(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)
A spear butt rapped against the gate as excited wolf cries rained down on him. Kaveh jumped up and put all his weight on the stubborn crossbar. It abruptly fell, barely connecting with its latch.
Kaveh heard the lead horse on the other side of the gate rear up and strike the wood with its hooves, screaming a complaint. He hoped it threw its rider. A cheer went up from the craftsmen, who began issuing into the alley from the doorways where they had taken refuge.
The bazaar was secured from the warriors this night. But Kaveh knew that Jamshid’s powers were still immense, and that the shah could not be denied indefinitely. Moreover, the artisans were now more or less under siege, and eventually their food stocks would run low. He tried to see a way forward other than surrender, and could not. Sweaty from his exertions, he shivered in the cool spring breeze as he returned home.
* * *
Kaveh crouched on the rooftop overlooking the main square beyond the bazaar, as the sun, large and weak after its bout with the night, straggled from behind Mount Hara beneath the cobalt dome of the sky. A warm breeze touched his cheeks, carrying a vague promise of summer. Kaveh heard a bone-chilling war cry erupt below. A horde of haoma-drunk Persian warriors rode furiously into the square beyond the bazaar gates, swords and lances drawn, stuffed wolf-heads mutely snarling above their brows.
He heard his father mount the stairs to the adobe roof. Cyrus touched his arm. They had given the warriors a little time to cool down since the attack of the previous night, and now it was time to take a chance by confronting them.
They exited the now-walled bazaar by a secret tunnel of which only the guildmasters were aware, and approached the shah’s men.
The nar warriors excitedly rode up to them, their weapons drawn.
“Who goes there?” Kaveh recognized Zavan, the warrior who had almost given him a hundred lashes in the Elamite bazaar, and the shah’s minister, Vidranga.
“Cyrus the royal ironsmith, master of the smithing trades in Aratta. This is my son, Kaveh.”
“Ah yes, the producer Kaveh, I remember. A whole family full of troublemakers, it seems.”
“My lord, I speak as a loyal servant of the crown. I know of the raid on the Babylonian caravan. I must beg to remind you that in past battles, you had artisans to make replacements for lost weapons. This time, they decline.”
Vidranga rubbed his cheeks, as if he were washing his face. “What do the rabble want, as a price for their return to their work?”
“From the very beginning they have asked no more than just taxes that left them with enough food to eat and shelter over their families’ heads.”
Vidranga sighed wearily. “I must consult with the shah. Wait here.”
When he had left, Kaveh looked at his father’s haggard face. “What do you think they’ll do?”
Cyrus nodded at the immortals milling about nearby, indicating that now was no time for conversation that might be overheard by the enemy.
Vidranga was gone half an hour. He returned at a gallop and pulled up before the two blacksmiths. “His royal majesty has concluded that these simple fools cannot conceive what peril they are in from his fury. It passes their understanding. They are like asses, who will carry an elephant carcass for the promise of an apple, but who will stubbornly plant themselves on their haunches if spoken to harshly. In his all-encompassing compassion, he proclaims an amnesty to all the striking artisans, should they return to their workshops within the day and open the quarter gates. And as a boon, he will revoke the most recent tax increase immediately. He has instructed that criers be given swift horses to take this message to the craftsmen this morning.”
“His royal majesty is munificent beyond imagining.” Cyrus bowed deeply to Vidranga, and Kaveh, unprepared, followed suit after a brief hesitation. Kaveh had been silently jumping up and down for joy in his thoughts.
“Ustad Cyrus, the palace is displeased with you.”
Cyrus shifted uneasily from foot to foot, and Kaveh felt his own stomach tighten. “I desire only the good of the crown, my lord.”
“His royal highness values your past services, and therefore will spare your life. But you are no longer the royal ironsmith. You chose to throw in with the bazaar, so let it be your home. The commission shall be given to another.”
Kaveh and Cyrus left the square with mixed feelings. Cyrus, never a talkative man, brooded, keeping his own counsel. Kaveh was elated that the artisans had won their demands from the shah, and avoided being attacked by his troops. But his family smithy’s loss of the royal commission weighed heavily on him, and he knew it was nearly a mortal blow for his father. This development threatened Kaveh, not only economically, but socially. It was already hard for the young ironsmith to compete with Vivana. But he knew that Ustad Bagoas would certainly not send his daughter out of the palace to live with Kaveh if he were a mere bazaar smith.
They were careful to wend their way through back alleys and lose any of the shah’s eyes that might be monitoring them, then they snuck back into the bazaar through the concealed tunnel. Cyrus pounded on the doors of their house and yelled for the servant to open up. They went up the three worn stairs into the courtyard, and Cyrus immediately began pacing.
“Father, what are we going to do?”
“We’ll have to leave this house, and find another close to the bazaar. We’ll reestablish our workshop there, and depend on ordinary trade. We won’t eat as well, but we probably won’t starve, either.”
Kaveh could not imagine an existence so different from the one he had known all his life. He had been born in this house, and had lived in no other. The new house would no doubt be more cramped, and in a dirtier part of the town. “At least your life was spared. We can bear all else.”
Cyrus heaved a sigh. “We did what was right. We could hardly throw in with the lie, could we?”
The day passed slowly. Kaveh went to the quarter of the poor to tell the servants they should ready the humble house they maintained in the bazaar for the arrival of the disgraced clan. He returned for a late lunch. Cyrus, always taciturn, engaged in no real conversation during the meal. Then he disappeared downstairs for a nap. Kaveh knew he himself would not be able to sleep. He told the servants to lock up after him, and went out into the street, bustling with renewed commerce as the mid-afternoon sun shone down on the east walls. He made his way to the main gate, not far from the city square that stood at the head of the bazaar. He remembered how, the previous night, the artisans had fought off the attack of Prince Tahmuras and his men.
He kept out of sight, pacing in a narrow side alley. Then, after what seemed like hours, he heard the buzz of a crowd, and looked around the corner to see the return of the artisans from their afternoon sleep. A mass of artisans, cheering and singing, poured into stalls and workshops. Hundreds of men, women and children, their faces shiny with hope and victory, began to fill up the main square. Kaveh saw a line of immortals form at the head of the square, behind Vidranga, who apparently intended to address the crowd. Finally, the straggling women and children who had brought up the rear arrived, and the entire body of strikers had returned to their work. Two immortals closed the gates, and pulled down the large wooden latch. Kaveh was a little alarmed. Why did they do that?
Vidranga began to speak, and the riotously happy throng quietened down. “His royal majesty, the Great King, the King of Kings, the light of the Persians, Yima the Glorious, Jamshid of Aratta, welcomes his craftsmen back to the city of peace.”
A cheer broke out, with cries of “Long live the king!”
Vidranga cleared his throat and continued. “As you know, his royal highness has decreed an amnesty for the craftsmen who struck the bazaar.”
Kaveh, from his vantage point, could see more and more troops moving up through the street to the east of the square. He scratched his head, unable to think of a reason for this movement. Maybe after all that had happened, the shah was simply worried about security.
Vidranga began calling out some names. “The following crafts leaders will please step forward. Datuvahya, master of the bowyers. Masistes, master of the wood carvers. And Bagadata, master of the horse dealers.”
The three came to the front of the square.
Vidranga looked at them severely. “You three had sworn a special oath of loyalty by Lord Mithra to his royal majesty the shah. In joining the strike and the desertion of the city, you profoundly endangered the security of Aratta and of your sovereign himself.”
The three bowed their heads. Some of the artisans behind them, resenting the sudden change in tone, began jeering and booing.
“Since you have sinned against Mithra in breaking your contract, rather than against the shah, his amnesty cannot extend to you. Mithra’s law must be executed. You three shall hang.”
For a moment the vast crowd may as well have been made up of deaf-mutes, and an uncanny silence settled over the square. Six tall immortals in gleaming iron chain mail stepped forward and grabbed the masters by their arms, then began marching them toward three horses that stood in front of the courthouse. A large wooden pole stuck out from the second story of the courthouse, overhanging the main square. They began throwing ropes up over it, and tying slipknots in them, making them fast. The ropes already had nooses at their ends.
The crowd, shouting almost in unison, surged forward. The troops Kaveh had seen massing on the street next to the courtyard now issued forth, presenting their spears, and the mob fell back. Hundreds of troops poured into the square, nearly equalling the artisans in number. The craftspeople watched helplessly as the immortals lifted the three masters onto the waiting mares, and looped the ropes around their necks.
“For your sins against Mithra, you must die!” Vidranga raised his arm and let it drop.
The immortals had drawn their swords, and they slapped the rumps of the animals with the flat of the blades. The whinnying mares leapt forward, leaving their riders twisting at the end of the ropes. Two had their necks broken, and their crotches went dark with the release of urine. The third struggled for a while, his face covered with blotches, until his swollen tongue stuck out and excrement fell through his leggings onto the dust below.
A cry went up from the throng of artisans, who swelled forward again. The immortals lowered their spears, upending the golden pomegranates at their butts, and charged into the mass of flesh. The mob backed away, shrieking, and when the square was clear, dozens lay dead with spear wounds or trampled to death. Kaveh looked away, sickened. Among the dead were little girls, pregnant mothers, and apprentices no more than eight years old.
Vidranga was shouting. “How dare you attempt to interfere with the enforcement of Mithra’s own judgment? You filthy riffraff! A tax will be levied on you all from this day for the cult to Mithra, for the purchase of cattle to be sacrificed to him. Every time you pay it, remember how you abetted the lie!”
Kaveh understood. The shah had completely betrayed them. He had taken revenge on some of the more outspoken masters, and he had reimposed most of the tax he promised to revoke, in the guise of a temple contribution. Kaveh ran towards his house, hoping to find and help his mother and his brothers and sisters, praying they had not been trampled or hurt. He dreaded having to tell old Cyrus what had happened. He knew, too, that the strike was over. No one would now have the stomach for it. He marvelled at the evil he had seen this day. The ignorant laborers who chanted at the beginning of the strike had been right. The shah himself was Mithrodruj, was a liar.
Kaveh edged along the alleyway, having decided to return home. He gradually encountered other artisans leaving the square, trapped now inside the city. He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and whirled.
“Aren’t you the son of that bastard Cyrus?”
“Ustad Cyrus saved the artisans from massacre yesterday morning. Why do you curse him?”
“I say he set us up for what just happened. Why wasn’t he with us, why did he stay behind, except to plot with the shah?” He spat in Kaveh’s face and walked irascibly away.
Kaveh wiped the spittle from his face, shocked. The man had deliberately polluted him, and he would have to bathe ritually now. His heart sank as he realized that many of the artisans would feel the same way as this man did about his father, and he began to worry for Cyrus’s safety.
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.