Saher sat with
Virgula and Saheris by the dying fire, reviewing once again the map of
the territory ahead. They were well east of Bruda, but still close to
the river. Saheris asked, "Father, is there reason to suspect that
we are being followed?"
into the fire, and tossed another branch at it, thinking. "We were
allowed to leave. Virgula was allowed to rejoin us. We must think back
and see what the thread is that makes all of these actions make sense."
sense is, that a jealous lover attacked me in my bed, Father!" Saheris
spat. But the old man shook his head.
does not explain what ensued. If that were true than Ellak himself would
have ridden to us, with his men, but that did not happen. So either it
was Ellak, or he is no longer in power to do so. I do not believe it was
Ellak, which in its own way is much, much worse. I believe it is possible
he would betray us, but not the way he was behaving. I am a good judge
of moods, and know Ellak well. Uldin would be able to tell better, but
he could not have known of things amiss, with the safe conduct he gave
us. If we are betrayed, then Uldin is betrayed, and this much is certain."
"I agree with Saher." Saheris looked from one man to the other.
Something seemed wrong to him, but he did not know what. Seeing his grandfather
in this grim mood, knowing that they could be attacked at any time, for
reasons they did not understand, made him uneasy and fearful, and he hated
the feelings that rose within him; and found himself clenching and unclenching
his fists. They had fifty men, enough to pretend to be twice as many,
but surely Ellak was aware of their true numbers, since they had been
camped in Tierna. As they spoke, it became clear that Saher was anticipating
an ambush, and was attempting to make all speed to a safe haven and recruit
additional troops to defend themselves against whatever plot was conceived
to kill Saheris. His goal was to get Saheris back safely among their allies,
and to reconnoiter with their troops as to what had changed with the Ostrogoth
leaders, Ellak specifically. And Ruash and Munduk had to be informed.
But they sent no messengers, since it was likely that a single messenger
would be stopped and killed, and they could not spare the men in case
of an attack. And so they proceeded as rapidly as possible, through underbrush
and across fields, the end of their light skirmish line keeping in sight
of the road as much as possible, and scoutings in each direction.
By evening, the
eastern scout failed to return, and the soldiers formed a thin palisade
around their camp. They were still two days from Berfled, which, though
small, would bring them back to Krega, the kinsman of Rugila, with whom
Saheris had already arranged an understanding for his daughter, Simeta.
Such a contract would enable them to immediately demand assistance from
the surrounding towns, and dispatch messengers to send for help to defend
against the Goths if they had betrayed their treaty with Rugila, Uldin
and Munduk. Interlocking alliances were designed to discourage treason,
since the majority of forces could be brought to bear against any one
who did not keep faith: clearly if Ellak had violated it, the risk he
ran was in declaring war upon Munduk, Uldin, Rugila, Ruash, as well as
Saher. He must have been powerfully motivated, and stood with an ally.
And the only ally powerful enough to stand with Ellak against the combined
forces of the other kings, was the new emperor of the East, the younger
Theodosius, son of the dead Arcadius. These details Saher reviewed with
him, pointing out the obvious marks of a Gothic conspiracy in the unfolding
of events, the changing of garrison troops in Tierna before the wedding.
What was unclear to him, however, was why the wedding was permitted in
the first place, if Ellaks goal was at the outset to betray Saher?
That was the part that was so unclear
and Saheris was certain that
Gisel would not have lain with him that night if she were aware that he
was going to be murdered. There was something very wrong with the entire
situation, but Saheris could not tell, as yet, what it was.
he said, "It was not Ellak at all? If Ellak were removed, who would
be his heir? If his choice to ally with us was unpopular with his leaders,
or with one of them? What of his brother, Guthred? He was of no cheerful
mien, even if he did teach me some of their tongue."
"Yes, I was
thinking of him, Saheris," Saher said. "I do not know how well
the two got along, nor his opinion on the match, but the way the powers
are shared with brothers amongst Goths is not well understood. I know
there have been many dynastic murders over time, but usually they are
more loyal to their families." He shook his head. "We should
rest. If Ternus does not return by morning we should expect an attack.
If they are slow, we may as yet escape."
They bedded down,
uneasy, with a heavy guard posted. It was not like the Goths to attack
in stealth by night, due to their religious beliefs, but by dawn, anything
might happen. Saheris lay awake, his eyes searching the stars for answers.
Suddenly he found himself alone, in velvet darkness, without the sound
of horses or insects around him, in some place of dream, and he knew that
he had fallen asleep, that this was not real, and a voice spoke in the
"Who do you
serve?" came the voice, dreadful and familiar. This time, he could
not answer, his throat was dry, and he was unable to respond.
"Who do you
serve?" came the voice again, imperious. Then silence. Around him
then, all at once, there intruded the sound of galloping horses and shouting
men, the sudden whinging sound of arrows flung from crossbows, and he
started, awake, and sat up.
The camp was quiet,
only the sentries circling watchfully in the waning darkness. Saheris
was painfully awake now, and took to his feet, his heart pounding with
the immediacy of the impressions that had just imposed themselves on his
mind. He woke Saher.
they are coming."
the deuce with you boy. Daylight is still an hour away. What did you say?"
coming. I I can smell them." Saher sat up.
please, wake them."
yourself, Khan," Saher grumbled, the anxiety in his face relaxing
as he realized that the camp was still secure.
"I said wake
them yourself. This is your battle. If you have an instinct, then you
must use it. So use it now. I will follow as you lead."
in the gloom to determine the intent on Sahers features, but could
not. The old man was rising now, the stiffness in his body obvious in
his slow, deliberate movements. Age and weariness were taking a greater
and greater toll, and this Saheris realized with a pang of fear. If they
were overrun today, Saher could be seriously wounded, or worse. It was
necessary to protect him. He would have to lead. He turned then, and began
to wake the men.
so gradually that it seemed the early shadows evaporated gradually to
leave the clearing and palisade starkly visible. Every man was armed and
ready, though not in formation to receive an attack
positioned them so as to appear at casual rising, though all were at arms
and alert. The certainty that had stirred him from deep slumber remained,
keenly, and he scanned the shadows of the trees for the first movement,
which he was certain was impending. They stayed this way, in tableau,
for long minutes once they were ready. The scouts had been sent once again
to reconnoiter the direction they were certain to approach, and Saheris
recalled his first battle outside Cormorin. Once again, elation began
to build in him
though his force was tiny, and the enemy numbers
unknown, his confidence began to rise, for they were ready. He turned
to look at Saher, who had mounted and was armed with his usual sword and
shield, and as he turned his eyes back to the dark edge of the clearing
the Goths broke cover and attacked.
and his men formed quickly as instructed. His attention was entirely upon
determining the number of the approaching enemy, but it was unclear. It
was obvious they were outnumbered, but by how much, he could not say.
Their plan was to defend from behind the palisade with their bows, and
if broached, they would retreat to a hill that could more easily be defended
with smaller numbers, leaving behind a harrying force of bowmen. They
could repeat this tactic several times before their numbers grew too few
to defend, but they were committed to covering the retreat of Saher and
Saheris, even if it meant only the two escaped. But that was not how Saheris
viewed the battle. They had been betrayed, and the attackers were in the
wrong; so therefore, it was his duty to punish them. Taking a position
with the bowmen at the rickety fence that constituted their thin shield
against the charging footmen, Saheris knelt and cocked his bow. To his
surprise, the Goths were armed with swords and shields there were
no bowmen. His confidence gave way to a frank elation as he realized that
the pitched battle was already in his favor by choice of arms. Already
the first line of attackers had slowed, stumbling, with arrows bristling
from their shoulders, arms, and necks. It mattered little whether the
shots were fatal, only that they disabled, so as soon as one attacker
was sufficiently slowed, the Ugars sighted another target and shot. The
ground leading to the palisade was soon piled with groaning, crawling
Goths, who impeded the rush of those behind, and striving to cut through
the Ugar line. When the first shields crashed against the palisade, Saheris
shouted a retreat for those behind, and the bowmen dropped back quickly
for another sally as the Goths broke through the now-useless fortification.
In one quick motion
he saw the horses behind him turn, and one broke away to approach him.
It was Saher. "Saheris, retreat with us
it is your life they
defend, let them defend it." Saheris, nocking his arrow, shook his
head. "You said this was my battle, so let me fight it. I will be
with you soon." He turned, and a bright blond youth in a muddy tunic
leaped at him, sword raised above his head, shouting. At this range, his
bow was useless, and he dropped the weapon to parry the blow aimed for
his head with his leather-clad arm. There was a loud clang of steel, and
the blow did not fall. Saheris looked up Saher had leapt from his
horse, arm outstretched, and the blow fell hard against his own sword
and threw him to the ground. As Saheris drew his own sword the youth recovered
and stabbed down with full force, Saheris now forgotten behind him. Saheris
swung with all his strength, aiming, as he had been taught, not for the
neck but for the vulnerable intersection of neck and shoulder, and his
aim was true. The Goth tumbled to the ground, blood gushing from the fatal
wound. Beside the bleeding Goth lay Saher, and by the time Saheris knelt,
his grandfather was already dead. This intelligence reached him almost
instantly, and he turned to see another Goth in full leap, dagger outstretched.
He, too, was cut down by a sword Saheris did not see, but another enemy
rose behind him, and another. His eyes were full of blood, and he abandoned
himself to the mindless stab and hack of the bloody onslaught. He did
not move from the site of Sahers body, but held his ground there,
and gradually became aware that the defenders had tightened in a formation
around him, and that their enemies lay about them in a groaning pile of
living and a larger number of dead. The surviving Goths had retreated.
Of the twenty
who had stood their ground with Saheris, ten had fallen, and two were
dead, besides Saher. These they carried to their horses, and led them,
still hurrying, to the hill where they were to fall back. While there
was still some chance of an enemy rally, the numbers of the dead may have
convinced the unprepared Goths that they had ill planned their attack,
and were regrouping, or had retreated in defeat. Virgula, who had taken
only a slight injury to the shoulder in a sword fight, stayed behind with
the least injured to collect weapons and count the dead. Saheris and his
lead scout, Kantus, lifted Sahers body onto his horse, and Saheris
led it at a walk, away from the clearing. The elation of battle had ebbed,
and now the shock of his grandfathers death was beginning to settle
upon him. It was not yet time to weep. During their march, Saheris ruminated
over the battle and his intuition of the ambush. Had I not awakened then,
we would all be dead now, he said to himself, not just Saher and these
two others. All of us. As these Goths lay dead below. This was my battle.
Yet still, I would be dead, had not Saher taken the blow. I would be dead
years ago, Andronicus, and yet, the moment I beheld the bloody corpse
of Saher at my feet, it was as though my life itself had stopped. Some
part of me continued to fight, in sheer self-preservation, but it was
not myself. It was a long time before the emotion came to me that I could
feel: rage. A rage such as I had never felt before, or since. A rage that
lighted in me like a hot fire that could not be quenched, a rage not unlike
the passion I had felt in my innermost fantasies, the two were kin. Here,
that thing I most valued and most needed, Saher, my only protector and
parent, sacrificed in a moment of impulse. How was it better that he die,
than myself? This, I could not see. How was it permitted that some unknown
plot of these foreigners put an ignominious end to him, in one slash of
a blade? The injustice of it tormented me; and drove me with a lust that
was painful; the lust for revenge. And so, we brought his lifeless corpse
with us, and the others who had died, to Berfled, and there, we burned
them and honored them. And there, I began the plans for our revenge upon
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