A flock of bolbol, nightingales, flew past the moon, their singing resembling the notes of a crystal flute.
Upon a moonlit mountain trail, six riders sped on at a pace not unlike the one they had traveled by day. It was Prince Arslan’s party.
These words came, in a low but piercing voice, from the exquisite lips of the kahina Farangis.
The jinn were causing a great ruckus in the night air. An ordinary person could neither see nor hear them, but for Farangis, who had been trained as a kahina, such things were easily perceived.
For this reason, she could recite a spell to quiet them, but if for instance an unbeliever like Giv were to recite it, there would be no effect whatsoever. It was meaningful only if Farangis recited it.
“The jinn are in an ill humor for some reason. They will not even respond to the raishal. I believe there must be individuals nearby whose hearts thirst for blood, and that the jinn are agitated by their wicked aura.”
To Fort Peshawar there remained a distance of sixty farsangs1. Since dealing with Hojir at Kashan Castle, they had traveled for two days and three nights before coming this far. On the way, they had met with pursuit, and had even done battle with former henchmen of the late Hojir who’d come to chase them down. Nevertheless, to such an intrepid company as their own, none of these troubles had amounted to anything that could be considered dangerous. Still, just to be safe, they had continued riding down the long mountain trails in order to circumvent potential enemies, and for this reason the two boys among them were beginning to weary.
Despite this, they’d kept their spirits up so as to keep the adults from noticing. Upon hearing Farangis’s explanation, Elam volunteered himself to Narses, then galloped into the night to scout the roads.
Before long, Elam returned to report that the jinn had good reason to be disturbed. Pursuers were approaching.
“A considerable number of them. And also…”
“The man of the silver mask is among them.”
“We should make haste,” said Dariun, and they all did so most readily. However, they had not advanced a single farsang2 when the cries of the jinn grew to an unbearable level for Farangis. Looking back from atop her horse, she saw them. Several hundred torches lined up at their backs, pressing close upon their party. From the depths of the night resounded hoofbeats like the peal of distant thunder.
“Halt!” Narses ordered sharply.
There must be some reason their pursuers had deliberately lit their torches, disclosing their own positions. Narses contemplated, and then it came to him. It was all in order to drive Arslan and company toward the unlit areas. It could be nothing else. In other words, there were definitely troops lying in ambush along the available paths through the mountains.
Narses, surveying the terrain, noted that only about three amaj3 ahead, the road split into three forks. At the same time, from the path before them suddenly emerged another incoming flood of swords and riders. With a brisk, quiet exchange of words, their decision was made.
“See you at Peshawar!”
Thus the six of them, splitting into three groups, vowed to reunite at Peshawar, and fled down the dark paths east, south, and north.
When Dariun realized that the rider galloping to his left was Farangis, he found himself slightly disappointed. Of course it was not that he wished to avoid her, but he had intended not to be separated from Prince Arslan. Perhaps Farangis felt much the same herself.
Dariun and Farangis, in the end, found themselves forced to break through an extremely dense blockade. This was the worst of all disasters — for the soldiers surrounding them.
With a single “shing”, the first of the riders obstructing Dariun found his head cleft in two from crown to jaw and went flying from his horse. With a single flourish, the next rider lost his right arm forevermore, screaming into the night as he too vanished from his horse.
Dariun’s sword raged among the enemy soldiers like a whirlwind; on the other hand, Farangis’s sword zipped through the soldiers like piercing lightning, dealing wounds with fatal precision between the gaps of their armor.
Dariun came dancing forth upon his black horse; enemy riders and horses alike fell to the ground, drenched in blood.
Terror overcame bravery, and the enemy soldiers fell into chaos, opening a path for Dariun. A few arrows targeted him, but they were all sliced aside save one, which struck its mark but was unable to pierce through his armor. Now that things had come to this, the soldiers came to realize the futility of resistance. Casting aside their useless bows, they whipped their horses away, fleeing from Dariun’s longsword.
Dariun and Farangis paid no heed to their scattered, fleeing enemies, and resumed their efforts to proceed down the road to Peshawar. If things continued in this manner, they did not think it would be particularly difficult to break past the encirclement.
However, through the darkness pierced a furious cry, halting the footsteps of the fleeing soldiers.
“For shame! I’ll cut down any coward who runs. Turn back and fight!”
New players had appeared. Several dozen shadows, accompanied by echoing hoofbeats, came swarming in around the two of them.
“You that bastard Dariun??” came a roaring cry. Into Dariun’s view had danced a knight astride a dapple gray horse, capped in a helm of Maryam, embroidered Serican mantle fluttering in the night wind. Ferocity and vigor blasted forth from his youthful face.
It was Qaran’s son Zandeh. Of course, Dariun did not know this. However, he was to find out soon enough. Zandeh, kicking at his horse’s flanks, hollered and swung down a massive sword.
“I am Zandeh, son of Marzban Qaran. You killed my father. I shall finish what he left undone. Take my blade of righteousness!”
The incoming blow was vicious to an extreme. Even a famed equestrian of Dariun’s caliber could not evade it entirely; with a dull thump, horse collided against horse, saddle against saddle.
After a single clash, the two men’s horses passed each other. Zandeh, who had run beyond by thirty gaz4, was about to circle back when a slender blade came stretching smoothly straight into his eyes. Zandeh ducked his face away with an “Ah!”, and the tip of the sword scraped against his helmet with a shrill noise.
“Woman!” roared Zandeh. The one wielding the sword was Farangis.
This time, Zandeh’s hefty sword stormed through space, targeting Farangis.
Farangis, countering this fierce blow, forced her valiant opponent to slice through thin air. But Zandeh’s greatsword, being both heavy and keen, fell onward, upon the neck of Farangis’s mount.
Before the beautiful kahina‘s very eyes unfolded the dreadful sight of her mount’s neck being chopped halfway through.
The horse let out one final neigh, then toppled into the dust as if dragged down by the weight of its partly severed head. It was dead before it even hit the ground, its neck bone having snapped.
Long black hair floated in the wind, like a piece cut from the night sky. Farangis had not been so careless as to remain astride in her saddle until her horse collapsed. Kicking free of her stirrups, she somersaulted through the air, her elegant, cypress-like form curling in a flawless display of falling technique. She sprang back to her feet upon white sands bathed in moonlight.
If this blow were to land, Farangis’s lovely head would no doubt be smashed open like a watermelon. However, from one gaz5 away came another attack, knocking Zandeh’s greatsword aside with an intense screech.
“Dariun!” Zandeh bellowed, his voice filled with hatred and aggression. He turned his horse back around to face his father’s foe and renewed his thrusts.
Their blades struck, lighting the two men’s faces with sparks. In the second exchange, their crossguards crashed together. In the third, their horses leaped forth and they slashed at each other midair. In the fourth, blade engaged blade, and sparks scattered once more.
A tenth exchange, a twentieth exchange, a thirtieth exchange. For the time being, amid the clash of their unyielding blades, it was impossible to tell which side was the inferior.
Dariun could not but acknowledge that Zandeh’s valor surpassed that of his late father Qaran. That being said, of course, this was nothing to quail at. He himself was “marde-e mardan,” a man among men. In terms of both skill and experience, he far exceeded Zandeh.
If anything, what was truly fearsome had to be Zandeh’s fighting spirit. Dariun had not received a single wound; in contrast, Zandeh’s bulk was covered in five or six shallow cuts, and yet the swings of his sword had not lessened even slightly in speed or power. On the contrary, they grew ever more ferocious, pressing Dariun harder and harder, the broad blade of his greatsword grazing Dariun’s armor again and again.
While the hero in black devoted his attention to Zandeh, the beautiful priestess crossed swords with a mounted enemy, who was easily cut down. With the agility of one who had sprouted invisible wings, she leaped onto the stolen horse. She seized the bow slung on the pommel of the saddle, then, guiding the horse with her legs alone, she shot a single arrow.
“Allow me to return the favor from just now. Take this!”
As accurately as if drawn by an invisible thread, the arrow loosed from Farangis’s bow penetrated the right eye of Zandeh’s mount.
The dapple gray horse staggered back as if buffeted by violent winds, then keeled over.
Zandeh’s hulking form, still forcibly grasping onto his sword, was thrown to the ground. He took a bad landing; the severe strike to his back forced a groan from him.
Half a minute passed in the blink of an eye as Dariun hesitated. He couldn’t count the number times he’d cut down enemy riders until now. However, he had never before slain an unhorsed enemy without even offering him the opportunity to regain his feet.
That hesitation saved Zandeh’s life. Dariun’s sword struck down, but glanced off Zandeh’s helm. If he hadn’t hesitated, Dariun’s sword might very well have cloven the helm in two and shattered Zandeh’s skull.
Even so, the fierce strike made Zandeh see stars and brought him howling to his knees.
Nor did any chance remain for Dariun to swing a finishing blow. Zandeh’s men had formed a wall of spears and slings to protect their youthful master.
Farangis called out; Dariun nodded, then turned his horse about and escaped the site of the battle.
As their silhouetted backs faded into the distance, washed away by the moonlight, Zandeh lifted his sandy mass at last.
“Give chase! But don’t kill him. Dariun’s head and heart are mine.”
Zandeh dashed his helm on the ground and shouted, his hair ruffled like that of a sher.
“I’ll give that long-haired woman to the worthiest of you dogs. Want a beauty of your own? It’s down to your own strength.”
The soldiers cheered. Zandeh picked up his helm, mounted a horse that had lost its rider, and licked away the blood that had trickled down from the wound on his forehead.
With wonder-inducing equestrian expertise, Dariun and Farangis rode onto a mountain trail littered with gravel.
Zandeh and his company tenaciously gave chase, but as time went on, the distance only continued to widen.
Before long, the first rays of dawn began to creep in along the edges of the peaks on the path ahead. Several of those mountains were recorded in Dariun’s memory. Back when he had headed to distant Serica, as well as the time he had done battle with the tripartite alliance, he had viewed that very panorama of mountains far to the eastern end of the Great Continental Road.
Farangis offered a leather flask to Dariun. As the knight in black accepted it and brought it to his lips, the priestess shot a question at him.
“You hesitated, didn’t you, when you swung your blade at that man named Zandeh?”
“Rather lax of you.”
Despite Farangis’s scolding tone, the barest hint of a smile had surfaced on her face as well. Dariun returned it with a wry smile of his own.
“I think so too…”
By now Dariun was all too aware that the youth called Zandeh was a vicious beast clad head to toe in armor, one even more dangerous than a wild sher. An opponent whom, once unhorsed, he should not have hesitated to strike down with his sword.
“Whether it’s that silver-masked man or Zandeh, His Highness Arslan possesses enemies most terrible.”
He felt this most profoundly. If I do not protect him… Dariun had pledged as much to his deceased uncle Vahriz. And yet, what on earth could his uncle have possibly been aware of regarding Prince Arslan’s background?