Chapter 4: The Forfeiture

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 stretched.

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 heir."

"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 you doing?"

"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 choose."

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.

"Safety?" she 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 sleeve.

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 head.

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."

"Her 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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