Chapter 8: The Senatorís Son
Saherís confrontation with the Berayn householders of
Sahera had turned out to be, after all, a simple matter: one excessively
curious laundress, one observant stablemaster with a love of Arab horses,
and one dutiful kitchen maid told him all he needed to know; Saheraís
ally dwelt nearby in the Carpathian forest, and undoubtedly, his sons
were safely hidden with Woldavy, and likely attended by the Roman nurse,
Prisca, if nurse she actually was. Sahera had her fatherís tendency to
organization, and he was not surprised she had planned so far ahead. He
had not thought she would have friends so far afield as Ravenna, however,
and this he would have to learn more about.
Suwetus, who was the only member of the Khanís staff to
have had a decent nightís sleep, was awake and hard at work by the time
Saher returned to Berayn. The dispatches Saher had drafted for him to
translate were ready for his seal, and Saher busied himself briefly with
papers, postponing the inevitable moment when he must wake Arrus, meet
his objections to his latest plan, and to raise a small force to apprehend
Prisca and the inhabitants of the house of Woldavy. He thought for several
minutes, tapping his fingers against his chin in a rhythmic pattern, almost
as though plucking on a lyre, his fingers worrying the lengthening threads
of beard that were sprouting once again from his once clean-shaven jaw.
"Suwetus, how likely do you think it is that any of Priscusí
family would know me by sight?"
"I donít know, Khan," Suwetus replied carefully, winding
the last of the scrolls of his dispatches to Constantinople and Thessaloniki
and tying them carefully. "Did you ever go to the palace at Ravenna to
see Theodosius or his representatives there?"
"No, I have only ever been to Constantinople since the
death of Julian, since the division of empire my relationship with both
Rome and Ravenna has been one of courtesy and communications only, not
of diplomacy. There is much unrest in Italy now, it is said the Goths
attack at least once each spring, and the Avars contend with them for
a border in the Alps. They have too much to do to worry about my tiny
"Perhaps," Suwetus replied, "unless they think to abandon
Italy altogether and look for easier trade in the East. That is Byzantiumís
position, which is why they hold us dear; they cannot afford to alienate
the settled nations who serve them well. But no, I would say it is unlikely
that anyone of Priscus Attalus would recognize you, particularly since
your reputation quite proceeds you."
"Reputation?" Saher asked, suddenly curious.
"You speak as though you do not know, Khan. The high discipline
of your soldiers has become a matter much comment in the Empire, your
name is spoken in awe and even fear; and I am often asked what it is like
to serve such a powerful and ruthless king, and if I would leave your
service if I could."
"You are exaggerating."
"No, Khan, I am not. I would venture to guess that upon
meeting you, most are surprised at how ordinary and unassuming you appear.
No offense is intended."
"Then it would be reasonable to assume that a dweller
in the woods of Berayn would not suspect that I am Saher if I were to
assume the local dress and address myself to her in passable Latin."
"Illyrian would be a better choice for approaching the
local people - I assume you still remember some of your motherís tongue."
"Yes, but it does not come easily any longer, Suwetus.
I mix it all up with Greek. It is like Phrygian to me, a language to be
read, and not to be spoken - it is all too literary somehow."
"Perhaps if you let them speak first and then use your
own instinct. If they are involved in your daughterís plot they will be
"They will be more suspicious at the presence of soldiers.
I think this is an errand of wits rather than of swords. Come with me,
and watch from the woods. If there is trouble, I will signal you from
the house to return with Arrus and a small force. I may find myself in
the company of Romans before this day is out."
As the wife of Val had said, the walk from behind the
lodge at Berayn ran across a narrow ravine only a short distance before
another, far more modest dwelling appeared in the shadowy gloom of the
pines, built into the hillside. Saher schooled himself to walk at a normal,
strolling pace, as though at leisure along the local village road in search
of wood or taking exercise at noonday. He was still feeling the surge
of manic energy as he approached his second full day without rest or food,
and his excitement was heightened by the nearness to his goal. Frustration
slipped from him as he picked his way along the winding, worn trail, still
moist with morning dew. Suwetus proceeded behind him some hundred paces,
concealed, lest someone at the house was watching in the direction of
Berayn for intruders approaching.
Nothing stirred, and Saher came right up against the front
stoop without detecting any movement from within. Could it be that he
had managed to take Berayn without alarming Woldavy? The thought warmed
him. It was about time that fortune turned in his direction.
He moved his collar to conceal the now-cleaned wound,
loosely swathed in a red neck cloth. He was dressed as an Illyrian now,
in the loose-fitting tunic and trousers of his carefree youth on the Drilon.
He imagined himself now as a youth, a new father once again, yearning
to see the miracle that was a new life from his own life. For a moment
he remembered sitting with Daner, talking with him about the migrations
of the Illyrians from their seaside home on the Aegean Sea, before the
Minoans exiled them and forced them into the mountains north of Thessaloniki,
before the long, slow decline of the Greek empire and its destruction
by Rome. The history of Illyria, as it was then called, was a fascination
for Saher, and in youth he sat with Daner for hours, asking him to tell
stories of the hostages of Minos and how they escaped to Macedon and later
to the inaccessible mountains. The poems were known then only as the tales
of the Hostages, or Homeroi, as they were known in Achaea, and Illyria
was written into the Roman histories as Ilium. But Daner knew the older
story of their people, as it was known only to them. Perhaps behind that
still door, Saher thought, would be a child I can pass these tales along
to, so he will come to know how his people came to dwell here.
He hesitated at the door, and listened. The cumulative
sound of water, birds, and small animals foraging blotted out any subtle
sound from within. He pushed the door open, with a glance backward toward
Suwetus, who stood concealed behind one of the larger pines near the side
of the alpine trail.
There appeared to be no one about. He strode through the
neat hallway, past the open doorway of the kitchen, which was clean and
empty, with signs of recent cooking. He stopped and listened once again,
but heard nothing discernible.
At the end of a narrow beamed hallway, stood a closed
door. He approached in stealth, and pressed his hand carefully but firmly
against it; it gave way, with a small creak.
For a moment, he thought they were all dead, cut down
in the night, so still did they all lay. Propped in a chair by the window,
facing the valley below, sat a woman of middle years, deeply asleep, lightly
snoring. Her hand rested on a small wooden cradle where lay a newborn,
likewise asleep. On a nearby bed, another child, a boy, by his clothing,
no more than a year old, also lay, but as Saher watched he could see the
child slept fitfully. Next to him, hand curled around his neck, was a
small girl of about five years, face flushed with sleep. They most likely
had had a sleepless night, and though they had been up and dressed, were
not able to stay awake to wait for Saheraís return before falling back
into bed. Saher made a quick visual inspection of the room for signs of
weapons or an alarum, and found none. So, Sahera had not been quite as
thorough as she might have been. She clearly did not expect any intrusion.
Saher carefully retraced his steps from the room and inspected
the other rooms of the house. They were the only inhabitants. Good.
He returned to the room and as quietly as possible, seated
himself at the far side of the window in a companion seat, most likely
the seat Sahera used when she came to visit. There he waited, resuming
his contemplation of his childhood.
An hour passed, and gradually, the little boy blinked
and began to stir. Then he sat up, regarding Saher with the stern, incurious
gaze of one who is not yet awake. Thus they sat, eyeing one another. Saher
was tempted to speak, but did not. It was unlikely that the child had
enough speech to communicate anything meaningful, and it would alarm the
nurse and the other children prematurely. Eventually, the child slid down
from the bed, sat down on the rug, and began to pull at a hank of yarn
that had escaped from the nurseís bag. She had been mending. In a deep
study, the child began to unwind the skein, glancing every few moments
at Saher to see if he was watching him. Saher obediently observed as he
unwound the skein loop by loop, creating an ever-larger, tangled pile
of red yarn which accumulated in his lap and on the rug around him. He
made no sound.
Then the girl woke, suddenly, and jumped up in the bed.
"Who are you?" she said loudly. Saher did not answer right away, but looked
to the woman, to see if she had awakened at the girlís voice. She had
"Who do you think I am?" he replied enigmatically, keeping
his voice low.
"Iím sure I donít know."
"Then who are you?" Saher asked.
"I am Placidia Gratia Bellianus," she announced grandly,
flourishing a hand about her as she sat, legs splayed out on the bed.
"You are the daughter of Priscus Bellianus?" Saher replied.
She nodded. "The eldest. These are my brothers, Saherius
and the new baby Sahelius."
"And who is your mother?" he pressed her, trying
to keep the urgency from his voice. At his question, however, her eyes
fell suddenly fell. "My mother died of plague when I was still a baby,
and I was sent here until the plagues had ended." Then she looked up again
suddenly, full of hope. "Have the plagues ended in Rome?" Saher assured
her that the plagues had long ended, while privately he mused as to her
true parentage. She could be Saheraís; Sahera might have lacked the courage
to end the life of a girl child, but she would have no compunction about
fabricating a story that would disown her.
"And what of their mother?" Saher asked, indicating
the busy toddler and the sleeping infant.
Placidia made a sudden unpleasant face. "The wicked woman,"
she said. She brings me sweets but I refuse them. A gypsy from Illyricum,
my father says. We are in her care here." Placidia piped forth intelligence
as though at a recital, mouthing the adult words she had heard spoken
by her elders. One need never converse with the original speaker if a
curious child stands nearby, Saher had often observed, because they cannot
be held from repeating all they hear, with painstaking accuracy.
"And if I gave you a sweet would you refuse mine as well?"
Saher asked, suddenly coy.
"It depends. Are you a soldier?"
"I have been, but not now."
"My father says I should never trust a soldier. They have
filthy habits and like to carry off pretty girl children to be their whores
when they go to war." Saher almost laughed aloud. How much he learns of
Bellianus from his voluble daughter! Now if the nurse could be prevented
from waking due to her chatter...
Saher rose quietly, and leaned toward Placidia, speaking
in a confidential voice. "Now if you wish, I will go to the kitchen and
find you some sweets, but we must not wake your nurse."
Placidia laughed loudly then, and bounced up off the bed
onto her feet. "Thatís not my nurse! Iím too old for a nurse. That is
Wesdana Woldavy, and she is as deaf as a lizard." She followed Saher readily
out of the room and into the kitchen.
"So tell me who you are," Placidia persisted, tugging
on his hand as Saher began a methodical and quiet search for sweets in
"Oh. I am a friend of your grandfather. Do you know Priscus
"I have never met him," she said. "He stayed in Italy
during the plagues."
Saher nodded, still searching the room, and discovered
some dried plums wrapped in cloth. "Would you like one of these?" he asked.
She nodded, and plucked it out of his hands, taking a huge bite that filled
"Placidia" he said as she chewed hungrily, "I am to meet
Bellianus at Berayn, which is across the ravine."
"I know where Berayn is," she said haughtily, letting
bits of fruit and sugar drop from her lips and wiping them with the back
of her hand.
"He asked me to make sure that you went to him at Dyrrachium
"At last!" she cried, inadvertently spitting out bits
of half-chewed plum in a spray around her.
"We will need to take your brothers as well. Can you help
me bring them to Berayn to wait for your father?"
"Will she be coming?" She meant Sahera.
"The wicked one?" he inquired with a conspiratorial look.
"I suppose that is up to me. I could make her stay behind
at Berayn, I suppose."
"Oh could you?" The little girl threw her arms around
him in supplication, pulling at the sides of his coat. "She makes my father
weep with her rages. And sheís a terrible mother. She slaps Heri for the
least thing. My father hates it when she does that."
"We shall see," Saher replied evasively, and turned again
toward the sitting room and the sleeping Woldavy. Placidia pushed ahead
of him and went to Saherius, whose arms were now deeply entangled in the
coils of yarn. He was twisting about and beginning to fuss. Saher reached
deftly across the still snoring woman and picked up the deeply sleeping
Sahelius. They were already at the door when the Moesian woman started
suddenly from her sleep and whirled around in her seat.
Saher continued out rapidly through the door, waving with
a free hand for Placidia to hurry and follow. She obediently tugged at
the little boyís hand, and he haltingly followed, with the slow, tentative
gait of one who has just learned to walk. Even so, they were far too quick
for the sleepy Woldavy, who was just struggling to her feet as Saher gained
the outside door with his little entourage. He could not restrain a wide
grin as they stepped out into the sunlight.
"Shall I take Saherius as well? We can then go much faster,"
he offered, reaching down to scoop up the boy in his free arm.
"All right," said Placidia. "But let me carry the baby.
You might drop him." Saher carefully handed Sahelius to the girl, and,
hoisting the larger child onto his shoulder, strode rapidly down the trail
toward the amazed Suwetus, who had broken cover to stand, gawking, in
the middle of the path. Placidia ran to keep pace, her burden held tightly
in both arms. He opened his mouth to speak, and Saher silenced him with
"Look, it is my servant, Mellitus. Mellitus, this is Placidia,
the daughter of our friend Bellianus. She is going with us to Dyrrachium."
Suwetusí look of surprise did not abate. "Dyrrachium?"
"We will stop for dinner at Berayn and wait for Bellianus
to join us," he added quickly. Suwetus nodded.
"Oh, that would be good!" Placidia said, having lost her
plum in their rapid retreat. "Our horses will need to be readied, and
my father might be late arriving, so there is lots of time to eat."
Saher felt a curious dreamlike feeling, as though his
play-acting with the little Roman girl had taken on an odd solidity in
the past several moments. However, the brief illusion was shattered when
the door Saher had slammed shut flew open, and Wesdana Woldavy flew out
of it, shouting and waving her arms.
"What are you doing!" she shouted. You cannot take those
children! Donít you know that the child is the Senatorís son?" She rushed
down the path toward them, hands gesticulating wildly. "The Princess Sahera
will find you and then you will be sorry!" she screamed.
"Iím already sorry!" Saher called back to her, and they
strode quickly down through the shady ravine, leaving her behind.
Suwetus spoke. "What child is the Senatorís son?"
Saher shrugged. "I imagine weíre going to have to find
that out. Better have someone go get that woman and bring her to the garrison.
I donít want Sah - I donít want her causing any trouble." He signaled
a gesture of silence at Suwetus over the girlís head. The secretary nodded
and did not reply.
When they arrived a short time later at Berayn, Saher
addressed Suwetus again with his suddenly-invented name, "Mellitus, would
you fix these children something to eat? I must go attend to some things.
I will send someone to look after them shortly." "Mellitus" nodded, and
took the compliant boy from Saherís shoulder, where he was already dozing
once again. "I will send Tethys to look after the babe, and they should
all be examined to see they are fit and healthy." With this, Saher bounded
up the stairs and once again entered the bedchamber where less than a
day ago Sahera had attacked him. How a lifetime passes in a day and a
night, he mused to himself as he looked down upon the still-sleeping girl.
Heklitis rose as he entered. "She sleeps more restfully,
and will soon wake," he said without preamble.
"Send Tethys to the kitchen," Saher said from the door.
"The infant, his older brother, and a young girl all await his care."
Saher then clapped Heklitis on both shoulders and smiled in pure joy.
"Today, I am twice a grandfather," beaming widely at the shocked surprise
that passed over the Greekís face. Then he laughed.
"Now, for a brief time, I may rest. Wake me when the lamps
are lit, if I am not already about, or when Sahera wakes. It may be another
long watch tonight." Saher turned from the wordless Heklitis and descended
the stairs, to take an empty pallet in a corner of the hallway next to
several still-sleeping soldiers. He fell asleep instantly.
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