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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 realm."

"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 suspicious."

"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 not.

"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 the kitchen.

"Oh. I am a friend of your grandfather. Do you know Priscus Attalus?"

"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 her mouth.

"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 right away."

"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.

"Yes, her."

"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 a look.

"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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