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Chapter 54: The Alliance

They were led, mostly in silence, to a sturdy building made of wood. All of the buildings in Tierna, it seemed, were wood and of permanent construction, unlike the flimsy tents and yurts of their previous accommodation. They had traveled from nomad lands to river garrisons, to find themselves suddenly at a permanent settlement, which had recently been expanded. This was Ellak’s new capital, tested by battle against the forces of Theodosius the Younger and held now for several years. The land to the south, beyond the great river, remained in dispute, but markets had been opened at Oscia and further west on this uneasy frontier, and the land here, at least had now become settled. Farms were under cultivation on the northern side of the town, and oxen labored before ploughs pulling blades through the dense earth.

No headman greeted them outside the door, but Saheris and his grandfather were conducted within by a taciturn warrior armed with an impressive sword that bumped at his knee when he strode forward. When they were within, a warm candlelight greeted them in the meeting hall, and a spare, thin man, nearly as old in appearance as Saher himself, rose and came to greet them, alone.

Saher raised his hand in a native salute and grasped the elbow of the old man. "Ellak, so many years have passed, you are starting to look like me!" To Saheris’s surprise, Saher greeted the Goth in Scythian.

"My old friend Saher. And this is the young Saheris. Well met, King Saheris!" Ellak grasped Saheris by his left arm and squeezed the elbow firmly. "At least Gisel can stop fretting that her husband will be an ugly barbarian from Maeotis, then," Ellak squinted slightly as though to gauge a reaction from Saher, and peered at him briefly. "You know about this, I should think."

"Oh, that you had tried to promise her to Ruash and she found him ugly?" Saher laughed briefly. "I always thought there was more to this story."

"Well there was, but that is all I said to Munduk. Shall we sit? Are you hungry?" Once again, Saheris found himself observing yet another variation of formal greetings with a political ally, but in this case, Ellak was the king of the entire territory they had traversed since crossing the borders of Moldova into Dacia. And the other difference was his distraction by the promise of a story of why Gisel had come to be betrothed to Saheris rather than to Ruash; for it could not be true that Ruash was an ugly barbarian, any more than he was. Ruash was well liked by his men, and attracted his own share of attention from women when they had trained together in Maeotis. Yet he did wonder still why Ruash had not married, though he was many years older than Saheris and his brother.

As they broke bread over the meal, this time it was not the wife of Ellak but soldiers who served them, who at all times were armed with swords and leather armor, Ellak once again opened the subject of Gisel and Ruash, and the treaty that had not been made with Munduk.

"So let me see, where were we? We have a treaty of alliance now, it is fair for you to know all, and how I come to have offered my daughter to you in preference to Ruash."

Saher nodded sagely. "As you know, Munduk has placed Saheris in his kingdom as his heir to Scythia."

"As I do in offering my only daughter and Dacia Ripensis to Saheris. One day when all the old men are gone you will be the king of a large territory, Saheris. If you can hold it – that is the key."

Saheris said nothing, and felt uneasy at these revelations. After a short pause, Ellak continued, taking a deep draught from his wine. "Yes, well, as you know Ruash has been fortifying the Dacian frontier to the east, and I have had both him and Uldin to help with the raids on Moesia these summers past. Much to the dismay of our new Emperor, but he is pressed too hard by the Persians on his east and by his uncle in the west for troops to hold Africa. This land is ripe for plucking, as long as we do not pluck too hard that we kill the goose. I believe that if you are willing to do as Ruash had done these summers past in supplying a force to keep the border secure and help with our raids, we can both keep the markets open and obtain more territories south of the Duna which are good agriculturally. There is no need for our Roman neighbors to know we work in concert – I could appeal to him through our Gothic treaties for land to expand under pressure of Scythia. Or Moldova for that matter. It is known to Constantinople that Ruash perhaps conducts his own raids for his own purpose and not to advance my aims."

"But there has been an understanding, no?" Saher asked.

"Of course – between us. But it was agreed to appear that we were not of any closer alliance. We might have done, were it not for one peculiarity."

"What peculiarity is this?"

"Ruash himself. He knows I desired an heir for Dacia."

"I do not understand," Saheris broke in. "Ruash –"

"Does not prefer women. And would not agree to accommodate the terms of the treaty."

Saher, caught in the midst of a bite of meat, made a choking sound. "You don’t say," he said, chuckling.

Ellak continued on, matter of fact. "I trust that is not a problem with Saheris. Has Saheris not already…"

"Of course that is not a problem with me!" Saheris spat. He found himself deeply disturbed by Ellak’s revelation. The Goth betrayed a slow smile behind his wine cup.

"Of course not. But why are you angry? I was not truly implying you were not a normal man… and I thought surely had you been in Maeotis…"

Saheris colored with embarrassment. "This was not mentioned. That is – Ruash never revealed any such things to me, or to anyone else that I knew of."

"I see. Not unusual.," Ellak made a dismissing motion, then fastened an eye on Saheris and began to speak once again. This time, however, he spoke a spate of Gothic that sounded like a vague cursing, full of harsh sounds. There was a brief pause, then Saher replied in the same tongue, his face and tone of voice indicating a negative reply.

"So – you do not have our tongue. Do you wish an interpreter then, young Saheris, for your meeting with your bride?" Saheris exchanged quick looks with Saher, who nodded slightly.

"This was not in the treaty, Ellak. I am sure he will pick up the language adequately to make his way in your kingdom and fulfill his duty," Saher said gravely.

The Goth king nodded, dropping his eyes. "I was hoping the girl would have some chance to speak with him. But that will not be possible I see. How unfortunate."

Saheris raised his head. "What do you propose to do?" he asked Ellak.

"Some lessons in our tongue, perhaps, at least so that you can talk with the girl the slightest bit. Gisel is very young, and to be married to a man who knows not a word of her language – it could be very trying…" he smiled briefly.

"And how long for these lessons?" Saher interrupted.

"A few days, perhaps. Of course, we will proceed with introductions…" Ellak stood and signaled for his guard to bring more wine. While they had been talking, Ellak had been drinking steadily. Saheris’s cup still stood mostly full, a reflection of his new caution in matters of drinking in foreign lands. The day was still bright, but preparations were being made for a meal.

"I agree, it would be the right thing to do," replied Saheris.

"But for now, will you dine? This is our main hall, new-built from when we made Tierna a permanent settlement. I have my own house beyond, but this is where formal meetings and meals will occur, including the wedding. Food will be fixed shortly, I can have Guthred show you to some rooms?"

Saher nodded, and the two road-weary Bithynians exited with the taciturn guard.

 

Saheris woke, his mind still full of curious guttural words that were meant to communicate to his new bride, Gisel, the meaningful Gothic phrases that would seal his alliance and get him through his wedding and compulsory sexual rite. Dawn had not yet arrived. Around him were the trappings of Gothic royalty, utterly different than those of Maduc, or even of Maeotis… hunting trophies of stag and bear, swords and axes bedecked the walls, paneled with dark wood of the Dacian forest. A silver paring knife lay on the table near the bed, with the remnants of a casual meal of fruit and the plentiful cheeses the Goths imported from the west.

It was his wedding day: again.

Unlike the Bithynians, the Goths prepared a rather spare ceremony, and this, with religious rites to be performed in the morning, and a meal at midday. Guthred, Ellak’s youngest brother and retainer, had gone through the ceremony with Saheris, with Saher acting as interpreter, but their goal was to expose Saheris to as much Gothic speech as possible. His language skills were not keen, but his pronunciation was adequate. It all seemed like much too much trouble to go through, and he daydreamed repeatedly of his sleepless night with Simeta while the Goths spat what sounded like continuous streams of curses at one another in friendly tones. At last he raised his head, when the silence in the room lengthened.

"Koenig…" Guthred was saying. That meant him. It was time to begin the wedding ceremony.

Gisel was not a slight girl, despite Munduk’s initial description. She overtopped Saheris by a half a cubit, with gold, almost reddish hair almost as thick in its braid as his wrist. He felt like a boy beside her, and his discomfort was palpable. He had not felt this uncomfortable since he had come into the presence of Munduk’s wife Eldana, whom he had first mistaken for a Gepidae. She was quiet, almost sluggish, and did not look directly at Saheris, even when his eyes met hers in passing. It was clear that she was painfully shy, and this transformed Saheris’s discomfort to open anxiety. Too soon, the ritual of fertility and flower throwing had ended, the cakes were eaten, and the couple was led off to the wedding meal, which Saheris had no heart to eat, but for the sake of his bride, and the sharp-eyed Ellak, he politely broke off little pieces of meat, deceptively thick slices of bread, and a hearty glass of wine. Only this latter did he consume with any taste, since drunkenness was his mission of the moment. For he might be able to accomplish inebriated what he certainly could not with his stomach quivering as it was, and the brutish sound of the wedding party conversing seated at the royal table around him, a hearty number of twenty or more rawboned Goths with red, wine-bright faces, made him feel small and foreign. Even Saher, in age, seemed to shrink in the presence of these warriors. Being among them would take getting used to.

The remainder of the meal passed in a blur, and the Goths, seeing Saheris’s intent, pressed more and more of the sweet wine on to him until the heady feeling of intoxication hit him like a blow. And hands moved around him, and candles were lighted, and the evening fell in a suddenly darkened room where the red-haired Goth girl waited quietly, motionless, upon a snow white coverlet. His eyes locked upon hers, and he reached within the dimness of his roaring brain for a phrase he had practiced a hundred or more times in Gothic. "Come here beside me," and patted the place next to where he sat. He attempted a smile, which he knew must be crooked. She rose, her pale face still with trepidation, and mumbled in reply as she approached and sat.

Despite her size, he barely felt her sit on the pallet next to him. He reached for the clasp on her gown and pushed it gently aside, and put his lips against her neck, breathing. If only the smell of a female were all it took to arouse him, if only she would refrain from speaking! His thoughts raced, and for the first time ever he could not imagine making love to a girl he had just sat beside, and in some place very far from him, he realized there was a limit to his passion, it was in the sheer bulk and blondness of these strange people, their repulsive tongue. And when he raised his head he saw the glistening of bright tears standing in Gisel’s eyes, brimming onto her blushing cheeks, and her shoulders heaved as she began to weep. He put a hand around her shoulder and spoke, this time in Greek, "shhhh, it’s all right, do not be afraid…. Everything will be all right," and she clung to him in grief as she would not in passion. He murmured into her hair, and stroked her cheek, and presently, had the notion to unravel the knot that was the braid that cascaded down her back, until the red-gold hair lay like a curtain around her shoulders, and he buried his face in its sensuousness and breathed. The sobs had ceased, and it took little to induce her to lie on the bed, where he lay beside her, stroking the luxurious mane of hair. She was like an exotic horse, exquisitely groomed, and so he stroked her hair as he would his mare, soothing her with the nonsense sounds a soldier uses with his horse when she is shaken from battle, for his life depends upon her trust, her temper, her strength.

If only it were that simple…for when he roused himself from the hypnotic rhythm of his hand upon her hair and raised upon an elbow, he realized that the terrified girl had not only relaxed, but gone to sleep. He dared not alarm her with a sudden motion, so he spoke, softly, in her tongue, and said her name, and the pellucid blue eyes opened and she stared into his eyes, perhaps for the first time. The panic he saw written there was unmistakable. "Darling… he stumbled over the phrase he knew he would need, "we must do this, for your father," and she nodded, silently, and slipped the gown from her shoulders obediently, trembling from head to foot, and lay back down, motionless.

Eyes, I do not know what the word is for eyes, he thought to himself as he removed his clothes. Just close your eyes, he thought to himself, and knelt over her supine form. She closed her eyes. It was much easier then, first to stop the trembling, and then stroke her body, at first soothingly and then with more intent, all of his attention focused now upon what he had learned with all the women he had lain with in Maeotis, and his petulant wife Ildico, of the moods of a woman’s body, the appetites that could be aroused with the proper attention, for there was always a pattern…. For each one, some slight difference, but in all a certain commonality which matched his own preference, her breasts. For some indefinite period past his own moment of arousal he caressed them, and then took each now-hard nipple in his mouth and sucked until he felt the movement that he knew must come, her hands upon his head with the slightest urging motion, and that was his signal. There was no reason for haste. At length he raised his head and whispered, in broken Gothic, ‘do you want me now?’ and she did not reply, she did not have to, for her body replied unambiguously. And the feast had long disbanded by the time Saheris staggered slightly from the wedding chamber with the stained cloth of his alliance with the Goths. A sweeter victory from such a pitched battle had never before been wrought.

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