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