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
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
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.
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
mans 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
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
"As you will.
Before breakfast I take it? My stomach is in sore need."
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."
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?"
to me, she thought I was asleep."
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.
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 didnt 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?"
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?"
slowly. "But had I been alone
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
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.
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 Ellaks is already
forfeit, if this is treason."
must help him!" Saher declared, indignantly. "We cannot leave
him in the hands of
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 Ellaks old town of Geden, not so close to the
frontier. Much argument was made about this change."
ordered the garrison to be changed?" Saheris asked him.
the brother of Ellak." Guthred, the taciturn giant who had greeted
them that first day at Ellaks 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
it could all be seen as a way to prepare for a change in
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 dont 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 Saheriss party returned with such
suddenness, and they were welcomed with subdued greetings by Uldins
wife and remaining household.
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
Saher, for the
first time in Saheriss 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?"
that, Khan?" he murmured, seeing the twinkle in his grandfathers
headmans daughter. Do you know any headmen whose daughters have
caught your eye?"
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