(By Juan Cole)
The Fall of the New Year Throne
(To read this sword and sorcery novel as it has unfolded before this installment, click here)
The moon cast the war party in silver as it headed toward the encampment Jamshid had seen in his ringed chalice. Spityura worried about their preparedness. Some of the men were disgruntled by arrears in pay. Others had armed themselves with daggers instead of short swords, because they had damaged their akinakes blades in the last raid and the smiths had refused to repair or replace them. Spityura scanned the horizon as they emerged from Aratta’s valley, which was rich winter vegetation, to a more barren steppe.
They passed an occasional village constructed of reed screens with goat’s hair roofing. Spityura considered that they were little more than stationary tents, and their inhabitants might well still migrate part of the year as herdsmen. They passed groves of ash, poplar and hawthorn, their budding branches made crystalline by the faint ivory light.
The hours passed like days, the impatient warriors forced to keep their silence and to keep their wits about them. Predawn added its faint illumination to the moonlight. At length scouts returned to Spityura. Goamant pointed to the west. “They are just over that ridge, my lord. The caravan night camp stretches like a sleeping snake across the plain.”
Spityura clapped his shoulder appreciatively. “Tell the men to halt here so we can make preparations.”
The Persians dismounted, passing around skins of haoma prepared by sullen priests before they had departed Aratta. The liquid, warm from being carried on horseback, burned the throat and then scalded the belly as it went down. The warriors had ridden on raw beef beneath their saddle cloths, cooking it as well as could be arranged when they had not time to make camp and camp fires were out of the question. They downed it with their haoma, tearing at the bloody slices with pinkish fangs.
It was time. Spityura mounted up and let out the war cry of the lead wolf, hunching over the withers of the his steed, his neck parallel to its neck, urging it forward at a gallop, alarming it with his howling. The band became mounted werewolves, snouts elongated, fur ruffled with fury, astride their long-tailed Iranian horses.
The Aramean watchmen spied their approach and rank heavy bronze bells to sound the alarm.
A party of the caravan guards in Utu burnooses, rags wrapped around their heads and faces, could be seen running to mount up. They headed for the attackers.
When the Arameans were in range, Spityura growled the call for the archers to let loose. Their short bows had set-back leather grips in the middle, from which upper and lower limbs extended like an angry shrew’s eyebrows, first up sharply, then curving back down at length, only to recurve out again just before the nocks. The back of the bow, he knew, was reinforced with animal sinew and its belly laminated with horn. The Arameans only had long self-bows of light willow, shaped like a half-moon, which were not nearly as easy to wield from horseback and lacked the range and force of a recurve bow.
The cavalry archers fired a volley, and a fourth of the Arameans or their horses fell. Spityura knew that the arrowheads had been smeared with feces and blood to ensure death by infection of any warrior impaled by one. Practiced wolf hands reached back to their quivers and soon another volley arched over the plain like shooting stars.
Another mass of Arameans fell, writhing to the ground, some crushed beneath their deceased steeds. Now the two forces closed, the Persians wielded maces, double-bladed axes and akinakes short swords, the Bedouin nimbly riposting with their bronze scimitars, which, however, often broke against Persian iron. When they closed, the Persians would sometimes leap off their steeds, sinking their teeth into the necks of the hapless Utu and tearing out Adams apples and larynxes and thick arteries, the blood spewing over the battlefield like fountains.
Spityura fixed on the Utu leader who appeared to be directing his men and rode toward him. Behind the Bedouin chief on an ass was a Babylonian holy man and Spityura realized it must be the one who had summoned the black demon before. Alarmed, he got behind the enemy’s flank, now that so many horsemen had been felled, and sneaked up on the priest, felling him with a blow from his bull-horned mace.
His master, who must be the one called Zohak, wheeled on horseback and saw what had transpired, anger and dismay etched in his brow. “You will pay for that, Persian! He is holy!”
“From what I hear, he’s a witch parching the land, and I hope the blow dispatched him.”
They closed. Spityura, drunk on the haoma, howled the wolf death knell and swung his mace at the Aramean. Zohak’s steed nimbly danced just out of range, responding to his touch. Spityura was taken aback by his horsemanship and celerity.
Zohak’s stallion caracoled and he thrust his scimitar at Spityura’s head.
Comments and suggestions on the installments are welcome, but they should please be constructive. Commenters relinquish the rights to any ideas they express in the comments section, which become the property of Juan Cole. Presumably they want them incorporated into the final work, and they might be. The novel is copyright by Juan Cole, 2014, and may not be mirrored or reproduced without express permission from the author.