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Chapter 44: Priscus Bellianus

Arianus took charge of the messengers, who were sent to all of the cities along the coast to issue an printed announcement in the town squares to pronounce Priscus Bellianus freed of the charge of treason and offering him free passage in Bithynia upon presenting himself to the Khan Saher in Maduc. While neither Heklitis nor Saher believed that Bellianus would simply present himself in Maduc, it might be possible that the pardon would make him more visible, and therefore, liable to be approached and invited. But posting messages was not all Arianus was tasked to do, and he spent an additional fortnight reconnoitering the area of Amysos in more detail, inquiring about the presence of the Roman. The people were friendly and helpful, grateful for the success of their Khan in driving back the Alani, and gradually he picked up enough information to determine that the Roman had not moved southeast , in the direction the Alani retreated, but west, roughly in the direction of the retreat of Saher's and Munduk's armies; and recently.

For a time, he could not determine whether the trail of Bellianus (if it was him) led in the direction of Maduc, or Maeotis, for there were few settlements west of Amysos, and few observers to have sold provisions to anyone passing through that area. And without a visit to every single home in this rural district, to every small fishing pier along the coast from Cormorin to Euxis, there would be little hope of discovering which individual household Bellianus may have approached to purchase food or reshoe his horse. By chance, however, he did come upon a well-frequented smithy where he thought it likely that Bellianus would choose to come, for it looked busy and prosperous. Inquiring there, he found the Roman's trail once again, and it was more fresh. Indeed, his quarry was just a fortnight ahead of him, and moving west, inexorably toward Maduc, following the fishing villages of the coast. And none too secretly.

Arianus lost his trail again as he neared Maduc, this time due to the populousness of the villages; but dutifully posted his message in each location, armed with an increasingly accurate description. He did not dare lose time in returning to Saher, and so paid a local boy who lived near the garrison to go to Saher with his news; and continued on with his weary party. Winter had waned into a mild and sunny spring, but riding was still treacherous in the hills, where snow-melt continued to choke the roads with mud.

And so Saher's first message was hopeful but not quite fruitful; still it was more than he had expected, because he believed that Bellianus, if he had returned to Bithynia during the past several months, or had been here all along, was smart enough to travel through a mostly rural, wooded country without ever being spotted by a patrol. This continued to worry him, and caused him to keep his dubious reconnaissance from Saheris for a little while longer.

Doggedly, however, he followed the coast road to the town of Amasra, in the far western frontiers of Bithynia proper, where Saher's ancestral territory blurred lines with his 'new' holding, Galatia. Galatia was still technically a province of the Eastern empire, ceded to his rulership by Julian, and acknowledged by Theodosius, but not confirmed by the new Eastern emperor, Arcadius. By some standards, then, alliance between Saher and the government of this territory hinged on the presence of Sahelis in Ravenna. Therefore, any action Arianus took here could affect Sahelis; and he must be careful.

To his surprise, however, the trail kept northwest in Bithynian lands, along the coast, toward the Hellespont. An unexpected turn - for at any time, he had been watchful for the Roman to turn to the south to whatever outpost or sanctuary he had arranged for himself. But it became clear in the ensuing two days that the Roman was enroute to Constantinople. By hurrying and taking briefer stops, Arianus had tightened the gap to four days; but it was only five days now to the gates of the capital. Then fortune struck, for at Heraclea, an ancient Roman town, he gathered word that a traveler had arrived two days before with a lame horse, and was housed at the local tavern. Arianus went immediately to meet him; and to take him if possible.

He was impossible to miss in this small place; tall, rugged, his boots still uncleaned, caked with mud from his journey through the hills. Arianus placed himself at the table before him and addressed him in Latin. "You are a long way from home," he said.

"And last I looked, this province was still ruled by Theodosius the younger."

"Perhaps by alliance, but not by might," Arianus replied tightly. "I am here on behalf of the Khan of Bithynia, Saher El Maduc. You know this name, I trust. I am Arianus, and I lead the clan of the Sabiri."

"Greetings, dusty Arianus. You look as weary as I. Sit and drink. What causes the Khan Saher to have an interest in such a mean character as myself?" He motioned for the taverner to bring wine for the Bithynian.

"You are Priscus Septimus?" Arianus ventured, and the man spit out his wine, spluttering from sudden laughter.

"Excuse me for the humor, good Arianus. But no, I do not have the misfortune to be Priscus Septimus. I am Flavius, alas, with no family name of honor to append to it. A freedman and native of Thrace, and not your precious Priscus."

Arianus visibly slumped in his chair, and gulped from his wine as soon as it was served. "Then - why have you come all this way from Amysos?"

Flavius smiled once again, openly. "You have followed me this distance? No wonder you look tired. But that intelligence is not for your ears."

"And how might I persuade you of its importance to me?" Arianus persisted, somewhat calmed by the act of drinking.

"Well, I doubt you can… but if you are from the Khan, I suspect you are not alone, and I am, as you must know if you have followed." He lowered his voice considerably, and leaned toward Arianus. "So if you show sufficient belligerence to satisfy whatever spies may watch, and take me by force, I may be persuaded in a more private setting to tell you something of importance to you." Aloud, he concluded, "so you will have to take me by arms and beat it out of me."

"Just a moment," Arianus replied quietly, and downed the remainder of his wine, leaving a coin for the taverner, then got wearily to his feet. "Then I will have to do just that," and took the Thracian's arm, and their agreed-upon struggle ensued.

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By the time Arianus had returned, his clan's ranks had thinned, due to the departure of troops from Bithynia to Maeotis, to strengthen Munduk's western borders against movements east from the Ostrogoth tribes. The Ostrogoths were being displaced by the recent raising of Roman garrisons in the north of Dacia, and the building of Roman towns. Due to the migration, hostilities were breaking out. Munduk's hostage treaty with Rome had not fully covered the contingency of independent tribe incursions, and he was not at all certain that Rome would keep its end of their fragile agreement. When Arianus came to the Khan's house, all seemed quiet; in fact, most of the servants were in attendance in Munduk's guest house, where Eldana had given birth earlier in the day, and those who were not directly assisting the Queen and her household were busy preparing for a feast that night in celebration of the birth of a new child of the Khan of Scythia.

Arianus was brought directly to Saher, who sat with Saheris and Suwetus amongst a huge pile of papers showing the accounts of the past year, and payments for supplies to the army. "Saheris," said his grandfather upon seeing Arianus enter, "there is such in private I need to discuss with my chief."

Saheris looked up, his face clouded by suspicion. "Private matters, father? What private matters am I not privy to yet?"

"Please, Saheris, do not try me now. I am yet Khan in this country, and I do not answer to you, and nor do my men lest I place them under you. Haven't you enough to do as yet?"

Saheris stood, angry. "This is not how things should be, father."

"It is how things are, Saheris. When I am a corpse you can know more than you would ever want, but I am not yet a corpse." Saheris dropped his eyes then, as Saher invoked his death. He did this when Saheris pressed him for greater power, and his ultimate threat was the comment, "I will be dead soon enough, and then your power will be unfettered; until then, be glad of me." He strode from the room, directly to the stables. A horse was his release from anger and tension.

"Well then, Arianus. I take it you have something to tell me, or you would not have returned."

"Yes, Khan, I finally have learned of the mysterious movements of a Roman at the time of the Alani invasion, and something too of Bellianus, though they are different stories. The man who was spotted was one Flavius, a Thracian in service to the new emperor, Theodosius the Younger, as he had been to his father, Arcadius. He has been in Bithynia some time now, gauging the strength of Munduk's forces through Pontus. I apprehended him and we came to an arrangement concerning intelligence."

"You bribed him?"

"In a sense, he was willing enough, since his intelligence was of no great import in his own eyes. He had made a tour of the southern provinces and followed the Alani north into your realm, since he had reason to believe a battle would follow; but it was not instigated by Constantinople, in his opinion."

"Then how come they to be so well armored? I have not known the Alani to be such, heretofore."

"It may be through sheer trade, perhaps with the Syrians to the south, or through conquest in another direction."

Saher shook his head in puzzlement. "I was sure there was some intrigue with the Empire in this, and I am not yet ready to dismiss it. Was that all he was about? His assessment of Munduk's forces?"

"I believe so. They had knowledge of pacts with yourself and Munduk, but not whether they involved a massive military presence in Pontus - it was merely a means of determining what Munduk was about to the south. His conclusion from witnessing the battle and Munduk's secondary role there was that Munduk has a minimal military presence throughout the area. So Honorius undoubtedly sees Munduk as a threat to be assessed directly. Surely he has done the same on the other frontiers, judging from news of the unexpected siege of Rome by Alaric's Goths."

"Or perhaps he cannot due to the larger presence of Goths in Moldova and Pannonia." Arianus nodded. "I know this Flavius was not the only spy at large, but his mission was not a very fruitful one."

"Then, what of Bellianus?"

"This will interest you: Bellianus is in Ravenna. And has been for as long as Arianus can recall, in the house of his uncle who is cousin to Honorius. It is one of the sons of Bellianus who is being sent to Scythia, in trade for Sahelis."

"Indeed!" Saher rubbed his hands. "That is intelligence indeed. Then perhaps Sahelis by letter may tell us more than we could learn by reconnoitering the countryside. And we need not fear some incidental encounter in our own land."

Arianus nodded. "I am glad some good came out of that tedious journey. I understand this is all to be kept private from Saheris still?"

"Yes. Saheris has other things to think about. And I will not be sending you with him to Dacia - you can attend your son's wedding and be at ease for a time."

"That is well and good, but what of Munduk's reinforcements?"

"Laius and Mithras lead them, with half your company. All is in good hands. You and Linnaeus get a season to enjoy the marriage of your sons. If the spring campaign in the north straightens out, we will have peace this year, and the Goths will find some place else to wander."

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