The Prize

by Nigel Gordon

Gawd, my arms ache, I’m getting too old for this, all the marching, the fighting, the aftermath. Yes, there is always the aftermath. That is something the bards never sing about, the stench of cauterised flesh, blood and voided bowels, the stink of the battlefield that is the stink of death.

A soft movement in the air brings the scent of jasmine and citrus to my nose. My prize is close at hand. Nowadays it is always close at hand, by day and even more so by night. Hasheen, that’s its name. In the barbaric tongue of Hasheen’s people it means something, though I do not know what. I should find out. There is much I must find out about Hasheen.

For now I must find out other things as Barak approaches with a half concealed smirk. Barak thinks I am getting soft. It is an opinion that I guess is shared by half of my war captains. Ten years ago I would never have broken my vows and taken Hasheen as my prize for my bed. Then I was the War Chief of the Kingdom of the Mountains, now I am High General of the Rodan Empire.

No, I was not defeated on the field of battle. It was via diplomacy and the marriage bed that the Kingdom joined the Empire and I entered its service. Hard service at that, it has been nine years of war and conquest. Now, though, nearly all the nations that ceded to the rebels and left the Empire on the ascension of Lady Bragoyon to the throne have returned, either of their own choice or my persuasion. There are now only a handful that resist and support the Lady’s cousin. It has, however, taken ten thousand kingdom warriors to bring this state, not to mention fifty thousand auxiliaries from the nations of the Empire.

Barak kneels before me to report, head bobbing in the formal manner of an Empire courtier. Hasheen’s scent wafts about. I wave Hasheen away. Barak’s eyes follow with lust as my prize walks through to my sleeping quarters. Now there is no distraction and I can smell Barak.

It is often said that a good general has a nose for things. Well there is more truth in that than many think. Armies stink, and it is often a whiff of that stink that has warned me of hidden troops or an ambush. Barak though does not stink, which is a problem. A captain at the end of a hard day’s battle should make an over ripe soft cheese on a hot day smell pleasant. As things are a Trantaium bed boy would stink worse than Barak after five minutes with a fat merchant.

Captains should be in the midst of things. Not the front line, at least not normally, they are too valuable for that. They should be in the third or fourth rank. Safe from immediate threat but close enough to feel the sense of battle. From the lack of stench I doubted not that Barak had viewed the battle from the tent with messengers running back and forth with instructions to the fighters. That was typical of the new officers. No longer were they drawn from the sacred warriors of Um, War Goddess of the Kingdom of the Mountains. No longer were they pledged to the Goddess in chastity and poverty. Now they travelled to battle with trains of baggage carrying luxury in which to live and with bedmates aplenty for their delight.

I had tried to keep the old ways, the way of the warrior, possessing only that which I could carry on my person or my horse, taking no partner to my bed, for my body was for the service of the War Goddess Um. Those had been the old ways and had been for an old life in a distant place. Over the years things had changed. Even I had a baggage wagon now, which carried my tent and papers. It was needed, for within the expanse of the Empire it could be many weeks travel to a place of substance where I could find shelter and accommodation. No longer could I fight my battle and be home in my house by the next evening.

First had come the tents, which, as I have said, were needed in the vast tracts of the Empire. Then had come the possessions to fill the tent, the justification for which was less clear. With possessions came the need for staff, somebody to care for them, to pack and unpack them, see that they were cleaned and accounted for. Even the most junior officer within the army needed a slave to tend to their wants. The war captains, masters of ten thousand soldiers, needed a veritable army to care for them. Cooks, clerks, grooms, the list went on and on. It was, of course, inevitable that sooner or later one of these would find its way into its captain’s bed.

I though, so far as was possible, had kept to the old way. My tent was simple, a sleeping room and a canopied vestibule in which I conducted the business of war. My staff and they were staff, I had the Highlanders’ objections to being served by slaves, consisted of the minimum needed. A groom, cook and steward tended to all my needs. If more were needed my steward would hire the required staff for the hour or the day.

Now to this I had added Hasheen, my prize. I had acquired Hasheen at Tutalow, after the siege of that city. Hasheen is not from there, but from some distant land of barbarians beyond the White Mountains. Taken as a slave late in youth Hasheen had been sold to a merchant of Tutalow and served as house slave for five years. When the city fell, as was the custom for any who offered resistance to our lady the Empress, all its inhabitants were taken prisoner. According to the custom of the Empire the line of prisoners was marched before the officers of the army so we could take our pick of the slaves. They were not ours to take, for the belonged to our lady the Empress, but we had the right to buy them for a standard fee set so long ago that it was now only a fraction of the value of any slave.

Each officer could take a pick of the slaves as they were paraded past to the number that was allowed by their rank. A Field Sergeant was allowed up to five, a Lieutenant ten, at Barak’s rank they could take fifty, my own entitlement was a hundred. This was our bonus for the slaves could be sent back to the cities of the inner Empire and sold for far higher than we paid. One could grow rich on the profits of such sales, which is why my officers moaned when a city surrendered without resistance, for then we could take no slaves.

Although I would preside over the picking, as was required, I did not take part. My steward would pick for me. Good strong workers who I would send to my estates in the east to work on reclaimed land. Not as slaves but as bonded workers, each to work off the cost of their purchase, transport and housing. Then they were free, to go where they would or stay and work for my estates having a plot of land to farm and build their home, for I am a Highlander and have a dislike for being served by slaves. Most of them stayed and my estates and businesses have grown and prospered as a result.

Things though changed at Tutalow, before the line of prisoners had started to form I had seen Hasheen. That body drew attention, not only its height, a barbarian height that towered over the rest of the prisoners who were mostly people of the plain, but the flowing length of golden hair that hung down to the waist. Then our eyes met, in that moment I knew what I wanted. At that moment I understood what true slavery was, for at that moment I became the slave of Hasheen.

I, of course, was not the only one to identify this jewel amongst the garbage that was the bounty of Tutalow. Every one of my officers salivated at the thought of such a possession, at taking such a slave to their bed. As Hasheen was paraded forward into the circle of disposition a good twenty or more of my staff stood indicating that they wished to acquire this prize. Then they saw that I was standing. I, who never claimed a prize in all my time as commander of the armies of the Empire, I who is well known to follow the old ways, the ways of the Goddess Um and her demand for chastity.

As is the courtesy when you observe that a fellow officer wants a prize which you have also selected, most sat down, then when they observed that I still stood, other sat down, all except Barak. Barak lusted after the prize with an intensity that showed upon the face. There was no way that Barak would give way before my wants, so we had to bid for it.

By tradition when two or more wish to possess the same prize the prize will be auctioned between them. The funds coming from the auction are shared equally between all who could have put a claim upon the prize. That day the auction was fierce and by the end of the day I had the prize, though it meant that I would have to mortgage many of my lands in the East to have funds for the remainder of the year. Some of my junior officers’ share of the proceeds was more than twice their annual pay, for which they were grateful. It is hard being a junior officer in the army of the Empire.

Barak though was angry; that the prize had lost was one thing, more upsetting though was that a limit had been shown to the extent of Barak’s funds. The legends of great wealth that Barak had built up were shattered. They did not match my wealth, for who else could pay ten thousand golden thalers for a prize?

So Hasheen joined my baggage, bringing to it the softness and glamour that accompanies those of the weaker sex, bringing that softness and weakness into my tent and my bed. That, at least, was the opinion of many, encouraged no doubt by Barak. No word was said of this to me but I saw the looks and was aware of the whispered comments behind my back. The old general has gone soft since taking a bedmate in breach of the sacred vows. What do they know of the sacred vows, they who have never taken them, never stood before Um and drank the blood at the altar? For them it is just something of legend and myth.

Alright, I changed. Hasheen brought something to me I had never had. It was not softness, it was knowledge. Hasheen was part of my baggage and travelled as such with the baggage train. There was much said that would only be hinted at in my company. Such words were told to me in the privacy of my bed. I could learn more about my army in an hour from Hasheen than in a week’s presentations from my officers. So it was that when Galania was pressing to push forward against Ulth, I knew the reason. Not that there was any strategic need but that Galania had deep debts to pay and needed the profit from the prizes to cover them. I also knew that many of the units had been driven hard to come to the point of assembly and were tired, in need of rest. So I delayed the march of Ulth, giving my army time to recover and the citizens of Ulth time to understand our strength. Both being beneficial, by time we marched on Ulth the army was fit and ready for a fight, the citizens of that city knowing what was coming decided to open their gates and pledge loyalty to our Lady, who, now having a thriving city that could be taxed rather than a pillaged ruin, was well pleased.

Galania though did not get the prizes to pay off the debts owed. That also needed action. I could not allow the personal needs of an officer to affect the strategy of the campaign. So I called an audit so that each officer had to show they had the funds to support their rank, Galania failed of course and left the army.

This though was all seen as softness on my part, that I was being influenced by my bedmate, who I now kept close at hand. During meetings of the War Council Hasheen would stand behind my chair, a jug of sherbet and a cool towel ready to refresh me when I needed them. From that position Hasheen could listen to all that was said and then, during the break fro refreshment, advise me on the options available to me. For, as I said, Hasheen was from one of the barbarian peoples, a people where both of the sexes fight as equals and had a great knowledge about war. More importantly though Hasheen could go amongst the lower ranks of the army and their baggage, there hearing what was being said. As such Hasheen was my eyes and ears within the army and brought to me much that my officers preferred to keep hidden from me.

So it was that I learnt much from Hasheen, not only about my own army but about the world beyond the Empire, the world from which Hasheen came. There, it seemed that both sexes were equal and any could take such role as they liked and were fitted for. Many who we would regard as the weaker sex would learn to use weapons of war and acquire great skill in them. Hasheen had been trained in both knife and sword and in the privacy of my bedchamber had shown competence with each. So I had started to make use of Hasheen in ways that went far beyond convention. I even gave Hasheen a dragon tooth knife to carry at the waist, assured that if necessary it could be used with competence.

Hasheen became my advisor, my eyes and ears, seeing that which was kept hidden from me, hearing that which would only be hinted at in my company. That gave me knowledge of my army and knowledge is power. I could do more with my forces than I had before, use them better and avoid the problems created by the personal ambitions of my staff. It was not a development that pleased everybody, especially not Barak.

The changes I introduced were regarded as signs of weakness. The fact that I now consulted with the commanding sergeants as to the strength and fitness of the troops was seen by Barak as an insult. Within the tavern tents and orgies of indulgence Barak would speak to like minded officers calling my failings and apparent weaknesses to their attention and with them plotting my downfall. But their plots were heard and amongst the baggage that follows any army there is a comradeship which even the hardest soldier in the field would find hard to understand. Those who served the beds of my officers heard the plotting and gave word of it to Hasheen. That word came to me, not as whispers in the night exchanged in bed but as carefully worded reports, identifying each instance and every planned act. Yes, Hasheen may be one of the lesser sex but Hasheen could read and write.

Barak was finishing the report. A bundle of lies to which I had hardly listened. This then was when it was supposed to happen, once I had ceased to act as the general and took off my armour of office to relax and drink cool wine with the senior officer of my forces. This act had to be Barak’s for only then would Barak have shown, to all the officers in the army, the strength and determination to take control. I clapped my hands twice, the sign for refreshment, and Hasheen entered carrying a tray set with two goblets and a jug of mountain wine.

As is prescribed in custom Hasheen set the first goblet on the table to my right, then walked round the table, passing behind Barak, to set the next goblet on Barak’s right, my left. Then Hasheen placed the tray and jug upon the table between the two of us. Now, Hasheen should have moved round the table again, behind Barak and back to me, to assist me removing the heavy breastplate that is the sign of my office. I looked beyond Barak, out throught he open front of my tent at the square before it. There they were waiting , watching, those who supported Barak in this treachery, waiting in small groups of two or three, apparently on legitimate business of the army, but I knew why they were there. Hasheen stopped immediately behind Barak, who, realising something was not as it should be, turned her head as I nodded. Hasheen, in one quick fluid movement, drew his knife from the golden sheath at his waist and slashed deep at Barak’s neck. The blood flowed drenching us as Hasheen grabbed Barak’s hair and with that razor sharp knife hacked deep into the neck. With only three cuts the separation of head from body was complete. Barak’s eyes, momentarily still twitching, looked at me in horror. I smiled, then stood, walked round the table and took my bedmates’s bloody hand in mine. We walked together out into the square before my tent. Hasheen held up Barak’s head by her hair, not only was the traitor dead but she was disgraced, an Amazon killed by a man.

Those officers who had supported Barak had been ready to proclaim her General now slunk back to their tents. They knew they had failed. Not only that but things would never been the same again. I had used a man to wage an act of war. Hasheen and myself stood there with the head of a traitor, defiant that we had acted as a couple, woman and a man operating as one. This was the start of a time of change. As a sign of it I smeared the blood of Barak across both our faces, marking Hasheen as my husband, for we were united by Um, who is also the Goddess of Love.

My thanks to Tyrone for his assistance in proof reading and editing this.

Copyright © 2015 Nigel Gordon