Speaking of Narses, he had, as a lone rider, galloped onward upon the trails traversing the southern ridges. Before night gave way to dawn, he had already broken through encirclements and crossed paths with pursuers a number of times, and now, somehow, he found himself apparently safe and sound.
Like Giv, albeit from a completely different standpoint, things had not gone according to his intent. Arslan should have been entrusted to the valiant Dariun, while he himself should have accompanied Elam. And for the last group, Giv and Farangis. He had considered that to be the most natural arrangement, but darkness and confusion and chance had conspired against him, betrayed his plans. Just who was supposed to be the wise one or whatever again? It really made him want to laugh.
As for him, even all on his own he had confidence in his own ability to protect himself. What worried him were the two youths. They were not such powerless boys as to be considered burdens, but compared to any of the other adults, each outstanding mardan warriors in their own right, the immense gap became quite apparent…
He pulled on the reins. To the left of the path before him was an expanse of rocky terrain; under the lightening sky, the silhouette of a person standing upon the expanse could be seen. When Narses stopped his horse, the figure instantly vanished.
“Tsk, an ambush here as well? Not even the slightest opening with these fellows.”
Narses clucked his tongue, but just as he was about to turn his horse around, he stopped. From the direction of the rock field, a furious clash of swords and the screams of death could be heard. It seemed someone had kicked up a fuss of some sort that had nothing to do with him. A much too happy coincidence, perhaps, but curiosity suddenly welled. Taking care to suppress the sound of his horse’s hooves, he picked his way through the sand and approached the expanse.
Narses was no clairvoyant. He could not know that the one he needed to avoid at all costs, the man of the silver mask — Hirmiz — leading around a hundred riders handpicked from his subordinates, laid in wait for the party that was sure to follow down this path.
Nor did Hirmiz, for his part, expect the appearance there of unanticipated enemies. By the time he realized it, the rocky expanse had already been fully surrounded.
“It’s the Zott!”
All around Hirmiz arose shouts of dread. This occurred just slightly before the ringing blades Narses had heard.
The Zott were a bold and daring nomadic people who haunted the deserts and the rocklands, sometimes serving as mercenaries for various nations, sometimes engaging in banditry. To the Zott, Hirmiz and his company were not so much prey as they were rivals trespassing in their territory. Both for the sake of their reputation as well as to show off their prowess, they could not turn a blind eye to any intruders.
One giant of a man cried out from his horse.
“I am Haltash, chief of the Zott!”
It was a great bellowing voice, well suited to his build.
His age was around forty, more or less. Hirmiz was tall as well, but Haltash’s stature was easily comparable, and the broadness of his shoulders and thickness of his torso were on another level.
The Zott who had appeared from the sands and the shadows of the rocks all around them numbered only half as many as Hirmiz and his men. That they had ventured forth regardless was no doubt because they believed in their own strength.
The light from the eyes of the silver mask glimmered, brimming with poison. Haltash, who did not seem to notice, alone came charging forth. As befitting his mighty brawn, he surely possessed confidence in his valor as well. Swinging the tip of his greatsword straight at Hirmiz in a careless stance, he squinted, as if weighing up the man before him. It didn’t seem the results were terribly favorable.
“You with the freakish mask! Heard of the name Haltash? Y’want mercy, then get off the horse and hand over your sword and your gold!”
Hirmiz let out a peal of cold laughter from behind his silver mask.
“I was born a royal prince; within me flows not even a single drop of plebeian blood. You really think I would have heard of trash like you, with the sort of barbaric name neither men nor apes can comprehend?!”
Haltash was a simple man; whether there was any significance to Hirmiz’s cold laughter was not something he appeared to consider. That incredibly insulting manner of speaking made him snap. Brandishing his massive sword, he swooped in on Hirmiz.
The sword whistled through the air. It was a blow fierce enough to split a sher‘s head in two. But Hirmiz’s reaction was swifter yet.
Haltash’s sword, raised against Hirmiz only moments before, was knocked down with a deafening crash. In the eyes of the panicked Zott chieftain reflected the light of a different blade.
“You meet with death at the hands of royalty. Be honored!”
Those were the last words to ever reach Haltash’s ears. With a thick, muffled sound, the Zott chieftain’s head rolled down to the earth, swathed in blood and sand and wind, leaving its torso far behind.
As expected, the Zott clansmen, having seen their chief obliterated in a single blow, faltered. However, shortly afterwards, the stillness was shattered by a single rider galloping forth. He looked to be a mere youth, with a bright blue cloth wrapped about his head.
“How dare y’kill my Da!”
It was a girl’s voice. Were Hirmiz not wearing his silver mask, perhaps even he would not have been able to conceal an expression of surprise.
“May’ve been boozy and illiterate and lecherous, that hopeless old bastard, but still, I wouldn’t be alive without him. You’re gonna pay!”
She’d just finished talking when she turned back to shout at her father’s men.
“Get ’em, boys!”
Upon her signal, the Zott unsheathed their swords all at once and came swooping in on Hirmiz’s party. Hirmiz gave orders to meet their attack: just as the girl came bearing down on him.
“Just where do you think you’re lookin’? Your opponent’s right over here!”
Voice synchronized with sword. Hirmiz dodged the girl’s slash. It was a movement made more than half in earnest. The girl’s swordplay had reached such a level that she could not be taken lightly. Of course, however, no matter what, she was still no match for Hirmiz.
She who had struck and he who had evaded both resumed their stances.
“Your name, wench?”
“Afarid, daughter of Haltash, chief of the Zott!”
She was sixteen, maybe seventeen. Her features were fine and clearly delineated.
“Afarid was originally a name used for the daughters of kings and nobles. A name undeserved by vulgar bandit wenches. Such presumptuous egotism ought to be punished accordingly.”
“Let’s see you try it, silver mask freak!”
Afarid readied her blade again. Black eyes spat fire against skin the color of shelled walnuts.
The girl kicked hard at her horse’s flanks; the point of her sword came thrusting toward Hirmiz.
It was but a single exchange. The sword went flying from Afarid’s hand and spun flashing through the sunlit sky.
Hirmiz followed up with a strike of his own, but it was dodged. Afarid launched into a somersault with a dexterity that would astonish even the nimblest of acrobats, and the second blow sliced through thin air. However, this naturally resulted in Afarid losing her mount.
Once again, the flash of a strike from horseback. This, too, Afarid dodged by a hair.
“Well evaded. But while you do naught but run away, a pitiful fate has befallen your cretinous underlings.”
Shocked, Afarid swept her gaze across her surroundings and confirmed that every last person who remained standing or moving about was an enemy. The brief but violent skirmish had reached an end. Each and every one of the Zott lay fallen on the ground, having breathed their last. At the same time, however, half of Hirmiz’s troops had also been wiped out.
“Mere bandits you may be, but you’ve killed not a few of my subordinates.”
The silver mask’s eyes flickered with poisoned flame.
From Hirmiz’s perspective, the net meant to capture Arslan’s party had been torn to shreds by “vulgar bandit cretins.” His wrath knew no bounds. It would not be quelled unless this Zott girl, now left without even a single ally, was cloven in two on the spot. Hirmiz brandished his sword once more.
It was then that it happened.
Before their very eyes, one of Hirmiz’s men staggered out from among the rocks with a cry and crumpled to the sand.
Beneath the all-engulfing sunlight, silence seemed to freeze the very air itself.
A single rider revealed himself from the shadow of the rocks, with a rather nonchalant look about him. However, the sword in his hand was smeared with blood.
“Oh? How interesting. If it isn’t my dear Silver Mask.”
This cheery, not to mention unexpected, and very much sarcastic greeting came from the young man who claimed the title of “court artist.” That he was actually Narses, the former lord of Dailam, Hirmiz was now well aware.
“Been a while, you hack artist. Couldn’t make it in the capital, so came drifting all the way out to the fringes, I suppose?”
“Seems to me every one of our trysts draws closer and closer to uncivilized territory. ‘Tis most inconvenient to make it indeed.”
“… You previously offended Andragoras and were exiled from court, I hear.”
“You’re certainly well informed.” Narses put on a smile, but was conscious of the wariness welling up within himself.
“Where’s Andragoras’s brat?”
“Oh, that. I suppose I wouldn’t mind telling you. Once you’re dead, that is.”
“Would you, now?”
“Well, why not let me give it my best shot?”
Each was aware of what a formidable foe the other was. Keeping his men from interfering, Hirmiz urged his horse forward in a leap. In response, Narses too advanced his horse.
Suddenly, Narses hurriedly tugged on his reins, pulling his horse into a rear. Lithe as a yuz, a human shadow had come flying between him and the silver mask. Narses recognized the figure of a young girl, hair wrapped in a sky blue cloth.
“Don’t you lay your hands on him! Killed my old man, this one did. It’s me gonna take him down!”
It was Afarid. The eyes glaring up at the mounted Narses were as a naked blade. As he calmed his horse, Narses stared back at the girl.
“If it’s vengeance you want, I hardly mind turning the man over to you, but are you not in need of a sword?”
“So gimme yours, then.”
With a matter-of-course expression, she brazenly held her hand out to Narses up on his horse. The former lord of Dailam, blinking quickly, just barely managed to restrain a peal of inappropriate laughter.
“A loan is fine with me, but what of collateral?”
Putting off the matter of his dreadful foe the silver mask, while unable to keep himself from teasing the girl. A display of Narses’s perversity, no doubt.
“You tellin’ me a brave young girl out to avenge her Da’s still gotta hand over collateral just to borrow a sword!?”
“What a cheapskate. That won’t score ya any points with the girls.”
“How long are you two planning to keep up this ridiculous bahaneh1?”
From the silver mask flowed a chilling voice.
“You hack. Do you seriously think this little wench can beat me?”
“If she can, I seriously do think I’d love to see it, sure.”
In truth, Narses was being quite sincere here, but he was also aware that it was impossible under the current circumstances. Even Narses’s own chances at conclusive victory were uncertain. His only aim to begin with had been to rescue this girl, not to contest with the silver mask. That was why, from the moment he’d read the situation until the moment he revealed himself, he had already thoroughly laid out preparations.
Just as Hirmiz, having perhaps wearied of engaging with a certain wicked tongue, charged forth, his blade wreathed in murderous intent, one of his men shrieked. Upon turning, Hirmiz gaped. From the nearby rock field, a number of boulders were tumbling to the sand toward them.
Countless shouts of panic and shock echoed. Narses alone remained unmoved. Using several rocks, scraps of wood, and leather thongs, he had pieced together a “lever”; as time passed and the pieces began to stir, the resulting chain reaction tossed rocks down one after another. Hirmiz and company momentarily forgot about Narses and the girl, busily dodging the stony downpour.
By the time the rain of rocks stopped and the dust settled, Narses and Afarid had already vanished from their sight.
The horse bearing the two of them raced east upon the rock-littered path, leaving Hirmiz and the others far behind.
“About that masked guy…”
Afarid, clinging to Narses’s back, shouted as if running purely on high spirits, “The next time we meet, I’m gonna stab him straight through that warped heart of his for sure! So you better not get in the way next time!”
“Sure, on the next occasion I shall gladly sit back and watch the show from a safe distance.”
“Anyhow though, y’still saved my skin today. I gotta repay you somehow.”
The girl seemed to chew it over for a bit, but shortly after, her voice came bouncing back.
“That’s it! Once I’ve kicked the bastard’s ass, I’ll letcha have that creepy silver mask.”
“The mask, huh?”
“If y’take off the clasp and hammer it flat, you can get about a hundred drachms out of it. You can mess around for about half a year on that much, yeah?”
“Doesn’t sound half bad.”
The future would unfold somehow or other, but as for Narses, if it were possible, he wanted to ascertain the true nature of the one behind that sinister silver mask. He inquired if the girl might not have noticed anything during their confrontation.
“Now that you mention it, he did sound pretty full of himself, somehow.”
“Oh, how so?”
“Said he was born to royalty, see. Like, in what kinda world would there be a mask-wearing king anyway. Ain’t all there upstairs, that guy.”
Afarid laughed, as if finding it comical. Narses did not laugh. He could not laugh. He knew far more than Afarid did, having seen the hideously scorched right half of the man’s face.
In Narses’s mind churned several memories and pieces of information, blending into foam. From there arose a single name to the surface. One of the names listed on the family tree of the royal house of Pars.
“… But, could it really be?”
After muttering to himself, he realized he couldn’t afford to let this girl keep tagging along with him until who knew when.
“Hey, if there’s anywhere you wish to go, I’ll let you off at a suitable location. Just give the word.”
On hearing that, Afarid stared indignantly at the back of Narses’s neck.
“Come on, no way. Once you’ve rescued someone, you gotta take responsibility ’til the end. If you abandon me here and I get offed by that silver mask guy, you’re gonna regret it for sure.”
Narses had no rebuttal to the girl’s assertions. It couldn’t be helped. For just a little longer, he’d let her keep tagging along. He would just have to figure out how to deal with her when the time came. Even if it had not been their intent, it was thanks to the Zott clan that Narses had evaded Hirmiz and the others’ ambush; as they had helped him out, he did now owe them accordingly as well. Perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t done any rescuing at all in the first place, but that was not something Narses was capable of. Can’t be helped, said he, unable to do anything but steel himself for the worst with a bitter smile.
“You got a name?”
And I you, the former lord of Dailam mumbled in reply, before recollecting himself and urging his horse onward.
1 farce, see notes ^