By the time Narses and Afarid entered a certain small village, the sun had already dipped below the sweeping outline of the mountains at their backs. They had taken a considerable detour, but from this point on, Peshawar awaited practically before their eyes.
Until they managed to arrive at the citadel of Peshawar, Narses had hoped to avoid drawing notice to themselves as much as possible, but the mount bearing the two of them was quite exhausted, so they had no choice but to let it rest. If possible, he wanted an additional horse.
The two dismounted at the entrance to the village. Even as he attended to the horse and they approached the village, Narses felt an impression of foreboding. Twilight should have been the time for preparing evening supper, so why was there no sign of smoke coming from any of the villagers’ homes? The lamps ought to be lit any time now as well, so why were the windows of all the houses darkened?
“Even if you’re gonna buy a horse, you got any money for it?”
Narses, questioned by Afarid on this pragmatic matter, casually handed the girl a sheepskin pouch. When she opened the pouch, Afarid’s eyes widened.
“This could net you a hundred horses or so, looks like. How’d you get your hands on so many dinars anyway?”
“What do you mean how? They’re all mine to begin with?”
Afarid put on a grave expression.
“Huh, guess you’re caught up in some shady business, aren’t ya. Though y’look like such a respectable sort.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Ain’t no honest folk can get their hands on the likes of gold. If an azat had any gold or anything on them, the officials would come and give ’em the rack, even. They’d just assume you stole it all from somewhere, yeah?”
Narses was unable to reply. He had absolutely no inclination to reveal his own pedigree as one of the shahrdaran. Good grief. He really was no respectable sort himself. Considering his very identity as one of the governing class, a noble aristocrat…
Suddenly, Afarid grabbed his arm.
Following her frozen gaze, Narses saw it. At the door to one of the houses, a single man lying prone. Traces of blood served as proof of the man’s death.
Protruding from the corpse’s lapel was a sheepskin pouch, from which spilled drachms and mithqals glittering in the sunset. Afarid, delicate brows furrowed, backed away.
Recalling that the Zott had originally been desert brigands, Narses inquired, “What’s the matter, not going to take his purse?”
Afarid glared sternly at the former lord of Dailam. She was truly furious. Narses was stunned by her expression, struck all at once in that moment by her vibrant beauty.
“The Zott would NEVER rob the dead or the ill. Don’t you talk bad about us!”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have.”
It occurred to him that this was the exact opposite of Giv’s philosophy. Even as he apologized, however, Narses found it all quite strange.
No matter what, how could this tragic scene have possibly come about? Narses, checking to see that corpses were scattered throughout the entire village, mentally folded his arms. Most bizarre of all was the fact that, regardless of age or gender, the majority of the bodies had suffered fatal injuries on their lower halves. On the other hand, not unlike the first body they had discovered, no signs of robbery could be seen.
Ultimately, the dead numbered more than fifty, so it was clear that this little village had been annihilated. That they had all been killed outdoors was perhaps because on hearing the screams outside, they had come flying out, only to join the ranks of the sacrificed.
“I can only conclude that they were butchered for no reason but to be killed.”
“Betcha it’s those Lusitanian barbarians I heard about who done it. Savage beasts! Turnin’ up even all the way out here.”
Narses did not respond to Afarid’s indignation, but swept his gaze across the darkening landscape. The fact that every corpse, without fail, was situated next to something like a small sinkhole had drawn his attention.
The girl asked how they ought to proceed, and Narses replied, “I’ve heard of ghul1 sightings in this area when night falls. Such rumors aside, it’s best we refrain from moving around too much after dark. Let’s find a house to lodge in for now.”
“Sure. But, I’m a pure and virtuous Zott woman, I’ll have you know. We’re stayin’ in separate rooms, or else.”
“… I’ve no objections.”
After coming across an empty house without any bodies, the pair of them settled on their place of lodging for the night. Afarid, to her credit, helpfully offered to prepare a meal; leaving her to her task, Narses went searching for horses. There was most likely a small communal stable somewhere in the village. And indeed, he found one, with four horses packed miserably in a single stall. He selected the youngest and sturdiest among them, then led out the other three, removed their bridles, and set them free. Tomorrow, when dawn broke, the villagers’ remains would have to be given a proper burial too.
He led the horse back, and Afarid, fetching water at the well, waved at him. Just as they drew close, the horse abruptly stopped in its tracks, whinnying as if in fright. Narses, instantly on the alert, jumped aside in a hurry. He saw it then. Afarid saw it too. Without warning, a hand stretched out from the ground, clutching at Narses’s foot. It grasped air and came away empty-handed.
“Wha, what the? An arm sprouted from the ground!”
Afarid, though naturally terrified, found the scene that had unfolded right before her eyes somewhat surreal, and seemed to be struggling to come to terms with it.
“Ghadaq, is it…?!”
All the mysteries surrounding the dead bodies were now cleared. Narses wasn’t capable of sorcery or anything of the sort himself, but he did possess some relevant knowledge. Supposedly, it allowed one to move about freely in the earth, then thrust sword or spear through the ground, killing whoever was waiting above. And yet, why would a sorcerer like that come to a place like this to slaughter all the villagers?
In the dimness, the hand dove swiftly underground again. It left behind no evidence but for a tiny sinkhole. Narses squinted slightly, raised himself to tiptoes.
The very moment he sensed something, he leapt. The white blade bursting from the ground just barely grazed Narses’s soles. Had he stood there like that, it no doubt would have pierced through his thigh. As he landed, Narses stepped aside, almost dancing, distancing himself from the blade. The glinting blade submerged without a sound, once again leaving behind a small hollow.
A sensation swept through him, akin to a nightmare seizing his heart. He drew his own sword as well, all the more alert than ever. With all his might, he strained to hold back his urge to stab down on the ground where he stood.
Afarid, standing motionless by the wall of the house, cried out for Narses.
Sheathing his blade and rushing over, Narses noticed something. Under the eaves by the doorway. A huge pot. Filled with palm oil.
“What’re we gonna do, Narses?” asked Afarid, her face and voice like that of a child’s. Narses smiled at the girl in order to comfort her.
“Can you climb trees?”
“A breeze, that.”
“In that case, go ahead and climb up that big date palm.”
“You gonna be okay?”
“… Mm, I’ve not yet received that silver mask from you and exchanged it for coin. I’ll be fine ’til then, at least. Now, hurry along. And make sure to keep to the stones as you go.”
Just as Narses instructed, Afarid promptly ran for the palm tree and scurried up to a thick branch without any difficulty whatsoever.
As she straddled the branch, a low voice came oozing from the space between earth and sky. The echo of mocking laughter sent a tremor through the dusky gloom.
“My oh my, such a crafty one you are. But just how long shall you last…”
Its sound resembled the hissing of a snake.
That voice sent a shudder through Afarid, but on the other hand gave Narses the chance to compose himself. Whether man or monster, as long as it could be communicated with, Narses had nothing to fear. Voiceless malice was by far the most terrifying of all.
Narses placed a hand on that pot of palm oil lined up against the wall and gently tipped it over. Oil spilled out, spreading across the ground, soaking through the earth. Concealed in his fist was a piece of flint. Once all the oil had flowed out, he sought for signs in the silence. The overall impression the man gave off was that of unflinching courage, and yet beads of sweat had formed on his brow.
From his sleeve he tore off a strip, rolled it up, then dipped it in the oil. Then, in the blink of an eye, he made his move. He leaped away from the oil-drenched earth, set fire to the cloth, and threw it at the ground.
An area spanning a diameter of around five gaz2 blazed all alight at once.
The very next instant, up on the branch of the big tree, Afarid gasped.
With a boom, the earth split open, and a mass of flame sprang out. It was about the size and shape of a human being. An eerie scream gushed out from where its mouth should have been. Thanks to the oil that had soaked into the ground, it was roasting alive. As it howled, lurching forward, both of its arms stretched out, as if even now grabbing for Narses.
Narses, unsheathing his longsword, stepped forth in approach and sent a sharp slash towards its shoulder region. The head, engulfed in flame, went flying into the growing shadows. Even as it tumbled to the ground, it continued to burn.
“All’s well now, come on down.”
Narses glanced up at the branches overhead.
Back underground beneath the royal capital of Ecbatana lurked the gray-robed elder. It was he who had summoned seven sorcerers, dispatching them to incur ever more bloodshed upon Pars. Thus it was that one of those now met his end. Of course, however, Narses hadn’t even the slightest inkling of this.
Afarid, nimbly jumping down from the tree branch, praised Narses excitedly.
“Narses, Narses, you’re amazing, aren’t ya. Strong, and smart to boot. Takin’ care of that freak with a trick like that!”
“So everyone tells me.”
A shameless response, but that showed just how far Narses could afford to push it. Afarid pressed a slender finger to her shapely chin as if she were considering something, but soon enough voiced a question.
“Narses, you’re how old again?”
“Twenty-six, why do you ask?”
“Hm, over twenty-five, huh? Was thinking maybe a little younger.”
“… Sorry for betraying your expectations.”
“Nah, it’s fine. We’re exactly ten years apart, makes it easy to remember. More dependable when there’s a bit of an age gap too.”
Narses, not at all like the dauntless genius he was supposed to be, winced ever so slightly. Sensing, it seemed, a rather ominous mood of sorts, he fell silent.
The girl, in the meantime, as if coming to an agreement with herself, continued, “Gotta wait two more years though. My Ma and her Ma and her Ma’s Ma all tied the knot in the ninth month of their eighteenth year.”
“I don’t particularly have any interest in your family history. More importantly, now that we can finally sup in peace…”
“My cooking ain’t too shabby, y’know.”
“You — just what exactly have you been trying to get at!?”
The girl stared intently at Narses.
“How thick can ya get. You really still don’t get it?”
Narses was speechless.
His days of being extolled as the wisest man in the kingdom, after sweeping out the tripartite alliance at the border with naught but his tongue, seemed like ancient history now. Narses gave his head a good shake, but even that did nothing to dissipate the reality before him. Until this day, this very moment, just how many wrong choices had he made to have led to this? After an attempt to work it out, he stopped.
“Anyhow, just as you said, Narses, I’ll go get some food ready. There’s plenty of fuqah, and I can also make ya tifshilah and bistandud3. If it suits your taste then great, but if not, I’ll just go ahead and remake it!”
As the girl entered the house with a lively spring to her step, Narses gazed after her in a stupor.
“… What a fine mess this has become.”
Whether it was back when he had been reviled by King Andragoras, or when he’d been surrounded by assassins sent by corrupt priests, or when he’d escaped Mount Bashur with Arslan and the others, Narses had never muttered anything of the sort. No matter how gnarly the problem, never had there been one he could not unknot with his ingenuity. And yet, somehow or other, it seemed all of that was now a thing of the past.