The Nimruz Mountains slashed across the region slightly south of central Pars, stretching two hundred farsangs1 from east to west.
Though they were not exceptionally high peaks, these mountains completely separated the climate and geography of Pars into two halves. To the north of Nimruz, the land was blessed with moderate rainfall, and in the winter it even snowed. Both coniferous forests and grasslands spread wide, and grains and fruits alike ripened in abundance. Meanwhile, crossing the divide to the south, the sun scorched hot, both air and earth were parched; other than the oases dotting the landscape, desert, rock formations, and savanna prevailed, and there were no forests.
Nevertheless, flowing south from the mountains and emptying into the sea was the Oxus River, its levels augmented by the accumulation of melted snow and water from underground springs. The water of this river was used to run aqueducts, providing irrigation for nearby fields and pastures. As well, at the mouth of the Oxus River was the famous port city of Gilan, from which one could embark upon the sea route to distant Serica.
In the mountains, yuz, or snow leopards, made their dens; south of the mountains were sher, or lions, and occasionally even elephants. North of the mountains, the forms of bears and wolves could be sighted. Also, there were a number of trails leading to passes through the mountains, connecting the vast lands of Pars from north to south, but without the sound of caravan bells, those trails lay dormant, utterly blanketed in silence.
It was the last days of autumn in the year 320 of Pars.
Five riders bearing the arms of Pars flew down the trail; chasing them with blatant killing intent about one hundred gaz2 away were several hundred cavalrymen in Lusitanian gear.
Among the five riders were two boys and one long-haired woman. The other two included a young man with wine-dark hair conversing loudly with the other.
“Just checking, but how many in pursuit?”
“About five hundred riders, I suppose?”
“Bit too many, huh. If it were within four hundred though, I’d take care of them myself somehow or other.”
The other man did not reply; the long-haired woman interrupted.
“Sir Narses, you need not put up with Giv’s nonsense.”
Then the woman called out to the boy galloping beside her.
“Your Highness, Sir Dariun should arrive with troops at any moment now. Please endure a little longer.”
The boy bedecked in dazzling golden armor nodded fiercely. He was none other than Arslan, the crown prince of Pars. The other youth was called Elam. He was Narses’s retak, his page boy.
After their loss to the Lusitanian army at the Battle of Atropatene, the prince had been separated from his father King Andragoras III, and was now protected by the black knight Dariun, who counted among his five subordinates. Dariun had proceeded ahead by himself in the direction of Kashan, a fortress located within the Nimruz Mountains. He was to request the aid of the master of Kashan Castle, Lord Hojir.
Arslan and the others, wandering through the mountain trails about half a day behind, had been discovered by a nearby troop of Lusitanians prowling about to pillage and scout.
Glancing over at her shoulder at their pursuers, Farangis ascertained the position of the sun upon their path down the winding trail, then suddenly raised her bow and nocked an arrow to the string. She twisted around upon the back of her horse, aimed true, and released.
Farangis’s arrow flew straight into the gaping mouth of the Lusitanian soldier at the lead. “Gah!” With that peculiar cry, the soldier tumbled from his saddle and vanished amid the dust kicked up by his comrades.
Giv, praising her, pulled out his own poplar bow as well, nocked an arrow, and loosed it at the Lusitanian soldier newly come to the fore.
A thin silver light sped across empty space and was sucked right into the chest of the Lusitanian.
The soldier was wearing a cuirass, but the arrow pierced through the gap in the overlapping plates near the center and buried into the soldier’s flesh. The soldier swayed back in his saddle without a word; there he stayed for several dozen more gaz before he exhausted his strength and fell from his horse.
Witnessing such superb skill with the bow one after another, the Lusitanian soldiers could not help but show signs of faltering. They pulled on their reins, slowing the speed of their pursuit. Then it was the Lusitanians’ turn to loose arrows at Arslan’s party.
Several dozen arrows came flying, but not a single one hit. Lusitanian bows were not constructed as sturdily as Parsian bows, and thus had a shorter range to begin with. Additionally, both those pursuing and those being pursued were galloping straight into the wind. The arrows released by Farangis and company were carried further by the wind; the arrows from the Lusitanians, flying against the wind, lost even more power.
While the Lusitanian troops were engaged in this fruitless counterattack, Arslan and the others had already increased the distance from their pursuit to one amaj3. Arslan and Elam could not yet be considered expert riders, but they had nonetheless been raised in the equestrian culture of Pars. Their pace was not one the likes of the Lusitanians could hope to match.
Pulling themselves together, the Lusitanian troops reformed their ranks, chasing the escapees until they had them cornered at the edge of a precipice.
In that moment, there sounded a Parsian horn, its notes incomprehensible to the Lusitanians as it echoed about the surrounding mountains. Some, too, must have spotted upon the cliffs then a single mounted knight in black, his figure bathed in the light of the setting sun. No time even for surprise: a fierce wind swept forth from the ravine, and with it rained a storm of arrows.
On this mountain trail there was no room to dodge left or right. Among the Lusitanian troops, men and horses alike screamed and fell dead to the ground. Nor did this last long. Giving up all thoughts of pursuit or resistance, they turned their horses and fled from certain death without looking back. If they were to know it was the crown prince of Pars whom they’d failed to capture, no doubt they would regret it later.
Dariun had come leading reinforcements from the fortress of Kashan. An excellent commander, Dariun had stationed archers on the cliffs overlooking either side of the trail, anticipating any possible attack by ensuring the ability to sweep away all Lusitanian pursuit at once.
Even as they rejoiced at their reunion, before their eyes there appeared soon enough the gates of the mountain fortress of Kashan. Waiting on his horse in front of the gates was a slightly obese-looking man clad in silk. This was one of the shahrdaran who governed Pars, Lord Hojir.
Among the aristocracy, those who owned their own territories and private armies were called “shahrdaran,” but in all of Pars there were no more than about a hundred of them. The other nobles received generous stipends from the Shah to serve at court as civil and military officials. Of course, however, among them were many who received wages but fooled around instead of doing work.
Narses’s late father Teos too had been one of these governors, and held dominion over the Dailam region. Though Narses was technically a young master of an aristocratic family, his mother had not been Teos’s legal wife. She had been born a lowly azat, a freeborn commoner, and was merely one of Teos’s concubines, ranked perhaps twentieth or thirtieth in his favor. Upon giving birth to a male infant — that is to say, Narses — she had been chased from the estate by Teos’s wife. However, having received just enough for living expenses, she took her young son away with her and settled down at the royal capital of Ecbatana.
Narses grew up in the neighborhood and studied alongside the desks of azat children at the local school. When he turned ten, a messenger from his father came to welcome him back. Teos had about ten other children aside from Narses, but somehow or other, they were all girls. Because that dreadful wife of his had suddenly died of food poisoning after eating mutton, Teos made the decision to designate his one and only son as his successor…
And now Hojir, lord of the mountain fortress of Kashan and its surrounding territories, was also said to have no son. To which Giv remarked, rather scathingly, “So no matter how mighty the noble, even he has stuff about which he can’t just do as he pleases.”
Hojir was in good humor as he welcomed Arslan into the fortress.
“Ever since hearing of the defeat at Atropatene, I have been most anxious over the well-being of both His Majesty the Shah and Your Highness the Crown Prince. But with my strength alone I had no way to challenge the great armies of Lusitania for a rematch, and so I could only bear that pain within my heart. Chagrined as I was at my own helplessness, when Lord Dariun was sighted today at our castle, he gifted me this opportunity to demonstrate my loyalty to Your Highness.”
Giv, looking suspiciously at the maudlin figure of Hojir chattering on with abandon, whispered to the kahina beside him.
“Lady Farangis, what do you think about that man?”
“Quite the talkative man he is. His tongue seems smeared with oil. Nor do I think it oil of much quality.”
The beautiful priestess’s criticism was quite sharp. She, unlike Hojir, had participated in a battle against great odds for Arslan, all by herself without a single soldier to her name. This splendid prattle of Hojir’s was nothing but an excuse, and was not to be listened to.
Giv nodded with a smug expression. “Truly, men who are nothing but chatter only expose their insincerity all the more by doing so, right, Lady Farangis?”
“Just like a certain someone.”
Even Farangis’s insinuation did not seem to discourage Giv at all.
“Well, that said, good guy or bad guy, it won’t change the taste of his nabid.”
The celebratory banquet was most extravagant. Though both meat and wine such as nabid were plentiful, the meat was one matter, but the alcohol was forbidden to Arslan. He made do by wetting his tongue with sharbat — fruit punch — and black tea, even as he found himself overwhelmed by the incredible variety of dishes available.
Just as Arslan lifted his silver spoon, raising to his mouth a scoop of concentrated pomegranate sharbat mixed with almond and syrup, Hojir unexpectedly whispered to him.
“Your Highness, I have a daughter. She is around thirteen years of age, and in my view as a father, I feel that she is acceptably pretty, and also quite bright. If only she were allowed to serve at Your Highness’s side, my daughter would know no greater happiness…”