By the time the knights serving Qaran finally succeeded in crawling out of the pit, each of them soiled and dripping with water, blood, mud, and humiliation, the sun had just about hit high noon. Of course, Arslan and his party of four were long gone, as were the seven horses the knights had come on. They collapsed onto the floor.
Before long, an angry curse erupted from the blood-smeared lips of the knight whose face had been struck by Narses’s plate.
“Damn! Escaped, have they?”
“Lord Qaran’s got men stationed unfailingly along every route leading from the mountains to the plains. Had he not made such considerations, what kind of a strategist or Marzban would he be? Just you watch! We’ll spit on their corpses before the day’s over!”
“They must have confidence in breaking through the encirclement, no? Whatever you say, it’s Dariun and Narses!” one of the company replied gloomily. Having been so splendidly taken advantage of already, his thoughts inclined towards pessimism.
After rampaging through the room in retaliation, those undeservedly titled knights filed back down the mountain trail. Arslan and the others, hiding in a cave on the mountain, received the report of this from Elam.
“Tough for them. Descending the trail in full armor and on foot, it’ll probably take them the rest of the day just to reach the base. Well, let’s pray for their sake that they don’t run into any bears or wolves, eh?”
Narses explained the situation to Arslan and Dariun. Were they to also descend the mountain right away, they would certainly be caught in a blockade. Better to hole up in this cave for the time being and raise doubt in the enemy. Only then would Narses put his strategy into play.
“At this point what I want to say is that it’s all thanks to Dariun’s meddling that Qaran’s people have surrounded the mountains. But the fact is, no matter what, a blockade was inevitable. Let’s think of a way to take advantage, shall we?” said Narses, who actually seemed to be enjoying himself. Arslan asked what he meant to do, but received no concrete response.
“Have the enemy forces gather right where we want them. That is the very first step of what we call military strategy.”
No matter how much military power one might possess, said Narses, to achieve victory without expending said power or doing the impossible was the whole point of strategy.
Arslan attempted a mild rebuttal.
“But in order to save me, Dariun broke through an entire army on his own.”
“That is a matter of individual valor.”
As he offered this pithy remark, Narses winked at Dariun. Dariun remained silent, his only response a faint, wry smile.
“A warrior of Dariun’s caliber is not even one in a thousand. That, of course, is where his value lies. But anyone who commands an army must base his standard on the weakest of his soldiers and construct a strategy that shall lead to victory even under such conditions. So too is it for one who calls himself ruler of a nation. Supposing his is the most incompetent of commanders, to avoid defeat at enemy hands he must even work out stratagems that involve no fighting at all.”
Narses’s voice brimmed with passion. Sooner or later, Arslan thought, he would have given up on the hermit’s life regardless of my interference.
“Regretful as it is to put in such terms, to be enthralled by one’s own military power while underestimating enemies and thus neglecting strategical considerations, what recourse is left when in a single moment the entire situation goes to pieces? The tragedy of Atropatene could be said to be a perfect example of this.”
Arslan could only nod. At the plains of Atropatene he had witnessed it all with his own eyes: just how bravely the knights of Pars fought — as well as how futile their efforts were in the end.
“From since before his accession, King Andragoras has never once suffered a military defeat. And so, in his conceit, no matter what manner of problem he encounters, his solution is to use military force. That which cannot be solved through battle, then, he would avoid. As much as he enjoyed taking the heads of enemy generals on the battlefield, he cared not one whit about the internal hypocrisies and injustices of the kingdom…”
Narses’s eyes were entirely devoid of humor.
“Your Highness, should I at any time feel that you, as King Andragoras’s successor, show no inclination to do better in this regard, I shall relinquish the position of court artist.”
What Narses was saying was that a retainer had the right to abandon his lord; however, it had been just three years ago when he had done precisely that. This was no mere bluff. Arslan nodded feelingly. Regarding the governance of his father the king, the prince was not at all without his own views. With a slight smile, Narses called out to his friend, who had been staring at his sword in stony silence.
“Dariun, even if Qaran shows his face, you’d better not kill him! There’s no mistaking it: for whatever reason, he’s aware of some outrageously dirty details, eh? We absolutely must hear them from the man himself.”
“Dirty details?” demanded sharp-eared Arslan. Narses had no choice but to laugh it off.
“Indeed. Truly outrageous matters. Nevertheless, whatever those matters may be, I cannot even begin to guess at right now.”
Nodding, Arslan surveyed the interior of the cave. It was spacious enough to accommodate four people and eleven horses with ease; the winding entryway prevented passersby from seeing inside. Though at first glance one assumed it was a conveniently positioned natural formation, it turned out that Narses and Elam had tunneled it out themselves.
“One never knows what might happen, after all. As a rule, I maintain several such hiding places at any given time,” explained Narses. On being questioned if there were perchance any other entrances or exits, the response was a cool nod. Along with the pit in the cottage, everything displayed what a meticulous sort of man this was.
Arslan could not help but feel that he had acquired a most excellent ally, vastly incomparable to himself in both age and ability. Nothing could be more reassuring than this, and yet his thoughts strayed to even more terrifying heights. Inadequate though he himself might be, Arslan now had no choice but to become someone worthy of the loyalty of the likes of Dariun and Narses.