The sun sinks, casting the western horizon in gold.
In an instant, the clear blue skies deepen to dusk; flocks of birds streak away from their formations, returning to their nests. Oranges and ears of wheat flush amber across the plains. The eternally snowcapped peaks stretching far to the east and north reflect the light of the setting sun, dazzling the eyes of everyone on the road. Travelers both mounted and on foot bustle along paths shadowed by elm, cypress, and poplar, hurrying to reach the gates of Ecbatana before they close for the night.
… Such was the typical scene of an autumn sunset in Pars. But now, smoke rose dark from the burnt fields, the roads were littered with the corpses of slaughtered peasantry, and the air was rife with the smell of blood.
Following the devastating loss at Atropatene, the Parsian capital of Ecbatana had been surrounded by Lusitanian forces.
Ecbatana served not only as the royal capital of Pars, but also as the most vital stop along the entire Great Continental Road. Caravans from countries far and wide assembled here — silks, ceramics, paper, and tea from Serica; jades and rubies from the Principality of Farhaal; horses from the Kingdom of Turan; ivory, leather handicrafts, and bronzes from Sindhura; olive oil, wool, and wine from the Kingdom of Maryam; rugs from the Kingdom of Misr — all these miscellaneous goods giving rise to a teeming hotspot of trade.
Aside from Parsian, the lingua franca of the Great Continental Road, dozens of other languages formed a medley among the people, horses, camels, and donkeys milling about the paved streets. Inside the taverns, golden-haired Maryamian women, dark-haired Sindhuran women, and beauties from all the nations vied with each other in terms of allure, and guests were served with famed wines from all over the world. Serican conjurers, Turanian stunt riders, and Misri magicians entertained the masses with their clever tricks, accompanied by Farhaali musicians on flute. Thus had Ecbatana flourished for the past three hundred years.
The walls of Ecbatana measured 1.6 farsangs1 east to west, 1.2 farsangs2 north to south, 12 gaz3 in height, and 7 gaz4 in thickness. Each of its nine gates was defended by iron double doors. Even under siege from the great armies of Misr the previous year, they had not so much as quivered.
“But back then, within these walls stood King Andragoras. Now…”
Although the two Marzbans Saam and Garshasp were present, with the king’s whereabouts unknown and only Tahmineh in charge, the people of the city grew increasingly uneasy.
Suddenly, there was a strange occurrence. Heading toward the front ranks of the besieging Lusitanians, there appeared an uncovered horsecart guarded by about ten soldiers. Another pair of figures rode on top besides the driver. As the taller figure in the back was gradually identified beneath the darkening skies, the Parsian troops were shaken.
It was Shapur, one of the Marzbans of Pars. Two thick thongs encircled his neck, and his hands were likewise bound behind his back. Blood and grime smeared his entire body, but especially horrific were the wounds on his brow and lower right, gaping ever wider as blood oozed incessantly from beneath the dressing. The Parsian soldiers cried out upon seeing the famed Marzban in such a terrible state.
“Hear me, o infidels of the city, who know no fear of God!” someone roared in heavily accented Parsian. All the soldiers on the walls directed their attention to the little black-robed man standing beside Shapur.
“I am a priest who serves the one true god Ialdabaoth — the Archbishop and Grand Inquisitor Bodin! To convey the will of God to ye infidels have I come. Through this infidel’s flesh shall I convey all!”
Bodin eyed the mortally injured Parsian warrior without mercy.
“First I shall chop off the little toe of this knave’s left foot.”
There was the sound of smacking lips.
“Next shall be his ring toe, then his middle toe… when I have finished with his left foot, I shall continue with his right, and then with his hands. I shall make all the infidels of the city realize the fate that awaits those who defy God!”
All the Parsian soldiers standing on the city walls cursed the priest’s brutality, but what angered Bodin were the shouts of censure from the ranks of his own allies.
He uttered, in a soft but perfectly clear voice, “Godforsaken fools!”
The archbishop glared at his allies, as if to stave off any criticism with his black-robed chest, and yelled out in Lusitanian.
“This knave is an infidel. A demon worshipper who holds no faith in the one true god Ialdabaoth, one who has turned away from the light, a beast who is cursed to dwell in darkness! To take pity on an infidel is the same as turning your back on God!”
At this point, the bloody, mudstained Marzban’s eyes blazed alight, and he opened his mouth.
“A bastard like you has no right to denounce my faith!” spat Shapur. He did not understand Lusitanian, but just by seeing the priest’s wrathful state he could guess at the gist of whatever was being said.
“Kill me at once! If your god is truly a savior, then let him send me to hell or wherever he pleases. And from there I shall watch as your god and your country alike are consumed by your own cruelty!”
The archbishop jumped up and beat Shapur viciously across the mouth with the staff in his hand. Unsettling noises could be heard as the latter’s lips were torn, his teeth shattered, his blood splattering into the air.
“Damned heathen! Godforsaken infidel!”
Amid this cursing, Shapur’s face was struck a second time, and the staff snapped. In all likelihood his cheekbones had been smashed in as well. Even so, Shapur opened his stained red mouth and called out.
“Oh people of Ecbatana! Should you have pity, then shoot me! There is no more saving me now. I would rather die by the arrows of my own people than be tortured to death by Lusitanian barbarians!”
He was unable to finish his speech. The archbishop leaped up and raised a great shout, and two Lusitanian soldiers rushed up, one stabbing his sword through Shapur’s leg and the other flaying his chest. Cries of rage and sympathy echoed from the walls of Ecbatana, but no one seemed to possess enough skill to come to the aid of the unfortunate warrior.
At that moment, a swift soft whistle passed by everyone’s ears. Lusitanians and Parsians alike looked up. From atop the walls of Ecbatana an arrow came flying and found its mark between Shapur’s eyes, forever releasing him from his suffering.
Cheers resounded. Considering the distance between Shapur and the city walls, it must have taken an archer of great strength to slay him in a single shot. From the Lusitanian ranks flew forth several dozen arrows, each aimed at a shadowy figure loitering atop a corner of the ramparts. But not a single one reached the walls, much less hit their target.
All eyes focused on that single point, raising quite a stir of both praise and curiosity. The one who had shot the original arrow was a single young man. He was no armored soldier. Despite the bow in his hand and the sword on his hip, he was wearing an embroidered hat and a similarly embroidered tunic, dressed just like some young vagabond. An oud lute was propped by his feet. Two soldiers hurried toward the young man and called out to him as they neared.
“The Queen Consort requests your presence. She wishes to reward the one who relieved the brave Shapur from his suffering.”
“Oh… I suppose I’m not to be interrogated for murder?”