She entered their
room in Maduc like a cat stalking a dark hallway, and rather than greet
him with an embrace, she stood apart, uneasy, arms folded. Saher had waited
with growing impatience and anger for her arrival from Ankra, and had
been given no explanation for her delay. This was the moment of explanation.
He stood silent for a moment, realizing that his relief at seeing her
safe and healthy militated against his anger; he had been worried about
her, and had covered it with a private rage; in his private moments he
thought she was deliberately delaying him from setting out; she hated
military actions, or so she said, and had told him many times over the
years that Bithynia had no interests in Rome or Constantinople and should
not fight for Julian or Constantine’s sons to the west, particularly against
peoples who held nothing against Bithynia or her nation, Caucasia.
"Vira," he held
his arms out to her and stepped forward, but she did not come to him.
Something was wrong, and the anxiety that had so quickly ebbed began to
flow once again like a heartbeat in his throat.
She stood silently,
appearing to watch a mote of dust falling from the casement. The moment
He came to her
and took her hands. "What is it, are you unhappy to see me?"
She slowly focused
her eyes upon him, with a gaze he did not recognize. If he did not know
every detail of that flawless face, that raven hair drawn back against
her milky neck, he would have thought her a stranger to him. "It is a
happy day, my Khan," she replied formally. "Today I have given you an
"What - you have
had a child?" the news hit him like a stone.
"That is how it
is generally done," she replied, in a cold, flat voice.
"When?" he asked.
"This week and
more, on the Maduc road," she answered in the same unemotional voice.
"Where is he?
Will you bring me to him?"
"He sleeps now,
with his nurse. There will be time."
"No, I will see
him now!" he said, ignoring her.
Again she gazed
at him, her eyes like flint in the fading light of afternoon. The season
was still quite early, and the sun still fled before the dinner hour.
Perhaps it was the gloomy light, or the strain of travel and childbirth.
Why had no one sent for him? he thought. "Very well," she replied at length,
and turned again, leaving the room in silence.
She returned quickly,
holding a small infant wrapped in white clothes, and held him out to Saher
as though proffering something distasteful. He took the still-sleeping
baby in his hands cautiously, searching the closed eyelids for signs of
illness or deformity. Had anyone attended them? Is he healthy and fit?
All of the worries he should have had for her first pregnancy, it seemed,
had saved themselves for now, and he grew anxious for entirely new reasons.
Had he worried about Sahera this way? He could not remember - it had been
so long! When he thought of his child he thought of the young horsewoman
galloping expertly across the hills - how had he forgotten the babyhood,
the vulnerability of infancy, the difficulties of easing offspring from
this state of helplessness into childhood? It was as though he had not
truly been a father the first time - he had left these concerns to others
then. But now, now... he appealed to his wife with a searching look; but
she stood aloof, cold.
"He will need
to be named," he said.
"That would be
premature," she replied, her voice now tinged with a harsh strain. She
held out her hands for the child, and took him back from the Khan impatiently.
Cradling the infant within her right elbow, she reached with her left
hand to her belt, and drew her sword. "Now," she said, drawing the point
of the sword upward toward the infant on her arm, resting the point near
the opening in the clothes where his tiny neck shone. "I would like to
discuss the terms of your withdrawal from Asia."
Saher was stunned;
and for a full minute he did not speak; the image of his wife with the
blade poised against the child’s throat began to burn itself in his mind,
as though he were suddenly caught in a waking dream. Nothing of her manner
seemed to make sense to him; there was no continuity to it; he grasped
within himself to understand how he had fallen asleep while waiting for
her return, to have this lurid dream.
"What?" he stammered
at last, and despite her stance he advanced upon her.
"Do not come closer,"
she snarled in a low, threatening voice, gesturing slightly with the blade
as though to stab at the tiny throat.
"Vira, what are
"The terms," she
spoke again, in the same low voice, " will be complete withdrawal, and
you will not join Julian’s campaign against Troya. Unless, of course,
you would like to see your only son disemboweled before your eyes. You
He thought of
a thousand things to say, but the only thing he could think about was
how to get the point of that weapon away from the infant’s throat before
he woke and began to scream. He was already showing signs of fitfulness,
and Vira’s concentration upon Saher had distracted her from looking at
the child now beginning to stir. This was all Saher could focus upon in
the wild conflict of feelings before him. He had to disarm her without
harming the child. The situation was impossible.
He forced himself
to smile, but his face was a grim line. He told himself that he was in
a parley with the brutal Hengist, King of Goths, negotiating a surrender,
and placed himself in that parley. This was the mental training he had
given himself to become a diplomat - assess your enemy as stronger than
yourself, and always assume negotiating from a position of weakness. In
this case, it was his emotions that were making him weak - he had to remove
that weakness somehow. He spoke to Hengist.
"Of course there
is a way to meet the terms," he replied reasonably. "What assurances can
you give me of his safety in this case?" he added hastily.
roared, as though set off by the sound of the word. She seized the now
waking child by his swaddled feet and dangled him upside down, now wailing
in weak, piercing screams. "You want to assure his safety? There is no
safety for my people, and there will be no safety for your new Khan!"
she hissed, raising the sword as though to strike.
Saher caught his
breath. This is not the stroke, he counseled himself. This is the feint.
He began to draw his knife, inch by inch, from his belt. He wore no sword
today, but once training had begun, he had taken to dressing in military
fashion, as a precaution against assassination from mercenaries who may
have advance notice of a march. She would not know he had a concealed
knife, and was not looking for it. This was his only advantage.
"My love," he
entreated. "This is not necessary. Please, put the child down, let us
talk. Perhaps you have been misinformed." This is my feint, he said to
himself, as his fingertips touched the tip of the knife, now free in his
The infant screamed
in loud sobbing bursts as Vira stood over him with the glistening sword
nearly twice the length of his body, inches from his bare head.
"Do not call me
that. You may call me Al-Alcal, for today you are my enemy. How can you
plead with me when I spend a week in blood and pain giving birth to your
Bithynian king, while you happily march an army of horsemen against my
people to take away their homeland? I am not your love, and you will not
lay with me again, for you have declared war upon me and upon my brothers
and sons. And your son," she gestured crudely at the dangling infant,
now exhausted and out of breath from his screaming, "will die this day
if you do not heed me now."
"Vira, my sweet,
is there no pity in you for your child?" he pleaded. He forced through
himself all of the desperation and pleading of his love for her that had
flowed so hotly through him for so long, for so many years. "Think of
him now, surely this cannot be greater than a mother’s love –"
"This!" she cried.
Her cool, masklike face broke into a parody of a smile. "This!" she repeated,
brandishing her sword around the child’s head, now purpling with blood,
lungs heaving in terror. "What is the death of one Alan babe to the Khan
of Bithynia, governor of Galatia and Cappadocia, and soon to usurp the
thrones of Armenia and Pamphylia? What are the corpses of a hundred Alans
lying dead in the wake of your army’s pillage?" She struck a calculated
blow at the side of the baby’s head, and Saher felt its scream like a
sharp pang as though his ear were pierced by a blade rather than the sound,
and he watched numbly as the a bright ooze ran from side of the newborn’s
He realized in
a moment of numb shock as the blood spattered the space of floor between
them, that he faced no bride and no lover, but an implacable enemy, and
she must die. He closed his eyes briefly to wipe away the sight of what
lay before him.
"What is wrong,
Saher?" she taunted him, voice rising in strident tones. "Does the sight
of Bithynian blood make you grow faint with fear?" The voice that sounded
in the room seemed unnatural to him; eerie.
He opened his
eyes again, holding unwaveringly before him the image of the merciless
Hengist, and told himself that for himself to live, he must cut this beast
down. A burst of cold fury gripped him, and the loose knife slipped into
his open palm.
He had only the
advantage of surprise, not of speed, as he arrested her sword hand with
his open hand and bore upon her wrist with all of his might to break her
grip on the sword. Her eyes were bright with triumph and terror even as
she struggled to swing the blade toward his face. He then struck quickly
with the knife, a single killing blow between her narrow ribs, and her
smile broke into a low, agonized gasp. She died wordlessly, the child’s
feet still grasped tightly in her right hand, and she feel forward at
his feet. Saher righted the baby and broke her grip upon him, wiped the
mess of saliva, gore, and sweat from his purple face, and drew him to
himself. He wrapped the stained clothing around the trembling body, now
emptied of rage, his eyes now brimming with anguished tears.
How long he stood
with the body of his slain wife at his feet, the terrified infant in his
arms, he could not say; the room was dark with the gloom of evening when
a faint noise roused him. It was Sahera.
"Father, I just
finished..." she started, but stopped suddenly as her eyes grew accustomed
to the gloom and she took in the disheveled room, the blood on his hands
and clothes, the white-robed body between them.
"Father –" she
stepped rapidly toward him in attack pose, as though to strike at the
silent corpse at his feet.
"No, child!" he
shouted, waving her back with his free arm, but she did not stay. Her
blade arrested in mid-air toward the plunge, she suddenly began trembling
as she recognized the loose comb that had clattered to the floor, the
black hair splayed on the flagstones, the white hand now open and free
of its grip upon her weapon, innocent and reaching as though in supplication.
"You killed her!"
she said in an even voice. "I told her you would do this. You would not
kill her bastard child but you would kill her instead." To Saher’s amazement,
she advanced upon him like a leaping cat, and brought her own weapon down
upon his neck with both hands. He did not defend.
It was a blow
struck in anger rather than to kill - had she intended to kill she might
have succeeded; but the blade cut true and opened the artery in the side
of his neck. Immediately, Saher felt the river of his life begin to gush
out from him, and he swooned. Ignoring the girl who had turned from him
to kneel by her mother, he rushed to find a staunch for the wound and
to summon help.
"Gaius!" he roared,
wadding up a strip of the swaddling and pressing it into the wound - the
pressure made him gasp with pain. He had little time. "Hurry! Bring the
doctor! I am wounded!" Even as he worked feverishly against the tide of
his ebbing blood, he never loosed his grip upon the infant. Before he
had finished winding a tourniquet for his neck he was dizzy and was losing
his ability to stand. Dimly, he recognized the face of his servant Gaius
as he rushed toward him, followed closely by his own guard.
"Take the girl
away," he whispered faintly. "Get the doctor to stop the bleeding - it
is a mortal wound. Tend the child. Arrest Vira’s servants."
Gaius cried. He had not recognized the body on the floor.
"All of them.
Now. Hurry. Then return to me, I am in danger." Then he lost consciousness.
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