Unlike his Shah, Eran Vahriz had experienced loss in battle before. The elderly warrior murmured to the grimacing Andragoras, “Your Majesty, this battle can no longer be won. Please, sound the retreat!”
With a glare, the king began to bellow at the Eran. How could the Shah of Pars, rightful defender of the Great Continental Road, simply run away without a care? Such an act would bring him shame as a warrior!
“Have you forgotten, sire? When Misr invaded last year, it was also from behind the walls of Ecbatana that we forced their retreat. For the sake of future victory, I beg you to endure this present shame!”
At the capital of Ecbatana awaited 20,000 cavalrymen and 45,000 infantrymen, and stationed throughout the rest of the kingdom were 20,000 more calvarymen and 12,000 more infantrymen. If one were to muster all these forces in addition to the surviving soldiers and generals of the current battle, that should provide sufficient military power to counter the Lusitanian troops.
Of such tactical considerations Andragoras the strategist was well aware. However, he was not just the sovereign of a single nation, but also Lord Protector of the Great Continental Road.
The Great Continental Road, centered at Pars, was a trading route stretching 800 farsangs1 east to west, connecting the two ends of the vast continent. The entirety of this route and the caravans that traveled upon it all laid under the protection of the Parsian king and paid tribute to him. Thus was the kingdom’s prosperity assured. Was this too not the privilege brought about by undefeated military prowess?
Nonetheless the old general continued trying to persuade his king. So too did the king continue to resist, until at last the name of his queen Tahmineh reached his ear. What of the welfare of the queen, who yet defended the capital? Surely he did not intend to leave her to the enemy? As soon as those words were spoken, the king came to a decision and made the move to retreat. However, not all of his men were in accord.
“The king has fled! Andragoras the Third has fled!”
Amid the bloody chaos, these cries raced to the ends of the battlefield like a fierce wind. Those under Qaran’s banner had kept close watch on King Andragoras’s movements. The will of the Parsian troops still locked in bitter struggle visibly faltered.
“Though we have staked our lives on this battle, the king who leads us has fled! The banners of Pars have been soiled in disgrace. There is no more hope for recovery!”
The Marzban Shapur removed his bloody, mudstained helm and flung it to the ground. And yet he still held his king in some regard; others displayed expressions of far greater betrayal.
“Forget it, forget it! Just who’re we fighting for anyway? There’s no need for us to throw away the lives of our subordinates for a fleeing liege!”
One-eyed Qobad flourished his longsword again, shaking the blood from his blade as he hollered at his men. They glanced at each other in uneasy confusion.
“What the hell are you saying, Qobad?” shouted Shapur, spurring his mount over. “How can you who is Marzban command his warriors to cease battling? The king has his duties. So too do we have ours.”
“The foremost duty of a king is to protect his country. For this reason alone does a king possess the right to rule. Should the king no longer be worthy of rulership, it’ll be the same for us. Were you not cursing him just now as well?
“No, that was a careless gesture on my part. Come to think of it, it is not that the king has fled. Rather, he must surely be heading back to Ecbatana in preparation for the next assault. As a retainer, you should not cast such aspersions upon your liege, or even your allies shall not have mercy on you!”
“Oh? Interesting. And just what do you mean by that?” Qobad’s single eye narrowed.
Among the Marzbans, Qobad was the youngest after Dariun and Keshvad. He was presently thirty-one years of age. The single scar carved deeply into his face across his left eye left an indelible impression on any who saw him. He was unquestionably a fierce warrior and experienced tactician, but despite his impressive record, his reputation suffered among certain factions at court. Part of the reason for this was his tendency toward boastful exaggeration. He claimed, for instance, that his left eye had been lost in an epic showdown with an azhdahak, a three-headed dragon, in faraway Mount Qaf. Furthermore, he himself had in turn stabbed out a single eye on each of the dragon’s three heads. In other words, “The three-headed dragon’s now a three-eyed dragon.” Most people naturally took it as a joke, and some even frowned upon his indiscretion.
Shapur, who was thirty-six, was Qobad’s polar opposite: an exceedingly uptight man. Perhaps they themselves were conscious of this fact, for it was rumored that whenever the twelve Marzbans were summoned, the two men never failed to arrange themselves at either end of the line.
In any case, this pair of rare valor each laid a hand on the hilt of his sword as he glared down his Marzban comrade. The soldiers of Pars panicked. But before the bloodthirsty aura could come to a head, there sounded a cry of “Enemy attack!” At the sight of the approaching Lusitanian troop, Qobad steered his mount aside.
“Running away, Qobad?”
The one-eyed Marzban clucked his tongue in response to this rebuke. “Much as I’d like to, without driving off these enemy forces there won’t be anywhere to run. Why don’t we have our little chat about a retainer’s responsibilities once I’ve taken care of these bastards?”
“Very well! Don’t you dare claim you’ve forgotten all about it come tomorrow!” With a pointed glare, Shapur galloped off to give his men their orders.
“I won’t. Not if there still is a tomorrow!” Whether he spoke in seriousness or in jest, Qobad headed back toward his own men as well.
“Now then. Still got a thousand or so riders left, huh. Wonder how I should handle it with these numbers? Better take along the crazy ones.”
Those who had fled with King Andragoras met with obstruction on the narrow trail arching over the waters of the Mirbalan River. Just as they thought they had left the echoes of sword and spear far behind and successfully escaped the battlefield, an incoming arrow pierced through one rider’s face. The rider’s death cry as he tumbled from his horse preluded a slew of arrows hailing down all at once with the terrible noise of a locust swarm taking flight. It was an ambush.
At either side of the Shah and Eran men and horses alike toppled like brittle stone pillars. Both king and general were hit as well, the arrows piercing through their armor and digging into their flesh.
When the rain of arrows ceased, not one single survivor remained in their vicinity. A lone rider spurred his horse over to face them. He bore not the arms of Lusitania but those of Pars. And yet it was something else entirely that seized the attention of the king and his general.
A silver mask. It covered the entire face but for narrow slits at the eyes and the mouth. And through the eye slits leaked a cold, savage gleam.
In the light of day, both king and general would have certainly guffawed at the sight. The silver mask seemed far too much like something out of a play, something impossible to imagine existing in reality.
But here under the dim gray veil of fog, where the very landscape seemed submerged in the darkness of a Serican ink painting, the mask seemed to freeze within itself the accumulated misfortune and calamity of the entire world.
“Abandoning your men, Andragoras? How shameless. And how very like you.”
Fluent Parsian sounded through the mouth slit. The voice possessed a quality that caused a man’s heart to grow chill.
“Flee, my liege! Let these old bones hold here…”
Vahriz, body pierced through with five arrows, drew his sword from its scabbard and planted his horse between the king and the man of the silver mask.
An intense light emanated from the eyes of the silver mask, burning with the radiance of fury and hatred combined.
“Doddering old failure! Enough of your posturing!”
The masked man unleashed a thundering cry. His longsword, glittering white, arced toward the general’s head in a single stroke. Even against an opponent both mortally wounded and advanced in age, his blade did not hold back, leaving not the slightest opening for Vahriz, great Eran of Pars, to counter. It was a breathtaking display of swordsmanship.
Andragoras watched on with deadened eyes as his faithful old retainer’s body crumpled heavily to the ground. His sword arm did not move. It could not, for the arrow piercing his wrist had injured muscle. Left with no further means of resistance, the king could only sit helplessly upon his saddle like a clay doll.
“Do not kill him.”
The voice behind the silver mask trembled. Naturally, not from terror, but from a wave of barely suppressed passion. Compared to when he was facing Vahriz, he was an entirely different man.
“Do not kill him. For sixteen years I have waited for this day. How could I grant him such easy release?”
Five or six riders from the man’s troop pulled King Andragoras from his mount. The pain from his arrow wound flared, but the king endured it.
“Who the hell are you?” Andragoras, wrapped and bound with thick thongs, whispered hoarsely.
“Soon. You shall know soon enough. Or perhaps, Andragoras, you do not understand what sins you must have committed in order to warrant such enmity?”
Behind every word grated a noise like scraping metal. It was the sound of gnashing teeth — as if in that very action, the man of the silver mask could grind away the long endless days of bitter obscurity.
When he noticed the disquieted expressions of his men upon seeing him in such a state, he of the silver mask wordlessly turned his horse away. Those encircling the captive King Andragoras did not rejoice in their victory, and continued down the narrow trail to the opposite shore in gloomy silence.
1 ~4000 km ^