Even after Andragoras’s departure from the battlefield, blood continued to flow. All across the plains, the fires showed no signs of extinguishing. Wind arose from the billowing smoke, joining the chaotic swirl of fog. Pars was originally a land blessed with sun and clear skies, yet now it seemed as if even the weather itself had abandoned the kingdom.
With momentum on their side, the Lusitanian troops resumed their cycle of attack and slaughter. No longer were the Parsians fighting for their king; rather, it was for their own lives and honor that they continued to resist. Futile as their efforts were, the Parsian knights were unquestionably strong. Even as the Lusitanians claimed victory after victory, their ranks suffered much loss as well. Upon leaving their sturdy bulwarks to join the offensive, the Lusitanians’ dead soon surpassed those of the Parsians. Dariun alone was perhaps ready to take responsibility for at least half of the Lusitanian’s hatred himself. Before long, he came across Marzban Qobad’s troops in the midst of the blood and flame. While celebrating their mutual survival, they exchanged some hurried inquiries.
“Have you not happened upon Prince Arslan by any chance, Lord Qobad?”
“The prince? Dunno.” With that blunt response, Qobad gave the young knight another look-over, cocking his head suspiciously. “What happened to your men? Got all ten thousand of them wiped out?”
“I am no longer Marzban.”
Dariun was filled with a sense of bitterness. Qobad seemed as if he wanted to say something, but changed his mind and instead asked Dariun to join him in fighting their way out of the battlefield.
“My apologies, but I made a promise to my uncle. I must locate His Royal Highness Arslan.”
“Then take a hundred of mine!”
Respectfully declining Qobad’s well-intended offer, Dariun galloped off alone once more. Whether it was ten thousand men or one hundred men, any entourage would serve only to draw the enemy’s attention, contrarily bringing greater danger and turning them all into sitting ducks.
As the fierce winds began to disperse the fog, the physical aspect of the battlefield was at last exposed. Grass sprouted amid the corpses, drenched in blood. But even the realization that he had become inured to the stench of blood and smoke and sweat made no difference to Dariun’s efforts.
Five Lusitanian knights materialized in his path, a most undesired development. If possible, he would have liked for his passing to be ignored, but it seemed the other party had already taken note of him. It was in any case five against one. To them, he must have seemed like easy sport.
“Why, if it isn’t a defeated Parsian dog loitering around for scraps! Looks like you’ve got nowhere to go — how about we help send you along your way?”
Dariun should not have been able to understand them, but after exchanging these mocking whispers in Lusitanian, the five riders raised their spears as one and came charging.
For the Lusitanians, this was perhaps the unluckiest day of their lives. Dariun’s blade cut through them, sending them on to their heaven.
As the fourth man went flying beneath a spray of blood, Dariun observed at the edge of his vision the lone silhouette of the final man, who had dropped his sword and fled. But he made no move to pursue. Among the riderless horses aimlessly ambling about, there was one upon whose saddle was bound a bloody, wounded man. It was a single Parsian knight who had been taken captive.
Pulling up alongside him, Dariun leaped off his horse and used his sword to sever the thongs binding the knight.
He did not know the knight’s name, but held some recognition for his face. The man was one of the thousand-rider captains who served under the Marzban Shapur. Dariun untied a leather flask from his saddle and poured water over the blood and grime dirtying the man’s face. The man let out a low moan and opened his eyes.
From the lips of this deeply injured man Dariun received information on Prince Arslan’s whereabouts. Having broken through the enveloping net of fire and smoke, it seemed the prince had fled east under the protection of a measly handful of knights. Wheezing painfully, the man continued, “Of the Marzbans, Lords Manuchehr and Hayir have fallen. Our general Lord Shapur sustained grave wounds as well from both fire and arrow. Whether he still lives or not…”
Hearing of the deaths of his friends and comrades, Dariun felt a pang in his heart. However, he had yet to fulfill his mission. Dariun helped the man back onto the horse and handed him the reins.
“I would escort you to safety, but I am under orders from the Eran to search for the crown prince Arslan. Please escape without me!”
It took the wounded man all of his strength just to keep his seat. That said, it was unthinkable to abandon him here on the battlefield. Lusitanians slew every last one of their defeated enemies. Dariun had heard that it served as some sort of display of faith in their god.
After parting with the man, Dariun had ridden about a hundred gaz when he succumbed to a sudden urge and looked back. The horse no longer bore a rider. Instead, long neck stretched out, it nosed mournfully at a crumpled figure on the ground. Dariun sighed and continued east, no longer looking back.
Around Arslan, not a single ally could be found. His father the king had not bestowed many men upon him to begin with. Although it was true his father had permitted him to act independently, the king himself had been captain to five thousand riders in his own first foray, whereas Arslan had been given command of no more than a hundred. For that reason Arslan had thought to build a record through his own ability, thus proving himself worthy of generalship. However, the reality was that he had lost every single one of his men to the chaos of battle and flame. Half of them had fallen in battle; the remaining half had been dispersed. His cloak was scorched, his spear broken, his horse exhausted. He was hurting everywhere. That he still lived was all the more so a wonder. Arslan sighed and tossed away his spear.
It was at this very moment that a single Lusitanian rider came charging, lance raised. Decked in golden armor as he was, Arslan was unmistakeable as a prince of his country. He must have seemed a most excellent prize. Entire body seized with fear, Arslan galloped forth, drawing his sword to face his opponent.
After the initial exchange, it was not Arslan himself but his mount that reached its limit and crashed to the ground. Arslan rolled back to his feet. With a flash of his sword, the spearhead protruding from the oncoming horse was sliced away, to his own shock. He had not thought himself capable of such a deed, but he had in fact just saved his own life.
The knight dropped the mere pole that remained of his lance and drew his sword.
From the knight’s mouth awkward Parsian spewed forth. The tongue of Pars served as the lingua franca of the Great Continental Road; any educated individual among the various nations was capable of such a level of communication.
“Well done, boy. Perhaps in five more years you would have become a swordsman whose name was praised through all of Pars. However, I’m sorry to say that both you and Pars shall come to an end today. You can complete the rest of your training with your fellow heathens in hell!”
This jeering was followed by a ferocious assault. Arslan was just barely able to parry the incoming slash, but the resulting impact from his palm to his shoulder was no small matter. The sensation had not yet dissipated when the second strike fell upon him. Right, left, right, left. As their blades continued to flash, Arslan kept up his defense with nothing but sheer instinct and reflex.
If one considered it disadvantageous to fight a mounted enemy while on foot, it was nothing short of miraculous for Arslan to be putting up such a good fight. Perhaps the Lusitanian knight’s faith in his god wavered. Raising his voice in obvious frustration, he suddenly pulled his horse into a rear. It seemed he meant to trample Arslan beneath its hooves. At that very moment, Arslan stumbled to the ground, and the knight grew confident of his success. In the next instant, as the horse kicked down onto solid earth, the knight’s throat was pierced through by the sword Arslan had thrown.
For some time Arslan sat there, hearing nothing but the sound of his own breathing. It was the clatter of swiftly nearing hoofbeats that roused him. Upon casting his gaze in the direction of the sound, he leaped up in a dreamlike state and waved his arms.
“Dariun! Dariun! Over here!”
“Oh, Your Highness. Are you unharmed?”
Arslan could think of no more dependable sight than that of the young knight’s pitch black figure leaping down from his equally black horse to kneel on the ground before him. Dariun’s helm and armor were painted with spatters of dried human blood. Just what manner of hardship had it taken the man to find him?
“I was sent to find Your Highness under orders from the Eran.”
“I am most grateful. But what of my lord father?”
“As long as my uncle and the Athanatoi are with him, I believe they have most likely succeeded in their escape,” replied Dariun. Suppressing his own sense of unease, he added, “It is on behalf of His Majesty’s concern for your welfare that I have come.”
This was a lie, concocted out of the need to convince the prince to depart from this place. For a moment, under a gaze clear and dark as the unclouded night, Dariun’s heart faltered.
“Lingering on the battlefield any longer is meaningless. Consider this also His Majesty’s will when I beg you to prioritize your own safety.”
“Understood. However, if we are to return to the capital, we must traverse the battlefield once more. Unquestioned though your might and courage be, is this not a hopeless feat?”
Regarding this, Dariun had already laid plans.
“Let us call upon my friend Narses. He has secluded himself in hermitage at Mount Bashur. For the present, I suggest that we take refuge with him and watch for a suitable opportunity before thinking of a way to return to the capital.”
The prince tilted his head doubtfully. “But according to what I have heard, is it not said that there has been a rift between Narses and my lord father?”
“Indeed. Had our troops claimed victory today, and Your Highness were to approach him as a vanquishing hero, Narses would likely refuse the meeting. However, by what one might call some happy chance or miracle, it is now we who are the pitiful vanquished.”
“The vanquished… Hm, true.”
The gloom in Arslan’s voice was quite understandable.
“It is for that very reason he will not turn us away. He is, as my uncle stated, a contrary sort of man. Let us rely on that!”
“But Dariun…” The youth’s voice and gaze were, for the first time, impassioned. “Upon the battlefield remain many of our own men. Are we to go and abandon them?”
Dariun’s expression turned grave.
“Now that things have come to this, I am afraid we are left with no choice. Seek a rematch on some later date! Only by staying alive now may we avenge their grievances!”
After a long silence, Arslan nodded.
The yet undispersed fog and swiftly descending dusk competed for dominion over the land. By their aid, Arslan and Dariun were able to evade capture from the Lusitanian troops and escape, vanishing into the dense forests and deep valleys of the Bashur Mountains. Even the most persistent of pursuers, were he to recall the number of corpses accumulating in the wake of Dariun’s hoofbeats, could not help but quail. On this day, the existence of a black rider of Pars who had cut down innumerable Lusitanian knights of renown had, to the Lusitanians, become akin to a fragment from a nightmare.
When the half moon rose, illuminating the fog that still clung so stubbornly to the plains, all fighting ceased at last.
As the Lusitanians made their rounds through the illuminated battlefield, any injured Parsians they came across were given no chance to resist or to flee, but instead slain on the spot as “heathens.” Their god and their clergymen had commanded them thus. For the sins of pagan worship and denial of the “One True God”, redemption could be found only in the cruelest of deaths. Even those who took pity on the heathens were considered to be in defiance of God’s will and would be condemned to hell in the afterlife. Perhaps in part drunk on blood, the Lusitanian soldiers sang praises to the glory of their god Ialdabaoth even as they slit the throats of the wounded and gouged out their hearts.
On the sixteenth day of the tenth month of the 320th year of Pars, upon the plains of Atropatene, 53,000 Parsian cavalrymen and 74,000 Parsian infantrymen lost their lives in battle, halving the military power of the entire kingdom. On the victorious Lusitanian side, casualties also numbered more than 50,000 in cavalry and infantry combined. To have received such a heavy blow under such advantageous circumstances and with such a perfectly laid plot was, from a certain perspective, rather horrific. Then again, all these men who had died with honor would no doubt be extolled as martyrs basking in divine glory.
“Alas, so many of our people now lie unburied upon foreign lands, no thanks to that possessed king of ours and that accursed murderer of a holy man!”
“It’s just as well, don’t you think? All those poor souls can now go to heaven, while for the living, all of this bountiful land of Pars is now ours to do with as we please. The Great Continental Road, the silver mines, vast fields of grain!”
Baudouin laughed through the blood staining his face, but Montferrat’s expression remained sullen as they rode toward the tent of their king, Innocentius VII. The dying howl of a Parsian as his heart was ripped from him reverberated through the stillness of the night, startling Monferrat. Previously, during the pillage of Maryam, even children and infants had been thrown into the fires to burn alive. The Kingdom of Maryam was no heathen nation, and in fact shared the Lusitanians’ faith in Ialdabaoth. But simply because they had refused to acknowledge the Lusitanian king’s religious authority, they had been deemed “enemies of God.”
“Even now the screams from that time have not left my ear. Would God truly bless even those who would kill an infant just because it was born heathen?”
However, Baudouin did not hear him. Montferrat’s brooding was overpowered by a great cry resounding from up ahead.
“We’ve captured the Parsian king!”
Hundreds of Lusitanian soldiers called out in refrain, their voices unified as if in song.