King Andragoras strode out of his tent, mounted his horse, and rode straight to the head of the main column. In what other land could one find such a dignified and charismatic king? The retainers at his side could not resist such prideful thinking. He was the king of the great nation of Pars, a fierce and undefeated general, a ruler who struck awe even in the lords and kings of neighboring countries.
Vahriz bowed deeply and proceeded to relay his report.
“85,000 cavalrymen and 138,000 infantrymen, all ready to deploy!”
“What of the enemy’s numbers?”
The elderly Eran summoned Qaran, the Marzban in charge of all investigations.
Qaran respectfully answered the king’s question. “According to my analysis, I estimate 25,000 to 30,000 enemy cavalrymen and 80,000 to 90,000 footsoldiers. They deployed roughly the same numbers in Maryam.”
“After a long string of battles, their numbers should have lessened, no?”
“Or they may have been bolstered by reinforcements from home.”
At those words, the king nodded, but not without some amount of reluctance. He had been hoping for more precise, solid data. It had been Qaran himself who volunteered to spearhead the investigations, and it was true he had the requisite ability for it. For that reason the king had allowed him to assume all responsibility for their investigative efforts. And yet now Qaran, who was normally even more fastidious and prudent than Dariun or Vahriz, behaved with such assertiveness before his king.
“That being said, under these conditions we cannot determine the enemy’s exact formations.”
Qaran spoke with such force and conviction that King Andragoras nodded in agreement. Vahriz, who had stopped his mount twenty gaz1 away, threw a worried glance in their direction, but not a word of their furtive exchange reached the old man’s ears.
The cry passed down through the ranks until it reached the main column. The rider who had sounded the alert whipped his horse forward to give his report. There was movement on the enemies’ frontline eight amaj2 ahead.
“Before us lie the slopes of Mount Bashur, where the spirit of Hero King Kai Khosrow stands guard. Nor are there any faults or depressions in the area. No matter how thick the fog, there shouldn’t be any problems as long as our horses charge on straight ahead.”
Upon Qaran’s declaration, King Andragoras’s face immediately broke out into an expression of smug delight. He had always been an audacious, militant sort of general, more likely to reject the cautious considerations of one like Dariun while favoring a more aggressive strategy. This kind of ferocious direct attack had been his desire to begin with. On the other hand, if Dariun were currently present, he would have probably given rise to the uneasy suspicion that Qaran was deliberately inciting the king to action.
The wind fluttered. The fog rolled. A lucky omen, thought Arslan. If the fog were dispersed by the wind, the vast plains of Atropatene would become visible again. The horsemen, the main force of their great army, would then be at an advantage again.
But the fog remained heavy as ever. It shifted slightly with the breeze, but did not drift away from the plains. At the rear of the main column, alone and bereft of any command, rode Dariun. The image of black armor shadowed against a sea of white lingered in Arslan’s mind.
King Andragoras’s resonant voice pierced through the veil of fog.
“Oh, great kings of Pars! Sage King Jamshid, Hero King Kai Khosrow, and the spirits of all my forebears! May you guide and protect us!”
“May you guide and protect us!”
The riders of the main column joined their voices to the king’s. Their shouts rippled out to even the farthest of the Parsian troops. The king raised his brawny right arm and thrust downward in a forceful gesture. With a great cry, the armies of Pars began their attack.
80,000 cavalrymen charged forward. Their thundering hoofbeats shook the very earth.
The fog flowed past the galloping riders. Their armor rang with the sound of impact; the swords and spears girded at their sides glittered with moisture.
The sight of this cavalry charge was one that had always struck fear into the hearts of the enemies of Pars. Before the onslaught of Parsian swords and spears, enemy troops were mowed down like grass. Even the fog could not suppress the rumble of hoofbeats; rather, the concealment of their approaching figures only served to heighten the sense of impending doom.
Knowing this to be the case, the Parsian troops saw only victory beyond the fog. Faster and faster they charged, spurred on by this illusion. Suddenly, the riders on the frontline realized that the ground beneath their feet had disappeared. With a helpless shout, they pulled back on their reins, but it was already too late. They hurtled off a cliff into empty space and fell.
A huge fissure gaped before them. It was the largest fault running through Atropatene, measuring one farsang3 in length, thirty gaz4 in width, and up to five gaz deep. Just like that, this naturally formed ditch felled the hardy riders of Pars, sending them into a mud-spattered heap. Those who had fallen whimpered in pain from broken bones, only for new victims to fall from above, further crushing them. Panic enveloped the Parsian troops. Then those few who had managed to find their feet again smelled a strange odor. As they identified the viscous substance drenching their kness, dread seized their hearts.
“Watch out! It’s oil! They’re planning to use fire on us!”
They had not even finished shouting their warning when a wall of flame scorched through the air. Fire arrows. Oil that had been spread across the plains beforehand blazed to life all at once, swallowing the Parsian troops.
Hundreds of blazing rings swept through the fog, each one surrounding hundreds of Parsian riders. The movements of over 80,000 cavalrymen had been checked; their unity, divided. The rings of fire pierced through the gloom, clearly illuminating the positions of the Parsians to the watching Lusitanians. All of this, in the blink of an eye.
The Parsians frantically tried to still their frightened, bucking mounts. Then, amid the shrill neighs of horses, the echo of confused hoofbeats, and the angry cries of riders, a new noise joined the fray.
The whistle of arrows raining down from the sky.
The Parsian officers shouted for retreat. Unfortunately, it was impossible to carry out their command. Before them, a wall of flame over one farsang long blocked their advance. In the remaining three directions, endless rings of fire prevented their flight. And from the fiery wall echoed the screams of men and horses being burned alive.
The Lusitanians had even prepared hundreds of siege towers, each roughly the height of five men. From atop the towers they aimed a constant barrage of arrows at the rings of fire. For the Lusitanians, shooting down their trapped and floundering opponents was little more than a game. As this one-sided slaughter continued to unfold, the blazing, blood-drenched bodies of Parsians soon covered the ground like weeds.
However, not long afterward, a fraction of Parsian riders broke through the curtain of fire and smoke, emerging before the Lusitanian troops. Either way, only death awaited… With this realization, the men transformed thought to action, summoned all their pride and skill as equestrians, and leaped over the flaming wall. Those who failed fell right into the waiting fire and disappeared in a mass of flame. Of those who survived the leap, most suffered severe burns. And though many horses and riders were swallowed by the blaze, just as many were felled by sheer exhaustion.
Once unrivaled in all the land, the Parsian horsemen fell to the ground in wave after wave, like an army of clay dolls toppled by a storm. The lives of thousands, the pride of thousands, the legacy of an entire nation: beneath the rain of arrows, amid the endless white fog, all soon would return to dust.
Arslan patted away the little flames licking at his sleeves and mantle, choking on the smoke as he called out, “Father! Dariun! Vahriz!”
There was no response.
The Parsians who had escaped their fiery net drew their swords once more, beating out the flames on their mantles as they surged forward to meet the Lusitanian cavalry.
This violent charge engendered an inevitable reaction in the enemy. In terms of both equestrian skill and mounted swordplay, the Parsians far surpassed the Lusitanians. One by one, the Lusitanians were cut down, their blood soaking the blades of the Parsian riders, their corpses piling into burial shrouds for fallen Parsians.
“What terrifying strength! If we’d taken them on head-to-head, we wouldn’t have stood a chance,” muttered the Lusitanian general Monferrat, as he waited with his troops behind three layers of ditches and fortifications. Beside him, General Baudouin nodded in agreement. With the vague, chilly expressions that flickered across their faces, they did not look at all like men expecting an inevitable victory.
The bodies of Parsian riders continued to pile up before their eyes, one after another. The Lusitanians scattered before the Parsians, who slew and slew all the way to the waiting enemy troops. But they were unable to pass the three layers of fortifications. Meanwhile, the Lusitanians continued to rain down arrows from atop their siege towers. Man and horse alike tumbled to the ground and expired.
Just as the accumulating corpses threatened to spill over the fortifications, the high notes of a Lusitanian trumpet resounded through the air. It was the signal for a counterattack. The gates of fortifications opened. From within poured forth the main force of the Lusitanian troops, still fresh and uninjured, rushing toward the plains in a flood of armor.
“Where’s that damned Qaran!” roared King Andragoras, his face contorting with fury. On the battlefield Andragoras had always brimmed with fearless confidence. This was a quality that had not changed since his days as Eran under the previous king, during the campaign against Badakhshan. And yet today, for the very first time, his valor had taken a great blow. It was precisely because he had never before known loss that he was so afraid now.
At the king’s bellow, one of the thousand-rider captains who served under Qaran’s banner raised his head. He had been stationed with the main column in order to keep the communications between the king and Qaran confidential.
“T-the Marzban has not been seen for some time now. We’ve been searching for him, but…”
“When you’ve found him, bring him to me at once! Until you have, don’t let me see your face again!”
“… At your will!”
Cringing at the king’s fury, the captain immediately spurred his beloved horse away. As Andragoras watched the captain leave, he let out a low, frustrated groan. It was Qaran who had reported smooth terrain ahead and pushed for an all-out attack. It was because of his advice that this disaster had unfolded.
“That bastard Qaran. Has he betrayed us?”
Vahriz heard the king’s doubtful muttering, but did not respond. Instead, he turned his mount and rode to the other end of the column. There, Dariun looked over his shoulder. His lance lay across the pommel of his saddle. Upon it, his hand rested with a slight tremble.
“Now’s your time, Dariun.”
The Eran gently squeezed his nephew’s arm.
“I shall protect His Majesty the king. You must search for Prince Arslan.”
“He was at the front. I fear for him. Perhaps it is already too late. Even so, you must find and protect him. I will stay here and bear the consequences.”
“Understood, sir. Let’s meet again at Ecbatana!”