Let us now wind back five years before the Battle of Atropatene, to the year 315 of the Parsian calendar. That year, the three kingdoms of Turan, Sindhura, and Turk formed an alliance, mustered a conquering force of fifty thousand along the eastern borders of Pars, and commenced an invasion. Turan, having in the past done battle with Pars many a time on relatively even terms, was a historic rival. With Sindhura, who now shared a direct border with Pars, there had been ceaseless skirmishes ever since the fall of the Principality of Badakhshan. And Turk coveted Pars’s hold over trade and tribute along the Great Continental Road.
Each had its own motives, but in making trouble for Pars their interests were aligned. And so they conspired to attack Pars all at the same time: Turan from the northeast, Turk from the east, and Sindhura from the southeast. Even the famously valorous King Andragoras could not remain unfazed. Not only did he mobilize all his armies, he also sent summons to all the governors of the kingdom, the aristocratic shahrdaran, ordering them to muster their own personal troops at the capital of Ecbatana.
Among the shahrdaran was a lord by the name of Teos who reigned over the region of Dailam, overlooking the Darband Inland Sea to the north. He was an old friend of the king, and promised to ride out with five thousand horsemen and thirty thousand foot soldiers, much to the king’s joy.
Just as they were about to set out, Teos slipped on some steps in his mansion and died from the hit to his head against a stone ledge. Upon receiving notification of this incident, the king was shocked, but for the time being, instated Teos’s son Narses as the lord’s successor. Even if Teos had passed away, that military force of his remained of utmost import to the king.
Not long after that Narses appeared at Ecbatana with his troops. The king at first rejoiced, then grew stunned, and at last upset — for the troops Narses had brought numbered two thousand cavalrymen and three thousand infantrymen. This was not at all what had been expected.
“Why did you not bring more troops? I had an agreement with your father.”
“My humblest apologies.”
In this mild manner, the then twenty-one-year-old lord offered a bow. The king just barely managed to refrain from shouting.
“Apologies are only to be expected. I want reasons!”
“The truth is, I have emancipated all the slaves of our household.”
“As Your Majesty must also be aware, the foot soldiers were all slaves, so the infantry was of course no more. By announcing that I would hand out wages if they came, I managed somehow to amass these five thousand men and bring them with me here.”
“And the decrease in your cavalry’s numbers?”
“Being shocked by these developments, they left my humble employ. There is no helping it, I am afraid.” Despite the impeccable courtesy of his speech, his lack of shame came across as nonchalance. “Ah, truly it cannot be helped. I understand all too well how they must have felt.”
King Andragoras had always been a short-tempered, obstinate sort of man. All the disappointment and dissatisfaction that had been exuding from his burly mass focused now into a glare directed at Narses. And yet before this kingly gaze that could terrorize even the most seasoned of warriors, the youth retained his composure. In fact, he proceeded to voice out loud what no sane man would even consider.
“How about this? Should Your Majesty so desire, I do have a strategy that shall impel all three armies of the enemy alliance to retreat…”
“What a boast! I don’t suppose you expect me to hand you an army of ten thousand?”
“There is no need for a single soldier. All I should require is a bit of time.”
“Time, you say?”
“At your will. Given about five days, I shall be able to chase them all out of the kingdom’s borders. However, it is true that in the end Your Majesty’s military strength shall still be required…”
Andragoras gave the youth his consent. It was not so much that he believed in him as it was that he wanted to see the look on his face when he failed.
The young man, along with around ten of his subordinates, disappeared from the encampment. Most people assumed he had fled. Andragoras believed so as well, and further resolved to seize the territories of Dailam and bring them back under royal control. About three days had passed when Narses suddenly returned and made another request of the king. Of the prisoners of war who had been captured from the three-kingdom alliance, he asked to be given charge of the Sindhurans. Once more Andragoras gave his consent, if only because Eran Vahriz remarked, “If one’s swallowed poison, one might as well finish the whole plate.”
As soon as Narses accepted those two thousand Sindhuran prisoners, he allowed them all to flee. The warriors who had done difficult battle to capture these prisoners were upset, and demanded to know just what he was trying to pull. Even Dariun could not restrain them.
At Narses’s expression of feigned ignorance, one enraged thousand-rider captain drew his blade, challenging him to a duel. The victor was soon apparent. Narses, previously thought of as some bookish young master, disarmed his opponent in less than five exchanges. Narses shouted at the riled up gathering of warriors, “Anyone else? Tonight, the Turks will attack the Sindhurans, even as the Turanians ambush the Turks. If you don’t prepare for the offensive now, you’ll lose your chance for heroics!”
Only Vahriz and Dariun, then only a thousand-rider captain, believed him.
His prediction hit the mark. That very night, violent internal dissent arose among the three allied nations. The Parsian army took the opportunity to rout their enemies. Outshining all others in terms of heroics was Dariun, who cut down the Turkish king’s younger brother from his horse in a single stroke.
Upon Dariun’s commendation, Narses simply smiled and replied, “Oh please, it was nothing. Sometimes, a single rumor can overcome an army of ten thousand.”
Narses and his men, in those three days, had been spreading various fabricated rumors. For the Turks, it was, “The Sindhurans have betrayed you and are liaising with the Parsians. As proof of this, in one or two days the Sindhuran prisoners of war will all be released.” To the Turanians, it was, “The Turks are conspiring with the Parsians. They’re planning to ambush the Sindhurans soon, most likely using the excuse that the Sindhurans are liaising with the Parsians. You mustn’t believe them.”
And the released Sindhuran prisoners were told the following: “The truth is, our lord the king of Pars and your king of Sindhura have been in talks for reconciliation since a while back. However, it seems the Turks and the Turanians have caught wind of this. Be wary of attack from those you thought were your allies.”
… Thus had the alliance started jumping at shadows and suspecting every little thing, all the while disintegrating steadily from within.
At any rate, Narses’s peculiar stratagem had succeeded; it could not be denied that the enemy alliance’s self-destruction had saved the kingdom of Pars. Andragoras had no choice but to commend him, reconfirming his successorship of his lands, rewarding him ten thousand dinars, and appointing him as a dibir, a high-ranking court scribe. It was widely rumored that he would even someday ascend to the position of framatar, or steward of the realm.
For Narses, the stiff formality of court was infinitely less preferable to living his life as he pleased at home in his own domain, but the king would not permit him this latter. By now, Andragoras did at least consider Narses’s ingenuity and insight a valuable asset. And so Narses had no choice but to stay in the capital.
Two years of relative peace and stability ensued. Dariun and Narses both gained reputations in their respective positions as military officer and civil minister. However, in the 317th year of Pars, a diplomatic mission was sent east to establish relations with Serica, the kingdom of silk, and Dariun was assigned as captain of the guard for the expedition. Narses, well versed in Serican history and culture, was greatly envious of his friend, but nonetheless held a celebratory feast to send him off.
It was at this time that King Andragoras’s authority began to slacken, and the iniquities of his ministers and the priests and the nobility grew more conspicuous than ever.
By this time, Narses was more than fed up with life as a court official. Upon opening an investigation into administrative affairs, he presented Andragoras with various reforms, but few if any were implemented to his satisfaction. Andragoras was more interested in war than in administration; and especially with the kingdom’s coffers full and no extant threat from outside foes, instigating reforms now would inevitably create enemies among the priests and nobility. The king ignored Narses’s proposed reforms, but the matter did not end there. For a petition came now from the priests, demanding that the king exile Narses from court.
Narses, you see, had also been investigating the priests’ abuse of their privileged positions to perpetrate sundry transgressions. Not only were the priests exempt from taxes, even if they were to commit a crime, they would not be arrested or executed.
They lent money to the peasantry at exorbitant interest rates and seized their lands when the money could not be repaid. They also monopolized the underground kariz aqueducts and reservoirs, imposing a water tax on the people. If anyone resisted, they sent forth their personal troops to burn and pillage, and afterwards divvied up the spoils. The salt they sold to the public was cut with sand. If the peasantry dug their own wells, they poisoned the wells. After investigating and collecting proof of all these misdeeds, Narses requested that the king exact severe punishment upon the priests.
The infuriated priests plotted an ambush on Narses on his way back from court, but their attempt ended in failure. Of the eight assassins sent, four were cut down by Narses himself, two were injured and caught, and the remaining two just barely escaped with their lives. The priests immediately switched tacks and brought before the king accusations of Narses’s unlawful intent to harm. Narses, perhaps figuring that it was about time anyway, absconded from court and returned to his own domains.
Dariun, upon returning from Serica and learning that his friend had been banished from court during his absence, was surprised but also regretful. Despite intending to pay a visit at some point, he had not yet had the chance to do so, when the Battle of Atropatene began.