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Chapter 7: The Missing Heir

Dawn crept upon the mountains gradually, driving back the cold mists accumulating on the backs of Saherís troops in the Carpathian forest. They were exhausted. More than one loud curse shattered the uneasy darkness as one after another, the weary soldiers caught a dragging foot on an unseen root or branch and fell heavily.

The missing heir and his abductors had eluded them.

"A foolís errand!" Arrus muttered to himself as one by one the members of Saherís detachment reassembled on the slope below Saheraís mountain keep. It was little more than a lodge, though a large one, with one large room built at the bottom as a reception hall. He motioned to them as they emerged from the mist, to return to their crude camp in the hall.

With little comment, they stripped off their mist-soaked cloaks, and unfolded pallets in field style under the cured beams of the princessís elegant feast hall. It had been transformed into a crowded campground now, scattered with guttering torches in the gloomy dawn, but the room grew rapidly quiet as the corps fell one by one into an exhausted sleep. They had little enough time to rest, and did not waste it in talk.

Saher rose from his daughterís bedside and descended the stairs to the hall, Heklitis trailing him. "Do not stay far from your patient," he said over his shoulder, "Remember, you have much talking to do as yet." The Greek nodded tiredly.

Arrus spoke as the king approached the great door. "Khan, Tirah has watched the road since we set out, and no horse passed between here and the frontier. At least, not on the road."

"Then no one has passed. The ravines along the way are treacherous," Saher commented. "They would not have attempted the woods west of here without torches and provisions, and torches you most likely would have seen. They checked anyway?"

"Yes, Khan. Had they gone to ground four hours off the road anywhere to the north or south they would have been discovered, I am sure. So either they eluded us with greater speed, or they remain near, and hidden."

"Near and hidden. Have you had word of the household? Who is missing from among them?"

"No one has been questioned as yet, Khan, Cliny has gone with them to Illyricum on silent march, but they have walked through the night as you instructed, kept apart from one another and forbidden to speak. They must be just as ready to drop as we are." He made his face into a grim line.

"Complaints?" Saher asked.

"No Khan, just tired."

"Excellent. I will ride to them straight away. Let the men sleep through. We will not march today." The manís shoulders relaxed then in palpable relief.

"You think this is a fruitless effort," Saher said. It was not a question.

"Yes, Khan. So far, it is."

"No, so far it is not. We simply have not yet recovered what is concealed from us. That means we must become more clever, and men do not grow more clever from lack of sleep."

"But you have not slept."

"No, I have done something better than sleep, Arrus. I have cleared my mind of worries. Now you should do the same, and then rest. I will need you, I will need all of you, later."

"Shall I keep men on the road?"

"No, none have slept. Call them in. It is a holiday now. I shall find that boy myself before the sun sets. I am certain of it. I will go into Illyricum. Keep them here a day and a night, feed them well - empty the house of food if you must, and I will send for you when I wish you to join me. It will not be before tomorrowís dawn. I will want Heklitis to bring Sahera before then, and she must be kept under watch as well. You may accompany them, and have your chief lead the march tomorrow."

"Yes, Khan."

With this, Saher abruptly left the house, brought his horse from the stable, and galloped all the way into Illyricum on a road he could have ridden in his sleep. Piece by piece, he considered the puzzle of his daughterís actions, and a pattern began to take form in his mind.

In a light fever, which Saher often experienced while under great stress or on the eve of battle, he often did not sleep for two or even three days, would eat little or none, and pace restlessly and continuously. During these states, his secretary would watch with him, and gradually fall asleep as he took dictation from the sleepless Khan. Saher would then pluck the pen from Suwetusí lifeless hand and resume where the secretary left off, hastily scratching his thoughts as they flew through his mind, in his cruder script.

He employed Suwetus because he could write far faster than Saher could, and more beautifully in his Roman script, translating Saherís peculiar abstractions into language more understandable to his foreign allies, especially to Julian Ė Saher was much too wordy and his language far too indirect and flowery for effective diplomacy. If he were a poet, then his long-winded dialogues with himself might emerge as a poignant soliloquy, like those of Aeschylus or of Ovid.

As a youth, Saher studied all of the poets of Achaea, the philosophers of old, and the Egyptian mystery books of Ptolemy and Hermes. He would have grown to be a learned man, had not his elder brother, the Khan Zoser fallen in a disastrous battle in Moesia while he was still a child. He had no ambitions to rule, and war disgusted him. However, the lot of the Khanate fell to him early, and Saher determined that he would make his life a study. And so he began to chronicle the history of all he did, and kept intricate records of all of his agreements, treaties, chronicles of the battles he engaged and histories of the lands he ruled as he learned of them. He kept records of the tales told to him by travelers who passed through his realm, the names and languages of the many peoples and cultures of Asia Minor and Europe. He made his life his school; and so Suwetus wrote all that Saher dictated to him, until his eyes drooped from exhaustion and his pen clattered to the table before the sleepless, inexhaustible Khanís storm of thought.

He also did some of his best thinking on horseback, the chill air numbing his face to a hard ache. It made him sharp and wakeful, where before the fire had made him vague and groggy.

It was three hours of riding at a hot pace before the rooftops of the tiny capital became visible along the eastern verge of the Drilon river. Mist rose from the dark surface of the water as he approached. He had stayed here many summers as a child, at the home of his grandfather Daner. That house still stood, on the far edge of the city on the riverís east bank, and still served as Saherís headquarters when he housed a garrison at Illyricum.

Every fourth house was inhabited by a cousin, a niece, nephew, or in-law of Saher. His motherís father was Illyrian, of an old tribe of long-lived mountain people from the north, who ruled the provinces of Moesia and Illyricum for the eastern emperor Carus and later for his son Carinus. After his retirement, he returned to the place of his birth to take up the instruction of his grandchildren. This was the custom of the Illyrians. When Saher went to his grandfather at Illyricum, he was told that Daner was five generations old; although he did not believe it. Though clearly aged, his grandfather did not look to be that old! How could this be? It had not made sense to him at the time. He had served Rome for 20 years, and retired in 305, and lived in excellent health until 345, when Saher was a full generation old. He never thought of Daner as old.

He rode directly to Danerís house, for it was there that Cliny would have gone to wait for him. He was not disappointed.

"They stand, or lean, or sag," Cliny remarked acidly, "under guard in the square."

"Have you relieved the men?"

"No, Khan."

"You fool!" Saher snapped. "You wish them all to suffer along with you, do you? Donít do it again."

"Yes, Khan." Cliny dropped his gaze and, without reply, moved to depart. Saher shouted after him, "Change the guard from the garrison, five should be enough. Then go to bed. Your judgement has fled." Saher was angry. No one was happy with him this night, and gaining their cooperation was getting more and more difficult. Does this mean my own judgement has fled? He questioned himself as he stood in the familiar galley of Danerís house, and gazed out the open window toward the dark, meandering river, which was fast approaching spring flood. "No," he answered himself aloud. "My judgement has not fled." He strode rapidly from the house then, and the long walk into the square, to meet the bedraggled ranks of his daughterís servants, so like the bands of Galatians he had faced twenty years earlier. "My life repeats itself," he said to himself as he prepared himself to recite the same words he said then.

Twenty sweat-drenched, mist-sodden commoners, Moesians and Bithynians by their dress, stood at miserable attention in the city square, and eyed the Khan with varying degrees of fear, awe, or disgust as he strode toward them, and approached the captain of the guard. The man had just awakened, and had dressed in haste, and as the Khan arrived he was still making subtle adjustments to his uniform, a provincial garb of cloak and belt, with little attention to Byzantine insignia.

"I am Naser, eldest son of your cousin Bashir," he addressed himself to Saher.

Saher nodded, and signaled for the man to step aside with him, out of view and hearing of the other four soldiers and the waiting servants. "Naser," he said, "do not be alarmed at anything I say. And likewise, if I order you to execute any of these people, be assured that none will die. At least, not today. I seek to learn all they know of certain matters, without any loss of blood or permanent dignity. My interest is very specific. I believe one of them is a midwife or physician who is charged to conceal the presence of a child somewhere in the countryside. I have allowed them much time to plot, but none to conspire together or to sleep. As soon as this is done, they will be released and you may return to your bed. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Khan. What would you like me to do?"

"If I tell you to take such and such a one away to death, take him and put him in the garrison under guard and hold him. If more than one, make sure that they are separated and under guard, and not allowed to speak together. If any question you, or your men, you may appear as malevolent as you wish, and to reassure them of my lack of mercy or restraint. This may prompt them to be frank."

"This I can do."

"This should be over quite soon," Saher told him. He then turned toward the band of servants again, who looked, if anything, more miserable and fearful than before.

"Do you all know who I am?" he said to them. There was a slight murmuring from the crowd. He did not hesitate. "I am the Khan Saher of Maduc, the father of your mistress Sahera, and ruler of these provinces in the name of Arcadius of Constantinople. I exercise supreme authority here, in case there is any doubt among you. These men are soldiers in my pay, and answerable to me only." His voice remained calm and even. "I have brought you here to stand trial, if necessary, for treason against my person and my office."

The murmurs became slightly more pronounced, and several turned to one another with alarmed looks, but no one spoke aloud. He continued. "In my lands, those found in service to a traitor are themselves guilty of treason, and will be treated in the same way. And I am sure you know the consequence if there is found to be a proof of treason."

At last, a voice broke from the frightened crowd.

"Khan, who is this traitor you seek, and what have your daughterís cooks, and laundresses, and stablehands to do with it? How can we be numbered among those who are a threat to your person?"

The man, who now leaned forward out of the bedraggled crowd, looked to be a blacksmith or other laborer, large in hand and strong in voice, and Saher turned his eyes upon him, motioning him to come forward.

"Who are you?" Saher demanded.

"I am Val," he said formally, "a trainer of horses and father of a family in service at Berayn. My wife, the laundress, and my daughters have been removed and forced to march along the road with the rest of the household." Saher held up his hand to stop him as the man began to recite his biography.

"Yes, yes, all have been removed from the household and marched here over the frontier. I am sorry about that, but it was necessary. Come here, trainer of horses, and give me your opinion of this wound."

Val was confused, but at the gesture of the Khan, he sidled carefully closer to examine the place on Saherís throat where a gout of blood had crusted into a messy scab which still oozed. "It is a wound from a honed knife, it would appear," the man said, his voice wavering slightly.

"Do you know how it got there?" Saher persisted patiently.

The look on Valís face was blank. "No, Khan. How could I know that?" The crowd went deadly silent. He gestured the man back to join the others. He moved back slowly. An older woman, undoubtedly his wife, rushed to him and dragged on his arm, whispering rapidly into his ear.

"Silent, you!" Saher shouted. "Stand apart. There will be no more of that!" The guard to the rear of the crowd, as though on Saherís signal, moved as though to intercept Valís wife as she dragged at his arm. The man pushed her off and stood at a distance, his face white and full of alarm.

Saher pressed on. "Now can anyone tell me how they think this wound appeared?"

Silence.

"Perhaps you would like to know," he prompted.

Again, silence.

"Then I will tell you, and not let you stand here interminably in the square when you would dearly like to go back to your home and get some sleep. I assume that you would all like to return home?"

Nods, weak smiles appeared here and there, and a few "yes,", "yes," in the crowd. Most nodded.

"There is only one way I could permit you to return to Berayn, and to release you from my guard," Saher continued. "And to do that, I must tell you what transpired last night as my soldiers marched you into Illyricum. A traitor made an attempt on my life at Berayn, and this will not be forgiven, nor forgotten." There were several gasps in the crowd. Saher observed them minutely as he spoke, turning carefully from one face to another. "Since you had all left, and my master of soldiers who marched with you can attest to it, none of you here could possibly be the assassin. However, there was someone, or more than one, at Berayn who was not among you after your departure, and only you can tell me who went missing from the household. It is that person, or persons, whom I seek. If I find them, then I will hold only them, or him, to blame for this act, and the rest will be found innocent."

"It is very fortunate," he continued, "That I anticipated such an event, as I had been forewarned of it, and had the servants removed, however inconvenient that was for you; I may very well have saved you from suspicion and possible execution. But I am not entirely convinced that all are above suspicion, since I have not yet determined all who may be responsible." He let the comment hang in the air and fell silent.

Another male voice spoke, this one less loud. "Khan, if I may speak."

"And who might you be?" Saher asked him, somewhat more kindly than he had spoken to Val.

"I am Bata, the stablemaster, Khan."

"What have you to tell me, Bata? No one here seems to have much to tell me about Berayn and why I was attacked there, and this I find quite puzzling."

"Khan, I think that is because we do not know. With all respect to the princess Sahera, all of us are ignorant of her doings in the house and those who came there to visit her."

"Did you ever hear the name of any of these persons who came to visit her?" Saher asked casually.

Bata replied promptly. "Do you mean yesterday, or at any time?"

"Letís start with yesterday," Saher replied. Bata nodded.

"Yesterday I stabled an excellent horse for a well-dressed man who said he had ridden from Dyrrachium to Constantinople, and then from Constantinople to Ankra on the Royal Road before coming to Berayn. His horse had been on the road for weeks. He was a Roman."

"Do you remember the color of his cloak or his badge? Was he a soldier?"

"He was dressed in crimson, and I did not see a badge, although there may have been one. He was no soldier."

"Would you recognize him if you saw him again?" Saher asked.

Bata nodded once again. "I know I would recognize his horse, it was a beautiful Arab such as are traded by the Persians. The man, yes, probably I would know him. He had an enormous nose," he added helpfully. Saher smiled. At this, Saherís gaze returned to the rest of the crowd, to gauge their reactions to Bataís revelations.

"And when did he depart?"

"I donít know, Khan. The horse was not there when I returned from my dinner."

"So he left. He traveled for weeks to get to Berayn, and stayed only a few hours."

"I do not know, Khan."

"Bata, who among the princessís servants can you say is missing?" The man looked carefully amongst the faces of his countrymen and shook his head.

"I donít know everyone at the house, I live apart, along the Illyricum road, as do some of the others here who serve Berayn. We only stay there when it is asked of us, for the convenience of the mistress of the house." Saher nodded.

"Bata, go with this man," Saher said, signaling to the guard standing to the left of the crowd. "He will give you a place to rest. I will talk with you later about this Roman, and then you may return to your family." Gratefully, Bata went with the guard back to the garrison.

"I have enough patience to question you all one by one, but this could take until the sun is high," Saher said, raising his face to the lightening sky. "So, if anyone would like to speak freely to tell me what I would like to know, I would be glad to relieve them and let them rest before returning home, so that I may go and find the traitor who sought my life. Otherwise, I will gladly stand here in the sun until the day grows hot, and my men will stand with you. But it will not improve our moods." A series of hasty looks and brief whispered comments passed between them. Saher waited.

"Khan?" a young female voice spoke, and at first he could not identify its source. The small head of a diminutive woman poked up from between two burly men as she spoke. They moved aside wearily.

"I am Wilda, I work in the kitchen. The princessís nurse is not with us. I did not see her after the princess took ill yesterday and went to her room. She told us all to remain in the kitchen and not to go and serve the noon or evening meal. When her guests arrived, neither did we serve them. Is this what you wanted to know?"

"Yes, Wilda, that is very helpful. And what is the name of this nurse?"

"Prisca, Khan. She was brought to the house a short time ago and we did not know her. She remained with the princess at all times, and took her meals in her room. I believe that the man Bata saw may have been the brother of Prisca, for she knew him and brought him up to the princess right away. I donít know the manís name. She attended the princess when she fell ill."

"I know his name!" shouted another female voice - it was Valís indignant wife, face now clouded with a combination of fear and anger. ĎIt was Bellianus. He made a point to tell me when he came into the house. A Roman senator. He said he had just got his appointment, and came all the way to Berayn to call Prisca back to Rome. Or that is what he said."

Saher knew that name. Bellianus was the family name of the Prefect of Rome under Theodosius. But it was very unlikely that it was Priscus Attalus himself who had come to see Sahera - it was probably one of his sons, or possibly someone using his name. He, or they, must have left several hours earlier to have escaped Saherís men on the road. Either that, or he had gone east.

"Did anyone else here speak to Bellianus or observe him?" Almost to a man, the others shook their heads.

"Does anyone know what happened to Prisca?"

"She went to attend to a sick child at the house of Woldavy, in the woods of Berayn, I think," Valís wife spoke again. "I saw her go after dark, from the rear of the house, and asked her if she wanted a torch."

"On horseback?" Saher asked.

"No, Khan. Woldavy is only a short distance through the wood, on the far side of the ravine."

"Does Woldavy serve at the house?"

"No," she replied.

"Do you know this child she went to see?"

The woman shook her head again.

"Who is this Woldavy then?" he said impatiently.

"A widow who is a friend of the princess. They spent much time together at Berayn, and the princess would visit with her and her children when she was well."

"How many children does Woldavy have?"

"Three, I believe, the children did not come to Berayn, the princess would always go to Woldavy to see them. She spoke as though there were at least three. I donít know which was sick that night, but Prisca often went to attend them. But I did not think that she should leave Saheraís sickbed to attend to Woldavyís child unless he was very ill."

Saher nodded benignly. "Perhaps if you all sleep and have some food you will remember more that would be helpful to me. Do any of you think there is another missing from the household besides this Prisca?" Again, the servants shook their heads. Saher had discovered what he wanted to know. He waved Naser back to his side. "House them, but keep an eye on them and ask your men to take note of anything they may say concerning Woldavy, the children, or the woman Prisca. Tell your men to be courteous, to be friendly, to reassure them. And get a fresh horse for me. Mine is about to drop. I have to return across the frontier."

Naserís eyes registered surprise. "Khan, you canít have slept."

"I will sleep when my family is safe. Iím sure, as a relative, you can appreciate my concern." Naser nodded, and bowed his head slightly.

"I will bring a horse."

The sun shone bright over the eastern mountains and glittered on the surface of the river as Saher once again departed at a gallop, this time heading east back toward the Moesian border. They had been near, and hidden.

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