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Chapter 55: Traitor

Saheris woke in the night, in the arms of his new bride. Even in the darkness, the pallor of her skin shone, and he gradually realized that she was murmuring something over and over again, while her hand caressed his hair. He could not catch it until the fourth or fifth iteration, and committed it to memory, while he feigned sleep, listening. He found it odd, to waken so to find Gisel stroking his head as he had stroked hers, but perhaps there was a symmetry to it. Her body radiated warmth, and within suckling distance was her perfect breast… he closed his eyes when he realized a rush of pleasure had aroused him once again, and calmed himself. He needed sleep. When his eyes next opened, he found himself alone in the bed… perhaps Gisel had left to bathe or to attend to kitchen duties… he had no way to know. Then he realized that what had awakened him was a presence nearby. He turned his head and his eyes caught the glint of the knife as it plunged toward him, and he threw himself aside, the momentum carrying him off the bed and into a heap upon the floor, hampered by the crumpled coverlet entangling his feet. His heart pounding, he struggled with the clothes and lifted them in a mass as he leapt up once again - the armful of cloth his only weapon against an unseen assailant. It was not until the pile landed and he stood, naked and alone in the middle of the room, that he became aware that the attacker had fled. Dawn was advancing, and light was filtering in through the slats in the windowpanes. He was alone. Forsaking modesty, he seized his sword and ran unclothed into the hallway at full speed, then doubled back when he found the far passageway empty. There was no one there.

Returning to the chamber, he dressed and laced his boots hastily, then went in search of Saher. When he found him, the old man was already up and dressed, sitting in a chair with a guttering candle. "I hope you slept, Father," he said, trying to keep his voice steady.

"Oh, yes, but troubling thoughts came before the sun. You know I am in age a restless sleeper. And these beds do not help things. The Goths are a barbaric people in their choice of furnishings. But what are you doing about this early, did you not have a bride to attend to?" a weak smile passed the old man’s face. "To the extent you were able to attend with your lack of tongue."

Saheris took a seat next to Saher. "I do not want to alarm you overmuch… but there is something we must discuss, if you could come with me, it is best from under this roof." Saher turned suddenly sober, and peered closely at Saheris.

"As you will. Before breakfast I take it? My stomach is in sore need."

"Please, Father."

The two passed the guard at the front door, who nodded impassively as they went out. At a distance from the royal house Saheris turned to Saher. "I was attacked in my bed by someone with a knife, father. I narrowly missed him, but did not see who it was."

Saher gripped him by both shoulders. "We must have Virgula here, let us go down to them now. This may be a plot. My dear boy, thank the gods you inherited my poor sleep habits."

As they made their way to the camp of their guard party, Saheris paused. "There is one more thing I wanted to ask you. Can you tell me what this phrase means?" He repeated, as accurately as he could, the litany Gisel had repeated a dozen or more times while she thought him asleep. To his surprise, Saher replied with a chuckle, which, considering the circumstances, struck Saheris oddly. "Well – what does it mean?"

"I take it Gisel said this to you?"

"Not quite to me, she thought I was asleep."

"She said… ‘you can suckle me every night, my little barbarian,’ or, you could also translate it ‘wild man.’ So I take it things went well?" Saheris blushed.

"You! Ho there!" Saher called out suddenly as they came upon the camp. "Get your chief, right now! To arms, everyone, and look sharp." The sentry hastened, and soon Virgula stood before them, sword drawn. "Go directly, with ten men, to Ellak. We will remove ten stadia with the remainder. I will give you a letter for him. We will be on the road of our approach. If we encounter trouble, we will continue all the way back to Oscia. Is that understood? Now bring me something to write with."

Arranging a skirmish formation, Saheris led his men, Saher riding beside him, back down the road toward Oscia, with scouts in the woods on either side. He felt they were unlikely to encounter armed men, and he was convinced, more and more, that the attack upon him was not a concerted one. He didn’t know how he knew, but he had not expected Saher to take such drastic action without first speaking to Ellak. What would Gisel do when she found him gone? When they came to a convenient stopping place, they took an alert position, and broke out some provisions for breakfast. Saher had still not eaten. Over the brief, cold meal of bread and some of the exotic cheeses of the Goths, Saheris asked, "What do you intend, Father?"

"I intend to discover whether Ellak has betrayed us, or whether one of his family has. In either case, there has been a terrible breach, which has broken or jeopardized our alliance, and you cannot be put at risk. You can see this, can you not?"

Saheris nodded, slowly. "But had I been alone…"

"You were not alone, son. You would not have come out here alone. It would have been myself, or Munduk, or another of your senior officers."

"If I were alone I would have gone to Ellak. And why did they not try before the wedding?"

"Perhaps it was not to eliminate you but to retaliate against you FOR it. Or it was an attack upon Ellak himself through you. We do not know whether there may have been other violence in the house, and it is now, not for us to know. Virgula will tell us what he needs to know when he returns. For now we must remain sharp."

The day passed, slowly. No horses passed on the road; itself, a bad sign. As the sun lowered, the scout came on at a gallop. "They come! In retreat, pursued!" They leapt on their horses immediately and headed the retreat, moving off the road under some trees that might provide a screen of cover from pursuers with bows. Gradually, Virgula and his party caught up with them, and signalled them to slow.

"Are any injured?" Saher pressed him, and Virgula shook his head. "We were pursued only cursorily, but I felt we should take no chances. I was refused when I asked for Ellak, and made to wait… well you see how long. When I pressed them there was a response, and a show of force, I dared not engage them, not knowing the situation."

"Did my letter go to him?"

"I gave it to the guards who blocked my way. I have no way to know. My opinion is, you escaped with your lives… and perhaps Ellak’s is already forfeit, if this is treason."

"Then we must help him!" Saher declared, indignantly. "We cannot leave him in the hands of…"

"His own countrymen, Khan," Virgula replied shortly. "We are but fifty men in his own stronghold. There is no way to know what has yet transpired."

A voice sounded from the ranks, "Oh there is a way to know. I have been to Tierna of late, and many of the regular force in their garrison are now replaced, and the old moved to Ellak’s old town of Geden, not so close to the frontier. Much argument was made about this change."

"Who had ordered the garrison to be changed?" Saheris asked him.

"Guthred, the brother of Ellak." Guthred, the taciturn giant who had greeted them that first day at Ellak’s house. Perhaps Guthred opposed the alliance, and would take such a risk to supplant Ellak, or threaten him by assassinating his ally. Munduk was not strong enough, as yet, to retaliate against Ellak if he had re-aligned himself with the Goths who were in service to Constantinople. Too many questions unanswered. "Much was changed in Tierna, after the news of the alliance, Khan. But all seemed in order… it could all be seen as a way to prepare for a change in the leadership."

Saher nodded, grimly. "We will need to meet up with Uldin. He will still be at Bruda I should think, unless he has gone to Zermizerga. We will go to Oscia, first. I don’t imagine the countryside has all risen up. But we will find out soon enough."

 

 

They road rode without incident, and with dwindling provisions, to Bruda; but as Saher had feared, Uldin, his trusted ally, had already departed with his own party, to Zermizerga to meet with his brother,the king of Pannonia, Rugila. There was alarm in the town when Saheris’s party returned with such suddenness, and they were welcomed with subdued greetings by Uldin’s wife and remaining household.

"You are back in territory you can trust, Khan," she said. "Uldin is two days departed, and a fast messenger can overtake him I am sure, in a day and a night. They will send back to you what you will need if you wish to attack Ellak, but we are too close here… I would suggest you seek east, since your allies are closer to you there, or wait his intelligence."

Saher, for the first time in Saheris’s memory, graciously accepted the full wine cup from his hostess and drank with some gusto. "Lady Ludda, while I would very much like to send a messenger to Uldin, I have an idea of my own, and it coincides with yours, I will ride east." To the surprised Saheris, he said, "Do you know the best way for a king to raise a force of arms outside of his own country, Saheris?"

"What is that, Khan?" he murmured, seeing the twinkle in his grandfather’s eye.

"Marry a headman’s daughter. Do you know any headmen whose daughters have caught your eye?"

Saheris grinned.

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