alans were cut down!" he shrieked.

"Quietly, quietly," Heklitis urged him. "The Khan lies ill above. You do not want to wake him."

"Oh yes he does!" the tired but vigorous voice of Saher followed them down the stairs. "He has done it then! As I knew he would!" He grasped the rail of the stairs hard in his good hand, and hobbled, slowly, down.

"Khan, you should not be up!"

"Why shouldn't I be? My son has been blooded and is victorious!" his voice fairly sang with pride. "As I knew he would! Did any of you doubt him? Any?"

Sahelis met him halfway to the top of the stairs. "No, no farther, let me help you back up."

"Bah!" he waved him off, relinquishing his shaky hold on the rail, and teetering with a sudden loss of balance. "Oh, Saheris, to make an old man proud. Get that boy some water, and let us hear the whole tale. And how soon he returns." Sahelis was grinning, happily, first at the fact that Saher had risen from his bed at last, and then at the joyful news of victory. The painful wait had ended. Sahelis helped his grandfather down the remainder of the stairs, and they sat together, while the old man asked, again and again, for details of the messenger's tale of the battle in the wood at Cormorin.

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Under close guard of Munduk's troops and Haner's guards, the Alans came in groups to retrieve their dead for a mass burial in a gravel pit near the Via, outside the town. The camp was breaking, and the march would begin, this time to Euxis by way of Amysos. Messengers had been sent to Saher and to the base camps to the west, and the troops on the periphery of the battle had already begun to move. Prisoners had been taken, and were being prepared to be marched to exile.

Atthis had at length escaped Saheris's attentions, and had managed to collect her dignity once again for some hours, as they discharged from their care the less seriously wounded, and changed the bandages on the twenty still remaining. Fifteen had died of their wounds in the night, and as is the Bithynian custom, they would be burned on a common pyre in the clearing, and their ashes buried at dawn. The afternoon lengthened, and her work was nearly complete, soon it would be time for the evening meal. She wondered now what Saheris was doing; and almost as soon as the thought had entered her mind, a familiar step fell behind her.

"I need you to come with me, there is something I want to show you."

"You mean, something you want me to show you --" she replied darkly.

"That too - but this first." Once again, she found her hand taken and pulled forcefully, as Saheris led her behind the palisade into the depth of the woods behind their camp. He had selected this place specifically, he told her, because he had been here years before, when he was a child.

"I want to show you," he told her breathlessly, "a special place. No one knows about it, well, not anymore, except for me."

"Slowly!" she cried. "Don't drag me, surely this can wait another few minutes for us to get there without losing our breath."

"I'm in a hurry!" he said impatiently. Suddenly, his pace slackened, and then he stopped. "There! Look."

She peered through the trees, between hanging vines, damp from the winter rains. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"

"You see that building? It is a Roman barracks."

"That is what you wanted to show me? I know what a Roman barracks looks like."

"Come on then."

Another hundred yards brought them to the mean stone building he remembered so clearly. The floor was littered with leaves and refuse,and the remains of rotted pine cones and nuts that had fallen from the trees and through the gaping windowpanes. He paced the length of the room, but no trace remained of her campfire, lamp, or the food she had left there.

"So what is this place?" she asked, annoyed. "It seems like nothing much to me."

"Ah, but it is much, my love," he came to her again and laid his head in a familiar gesture, against her chest, breathing her in once again. "Do you know how beautiful you are? When I see you I forget everything else. I just want to --" she grasped his hands, which were even now reaching for her cloak. "I have already explained this to you."

"No - but the very place," he said, shaking his head, the moment of romantic intensity dissipating. "This is the place I first loved."

"This?"

"Yes, I had my first night with a woman here."

"You did?" She looked around her in amazement. "When?"

"A long time ago. I was just a boy. And I know, you think I am still just a boy, but I'm not. I'm just small. But when I was much, much smaller, I came here with a woman warrior, and she blooded me."

"She blooded you? What does that mean?"

"She forced me to submit to her, she took me."

Atthis stared. "You are making this up."

He shook his head. "No. It happened. She was a foreign warrior, and she said she wanted my seed for her nation. She took me by the campfire here. It is a special place for me, which is why I brought us here to camp. I know this entire area. Not only that ---" he drew his sword from its sheath. "This - is her sword."

Atthis gasped. "You aren't making this up."

He shook his head happily. "I came back and got the sword, I left it here then, and I came, and got the sword so I could use it in my first battle. Now…" he unburdened himself of the pack he carried, which contained blankets, a packet of food, and dry wood, tinder, and flints. "We can have ourselves a campfire to warm ourselves up, set down, and enjoy one another."

"But I still have things to do, there are men to be tended to."

"The others will tend to them. You are an auxiliary. I know - I checked."

She put her head in her hands. "Saheris…" He pulled her hands away and raised her chin.

"Don't be miserable. Be happy. I love you, I want you. I just want to know why you do not want me."

She gripped him then by his shoulders. "Don't you understand?"

"It is Heklitis, isn't it. He loves you, you know."

"Yes. I know."

"So - we don't tell him. When you return to him, you can have him. I don't mind. I'll have other wives anyway."

"What are you saying?" her mouth had dropped open.

"I'm saying, I don't mind. I knew he wanted you when I first saw him with you. I thought you had already been lovers then, but he has just been too shy of you to move. But I wanted you too. I didn't have any intention of stealing you, I just wanted a share."

She shook her head. "You are amazing. You are simply amazing."

"Now, sit down, my lady Atthis, and let me build a fire."

"No. You have shown me what you wish to show me. I will not lay with you. You have your answer." He left him then, to the cold, empty building that held some meaning only for Saheris. And as she strode with apparent purpose through the woods back to the camp, she was consumed with dark emotions of anger and regret.

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