(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)
Roxanna awaited her fate, kneeling in the brush. Instead of the swish of a blade, she heard the deep voice of the princess.
“You spoke for my enemies.”
“Your highness, I but wished to protect the name of your tribe.”
“It seems your tongue cannot be still. I did not ask you to speak. Your mother served me faithfully. Otherwise I would send you to hell now. But since you have thrown in with these peasants against me, I give you to them. Go and serve Athwya the Aspigan! Never darken the threshold of Aratta again!”
Roxannna’s eyes stung with tears. She would almost have preferred to be executed than to be exiled, forever alone, cut off from her family. She dreaded the moment when her father Bagaos heard the news. And Kaveh! Would she ever see him again?
“Run, join them quickly, lest the torches catch you girl! Take advantage of my clemency.”
Yimak pulled her horse up and whirled about, going to oversee the collection of loot from the village.
Roxanna took to her heels, spying the retreating Athwya and Faranak and making for them. They were still helping the elderly out of their huts, and Roxanna joined in, feeling the flames at her back of dwellings already set ablaze. Faranak noticed her with surprise, then nodded, appearing to understand the situation.
The livestock and horses of the village were forfeit, and so they had to walk as fast as they could into the pistachio and almond forest, hoping that the fire would not leap from the erstwhile settlement to the trees. They hurried, fearful that the Nar would change their minds and pursue them out of berserker bloodlust.
Deep in the forest, which hugged the steppe, the trees farther apart than in the lusher north, they finally halted and listened for hoof beats, but heard none.
Faranak approached Roxanna, who was still weeping uncontrollably. “Is it exile?”
Roxanna nodded wordlessly, not trusting herself to speak.
“You saved our lives. We have not the wherewithal to be truly generous, but you shall not want as long as you be with us, and my life is a surety for your safety.” She hugged the inconsolable Roxanna, who wept more profusely at the kind words.
The villagers trudged on at a snail’s pace, held back by the children, elderly and infirm. Roxanna wondered if they had a plan.
“Where are we going?” she still sniffled when she spoke.
Faranak inclined her head, her face framed by ebony tresses. “We are only part-time villagers in any case, dear. We pick up and move with our flocks twice a year in search of pasturage, while the grains are growing.”
“But now you have no flocks. What will we eat?”
“Athwya is a great and generous chieftain, and many tribesmen of this land owe him for past boons. In these parts, authority and respect are better coin than specie. Each will donate some sheep and goats, in return for a pledge of some of the newborn lambs and kids. We shall rebuild our herds. In the meantime, the forest is rich in nuts, and its floor in yams and tubers, which we women of the village know how to discover. Many a night you will sleep hungry, as shall we all, but only the weak will expire.”
“No one should die! The palace didn’t need all your produce! They have emeralds and crystal, lapis lazuli and pearl. They have murdered some of your infants and aged this day.”
Faranak fell silent as they trudged on. From time to time the women would spy edible nuts, berries, stems, leaves or roots, and stop to gather them for a spare evening repast. At Aiwisruthrema the chariot of day descended into the trees and then plunged into the vale of twilight.
Roxanna had never been in a forest at night, and started at every unfamiliar sound and call.
Athwya quietly signaled to his villagers to make camp. They could not risk campfires or conversation, lest some of Yimak’s men were detailed to watch for them and dispatch them in the dark of night.
Roxanna could barely choke down the raw nuts and a piece of grimy root that the other women offered her. Even servants in the palace feasted on sumptuous meals, and she realized that she would now likely become a starveling, like the peasant children that sometimes came to beg in Aratta because of the drought. She was ashamed to consider that the girls lost their looks young that way, and that she would soon be a toothless hag. Some of the vulnerable of Hyrba, she knew, would face death itself in the coming days.
Having wolfed down their nondescript repast, the villagers lay themselves out on the forest floor, pricked by the hardy shrubs and remnants of last season’s pistachio shells that dotted it.
Roxanna could not sleep. She kept thinking of Bagaos’s home in the royal crafthalls where she had grown up, and of her chambers in the palace. Her family was already in a year-long period of mourning for her mother. Now they had lost Roxanna as well, for she was as good as dead to them. And Kaveh. She thought of his bull-like neck, his rippling biceps that had all too seldom dared embrace her, his generous lips and aquiline nose. Even if she managed to get word to him of her whereabouts and even if he dared sneak out to meet her, he would risk exile as well should it become known. She knew she could not selfishly impose that fate on him, and that her life was over before it had begun.
As she lay sleepless, staring at the spangled night through the budding pistachio boughs, she started.
An ethereal form had congealed on one of the branches, glowing with the faintness of starlight. It had the appearance of a woman.
It floated down and hovered above her. Roxanna realized that it must be a pari, a spirit of one who had died but been unable to find the path to paradise. She had heard them whispered of, as dwellers in wastelands and haunters of wayfarers, but had disbelieved the tales until now.
The translucent woman, fair to the eye but horrible to the heart, shrieked as it descended toward Roxanna.
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.