The heavens were filled with stars, as if the gods themselves had spilled an enormous chest of jewels into the night sky.
Upon the starlit ground flitted the dark shadows of human figures. Approximately one hundred armored men were mustered in a stone-paved courtyard. Sticking out like a sore thumb at their fore was a man bedecked in an ostentatious set of armor. This was the lord of the castle, Hojir. Whether in terms of his speech or his dress, this was certainly a man who spared no expense when it came to himself.
Hojir was confident that Dariun and the others were fast asleep under the effect of the soporific. Before long, Hojir led a troop of soldiers before Arslan’s chambers and knocked upon the oaken doors, calling for the prince.
“Is something the matter, Hojir?”
The prince who opened the door was not dressed in nightclothes. This was as Narses had directed him. For a moment, it occurred to Hojir that this was unusual, but that thought was swiftly stifled.
“Dariun, Narses, and all others at Your Highness’s side who shall bring you harm should henceforth be eliminated. I humbly beg Your Highness’s knowing permission for this task.”
“They have supported me well. For what reason do you speak of eliminating them?”
“Sooner or later they shall reveal their disloyalty as your retainers; that they shall someday harm Your Highness and bring the country to ruin is more than evident.”
Hojir, taken to task by the prince, raised his voice.
“This is all entirely for the sake of Your Esteemed Highness. That man named Narses is blessed with intellect; wherefore, then, do you think he suffered the disfavor of King Andragoras? Why, because he advocated such radical ideas as abolishing the institute of slavery, confiscating the temples’ assets, or applying the same laws to nobility and azat, thereby endangering the very foundations of Pars. Even if the Lusitanian army were to be chased out, if that awful Narses and his set are allowed to govern the nation as they please, ‘twould be a far greater evil than mere ruin. I daresay that man, not knowing his own place, has even begged Your Highness for some high-ranking position, has he not?”
On and on flowed his voice, without even a pause for breath, as if to suffocate the prince within the muddied stream of his words. Only now, at last, was an opportunity for rebuttal.
“Narses has made no requests whatsoever. It was I myself who made the offer of a most trifling position.”
Inside Arslan, his displeasure was swiftly growing. Why did Hojir feel the need to belittle others to such an extent? And furthermore, on the basis of things he himself arbitrarily claimed “might” happen in the future!
“Hojir, if you wish for the position of framatar, then I shall certainly make you my prime minister when I accede to the throne. Can you not therefore cooperate with Dariun and Narses in my service?”
A pity, but that he could not, Hojir declared. Once more came another muddy stream of words.
The two friends Dariun and Narses no doubt shared similar political views. The two named Farangis and Giv were plotting something of their own, and could not be trusted. In summation, they were a miserable lot who hadn’t any hope whatsoever of personal advancement under King Andragoras, and so had chosen to take advantage of the prince instead. Thus he humbly begged the prince to leave them behind and entrust himself to him, Hojir, alone…
Arslan raised his hand; only then did Hojir bring his spiel to a halt.
“If I were, at this very moment, to assent to all you have said, then that means I shall have to abandon Narses and Dariun, doesn’t it?”
“Indeed that is the case.”
“Whatever you’re thinking is absolutely incomprehensible to me.” Arslan was on the verge of shouting. “Were I to abandon Dariun and Narses now and choose you instead, how can you say there shall not come a day when I abandon you in turn?!”
Though his mouth dropped open, Hojir had no reply.
“You insist on slandering Narses. And yet, Narses once offered me hospitality for a night, without ever resorting to such foul play!”
Hojir could no doubt sense Arslan’s wrathful disdain. His expression turned grim.
“As a guest, I thank you. At any rate, you have my gratitude for providing us with tonight’s meal. However, I no longer desire you as an ally.”
Tossing out those words, Arslan turned his back to the overly garrulous castle lord and strode noisily down the stone corridor, hollering for his subordinates.
“Dariun! Narses! Giv! Farangis! Elam! Wake up, we are leaving this fortress at once!”
Hojir had probably only just realized his failure. In the next instant, the doors flung open, and the five figures who burst into the hallway were, like the prince, already fully dressed and prepared. Dariun’s black helm and armor glittered in the light of the torches.
“We have been awaiting your honored command. Let us ready the horses right away. I do not believe there is any need to dwell in a place like this for much longer.”
“Ain’t any good women around anyway,” Giv said merrily.
The six of them exited the building, saddled their horses, and came out to the paved courtyard, whereupon the dismayed Hojir tottered after them in his overly gaudy armor.
“Wait, Your Highness, please wait. These people, under the pretense of loyalty, shall lure you down the path of evil. They are most unforgivably wicked individuals.”
The knight in black directed a cold glance at him.
“I’m afraid you speak of yourself, Hojir. You should stop venting your frustration on others just because you failed to make a puppet of His Highness Arslan.”
Hojir’s face contorted in fury, completely validating what Dariun had pointed out. However, his expression swiftly transformed. Though it was a rather strained look, Hojir nonetheless brought a smile upon his face as he spoke.
“It is indeed my own unworthiness to have invited such hopeless suspicions upon myself. No more shall I pursue the matter. But at least, Your Highness, allow my subordinates to take your noble mount’s lead for you.”
Upon a signal from their lord, a pair of soldiers closed in on the horse Arslan was riding.
Blood was spilled in the very next instant.
One of them found Giv’s blade pierced through his throat; one found his ear sent flying by Farangis’s sword.
Howls burst forth toward the starry sky. One crumpled to the ground; one staggered, attempting to stem the blood gushing from the side of his face; two concealed acinaces shortswords clattered out to the horse’s hooves.
Farangis turned her sharp gaze on the lord of the castle. “Approaching His Highness the Crown Prince with hidden blades — what is the meaning of this? Or perhaps south of Nimruz this is considered appropriate decorum in the presence of royalty?”
She received no reply — not in speech, at least.
Hojir was no longer bothering to conceal his intent to take the prince captive. All around Arslan’s party rang the sound of several dozen swords unsheathing.
“You’d better let us go without a fuss, Hojir, for your own good.” Dariun’s longsword flashed beneath the starlight, and Hojir’s men visibly quailed.
Each and every one of them had both witnessed and heard with his own eyes and ears the truth of that renowned epithet, “marde-e mardan.” Three years previously, the royal prince of Turan, extolled all along the Great Continental Road as a warrior of unparalleled valor, had been cut from his horse in a single stroke by none other than Dariun.
In response to Hojir’s voice arose a confused outcry. On every single archer’s bow the string had been cut, rendering it unusable.
“Well done, Elam.”
Praised by his master, the young retak grinned happily. Elam had, at Narses’s request, sneaked into Hojir’s archery garrison and cut the strings on all their bows.
All Hojir could do was fume. Scowling at Narses, he screwed up his entire face and cursed, “You — you sly fox!”
“Oh come now, I’m hardly a match for you.” In saying this, Narses was of course not being modest, but sarcastic. “Well then, oh noble lord of Kashan, though our numbers are lacking, we’ve enough bows and arrows, as well as the archers to use them. Wise as you are, I do believe you shall concur that your best option is perhaps to open the gates and let us through…”
Hojir directed a bloodshot gaze at Giv and Farangis. Both of them had drawn their bows from atop their horses, aiming two arrows at Hojir’s chest. Even if he were to fend these off, he knew very well that either Dariun or Narses’s sword would come swooping down on him thereafter.
Reluctantly, Hojir began to order the gates opened, but at that very moment the torches illuminating the courtyard suddenly extinguished.
A cry was raised. “Capture the crown prince!” It seemed Hojir’s men intended to help their liege accomplish his ambitions.
With a sudden explosion of yells, the crowd of soldiers pressed in around Arslan and the others. But, although these were unexpected circumstances for Arslan and company, Hojir’s side was very much in the same boat. And in the end, the darkness and chaos gave the advantage to Arslan’s party instead.
Dariun’s longsword sketched wheels of fresh blood in the air. The soldiers braced around Hojir toppled like dolls made of clay.
Amid the curses, death cries, and clashing blades, Hojir fled. For good reason — his allies, falling victim to that brandished sword, had become little more than a bubbling mass of confusion. Seeking a safe position, he headed to the stairs leading up the fortress walls, practically tumbling as he ran. When he glanced back down at the foot of the stairs, he saw the very last thing he wanted to see: Dariun’s sword bearing down upon him before his very eyes. Sweat and moans alike were wrung out from Hojir as he drew his sword and turned to face the knight in black.
Refusing to plead for mercy even at this stage, he did himself credit as one of the shahrdaran after all. Of course, however, bravery and martial skill were not equivalent in concept.
Dariun did not even have to adjust his posture to counter Hojir’s desperate blow.
“Go before the angel Nakir to confess your sins. Tell the Judge of the Dead of how your own failed attempt at betrayal was completely betrayed!”
With a roar, Dariun swung his longsword and chopped off Hojir’s head. The castle lord who had been unable to become “King Arslan’s framatar” toppled soundlessly from the fortress walls.
The scent of blood mingled with the night air, but all at once a fierce wind from the mountains swept through and bore it all away.