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Chapter 56: Ambush

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?"

Saher squinted 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."

"What makes sense is, that a jealous lover attacked me in my bed, Father!" Saheris spat. But the old man shook his head.

"No. That 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."

Virgula nodded. "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 Ellak’s 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.

"What if," 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 darkness.

"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.

"Father, they are coming."

"What – the deuce with you boy. Daylight is still an hour away. What did you say?"

"They are coming. I – I can smell them." Saher sat up.

"Smell them?"

"Father, please, wake them."

"Wake them yourself, Khan," Saher grumbled, the anxiety in his face relaxing as he realized that the camp was still secure.

"What?"

"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."

Saheris tried in the gloom to determine the intent on Saher’s 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.

Dawn approached, 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… Saheris had 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.

Saheris signalled, 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 Saher’s 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 Saher’s 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 grandfather’s 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 now.

So many 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 the Goths.

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