Arslan and Elam, forming a party of three with Giv, dashed through the night to break past the eastern blockade. Three had fallen to Giv’s blade, while Arslan and Elam had each sent a single rider into the great unknown; as they crossed a mountain stream, two more were shot down by Giv’s bow and arrow. During this time, as the pursuit wavered, the distance between both parties successfully widened by about half a farsang1.
“This role sure ain’t suited to me,” Giv grumbled to himself. If the six of them were going to split up into three groups, he had of course counted on going along with Farangis. And yet to the contrary, riding to his right instead were Arslan and Elam. From his perspective, rather than calling it bodyguard duty, it felt more like he’d been designated as the babysitter.
If he were on his own, he probably would’ve managed to distance himself even further from the pursuers by now, but before long, the echo of hoofbeats drew close from behind. It seemed the pursuit had also gathered the best riders among them to form a hunting party.
“If I were a bad guy…”
That is, Giv was working entirely from the assumption that he was one of the good guys.
“Handing this princeling over to the Lusitanian army would net me some hundred thousand dinars as reward money. S’long as I’ve lived, I’ve never had a hand in anything so sneaky or ruthless though.”
The two youths hadn’t the slightest inkling that their supposedly dependable escort was deliberating over such matters.
Eventually, the road narrowed. Tall stalks of grass obstructed their path.
“This way, Your Highness Arslan!” yelled Elam, pushing ahead through the tall grass, but he abruptly came to a stop. From the youth’s mouth slipped words of self-imprecation. For he had discovered, beyond the grass, the glint of moonlight upon a lurking metal assembly. A host of armor, swords, and spears.
“Turn back –!”
As if prompted by Elam’s voice, the metal legion rose to their feet with a clatter. Countless arrows came flying, shredding the moonlight. What’s more, those arrows did not target them, but their horses.
Arrows aimed at oneself could be lopped away. However, nothing could be done about those aimed at one’s mount.
Three horses each pitched into the grass, forcing their riders onto their feet one after another. The enemy soldiers cheered and charged forth.
“His head’s worth a hundred thousand in gold. Just an arm could be worth who knows how much!”
Giv’s blade swept out from below. The enemy soldier’s leg was blasted off from the knee down; blood and screams gushed forth.
“Run for it!”
As Giv shouted at the boys, a second flashing strike hacked into the neck of enemy number two. The soldiers cowered at the sight of their comrade’s head flying through the air.
“I said run, the hell you waitin’ for!?”
Seeing that the boys stood petrified, Giv rushed to their side. Just as he was just about to blow up at them again, he swallowed his voice. Beyond the grass was a deep ravine. Vertical cliffs, and depths that even the moonlight could not reach. Only the faint trickle of water came slowly rising. Like this, there was nowhere to escape even if they tried.
The enemy soldiers formed a wall of swords and pressed in. Giv glanced backward, then forward. Inspiration struck the “vagabond minstrel.”
“Aye, let’s give it a whirl!”
Giv tucked his sword back into its scabbard and unexpectedly stretched out his arms. The boys didn’t even have time to be surprised. Arslan found himself hooked under Giv’s right arm, and Elam under his left.
Giv jumped from the edge of the cliff.
Even as the soldiers who’d come chasing gasped and looked on, the figures of Arslan and the other two vanished beyond the cliff.
They rushed in a scramble to the cliff’s edge and peered down, but the protruding outcrop and overgrown grasses blocked their view, and the three figures could not be seen. Even when they cast their gazes further down, there was only a deep chasm untouched by moonlight.
“Get down there and find them!” ordered their captain. Seeing the soldiers’ hesitation, he continued, “After jumping off on their own, the bastards have got to be dead or mortally wounded. They’re no threat anymore. Don’t you all want the gold?”
Even the soldiers who’d quailed before Giv’s swordsmanship drummed up their courage again upon hearing his speech. The foot soldiers continued as they were while the riders leaped from their horses, scattering left and right along the paths down the cliff to join in the search.
Having successfully incited his men to action, the captain stood smugly at the edge of the cliff. He too was not a man without avarice. He intended to take a piece of the action himself after the soldiers had uncovered the corpses of the prince and the others. But if by some unlikely chance that dangerous swordsman still lived, and he were forced to confront him, then it wouldn’t be a matter of gold anymore.
He took another peek at the distant depths of the ravine.
It was in that very moment. A longsword thrust out, moonlight flickering off its surface, its tip piercing right through the captain’s jaw and up into his mouth.
“Hmph, since when was I obliged to fall all the way to the bottom?” muttered Giv, as he finished crawling up from a narrow ledge. That ledge was a mere five gaz2 or so below the cliff’s edge.
After selecting three horses from those that had been left behind at the top, the three of them ran for it. A few searching soldiers were still loitering about the trails down the cliff, but when they tried to give a shout upon realizing what had happened, the trio’s backs promptly faded into the distance.
“My gratitude for your efforts, Giv. How ought I reward you?”
They had been galloping for about an hour when the prince voiced this query from atop his horse.
“Nah, it’s not like I covet rank or position. Well, perhaps allow me to think it over, if I may.”
“And you, Elam?”
On being asked, the youth replied to the prince somewhat curtly, “There is nothing I desire in particular. Nor have I ever considered it.”
“In that case, name anything you should like to do in the future.”
“That is for Lord Narses to decide. At any rate, until I reach adulthood, I plan to study and learn at Lord Narses’s side.”
Elam’s loyalty belonged first and foremost to Narses, and was only of an indirect nature when it came to Arslan. He treated Arslan as duty and responsibility demanded, but even this was because Narses wished it so.
It seemed Arslan wanted to say something, but he ended up falling silent.
In that wordless manner, the three of them spurred their horses onward.
At some point, the moon began its sloping descent.
“It appears likely we shall be the first to arrive at Peshawar.”
The trio of Arslan, Giv, and Elam had taken a route that extended more or less directly east. The other two parties had to circle briefly north or south around the mountains before they could head east.
Even so, exactly how had the other three split up? Now that they were safe for the time being, Giv started to fret over it.
If Farangis were on her own, he’d be concerned about her going solo; and if she were with either one of Dariun or Narses, he’d still be worried. Between the two men, either one of them sure was having it good, while Giv sure as hell wasn’t.
“That being the case, guess there’s no choice but to get to Peshawar as soon as possible.”
Just as Giv was considering this, Elam let out a small cry. To the left of their path, a troop of men and horses had come galloping along the gentle incline of the cliffside trails. Cries of “Capture the prince!” came drifting down, carried on the night wind.
“They just won’t quit…”
Giv clucked his tongue.
The enemies numbered over a hundred. However, only around ten were mounted, while the rest were on foot. That is to say, they were basically all ghulam.
Since they were enemies, it would be fine to just cut them down and cast them aside, but it wasn’t like there was no way to avoid bloodshed either. It was simply a matter of whether or not there was any value in doing so.
“Looks like they’re just not gonna let us get to the fortress at Peshawar that easily, huh.”
The prince responded to Giv’s voice.
“Well, that makes the going all the more worthwhile then. That they persist in giving chase to such an extent could be considered an indication that Peshawar has yet to fall into enemy hands, after all.”
“Hm, true enough.”
As Giv, despite himself, found himself reassessing Arslan, arrows came tearing through the chilled predawn air in a slanting downpour from their rear.
For the second time that night, Elam lost his mount. The horse, head and flanks struck by arrows, toppled sideways with Elam still astride.
Even before he shouted, Arslan had already pulled his horse around. In order to protect the youth whose horse had been shot down, he charged back toward the enemy frontline.
“Huh, what the…?”
Giv’s deep blue eyes glinted with what seemed to be one part admiration and one part astonishment. This was because Giv, who harbored unadulterated antipathy towards that whole lot calling themselves royals and nobles, believed from the bottom of his heart in the adage, “Those on high know nothing of gratitude.” From Arslan’s perspective, Elam was nothing more than a subordinate’s extra tagalong. To go out of his way to rescue someone like that was, to Giv, an inconceivable caprice.
“Can’t just abandon them,” Giv muttered, as if justifying his own actions to himself, then forcefully turned his horse back as well.
Arslan leaped from his horse to help up Elam. The rider who was about to swing his blade down upon their heads glimpsed, in the corner of his vision, the figure of Giv charging straight at him. The soldier’s right hand, still grasping onto his sword, went flying toward the moon. Emitting a dreadful shriek, the soldier fell tumbling from his horse.
Just like that, the horse galloped right past Giv. Witnessing Giv’s terrifying swordplay, the pursuers visibly cringed. One mounted man who looked like the captain hollered at the foot soldiers with readied spears, apparently for them to resume their pursuit of Giv. Giv, watching the tentative but nonetheless steady approach of arrayed spears, took out a pouch of sheepskin.
With a single hand, Giv opened the sheepskin pouch and flung it into the air.
From the opening of the pouch streamed a cloud of stars. All the gold and silver coin Giv had been diligently amassing from scoundrels, rich men, and soldiers up until now danced glittering through the moonlit sky before falling to the earth. The soldiers cried out in greed, threw down their spears, and began to swarm across the ground, gathering gold and silver. As ghulam, they could not buy such a great fortune even with their very lives.
“Good-for-nothing morons! Not going to fight? You damned moneygrubbing slaves, dazzled by just a handful of gold!”
Giv urged his mount into a leap toward the bellowing, red-faced captain. Though the captain brought up his sword in a hurry, it was no good.
Those were the final words the captain was to ever hear in his mortal existence.
On seeing their commander’s head sent about three gaz3 through the air by a single sweep of Giv’s blade, the soldiers collecting coins let out a shrieking “Wah!”, turned on their heels, and fled. Even with the bit of money they’d obtained, no bright futures awaited them as runaway slaves, but the onus for that wasn’t on Giv.
Giv flicked the dripping blood from his blade, sheathed his sword, took up the reins of the captain’s mount, and urged his own horse toward the two boys. Both of them had risen to their feet. The prince, on spotting Giv, again dutifully expressed his most profound gratitude. Giv responded with a half-hearted The pleasure was mine.
The three of them mounted their horses once more and headed east. Morning light was beginning to permeate the eastern skies. Before long, Arslan spoke up.
“… Is something the matter, Your Highness?”
“Do you hate me?”
The prince, who had drawn up beside him on his horse, was only one year his senior. Elam, evidently startled, considered him anew.
“Why would you…?” He faltered.
“I wish to make friends with you. If there is no dislike on your part, can we not be friends?”
“… I am the child of emancipated slaves. The disparity between our stations is too vast for something like friendship, Your Highness.”
“If we are to speak of such things as station, I should not be able to make a single friend of anyone at all.”
“In any case, I have not properly expressed my gratitude for the honor of Your Highness coming personally to my aid. I shall most definitely repay the favor.”
Perhaps Elam too, in his own way, had points upon which he refused to yield, for he did not reply on the spot to Arslan’s request. Not that this seemed to put Arslan in a particularly bad mood either. “Think nothing of it, I’ve been recipient to your aid as well,” he said, laughing.
“What a peculiar princeling we’ve got here,” thought Giv. All his preconceptions regarding royalty and nobility were getting smashed into bits one after another by this prince. All of a sudden, a certain thought occurred to him.
Giv inquired, “Your Highness, were you perhaps raised outside the royal palace as a child?”
“Why do you think that?”
“Just wondering… am I mistaken?”
“Right on the mark, rather. My time on the outside has always been the longer.”
It was only two years ago that Arslan had begun to live permanently at court. Disregarding the half a year immediately following his installation as crown prince, both before and afterwards he had been brought up in the household of his wet nurse. The nurse and her husband were of the azadan caste and resided in a corner of the capital; Arslan had attended lessons at the tutor’s residence just down the road. He had played with commoner children, or occasionally with the children of ghajar, gypsies. Ever had he loved life on the streets more than life at court.
“That couple, are they still doing well?”
Arslan’s brows furrowed. His expression had already given away the answer.
“They passed away two years ago. Poisoned by aged nabid gone bad. It happened around the same time I entered court, it seems.”
Giv nodded, but whether or not it had really been a case of food poisoning was a matter of suspicion. He couldn’t help but recall that talk he’d overheard from Narses back at the castle of the shahrdar Hojir. Behind the veneer of power and glory, had the royal family of Pars been nurturing some sinister, ill-omened monster in the shadows through all these long years? Had the family of Arslan’s nurse, in the process of raising the prince, perhaps come to know something they shouldn’t have? And then…
Giv brushed his wine-dark hair aside with a wry smile. Well, shouldn’t let my imagination get too out of hand. Not nearly enough info to go on right now.
Only one thing he could be sure of. That is, the fact that things were sure to get more and more interesting from here on out. Giv scorned the kind of lifestyle dedicated to loyally serving one’s liege. However, if he stuck around with Prince Arslan, it looked like he’d be in for a life filled day-to-day with far more thrilling ups and downs than he would have as a mere musician-cum-bandit. Besides, if the nation really needed a king, no matter what, a benevolent king was invariably better than a wicked one.
Maybe this kid had the makings of a benevolent king. He was only fourteen years old. Even if it took him a whole decade to take the throne, he’d still be a youthful king of twenty-four. Giv figured it’d be damn well worth watching to see just what kind of ruler the likes of Narses would mold this prince into.