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Chapter 53: Goths

The wedding party rode wearily into the village of Bruda after a long two days of travel. It was a sizable town, with a palisade erected on the side of the village facing the great river. By contrast to the comparative serenity of Berfled, Bruda was a military garrison, with larger buildings for blacksmithy and metalforging, as well as a large number of military style tents. It was a bustling place, and the arrival of their small party was a minor arrival among a large number of arrivals in the course of a day. Nonetheless, they made their way to what appeared to be the headman's place, near the central campfire in the town, and middle-aged man, dressed much as Krega had been, emerged and saluted. He wore a leather helmet adorned with small metal circlets, which marked him as a war commander. Saheris, being the first to dismount, greeted him in the Ugar language, which he had been mulling in his mind during the course of the entire journey from Berfled. He was frustrated with his lack of vocabulary.

"I am Saheris El Maduc, Khan-regent of Bithynia, and heir of Munduk, Khan of Scythia, betrothed of Gisel the Goth, the daughter of Ellak," he stated the mouthful of his title, as was required.

His retainers dismounted behind him. The headman returned his greeting in kind, "I am Uldin, headman of Bruda and commander of the river guard in the name of Rugila, king of Pannonia and Ellak, king of Dacia. I am king of Triballia, and under-king ofrule Dacia for Ellak."

A king! Saheris breathed through his teeth. So, this is what kings look like here. He scrutinized the head dress of King Uldin. Then he noticed that, unlike the homely reception of girls they had received in Berfled, the headman stood alone.

"You are attended by your father, the king of Bithynia, as well? Bring him with you, and let us drink," Uldin said informally, and turned to enter his tent, leaving Saheris standing with his horses. He strode back to where Saher stood loosening the saddle on his mount.

"What do I do?" he said in a low voice.

"Dismiss your escort, of course. They will find their camp as they usually do. Now don't keep Uldin waiting, he is not a good tempered sort," Saher chuckled. One of the soldiers took his horse, and the old man stretched luxuriantly. Saheris waved his escort off, and they were left alone to join Uldin in his tent.

Poor accommodation for a king, Saheris thought to himself, as they settled themselves on low camp seats in Uldin's chilly tent. Poorer by a noticeable margin, if compared to the cozy village of Berfled. And… no sign of any willing village girls anywhere. Soon after they seated themselves, however, a woman entered the tent, her arms full of wine flasks and a bag containing bread and cheese, which she quickly laid out before them.

"No fruit, I am sorry to say," Uldin remarked as the woman departed. "But lots of sweet wine from our Ugar friends." Saheris glanced at Saher. "We are somewhat depleted in stores because of the recent actions in the south… but I am sure Ellak has laid in some good food in Tierna for your arrival."

Saher said nothing. Saheris took a breath, and opened his mouth. "You say that you govern Triballia, which is the area to the south, I believe…" he strained to remember the maps he had so recently been shown by Virgula.

Uldin nodded, nonplussed. "So to speak. I held Castra Martis until my Sciri allies betrayed me. Now it is merely the title." He smiled wistfully. There has been so much change here, I doubt even your grandsire would recognize this place after his campaigns in Thrace these many years back. Did you know I fought under Saher as a mercenary for Theodosius as a youth?"

Saher nodded quietly, and raised a finger, pointing at his host. "That's where you got that ugly scar on your brow, is it not, Uldin? You never could raise your guard in time…"

Saheris caught his breath, suddenly understanding. The light eyes, the sandy hair and raw bones… Uldin was a Goth.

Uldin laughed, a friendly sound. "True enough, old man. Now, to the wine." He poured into the wooden cups that had been laid out by the woman, who had come and gone without introduction to his guests. "What would you like to know, king Saheris?" He then handed over a cup, brimming with purplish fluid. Saheris tasted: it was the same wine that he had drunk to such excess at Berfled. He sipped carefully.

"Can you tell me… how many kings are there in this territory?"

"Hmmm, let me see. Like the Ugar peoples, we Goths are also tribesmen. Villages have headmen, but there is more than one village for a tribe, and tribes are ruled by kings. Now in latter years, many of the Goths and Ugars have intermarried, so their system of clans in the tribe has become somewhat mixed together with ours, so there is a confusion there. My wife herself is Ugar. However, there are many regions here, such as superior Moesia, where Ellak and myself have conducted forays, southeast of Dacia. Dacia had belonged to Rome before… in the time of Theodosius… but now there are - I would say about five territories where before there had been four dioceses, as Theodosius had called them. And their kings are Rugila, for all of the Unari tribes in Pannonia, and under him, the Gepids are his vassals, but they have their own king - Ardaric. Vargainis, for the Swebi - to his west, Ellak has leadership of all the Goths in Dacia and upper Moesia - if he can hold it, and I the east part of Dacia and Triballia, and Ruash the son of Mulk, the Gepidae, the Sabiri and northmen of Moldova. In time, perhaps, we will regain some of the control of Illyria and lower Moesia, and old Thrace, hm Saher? That would take some alliances. We have some good hope for Munduk and Ruash strengthening us from their strongholds, so that we can push Vargainis back into the snows where he belongs."

"Swebi?"

"Yes, those are not Goths, King Saheris. They are another race, and have never allied with us, but rather, are a wilder northern tribe, with alien customs. And some distasteful beliefs about women…" Uldin rolled his eyes.

Saheris was tempted to press Uldin on that point, but at that moment, their host realized that there was inadequate wine and leapt to his feet. "I will return," he said, and hurried out.

Saheris glared at Saher. "Is this some kind of test, father?"

"What do you mean - test?"

"I am supposed to naturally know who are Ugars and who, Goths here? And am I to assume to know their customs and wisdom and diplomacy too, or beg forgiveness for ignorance at each turn?"

"As I say - you will learn. What difference does it make that Uldin is Goth? They are our friends in this endeavor, and well disposed to us. I have former allies amongst their mercenary veterans here, so even a serious breach of manners would be forgiven you. We have all been young and new in the field. Your goal is to learn, to get to Tierna in one piece, to meet your allies, to marry, and be well. So far - you have learned to drink too much wine and indulged too much in Ugar hospitality, but perhaps moderation will come another day." Saher gestured toward the boy's half-drunk cup.

"I would go gently on that wine, we do not drink things of such potency in our land."

"Yes - this I have already learned, father," Saheris said. "Your warning is many days late."

"You may be wondering if they will serve women here… that is unlikely. Goths are not so polygamous, nor do they have as many women to spare as the Ugars do… they have married many of Munduk's and Rugila's people because they have not enough of their own."

"Why?" Saheris pressed him.

"Both sickness and slavery, son. A good many of the Goths of this region were taken as servants by the Empire, when the armies were overwhelmed. They would rather be vassals of Rugila than slaves of Honorius or Theodosius."

Uldin swept back into the tent, loaded down with another brown loaf, a large chunk of meat, and two more skins of wine. "This should serve for a bit longer. Ludda is rather too busy with other things than to make sure the king has eaten…" he shook his head. "I need one or two additional wives, maybe some of those black haired girls from Scythia, hey?" he winked knowingly at Saheris, whose face reddened. At this, he laughed, and bit off a large chunk from the loaf, passing it in turn to Saher, who tore a chunk for himself and set it down.

"Ah - you know the type I speak of, young Khan! With breasts like winter pears, and the buttocks of a wild mare…" he took a deep drink.

"Then why don't you?" Saheris inquired.

"Ah… you are young yet, Khan. While I am sure my lust could bear another woman or two, the women I have could not, nor could my income. Jealousy is a terrible master, and the occasional pleasure to be had in some of the Ugar camps has had its own price, later…" he winced, and took another draught. "Come now, don't let me be the only one at this wine - it comes from your ally's lands."

Saher put up a hand. "None for me, but water if you have it…" Saheris took a flask and topped up his mug, glancing briefly at Saher, who did not comment.

"Water…. Hmmmm… Ludda!" Uldin's voice carried out of the tent. He smiled with a slight look that might have been embarrassment. Shortly thereafter, the woman re-entered the tent.

"Water, for the Khan," he said, and the woman left once again, returning with a large flask, placing it wordlessly before Saher.

"My thanks, headwoman," Saher said clearly. She did not respond, and in a moment, was once again gone.

"Ah who knows…yet still, as mother of three strong sons, all leaders, how could I bring her disrespect?" Uldin sighed and closed his eyes. "Now, it is time for news. What have you to tell me of these reinforcements for Ellak from Munduk and Ruash, Saher?" And the men warmed to fresh news. Saheris, newly responsible, listened to every word, and asked questions. He could not afford any longer to be ignorant - of anything, even the number of wives and sons belonging to a minor n under-king in Dacia. By the end of the evening, he had drained only half of his cup, and his head was swimming with the mass of detail regarding the myriad political and ethnic relationships in the Carpathian and Danube regions. He wondered if he would ever get it all straight in his mind - but it would not be for lack of trying.

They hurried on from Bruda after provisioning a smaller party to accompany Tethys and his apprentice, Numis, to Ravenna to join Sahelis. With them went letters written hurriedly, with recent news from Saheris. This correspondence, unlike those travelling by individual couriers, could afford to be uncensored, since they would be delivered by trusted hands. Saheris spent an hour composing his, including within it his thoughts about Simeta and his intention to marry her; the feeling of holding a daughter in his hands for the first time, his opinions of Saher's new style of tutelage since they had left Scythia for the frontiers. He told him also of his fall and loss of memory, and urgent warnings to be cautious, particularly of Bellianus and the nobles in the empire. He scarcely had time to read the letter over before he was hurried to hand the correspondence to Tethys, who would deliver them in confidence and privacy to Sahelis.

They travelled the morning, stopped for a meal, and soon had reached Oscia, less a town than a river garrison. Here, they changed mounts and headed along the well-worn paths that followed the great river, now swollen from spring thaws, and leaping from its banks in places to soak the shores and render the paths muddy and treacherous. Saheris scanned the farther shore for enemies, but they saw no one. They traveled hard for two more days, and finally reached a large encampment, palisaded on the river side. Tierna.

Horses approached them, and quick orders given in Gothic. Once again, Saheris strained to recall to his mind yet another language he had attended to indifferently in his studies. He had been spoiled by the preference for Syriac while in Maeotis and Bithynia, and had never been called upon to speak Ugar when in Munduk's company. In retrospect, he realized that Munduk had been keeping his own language skills sharper by carrying on all discussions in the tongue of the Bithynians. And now - too late? How well will he fare with his new father in law, his new wife? With the approach of the Goth guards of Ellak's stronghold, Saheris had a sudden apprehension that sobered him, and he struggled to formulate his greeting in Gothic as the last moments passed. But to his surprise, Virgula had appeared next to him, and leaped down from his mount, speaking in fluent Gothic to the approaching escort. The leader of the host replied curtly, turned, and motioned for them to follow. Saheris had not understood even a word of what was said between them. They had arrived at the home of Bithynia’s and Scythia’s new ally: Ellak.

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