(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 Persian prince parried with his mace, breaking Zohak’s bronze blade in two. Then Spityura launched himself at his foe, and they fell struggling on the other side of his steed. The Aramean’s wiry strength kept Spityura’s fangs away from his neck. Zohak twisted away. Around them, hand to hand combat raged, though some on each side were still mounted and jousting with one another.
The Persian commander could see behind Zohak that the Babylonian sorcerer, Asharidu, had stirred awake, and then he vanished in a mist. A sense of dread invaded him. That was not a man to be trifled with, and he could yet twist his bewitchments against the force from Aratta.
Spityura shrugged, realizing he was helpless to recapture the absconding wizard. He noticed that Zohak was limping slightly, favoring his left leg, and then saw an oozing wound on his calf. He feinted high and when Zohak arched back to avoid the blow, Spityura brought the mace down on his lower leg. The Aramean’s face contorted in agony and he bellowed like a bull being gelded. He fell, rolling on his back, both hands around his calf, which had gushed with green pus. Spityura aimed a blow to his head, and sent Zohak to the realm of dreams. He directed Gaomant to bind the fallen Bedouin. A susurrus of alarm spread among the Utu as they realized their prince was supine, and they began retreating beyond the caravan in a rout.
“The caravan is ours!” Spityura growled the command to advance on the beasts of burden, and the wolf warriors took the empty reins as the drivers took to their heels.
The Persians made camp with their vast booty inside serried rows of cavalrymen. The haoma frenzy was beginning to wear off, and they moved with leaden fatigue. Those designated for the morning watch drank of the haoma yet again, feeling its fury course through their veins and banishing exhaustion. Those inside the circle of vigilance pulled blankets over themselves and lay upon the brown grass, a blackness descending on them for a few hours despite the growing luminescence of the rising sun.
Spityura called the chieftains together to consult on whether any had seen where Asharidu had fled. None had.
He had a tent pitched for himself in the inner circle of the watch, and directed Gaomant to bring him Zohak, who had regained consciousness, along with the other chieftains.
“This is what you might call turnabout. Now we have a ransom from Bawri.”
Zohak glared at his captor. “I doubt you’ll find Mirdas very eager to redeem it.”
“Bawri is rent by hatred among its leaders? If so it won’t last out the year. Only a unified realm can stand in these days of famine and demons.”
“I understand that Aratta has its own divisions.” Zohak grinned at Spityura’s obvious surprise.
“All Persians are loyal to Jamshid Shah. Do not attempt to insinuate otherwise with your Bedouin guile.”
“Gaomant’s blue tunic tells me he is Dropiki, the tribe of your priests. I understand your Jamshid in one of his drunken rampages confiscated their cattle and fed the meat to the commoners—both actions contemnible among the zoatar.”
Gaomant’s face betrayed no emotion, but he stiffened.
“Still your tongue, Utu, or I’ll have it pulled out.”
“Then there is the unnatural desire the old lush has conceived for his own sister. How do the Sagarti, the tribe of his first queen, feel about that?” He winked at the Sagarti chieftain, Nijara.
Nijara’s hand went to the pommel of his sword.
Zohak stretched, unconcerned. “Though I have to admit, having met the lady in question, I can’t entirely blame her brother for his perverse avidity. She is feral when she lies with a man!”
Spityura reached out and slapped the spiteful visage. “I”ll have you gagged until we receive your ransom, barbarian, if you cannot show respect to the royal family.”
Zohak, his lip split, laughed uproariously. “When your sovereign must be rescued from a black demon by a humble smith, his star is on the descendant, whether I point it out or not.”
“Silence, I said!”
“Prince Spityura, please forgive me. I have been ill-mannered. Rather, I meant to offer you my condolences on this tragic state of affairs and to suggest a partnership to rectify it.”
“Now you would speak treason?”
“Just remember, Jamshid has become a dilemma for all his neighbors. Now he is reduced to raiding caravans like a common highwayman. At some point you may need to move against him, and the Utu would be valuable allies for the Dropiki and Sagarti when you do. A prince needs to keep his course of action open.”
“I do not know whether you are courageous to a fault or simply a fool not long for this world. But these words you have spoken make me consider whether it is necessary to forgo the ransom and simply dispatch you on the spot.”
“And you Persians call us barbarians. No Bedouin would slay his own guest. Have you not heard the tale of Nahor, who crawled, a knife betwixt his teeth, toward the tent of his enemy, Hozai? When Hozai spied him, he issued from the tent in a frenzy, scimitar in hand, to dispatch him. Nahor got under his guard and dove into the tent of Hozai, who had prepared a feast. Hozai was forced to entertain his would-be assassin with succulent lamb on rice and raisins, since by penetrating his abode he had become an honored guest.”
“And Persians go wilding to hunt and kill reptiles, the living lie that infests creeks and woods. I hear that you have some admixture of the scaly ones in your own veins.”
Zohak managed to rise at a tilt, his hands still tied behind his back. His leg was still obviously in agony. The warriors all crouched, weapons drawn. “Now you have maligned me, and I cannot remain here with honor. I shall depart.”
Spityura heard an excited cry go up from the watchmen of the outer circle and wondered if the Arameans were attacking. It would be rash. They were outnumbered and had already been forced to retreat once.
Zohak closed his eyes and stood straight. A wind started up and whirled around him, kicking up dust. Gaomant attempted to strike him in the head with the pommel of his sword, but his fist was stopped by the wind as though it were an adamantine wall. The wind took on a rainbow hue, beginning to obscure Zohak behind its shimmer. It blew stronger, and pushed the Nar back away from him. Spityura felt himself being carried by it despite attempting to dig in his heels. The clamor of the watchmen and the whinnying of their horses grew louder.
Spityura saw the wizard Asharidu riding straight into the middle of the camp on the back of a manticore, which had already devoured some of the warriors that had attempted to stop it, their ragged limbs still between its three rows of dagger teeth. The head was that of a savage man, with a pug nose, beady eyes, and a low sloping forehead, but the body was that of an enormous roan lion. Above his head hung the forked tail of a scorpion, with which he had stung to death a whole swathe of Persians.
Spityura fought the rainbow gale, which shimmered with unnatural hues, to advance on the thing. It struck out with the two telson stings, the caudal segments behind them rattling. Spityura mouthed a prayer. He doubted he could parry both of those venomous spikes, which whipped toward him so fast that he had no hope of eluding them.
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.