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Chapter 50: The Road West

Saher refused to allow Saheris to leave Maduc until he was thoroughly examined by Spidios, who had left for a short retreat to Euxis for his own meditations, and was hurriedly called back after his fall. It was with indrawn breath that Saher waited for the emergence of the aging physician from the examination, but a shine in his eye told the tale when he knocked on the door of Saher's study.

"There is nothing more to fear, the boy has a constitution of iron. I also did a more thorough examination of his body, and am happy to say that our earlier fears may be laid to rest, for he has grown somewhat more male in stature and size, and no sign of budding breasts. While there may yet be some development, it would be most unusual to occur now, particularly since he is now provably fertile, and seems to have all of his equipment in working order."

Saher rose and took the physician's hand in both of his. "I am truly grateful. I know it is foolish of me to worry so much about him, since he has only this winter seen his first battle… but there was something about his infirmity that troubled me greatly. And it is far too soon to lose one's heir, after only a single minor battle."

Spidios nodded. "It is not me you should be grateful to, but to Heklitis, and to your boy himself. Heklitis is one of the best I have taught, and his instincts with this youth are second to none. I have little to teach him, and the boy's recovery was entirely due to his attentions. They are of a kind. Which brings me to something over which I have agonized, and which Heklitis has brought to my attention now again." The Eleusinian sat.

"What is it? Some problem Heklitis faces?"

"In a way…I hope that you will treat these revelations with the respect of privacy, until such time as it is meet to disclose them. There are two things about Heklitis which it is good not to keep from you, since he has reached this age, and since Saheris has now apprehended his own knowledge of these matters."

"Oh?" Saher stood, feeling a sudden, compelling unease, and forced himself once again to sit. Spidios raised his hand in a placating gesture.

"Please, be at peace. Many years ago you placed into the hands of my master Apollonius a child you had mercifully rescued from your mad wife, whom you believed was her issue from an Alan chief or other paramour."

"Yes? Has he come to harm?" Saher took his feet again, and this time did not sit.

"Not at all. However, he has come to know his parentage rather abruptly, and your mercy to him, and it is an unkindness to keep this knowledge from you as his benefactor."

"Heklitis!" Saher whispered, stunned. Spidios nodded. "How many times I had turned to him as a trusted friend and servant… and wished that he was the child I had sent away… and now I find it true…"

"There is somewhat more… in examining the familial lines and resemblances, I find it unlikely that he could be so like to you and to Saheris in face and not be of your seed. I see no reason not to make this last assumption."

"Do you think so?"

"Could it be possible that you had lain with his mother at some time within a reasonable period to claim paternity?"

Saher smiled crookedly at the man across from him, and resumed his seat once again, leaning back. "Do you ask this as a matter of expediency, or as a matter of truth? For it would be most comforting for Heklitis to discover his horrifying maternity if he could be assured of a more pleasant paternity, would it not?"

"That is true, but I also ask because I believe it to be the truth. You do know that the infant when conveyed to us was not a newborn… in fact was some way along in months of age. You had taken him from his mother in Maduc how long before you met Apollonius at Illyricum?"

Saher pondered. "Mere weeks - it took ten days to Illyricum - it could not have been much over a fortnight, perhaps three weeks."

Spidios shook his head. "Then he had been born some two to three months prior, which had always mystified my master, when you said that she had been confined while on her journey. For this could not be. Newborns, as I am sure you noted later, are far smaller, more red and wrinkled than the infant who took that sword to the head - and I daresay, an infant of tender days would not have survived any such blow, for his head would still be purely soft."

"Then let me consider…" Saher sorted back through his thoughts of his trip to Constantinople for Julian… when had he seen her? That winter in Ankra? The previous fall, in Maduc. Had he laid eyes on her at all, he would certainly have bedded her, such was his all-consuming passion for Vira. "This is embarrassing," he said, furrowing his brows. "After all of these years of trying to put the cursed woman out of my mind, I now cannot recall such details as this…"

"Heklitis tells me that you had told him a tale some years ago, and he recalls you had told him it was the 18th year of Julian's reign. So it was 378."

"In the late winter… there was trouble on the journey, spring had not yet come… and that previous spring, let me think, if he were born in winter, then - well of course she was with me in the spring, as she always was when she had returned from Ankra… until she went to Thermae for the baths before the weather grew hot… then all this time I had given away my own son…" Saher put his head in his hands.

"Whom we returned in due course after excellent education. It has suited him well."

Saher glanced up quickly. "But you said there were two things…?"

"Yes, it is well you remember. There is something which Heklitis had kept from you, from myself and from his tutors in Eleusis, and from all, but in the events this past winter in Maeotis and the revelation of his parentage at that time…has proven to be a noxious secret which should be revealed to light of day. I had waited until it seemed other issues resolved themselves to the good. And now that they have…"

"Noxious secret? What more noxious?" Saher's voice grew tired now. "Don't drag it on!"

"Heklitis upon his arrival to you as physician was for a night seduced by your daughter Sahera, and has carried with him the shame of that seduction, and the fear and responsibility that he had been responsible for fathering Saheris who was born within a reasonable period afterward."

Saher's face grew red. "Now you say this has all been divined by Saheris? How could the boy have figured this all out himself?"

"His eyes are keener to spot resemblances… also, it is believed in Eleusis that blood knows blood. It is no lie that Saheris has a powerful intuitive instinct… and he had no tale from Eleusis to mislead him once he had been informed of the existence of a twin to his aunt, and to divine who that twin must be, since he was standing alongside."

"Not of this - but of the other… how did he divine that Heklitis was…"

"Oh, that. Saheris is of the firm belief - quite warranted, that no man had ever crossed his mother's path without falling victim to her. It was simple deduction. And upon the strength of this good intuition, he simply asked him… and Heklitis was constrained to answer, for good reason."

"And this good reason?"

"That Saheris even now has a great striving within himself, so Heklitis says, to purge his mother's ghost from him, who nightly seduces him in dreams."

Saher was horrified. "He told Heklitis this? That Sahera pursues him in dreams?"

Spidios nodded. "And that in his extremity of fear for his brother, she appeared to him as an apparition, and that led him to be thrown from the horse, causing his injury."

"And now - " Saher could barely form the words from a choking throat - 'you say he is well? How do you call that well?"

Spidios smiled a long, slow smile. "The healing of the mind is a curious thing, my Khan. Its return to health is heralded by the revelation of long-cherished secrets to a trusted elder. Thus it is with Heklitis and Saheris. As I hope it shall be with Heklitis and yourself. It is time for the remains of your shattered family to draw together in the absence of one of its members. Do you not agree?"

Saher was silent for a long moment before he replied. "I will need some time with this."

"I ask you not to speak of these delicate matters with either Heklitis or your heir, unless and until it seems meet to do so. That may not be until you have come to grips with all the implications of their secrets."

The old Khan nodded. "I understand. And I thank you for your confidence, though it comes a mere two and thirty years too late to suit me."

"There is an unrelated matter I wish to broach as well, if you are not too full in mind…" Spidios added.

"Now what?"

"I think we should send one of the family physicians to join your son in Ravenna. Not strictly for medical purposes, but there is an element of medical caution to be considered."

"Who will you send?"

"Tethys, I should think. He loves the boy greatly, and has recently finished his studies. I have just received permission from the emperor to send a physician to Ravenna on behalf of the royal hostage, as was my original charge to request, and his terms are acceptable."

"His terms? Honorius dictates terms to you?"

Spidios smiled. "In some instances. His terms are that my physician must also attend the birth of his heir who is due late in the summer. It serves our own purposes to have one of our number within the bowels of Honorius's court - if we can. Our intelligence has been weak since the Visigoth occupation."

"I see that. So Honorius at length fathers a child. This must cause some relief in the west."

"Very little so far. From what I am told. There are other troubles, such as a fight over the western throne, and an intensifying of hostilities. That is part of why we wish to gain intelligence as closely as we can."

"You have my permission. It will comfort me that Sahelis will have a familiar face with him. Send him as soon as you can."

"I was considering, since you had plans to travel to Dacia and arrange for Saheris to marry once again, that it could be a joint voyage at least as far as the river outpost."

"Yes -- I will arrange it."

"And another detail --"

"Curse you, can't you get it all into a single sentence?"

"Excuse me, Khan. I am not quite so linear in my thoughts as you might think, I have been on a silent retreat for some weeks, and returning to the world of affairs has me somewhat reticent."

"Well - go on then!"

Spidios opened his mouth once more. "I would like to send with Tethys the young apprentice girl, Numis. She is a great friend of Sahelis, and may prove more help than her master at this point. It will not delay her further studies, and she may be able to gain some important knowledge from the Roman libraries on all of our behalf."

"She reads Latin?" Saher laughed.

"Of course she does. Her parents were both Christian scholars who were slaughtered in the Avar attacks upon Armenia, and she was sold into whoredom in Maeotis after a delicate childhood of serious education. Appearances to the contrary. She is one of the few we have accepted who come with such a high degree of learning, and we are happy to have her."

"Then by all means." Saher paused once again, awaiting one last thing from Spidios - but that was all. The Eleusinian bowed briefly to the Khan, and took his leave.

"Sleep well, Khan."

The expedition to Dacia, this uncertain zone between the Scythian border and the Danube river, was planned for ten days hence, and dispatches were sent by courier to herald the arrival of a wedding party. Following custom, Saheris's primary wife, Ildico, would remain established in the house at Maduc as her own residence, and his new wife, Gisel, would be established in Tierna, and granted a home by her father as dowry, which would belong to Saheris while he was in residence thereand his bride. In tradition of the ulus of these nations, the wife remained with the home and children, while the husband visited each in a regular circuit, rather than taking up permanent residence at any.

Only some of the Goths in Dacia were loyal to Ellak, and others had sided with the Eastern empire, and had served in their defensive forcearmy, under Gainas, who had been appointed Magister Militum by Arcadius and later betrayed him. Many loyal Goths remained in service to the East, however. The Goths y were still feared as enemy tribes by most of the Empire, and civil unrest was rife on the Danube shores, but Ellak had grown in strength since the death of Gainas, and together with Ugar allies, had raided south of the river the previous year at Castra Martis. Ellak needed to strengthen his alliances to retrench and survive there. This was most likely his motive behind for offering his daughter to Saheris.

Though Saher’s was primarily a wedding party, Munduk's son Ruash had sent a force of cavalry from Scythia to join them before they left the Scythian frontier; Ruash was repositioning the Scythian troops cavalry as a support to Ellak if needed, bringing them to the Great Plain for a season. Another brigade of Munduk's troops moved west as the party passed, and remained two days' journey behind. Munduk himself left the march to head northeast to Maeotis, preferring to travel by land with his queasy wife, still recovering from childbirth and on a litter, and his new infant son. Munduk would return to lead if battle were imminent, but otherwise, it was now the responsibility of Ruash and Saheris to support Ellak as requiredrequested. Saher had made it clear to his allies that Saheris was the leader of this expedition, though he did not know this as yet; it was an educational experience for the boy.

Andronicus:

It was the first time since my early childhood that I had come to the western provinces, now a part of the Eastern Empire and no longer recognized as possessions of Saher has they had been under Julian and Theodosius. We left the border of Scythia behind us, and entered a land of craggy mountain and forest, that grew ever thicker and more impassable. To enter this land of my newest ally, it was necessary to cross the mist-covered, thickly forested mountains, the unclaimed, disorganized lands so recently conquered by Munduk and his brother Rugila, the king of the Unari in Pannonia. Would this be a country, I wondered, or a series of nomad camps? The Ostrogoths had only been here for less than a generation until the Unari pushed them past the Danube. I had no idea what we might find, and for many days, we saw only forest, unclear, unused trails, marked only by the recent passage of our own couriers and scouts. It was not a land depopulated but rather unpopulated… if people lived here, they kept their presence well hidden in the myriad copses and valleys hidden by mist. I found myself not uplifted but rather depressed by the lack of open space, the oppressiveness of the windy chill and frequent rain. But that was until we had passed the mountains and entered a great plain which was towould become my second home.

They had been riding for five days after Munduk left them, where the encroaching armies of the Unari had driven herds of hardy steppe horses over a generation before. Occasionally, Saheris would hear a distant thundering sound and look to the sky, only to find it dotted with fair weather clouds and sunshine… it wasn't until a herd came into sight upon the distant horizon, raising a smoke of dust from their hooves, that the thunder was recognizable as hoofbeats. Behind him, the Ugar escort's mounts moved restlessly and whinnied at the distant smell of horses. At the end of the fifth day they they came to a village of small yurts, as evening was closing in upon them.

The men came out to greet them, recognizing the Ugar escort, and quickly the tiny place burgeoned with tribesmen who returned rapidly from their herds and prepared a reception for the party. A scout had arrived beforehand, but the village of Berfled worked until the final moment when the host arrived. It was too minor a place to billet anyone, but the headman, a distant relative of Rugila's named Krega, greeted them personally and offered Saheris and his grandfather hospitality in his trio of yurts, a sort of sturdy tent traditional to the nomads. Krega greeted themwas accompanied by a group of girls, veiled lightly in linen.

They dismounted, the escort to make camp and set up tents near the creek south of Berfled. Tethys and his new student, Numis, went with them. "Greetings to the leaders of Bithynia and Scythia!" Krega called affably, in the Scythian language. "You do speak this tongue, I hope!"

Saher, who had nimbly leapt from his horse some minutes before, saluted Krega and introduced the lead party. "Certainly, all of these years of familiarity with your clans, and our current treaty have required it…"

"It would seem," said Krega, interrupting, "that I may have miscalculated. Where is Munduk? I thought he would come to visit with his brother at Zermizirga… is he not here? I have too many girls for too few Khans."

Saheris glanced curiously at his grandfather, and then at Virgula, the leader of the Ugar escort, who smiled back at him without reply.

"I am sure that Virgula can make good use of your hospitality amongst his men, if that is acceptable," Saher replied quickly. "I will leave Saheris his choice." The Ugar commander saluted in reply, and said briefly, "those who remain may come to my camp…" and turned to lead his horse away. Krega grinned and extended the hand of the leader of the young girls to Saheris, who stood gaping.

"Be polite," Saher prompted him, and Saheris took the girl's hand. She smiled behind the light veil and led him into the headman's yurt.

"I hope you will be forbearing with my grandson, headman," Saher said with some deep humor. "He has not had an Ugar gift before, he has only just taken his first wife."

"Munduk's eldest I understand. I met her before she was weaned, at the wedding of King Rugila," the headman said affably, turning to watch the young couple briefly. "About time he learned our customs, before he leads Munduk's clan. And yourself, will you have the comfort of one of my own nieces to ease the pain of the road?"

Saher drew a breath, then exhaled. "Why not? At the very least, she might rub the spasms out of my back…"

"There will be precious little hospitality to spare if Virgula calls up the cavalry behind… their scouts have reached the Tigas and say there are rebel Goths in force between the Hister and Sardica, and who may cross over if provoked or sense some advantage to be gained. Enjoy your leisure while you can." With that, Krega summoned a serving-girl to bring wine and a meal for the guests.

Saher retired early in one of the headman's yurts, vacated for his use for the night. As he had hinted, he was not averse to displaying his acceptance of the girls offered to him and his party for their pleasure, but he had no intention of bedding a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. When she entered the room, he bared his back and said in passable Scythian, "I hope you have strong hands, for all I require is some knots removed."

Wordlessly, she obeyed and, as he reclined on a remarkably comfortable bed, the Berfled girl massaged the pain from his back and shoulders, anointing him with a fragrant oil scented with juniper. And long before she tired, Saher was fast asleep, snoring heartily in exhaustion. When he was soundly sleeping, she put a cloth across his back and covered him with a thick blanket of wool, then left him to return to her family's yurt. On the way, she went to the headman and explained briefly that the Khan had been served. He dismissed her with his thanks.

Saheris pulled his hand away as soon as they were out of sight of Krega and his smiling grandfather. "What are you here for?" he asked her in her own tongue.

She blushed and lowered her eyes. "You do not know? You are a warrior, warriors must know."

"Know what? Why are you chosen for me?"

"Because I am pure, and it is an honor to serve the king of my ally. Shall I serve you now? Do you wish something to eat first?"

"Eat? First?" Saheris found his face growing red with embarrassment. "No - I do not need to eat…" at this, the girl released the linen veil that enveloped her, and unfastened her dress, stepping out of it and standing before him naked.

"Then I shall serve you," she came forward then and unfastened the cloak from his neck, letting it drop behind him. At the sight of the naked girl, he gasped, and at the touch of her hands on him he grew lightheaded, and put up his own hands to stop her from unclothing him.

"You mean you are…"

"To serve you," she said simply, and raised her hands again to resume his undressing. This time, Saheris allowed her to loosen the clasps on his tunic. By the time the last garment fell he was fully, compellingly aroused by her simple directness, and she smiled confidently, leading him toward the bed. Rather than reclining, however, she led him to sit and knelt before him, taking his hot and now rigid organ in her hands, and guided it to her mouth. Saheris steaded himself with his hands on her shoulders, and a moan escaped him. She looked up briefly, the smile knowing, and then resumed vigorously stimulating him with her lips and tongue. Very soon, he felt the rising explosion of his climax, which did not alarm or discomfit the girl, who took his seed in a single swallow and wiped her mouth delicately, then stood. He lay dizzily against the coverlet of the bed, still unbelieving of this small, naked girl who had provoked such instantaneous lust by her sure sheer willingness and availability. She sat close by, and presently, spoke. "Do you wish now to rest now, or continue?"

"Continue…yes," he whispered hoarsely. "Yes," and he closed his eyes as he felt her hands upon him once again, this time her body leaned against him and he sought her with his own hands, not passive any longer, and his mouth sought her salty lips, which he pried open with his own tongue. There was a scent on her as of some rare wood, and her hair was thick and glossy… he seized it in his hands, and it slid between his fingers like water. There was something exotic, foreign, and sensual about her, and he ached now to enter her. When he rose up and pinioned her busy hands she did not resist him, but with an expression he had already seen on her face, of confident satisfaction in herself, she submitted, and spread her knees to admit him.

When he encountered the tight resistance within her, a sudden, taut anxiety gripped him - had she said "I am pure?" That meant, she was virgin - this was the same as it had been with Ildico, and yet, she could not be unfamiliar with sexual matters with such techniques! Confusion distracted him then, and he hesitated, settling back on his haunches.

"What is wrong, Khan?" she inquired, looking up at him.

"You are virgin," he gasped, the knowledge hitting him like a blow.

"Yes, of course. I have been saved for the pleasure of a headman or king. It is a compliment."

Saheris had lost his arousal, and found himself remembering Ildico, and their first night together. "Are you not afraid?"

"Why would I be afraid?"

"Of the pain."

She waved a dismissing hand. "I am virgin, but not inexperienced, my Khan, I am schooled, as all of us who are offered to the great. In letters and arts as well. I can write and read in Latin and Greek as well…would you prefer we do that instead?"

Saheris laughed, suddenly amused by the earnest sincerity of … and realized he did not know her name. "I didn't even ask your name!" he said, flushing red once again.

"It is Simeta, Khan, if that helps you. I can see however that you are young, have you not had a woman before this?" She sat up and reached for him once again, stroking him expertly with one hand while carrying on a steady patter.

"Well of course I… I have a wife and child as well…"

"Then you do know how it is done…" she replied, 'here, come, that is good…" her smooth hands once again provoked his desire, and he buried his face in her glossy, smooth hair, the enchanting smell of the forest that clung to her very pores… and this time he did not hesitate, but made one decisive thrust that broke the subtle resistance within her, but the Ugar girl did not gasp or cry out, but urged him silently with a hand upon his back, and Saheris forgot all anxiety in the exotic sensations of his new lover, Simeta.

Some time had passed in silence as they lay quietly together. At length, Saheris spoke once again. "How can you be virgin and yet… you are schooled…"

"We are to learn the arts of pleasure, which I have done many a time," she said, once again offering a simple explanation. Are you yet satisfied, or would you like to try some more of what I have learned?"

"Are you… a noble here then?"

"I am the headman's youngest. The youngest are always given. Have you not been told this?"

Saheris shook his head in the darkness, and then spoke, realizing she could not see his gesture. "No… I was in Maeotis, in the army of the Khan there."

"Not in the ulus then, the clans? It is always thus in the ulus."

Saheris was greatly tired, and the langour of his climax had begun to spread through him like a draught. But his curiosity about Simeta's sexual training in the ulu was too compelling to refuse, and invited her to teach him further, as long as his body continued to respond to her. That night, he slept little, and rose from her embrace only to relieve himself behind their yurt, and to drink periodically from the watered sweet wine the girl pressed upon him. By morning, he was utterly, achingly, completely in love.

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