4. Beasts and Beauties (vi)

(notes)

That day, in broad daylight, one of Qaran’s troops burned down a village and threw fifty villagers — though only men — into the fire. They left behind only a single line — “If from now on you continue to harbor Prince Arslan and his cohorts, even women and children shall not be spared!” — along with ashes, hatred, and grief.

For Qaran, there was no longer anything he could do but drink the poison dry. Repeating this sort of massacre again and again in order to corner Arslan and company was the only way he could gain the deepest confidence of the Lusitanian army.

As the sun sank and it came time to set up camp, a single report was received. A man, clinging to the back of a horse, on the brink of death, had been discovered roaming the wilderness. That man confessed that he’d been hired as a porter for Arslan and company, but was caught stealing their belongings; whipped half to death and told that he’d be killed the next day, he had escaped in desperation.

Qaran examined the man’s wounds. He considered the possibility that the man might have faked his injuries in order to draw him into a trap. But the countless stripes upon the man’s body were genuine. Qaran chose to interrogate the man personally.

“How many travel with Prince Arslan?”

“Just four of ’em.”

“Don’t lie, there should be a hundred times that.”

“Tis true, and two of ’em children besides… it’s coz of that they hired me to haul their gear.”

“Then, where are the prince and the others headed?”

“Down south, y’see.”

When this brief interrogation reached an end, the man requested a reward for his information. With a nod and a “Very well!”, Qaran suddenly drew his sword from its sheathe and sliced off the man’s head. Qaran spat upon the head as it rolled to the ground.

“Fool, as if I’d fall for such a scheme!”

And so he ordered his troops north, in the opposite direction as the man had indicated. Qaran judged that Narses had commanded the man to come to him as an informant. Even his injuries were a trick made to gain Qaran’s trust.

How little Qaran knew. Stopping by a certain village, Arslan’s party had deliberately picked out a shady man and hired him to carry their luggage. Then, after the beaten man’s figure disappeared in the direction of Qaran’s troops, they changed their route to head from south to north. They then purposely exposed their northward trek for all to see…

This was all according to Narses’s plot. Qaran’s army headed north, entangling themselves in a forested, mountainous region. Moreover, night had already fallen. For such a large troop of cavalry, truly adverse conditions were stacking up one after another.

.

Past midnight. Narses, having completed his preparations, grinned as he peered out from the forest at Qaran’s troops advancing in single file along the mountain trail. The shrewder the mind, the more easily it danced right into the palm of his hands.

As soon as the enemy troops had passed, he turned back to where he had tethered his horse. Suddenly, his footsteps halted and he stooped low, having sensed the approach of something — or someone.

Narses sprang back. The flat of a blade flashed past, grazing his tunic, scattering several strands into the air.

As he jumped back once more, Narses drew his sword to parry the next silvery attack. Sparks flew at the ear-piercing scrape of metal against metal. The second round was over before it had even started. For both parties had realized the other was not the enemy they had expected, and drawn their blades aside.

“Are you not one of the Lusitanians?”

It was a young woman’s voice, accompanied by the subtle scent of perfume; even Narses was taken by surprise.

“Who are you?”

Upon being asked, Narses immediately offered up his own name: “Narses, a supporter of His Highness Arslan.” His swift response was entirely intuitive.

“My apologies. I am Farangis, an adherent of Mithra, come to offer my strength to His Highness Arslan. I have been shadowing Lord Qaran’s troops all this time.”

“Oh?”

Narses had no jinn to aid him. That he trusted in Farangis was through logic alone. If she were part of Qaran’s faction, all she had to do was shout out to reveal Narses’s location to everyone else.

“You are saying you wish to ally yourself with His Highness Arslan?”

“Indeed.”

Her words lacked emotion, but her voice was musical to the ear.

“Let us cooperate, then. From here, we are to capture the traitor Qaran and bring him before His Highness Arslan.”

“Understood. I have but a single query: how many are currently in service to His Highness Arslan?”

Narses replied nonchalantly to the beautiful woman’s question.

“Along with you, that’ll make a total of five.”

Narses, it seemed, had noticed Giv standing behind her.

.

Someone or other raised a shout, and now Qaran’s troops were all astir. At first just one, then dozens of fingers pointed toward the cliff. Exposed in the pale light of the half moon was Arslan himself, seated upon a horse, surveying the troops arrayed below.

“It’s Prince Arslan! Kill him! His head’s worth 100,000 dinars!”

Whether such a price was too high or not, Arslan could not judge, but to the knights under Qaran’s command, it was an amount worth more than their own lives.

With shouts of greed and excitement, the riders spurred on their horses and began to gallop up the slope. Even for the virile Parsian horses, sustaining such a charge was no easy feat, and the troop formation immediately collapsed. The moment the first horse struggled wheezing onto the cliff, Arslan’s sword stabbed through the chest of its rider. The tip of the blade thrust right through his back; there was a sound of impact as the crossguard struck against a button on his padded vest.

Arslan pulled out his sword — or more accurately, the dead man’s body dropped back from the force of its own weight. As the corpse tumbled down the slope, the horses rearing in attempt to avoid it lost their balance and toppled.

The darkness of night along with the lack of solid foothold caused them all to fall into chaos. Arslan had already played his role as a mere decoy. Picking up his bow, he shot arrow after arrow. Clustered together as they were, Qaran’s troops were unable to evade. Of the six arrows Arslan loosed, four hit their targets, and of those, two managed to wound the enemy. The remaining two were aimed at the knights clambering up the slope with fierce momentum, but a spinning lance knocked them aside. “Prince!” bellowed a voice: it was Qaran. The prince sucked in a breath, tossed aside his bow, and confronted the treacherous Marzban.

“Qaran, there is something I wish to ask you!”

Arslan was all too aware that his voice betrayed his own nerves.

“As a Marzban, no, as a heretofore irreproachable warrior of Pars, why would you bend your knee to the Lusitanian invaders?”

There was no reply.

“I do not believe you were tempted by personal desire. If there is a reason for all this, do tell me, please.”

“Better for you to remain ignorant, oh accursed son of Andragoras!”

The naked derision in Qaran’s voice echoed yet with some deeper gloom. So too did the pair of eyes glaring at Arslan seem to glow with an unearthly light.

“Better to go to your death believing that I, Qaran, am nothing but a wretched traitor. Whether slain by a loyal retainer or at the hands of a traitor, death is death: either way, there is no difference.”

A terrible wind blew away the vines of doubt coiling about Arslan’s heart. Looking upon Qaran, it seemed as if his entire body had swelled. The power of a true warrior, their overwhelming difference in strength — Arslan could sense it all.

Arslan’s mount snorted nervously, as if reflecting the change in its rider’s heart.

Uttering a low battle cry, Qaran spurred his horse into a charge. An enormous, well-worn spear that had seen as much battle as its master lunged straight at the prince’s heart.

Arslan parried, half out of instinct. The spearhead veered away to empty space, but the prince’s sword arm was numbed to the elbow.

“Tricky little — !”

Along with that roar swept forth a second blow.

If it couldn’t quite be considered a miracle to have deflected the first blow, dodging the second blow was nothing short of miraculous. But any favoritism displayed by the heavens or by fate could only go so far. The third attack was fended off weakly, and should have pierced straight through Arslan’s body. What brought things to an end once and for all was Dariun’s voice.

“Qaran, your opponent is me and me alone!”

He was later than planned, for his path through the forest had been obstructed by mud left over from a fall of rain about two days before.

Qaran’s face contorted in despair. He was clearly still affected by his memory of being brought to his knees before the brunt of Dariun’s attack upon the fields of Atropatene. Qaran gave up on the precious prey before his very eyes. He turned his horse around, and the imminent demise that had been staring Arslan in the face beat a hasty retreat.

“Stay safe, Your Highness!”

With that single line, man and horse blurred into a single black shadow, and all around Arslan piled the corpses of enemy soldiers.

One knight, about to spear Dariun from behind, tumbled from the back of his horse with a scream. One of Farangis’s arrows had pierced his face from the side.

Amid the confused ranks of the knights, two dark shadows danced.

Narses and Giv each confirmed with his own eyes the quality of his newly anointed comrade’s swordsmanship.

The sound of clashing blades was chained together with sprays of blood.

A number of horses, finding their saddles suddenly emptied, escaped into the darkness. Half of them lost their footing upon the cliffs and toppled to their deaths screaming.

To Qaran’s men, it was probably the worst night of their lives. Their enemies were not just valiant, but terrifyingly crafty. With the chaos and the darkness and the terrain on their side, they wreaked havoc among Qaran’s troops, spreading death wherever they went, then fleeing once more from the eddy of men and horses only to vanish under the cloak of night. Two or three times this repeated. The order of Qaran’s troops was dealt a fatal blow. They could no longer reform their ranks.

“Dariun, you go after Qaran!” shouted Narses as he twisted back to avoid the spray of blood from his latest victim. Nodding in reply, Dariun kicked the flanks of his black horse; pebbles and dirt scattered beneath its hooves as they chased after the fleeing Qaran.

A few of Qaran’s men turned their horses around to attack him, but he speared one through and struck another aside without even bothering to duck the blood splattering into the night wind. As he closed in on Qaran, he tore into him.

“Some hero you are, facing only boys not even of age! Where is the valor for which you were so renowned before you slunk off to serve the Lusitanians? Is this shameful flight truly the way of the once-celebrated Qaran?”

The provocation produced results. Dignity wounded, Qaran boiled over with rage.

“Don’t get cocky, you little upstart!”

With that furious cry, he swung his own spear to knock aside Dariun’s. It was a violent blow. Both Dariun’s body and his spear swayed in a rush of wind; even the black horse’s steps wavered slightly. Just barely, they managed to keep from falling down the steep slope.

Without a moment’s delay, Qaran’s spear thrust straight at Dariun’s face. Dariun reassumed a proper mount and blocked the vicious attack just in the nick of time.

Qaran’s men had intended to interrupt and separate this astonishing pair, but whatever room for interference within this clash of man against man, horse against horse, and spear against spear had already vanished. Thrust. Sweep. Strike. Attack. Parry. Sparks scattered pale blue beneath the moonlight.

Qaran was a warrior of the highest caliber, one born to be Marzban. So long as his heart did not quail and his mind remained clear, he would not lose to Dariun in terms of valor.

Qaran’s men, however, could not sustain the same fighting spirit as their master. They were cut down indiscriminately or shot down, or fled into the embrace of the night, ever the protector of the defeated. For one thing, it had not even occurred to them that their enemies actually numbered only in the single digits.

Arslan hurried his horse to the site of the duel and watched on, heart full of apprehension. Narses, with bloody sword still in hand, rode over to his side.

“It’ll be fine. Your Highness, Dariun’s victory is absolutely certain. Although under these circumstances, he may not have the luxury to capture him alive, that’s all.”

Narses’s observation was correct. The very moment Qaran’s spear and body appeared to move just the slightest bit slower than Dariun, the first sign of blood trickled down Qaran’s left cheek.

Dariun’s spearhead had nicked off a small chunk of his opponent’s cheek. Although it was not a deep wound, the blood gushed into Qaran’s eye, blinding him.

Dariun’s spear thrust forward, lightning quick. Arslan gasped, but Dariun had not forgotten his own duty. He jabbed Qaran’s side forcefully, not with the tip of his spear but the end of its shaft; Qaran, losing his balance, was unhorsed and toppled to the ground.

Until now, all had unfolded according to Dariun’s calculations and Narses’s expectations. What betrayed their hopes was the steep incline of the ground, and Qaran’s spear. Still clutched in Qaran’s hands, the spear snapped against the rocky slope with a sharp crack, and not cleanly in two at that, but at a peculiar angle — slanting right through the neck of its wielder.

By the time Dariun leaped from his horse and lifted him into his arms, Qaran was already half gone. The spear looked like it had penetrated all the way through from either side of him, and yet both his eyes remained open and undimmed.

“Where is the king?”

Dariun spilled this deathly urgent question to the dying man’s ear.

“Andragoras still lives…”

His voice was little more than a wheeze.

“But already the throne is no longer his. The rightful king…”

In place of his voice, flakes of dark red blood poured from his throat, and after a brief violent spasm, Marzban Qaran drew his last breath.

“The rightful king…?”

Dariun exchanged a glance with Narses, who had rushed over just in time to hear.

What they could not help but recall were the events surrounding King Andragoras’s accession. Killing his own king and brother, claiming the throne for himself — a usurper, in other words. Was that not so? Such criticism had been quietly murmured ever since then. However, Andragoras, with the support of his powerful army, had prevailed over and over again in conflicts with neighboring nations, and through that the country itself had benefited; the pragmatism of his rule, so to speak, had thus established the rightfulness of his authority.

Arslan, whose equestrian skill paled to theirs, arrived upon his horse just then, questioning the two of them with his eyes.

“Apparently King Andragoras still lives. As for anything beyond that, I’m afraid we were unable to ask.”

As Narses replied, Arslan stared at Dariun lowering Qaran’s body to the ground. The young knight in black remained silent. Although Narses had not conveyed to the prince the latter half of Qaran’s dying words, he too approved of this decision. To a boy of fourteen, such words would surely be too difficult to digest.

Dariun raised his voice at last.

“Your Highness, if he yet lives, you shall surely meet again someday. Besides, if the Lusitanian army has suffered the king to live until now, they must have their reasons; until that purpose is fulfilled, they are not likely to harm him needlessly.”

Arslan nodded, not so much because his heart truly understood, but because he did not wish for Dariun to worry.

At this time, Narses introduced the pair of young newcomers to the prince. First was the beautiful woman with waist-length hair, who bowed with utmost respect.

“Your Highness Arslan, I presume? Farangis is my name; though engaged in service at the temple of Mithra in Khuzestan, by the will of the late High Priestess I have come to join you as an ally.”

The young man offered his own name in turn.

“Giv is my name; in support of Your Highness, I escaped here from the capital Ecbatana.”

This was a complete and utter lie, but before he could be suspected, Giv mentioned a truth calculated to earn the prince’s trust.

“Your Highness, your lady mother, the queen consort Tahmineh, was still in good health when I escaped. I was granted the great honor of hearing from the queen herself in person.”

Future matters could be dealt with in the future. He’d always loved stirring up trouble anyway. For the time being, he could remain at Farangis’s side and introduce Lusitanian soldiers to the pointy end of his sword for great justice. If he ever started feeling too constricted, then he could just run away. That was Giv’s view of things.

Dariun, who had been hovering at a slight distance, murmured to his friend with a wry smile.

“So four becomes six. Well, that makes for a fifty percent increase in might, but I wonder if it’s really fine to trust them?”

“With the Lusitanian army numbering 300,000, we shall each have 50,000 apiece to take care of. What great fun it shall be, don’t you think?”

Narses was not just blithely making the comparison. He was pointing out, with his typical irony, just how difficult their circumstances would be from now on, with no hope of much improvement.

At any rate, in order to determine the whereabouts of the king and queen, it seemed they would have to somehow conduct an all-out infiltration of Ecbatana.

<– PREVIOUS | THE CAPITAL ABLAZE | NEXT –>

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