The sun should have long ago risen, but through the shroud of fog blanketing the plains, not a single ray of light could penetrate. It was, after all, right in the middle of the tenth month, when the autumnal sun grew ever weaker. Nor was there the slightest hint of wind. Indeed, it was a most uncommon sight for the usual climes of Pars — fog so thick that it did not seem it would disperse any time soon.
Arslan, the son of King Andragoras III of Pars, gently patted his uneasy mount. As this was his first time participating in battle, Arslan was somewhat nervous himself. However, he understood that if he did not keep his horse calm, he would be unable to act at all when the time came.
That being said, just what on earth was this fog? The slow roll of plains stretching on and on into the distance, the sharp rise of snow-covered peaks to the far north: all was concealed, no longer visible to the eye.
Hoofbeats sounded from the right, materializing into an elderly knight in full armor. It was Eran1 Vahriz of Pars. Though he was already sixty-five years of age, his body was honed from long years of riding to war or to the hunt.
“So that’s where you ran off to, Your Highness. Don’t wander too far from His Majesty’s main battalion, now. It’s no joke getting lost under conditions like this.”
“Vahriz, is this fog not disadvantageous to our troops?” Arslan asked the old knight. Under his helm, the prince’s luminous eyes flashed dark as the clear night sky.
“Whether fog or darkness of night,” replied Vahriz, laughing, “or even a great blizzard — nothing can halt the advance of the horsemen of Pars. Please, do not trouble yourself, Your Highness. Ever since your father the king took the throne, the armies of Pars have known no defeat!”
But the fourteen-year-old prince was unable to accept such heedless confidence from his elder. Had not the old man just warned him of the dangers of getting lost? With their pace slowed down by this thick fog, were not the very strengths of the cavalry now hampered?
“Come now, you’re fretting even more than an old geezer like me! All 85,000 of our cavalrymen know the terrain of Atropatene like the backs of their hands. Those Lusitanian barbarians, on the other hand, hail from more than 400 farsangs2 away. They don’t know the lay of the land at all. They’ve basically come all this way to some distant foreign country just to dig their own graves!”
Arslan brushed his fingers against the hilt of the shortsword at his waist. Then he stopped and said, “Not long ago, the Kingdom of Maryam was destroyed by the Lusitanians. To the Lusitanians, was not Maryam also a distant foreign country?”
Just as the old man was about to unleash a rebuttal to his overly pedantic prince, another knight emerged from the murk and called out.
“Eran Vahriz! Please hurry back to the main battalion!”
“Are we preparing to sortie then, Lord Qaran?”
The middle-aged knight shook his head. The red tassel on his helmet jerked with the movement. “No, it’s your nephew. There’s trouble.”
“Yes. His Majesty the king is furious. He’s saying he’ll strip Dariun of his command. But Lord Dariun is one of our kingdom’s finest heroes…”
“Marde-e mardan. A man among men. I know.”
“It’ll affect the troops’ morale if something like this really happens just as we’re about to deploy. Eran, please! You must placate His Majesty somehow!”
“What a pain in the ass he is, that Dariun!” Although the old man was indeed angered, his words belied the boundless depths of affection he held for his nephew.
Following Qaran’s lead, Arslan and Vahriz urged their horses into a gallop across the plains, through the shadowy fog.
Shah Andragoras III of Pars was forty-four years of age. His profuse black beard and razor-sharp gaze bespoke of the brimming vigor of a general who had gone sixteen years without a single defeat. He stood as tall as a horse, with a tiger’s shoulders and a bear’s waist. At thirteen he had defeated a lion single-handedly, earning the title of Shergir, “Lion-Hunter”; by fourteen, he had participated in his first battle and become Mardan, a full-fledged warrior. He was a man most suited to commanding the vast forces of Pars: 125,000 horsemen and 300,000 footsoldiers in all.
Said king was currently located in a luxurious silk tent in the main encampment, trembling with anger. A single armored young man knelt before him. This man was Eran Vahriz’s nephew Dariun, who was, at twenty-seven years of age, the youngest of the only twelve Marzbans in the entire army.
A marzban was a general with ten thousand mounted warriors under his command. In Pars, the cavalry had always been venerated over the infantry. All cavalry officers were of the knighted azadan caste, while their subordinates were azat freemen; on the other hand, even infantry officers were mere azat, while the rest were but ghulam, or slaves. Under the military hierarchy, a marzban was essentially second only to wispuhran, the royalty. For Dariun to have reached the rank of Marzban at a mere twenty-seven, one could easily imagine just what a bold figure he must be.
“Dariun, truly have I been mistaken in you!” roared the king, striking the tent pole with a whip. “You whose reputation thunders as far as Turan and Misr! Have you been possessed by a coward’s ghost? To think that I would hear the word ‘retreat’ from the likes of you, when the battle has not even begun!”
At this, Dariun spoke up at last. “Your Majesty. It is not out of cowardice that I humbly advise you thus.”
He was dressed entirely in black: from the tassel of his helm to his armor and boots, all but for the lining of his mantle, which was the color of a crimson sunset. With his youthful, sun-darkened face and keen, intense expression, one might even consider him handsome, were it not for the fact that armor suited him far more than silk and jewels.
“A warrior fleeing from battle, refusing to fight — if this is not cowardice, then what is it?”
“Sire, please think this over. The ferocity and strength of the horsemen of Pars are known far and wide. For what reason, then, has the Lusitanian army deployed upon the plains, deliberately lying in wait for our troops, when the terrain is clearly to our advantage?
The king fell silent.
“I believe it must be a trap. In such a thick fog, we cannot even be certain of our own allies’ movements. With all due respect, I was suggesting that the troops be pulled back before redeploying closer to the capital at Ecbatana. I did not mean to suggest that we withdraw entirely from the battlefield. In what way is this an act of cowardice?”
With a cruel sneer, Andragoras said, “Dariun. Since when did your tongue grow sharper than your arrows and your blade? How could those Lusitanian bastards possibly set up a trap in unfamiliar terrain?”
“That, I confess, I do not know. However, if some of our own people are among the Lusitanian troops, then we can no longer assume that they are entirely unfamiliar with the surrounding topography.”
The king glared at the young warrior. “Are you saying that our people are aiding those barbarians? Impossible!”
“On the contrary, sire. I understand that it may be difficult to accept, but it is a definite possibility. If a few mistreated slaves were to escape, seeking vengeance, they might very well choose to render assistance to the Lusitanians.”
The king’s whip suddenly flew out and struck Dariun’s breastplate. “Slaves? What of them? Or is it that you’ve fallen under the spell of that Narses’s ridiculous teachings now? Have you already forgotten that he’s been expelled from court and forbidden any contact whatsoever with my ministers or generals?”
“I have not forgotten, sire. I have neither seen nor spoken to Narses in these past three years. Though it is true he is my friend…”
“You call that lunatic your friend? Well said!” said the king through clenched teeth. It seemed as if his fury were about to erupt from every pore of his body. He tossed away his whip and drew the jeweled sword girdled at his waist. The more timid individuals among the gathered bystanders cried out in shock. All those present thought for sure that Dariun’s life was forfeit. But the king had not yet lost his senses entirely. Instead, he stretched his sword out to Dariun’s heart. Then, with the tip of his blade, he ripped away the small gold medal hanging there upon Dariun’s breastplate. This medal was in the shape of a lion’s head. Only the Eran and the Marzbans were allowed to wear it, as a sign of their prestige.
“I hereby dismiss you from your post as Marzban! Although I shall allow you to retain your status as Mardan and Shergir, consider this a lesson to you!”
Dariun said nothing and allowed his gaze to fall to the carpet. But the wavering glint of his pauldrons betrayed the slightest tremble of his encased shoulders within. It was the only hint of his anger at this unjust sullying of his name.
Meanwhile, Andragoras sheathed his sword once more and raised a quivering finger to the tent’s entrance.
“Now go! Get out of my sight!”