Even as the incident at the palace unfolded, Marzban Saam was directing the defenses at the gates. That night, the Lusitanian army’s onslaught was particularly aggressive. They scaled the walls under a rain of arrows, swept away by wave after wave of attack, only to reform and resume their assault each time.
Of course, this was all happening in accordance with the man of the silver mask’s movements in the underground aqueducts. They had no intentions of allowing the Parsian army even the slightest hint of what was transpiring.
As the bodies of their dead piled up at the foot of the walls, the Lusitanians simply erected ladders on top of the corpses and continued their assault.
By the time the palace lit ablaze, half the night had already passed. Witnessing this sight from atop the walls, Saam handed command of the defenses to a subordinate and descended alone to jump on a horse and gallop toward the palace.
Smoke engulfed the palace. The sound of clashing blades echoed everywhere. Saam leapt from his horse and dispatched a pair of slow-reacting assailants, only to freeze, not quite shocked, upon the appearance of a third.
“You — You… Qaran!”
Bloodstained sword still in hand, Saam stared aghast at his former comrade. But only for a moment. Had not the half-dead troops who’d straggled back from Atropatene said as much? It was because of Qaran playing the turncoat that their side had suffered such great defeat, they’d claimed. Though he’d not believed it at the time, the answer as to who, between accuser and accused, was in the right, stood now before his very eyes!
Saam raised his arm in a gust of wind.
Blades clashed. Sparks danced in the dimness. In the next moment, the two men’s positions had swapped.
Qaran proved the faster in their second exchange. Saam’s blade sliced through the night wind, too late for attack, but managing at least a successful parry, thus saving his own neck.
Through the smoke and the screams of the courtiers, their fierce encounter continued. Qaran’s helm was sent flying; Saam’s armor cracked. Their blades crossed at an awkward angle; under those close constraints, their glares suddenly locked. How many blows had they exchanged by now? Neither was keeping count.
“Qaran — you — why have you sold out your own country?”
“I have my reasons, but the likes of you would never understand.”
“Oh, but of course. How could anyone?!”
Their blades glanced aside. The men danced apart. Saam panicked, realizing that he had been completely surrounded by Qaran’s people — though he had not yet noticed that behind him now stood the man of the silver mask, with lance in hand. Conversely, Qaran grew in confidence.
“Surrender, Saam! If you convert to the faith of Ialdabaoth, they’ll let you preserve that miserable life of yours, along with your position!”
“How absurd — for a dog to be muttering on and on about the likes of human status!”
Even as he cursed at him, Saam thrust his blade toward Qaran’s face. Qaran twisted to avoid the attack. In that moment, Saam, not one to miss his chance, took advantage of the space that had opened up and slipped through. With a single strike he cut down the knights lined up before him like a row of candles, leaving not a single trace of human hindrance. It seemed that Saam had successfully broken through the encirclement.
It was then that the man of the silver mask thrust forth the lance he was wielding. That long and heavy weapon speared past Saam’s armor, through his back, and out his chest. While he faltered, stunned speechless, another pair of knights caught up and stabbed their blades into him.
For a time Saam stood there, his torso pierced through with a lance and two swords. Then, with a heavy clatter, he crashed to the stone pavement.
“… What a pity.”
Silver Mask’s murmur, swept away by the night wind, could not have been heard by anyone present; perhaps, then, it was because he shared the same sentiment that Qaran responded with a nod of his own. Gazing upon the fallen body of his former comrade, his expression wavered ever so slightly, and he knelt, feeling for Saam’s pulse.
“My word. Even like this, he still clings to life!”
Lusitanian soldiers poured through the gates Qaran had opened. The people of Ecbatana screamed and cried in their attempt to escape, only to be kicked down by horses, their skulls shattered as enemy riders stabbed lances through their backs. It made no difference if they were women or children. Every killed heathen brought them one step closer to Heaven.
Straining desperately all the while to stem the torrent of people and horses was Garshasp. As he screamed rebukes at the subordinates swarming at his feet, he brandished his sword and set his horse before the invaders in attempt to block their passage.
However, in that very moment, a Lusitanian lance lunged forth and pierced the chest of his mount. With a sharp cry, the horse bucked off its rider and toppled to the ground.
The thrown Garshasp had just managed to lift himself halfway from the ground when Lusitanian blades fell upon him from above, behind, before, and to the sides. The proud Marzban was now nothing but a bloody lump of meat.
The crisp night breeze carried the stench of blood all the way to the commercial districts of Ecbatana.
Drunk on blood and alcohol, the Lusitanian soldiers dragged the bodies of women along as they trampled all over the corpses of the citizenry.
From a corner of the palace, the man of the silver mask surveyed the bloodstained streets.
“Enjoy today’s victory while you can, Lusitanian barbarians.”
Though they were supposedly his allies, the Lusitanians were not spared any contempt in Silver Mask’s muttering.
“The more you mongrels indulge in such bloody, vulgar revelry, the more the people of Pars shall seek a savior. A hero, to chase you from this land and restore the glory of the kingdom. When that time comes, you bastards shall pay for the crimes of this day.”
Below him, yet another group of Lusitanian soldiers ran past. No doubt they were planning to loot the Great Temple. Those who did not fear the authority of the Parsian king naturally did not fear the power of their gods either. Moreover, they believed it a just cause to destroy such a stronghold of idolatry in the name of their own God. At long last, the doors of the Great Temple were destroyed, and they all barged in at once.
To their left and right were arrayed the statues of various divinities of the Parsian pantheon.
Crowned in gold and draped in a robe of beaver skin was the goddess of all waters, Anahita, she who was also known as the goddess of birth.
The white horse with a golden mane was an avatar of the rain god Tishtrya.
He with the wings of a giant crow in place of hands was the god of victory Verethragna.
Goddess of beauty and luck was the virginal guardian deity, shining Ashi.
And last but not least: he of the thousand ears, and of the ten thousand eyes, who knows of all in the heavens and all among men. Mithra, god of the covenant and of loyalty, worshiped also as the god of war.
Around these statues the Lusitanian soldiers shouted and gathered, pulling them down from their platforms one after another. The statues were made of varying materials. Some were carved from marble; others had been cast in bronze and gilded in gold.
The marble figures shattered upon hitting the ground. The bronzes were stripped of their gold by blade and by hand. “Heathen gods!” “Evil demons!” proclaimed the soldiers, along with other utterances of their faith, even as they hoarded gold leafing to their bosoms and spat on the faces of the statues.
“Pigs will be pigs, I suppose.”
The sound of cold mocking laughter brought their movements to a sudden halt. The figure of a single young Parsian stood amid the fallen statues.
“Cruelly rendering the statues of such beautiful goddesses into such a sorry state — does that not indicate your so-called aesthetic deficiency? Is that not proof of just how barbaric you filthy lot are?”
The Lusitanian soldiers looked at each other. Among them, one who understood Parsian as the lingua franca of the Great Continental Road, shouted angrily in return.
“What are you blathering on about? You idol-worshipping heretic! With the advent of the one true god Ialdabaoth at the end of days, all you accursed heathens shall fall into the very depths of hell for the rest of eternity. You won’t even have a chance for regret then!”
“Who’d wanna live in a heaven rife with Lusitanian pigs like you anyway?”
Even as the youth — Giv — spat out that venomous retort, he shifted so that he could draw his sword at any time. Lusitanian soldiers began to surround him, swords bristling in their hands.
“Lovely Ashi, Lady of Luck, who guards the springs and moistens the earth; hear me, o goddess!”
As if dedicating a verse to a beauty, Giv raised his face to the skies.
“Here stands one of your adherents, fine of face and blessed in form, about to be slain by lowly Lusitanian pigs. If you have a heart, I beg thee, grant me thy protection!”
Those who understood Parsian were infuriated; even those who did not understand grew upset. One, who seemed like the soldiers’ captain, brandished a broadsword in attack.
Giv’s blade painted a silvery crescent as the Lusitanian captain danced close, like a flicker of moonlight, flinging his sword high into the night sky. The captain, so summarily defeated, was still standing helpless and dumbfounded as Giv dove straight to his side.
Twisting the captain’s right arm with his left hand, Giv leveled his own sword at the stunned Lusitanians with his free hand and began to descend a set of stone stairs, step by step.
The Lusitanian soldiers, exchanging panicked and uneasy glances, shrank back, cringing. Already they realized that this pretty-faced lad, so facetious in speech and conduct, was in fact a swordsman of awe-inspiring prowess. Better that their captain should be killed, perhaps, than to suffer equally overwhelming defeat at his hands.
“Don’t you dare move, ya damn barbarians.”
Giv continued to threaten the Lusitanians in a half-singing tone.
“Take one more step, and your captain’ll find himself a head shorter. Those of you who understand human should translate for your fellow pigs, by the way,” he continued, saying pretty much whatever he wanted. “Now then, oh lovely goddess Ashi. I have managed to sweep away a little of your nuisances. And now I plan to make these pigs repent for their sins. Please gladly accept these goods that they plundered from the Parsian populace and the palace as their offerings to you.”
Giv raised his voice.
“That pig over there. Mantle. Off. Now collect all the loot your buddies have gathered. If you’ve got any complaints, do remember what I said about your captain’s height…”
Seeing that it made no difference whether they liked it or not, the utterly defeated Lusitanians did not even think of disobeying.
Five minutes later, Giv had forced the captain, bearing all the loot bundled in the mantle, down into the underground waterways. Outside the thick door, the Lusitanians belatedly burst into an uproar, but by then they weren’t even a minor annoyance.
Upon reaching a suitable location, Giv knocked out the captain with the hilt of his blade, set him down against a wall, and shouldered the bundle of loot himself, before eventually resurfacing in the middle of a forest just outside the city. Smoke continued to billow from the capital, as well as in the opposite direction.
Probably the Lusitanians razing yet another village as they continued to pillage and slaughter. By morning, hundreds more “heathen” heads would no doubt be lined up on pikes before the city walls.
“What a pitiful end.”
Burdened with his ill-gotten goods, Giv continued to walk along, considering where he might procure a horse.
“… Thus the hero-king Kai Khosrow seated himself upon a throne of gold; and all the kings across the vast land knelt before him in obeisance; and the Kingdom of Pars was united…”
Giv hummed a verse from the kingdom’s founding epic to himself. From the hard glitter in his eyes, as sharp as starlight reflected off a sword, one could see that his expression had lost its previous merry frivolity.
The fall of Pars was an inevitability. This was a nation built upon the ashes of other nations; that which was born from ash can only return to ash. And yet, even so — watching the Lusitanian barbarians trampling all over the vast lands of Pars, killing and plundering as they pleased, was not something that sat well with him. (His own modest profiting off the situation was another matter entirely.) Somehow or other, those bastards had to be taught a lesson.
Before dawn had broken completely, Giv put the matter of the capital behind him and vanished into the last vestiges of night.