(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)
Spityura swung his mace at the manticore’s first sting, deflecting it, but aware that he could not hope to avoid the second.
“No, Asharidu, let him live. He may be an ally one day.” Zohak’s thoughts seemed to invade Spityura’s mind, and he saw the defrocked priest freeze.
The Babylonian wizard made a gesture, and the scorpion tail abruptly halted its strike.
The whirlwind lifted Zohak to the back of the sphinx and abruptly it turned and loped away with the lithe fleetness of a mountain lion. None of the Nar managed to get a sword or spear into it, and the few archers with the wits to try to get off a volley at the retreating form were dismayed to see their arrowheads deflected by its impenetrable hide.
Spityura let out a wolf-growl, maddened by the escape of his prey. But then he surveyed the captured caravan, the camels, horses and asses piled high with finery, carnelian and pearl, dates and reeds, rare spices and salves, and ceremonial weaponry from Babylon, destined for the Medes in Ecbatana. Now they belonged to Aratta. The Bawri desert prince would have made a good captive, but they already had a king’s ransom in their hands.
Spityura, his eyes gleaming, pulled himself up to his considerable height and let out a victory cry. The Persian warriors took it up, passing around skins of haoma.
The prince mounted up and rode up to the caravan master. “Prepare the beasts. We leave immediately for Aratta.”
The sunburned old merchant kept his eyes on the ground. “We were bound for Ecbatana, which has paid for these goods already.”
Spityura laughed. “King Deyaco should have spent something on better security, as well.”
“I was promised a commission.”
“You will find Persians as generous as Medes, or rather, moreso.”
The trader prostrated himself to Spityura, then went off to make preparations for setting out.
Spityura consulted with the chieftains, Gaomant, Hutana and Erezav. “The Arameans have retreated, but we cannot be sure they have given up. Escorting a caravan in the wilderness is tougher than attacking one.”
“Aye, we must defend from every direction, at every vulnerable point. An assault targets a single weak point in the enemy.”
Hutana snarled. “You priestly tribes think too much. If Arameans appear, we shall drink from their jugulars, that is all!”
Spityura put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Let us be both wise and fierce, Hutana. That is the way to victory.”
Hutana snapped his teeth, imitating the bite to the neck he planned for the Utu.
Despite the onset of spring, night had been frigid and hoar-frost still salted the ground as they set out. Aggressive clouds began to obscure the sun, making it difficult to tell where the grey mists ended and where the dull clay began on the horizon. From the necks of the caravan animals hung large bronze bells, which rang out the party’s progress in a tuneless celebration of motion. From some of the asses chickens hung by one leg, occasionally flapping their russet wings and squawking their raucous duets with the bells.
Not long after they set out, the dark grey clouds began spraying them with mist. Slowly, the droplets turned into a downpour, a rare treat those days for the Nar, who boyishly galloped through it whooping, their arms raised to the sky.
Spityura, worried that they were being tracked by Zohak and his Bedouin, wished they would keep their wits about them. Slowly the torrent made the soil into treacherous mud. Then they came to a narrow, fast-flowing stream that had sprung up suddenly with the rain storm. They began to ford the stream, though some of the horses were skittish and one lost its footing, with steed and rider washed away in the flash flood.
Spityura was up to his hips in the treacherous, chilly waters, his horse struggling against the swiftness of the flow. A brown face emerged from the water, knife between his teeth. His nose appeared to have been bashed in. He grabbed the haft of the dagger and angled himself in the current, allowing the stream to propel him at Spityura like an arrow.
The prince stood on his horse’s back and launched himself at the hurtling assassin, catching his wrist in one meaty hand and banging his forehead into the man’s ruin of a nose. The impact almost sent his mind into the blackness, and a sharp pain shot through his head. But he heard the agony in the other’s low cry and knew he had opened an old wound. They tumbled under water, grappling. Spityura could not get his head above the water and was afraid of breathing in the deadly, icy water.
The Aramean struggled to bring his deadly blade ever closer to Spityura’s body as they were tossed to the bed of the stream by the turbulent waters. The prince’s foot found a raised rock and got a momentary purchase. He leaped to the surface and took a lungful of air, holding the Bedouin’s wrist away from him. He squeezed hard, and the Aramean yelped and dropped his knife.
His foe twisted free and shouted, “Zohak will be pleased that I failed. But consider this a warning from Asharidu not to interfere with him again!” Then he slipped under the white froth and was gone.
Spityura swam with powerful strokes to the other bank, fighting the current, and pulled himself up. His horse, Frinaspa, had forded the stream alone and had been wandering up and down looking for his master. Now he whinnied and came galloping over, nuzzling the
prince’s cheek. The other men gathered round.
Hutana dismounted and helped Spityura up. “My lord, what transpired?”
“An assassination attempt. It seems the wizard begrudged us his caravan.”
“I will personally use his balls in a spell of my own if I ever catch up with him!” Hutana grinned.
“Last I saw, he was running away in the company of a cripple and a monster. Give him no more thought.”
Still, the faces of his boon companions were grim and a hope of vengeance lit their eyes.
The caravan and its escort resumed its journey. Although their horses’ hooves sank deep in the mud for most of the morning, the terrain was passable. They entered thickets tangled with wild vines and pomegranate, blackberry and other bushes.
By mid-morning the caravan and the warriors who had captured it neared Aratta. Spityura glimpsed the walls of the city in the distance, nestling in a long, broad valley that, unlike virtually all the landscape through which they had passed, still retained a sheen of spring greenery.
The guards at the city gate saluted and opened it with alacrity, eager to please the victorious prince.
“All hail Prince Spityura, light of the Persians!”
As they rode into the center of the city, bringing the caravan to the bazaar docks to be unloaded, the half-starved artisans sent up cheer after cheer, dancing in the dusty streets.
Goamant was on his way to oversee delivery of the Dropiki cut of the loot to his people, including the zaotars, who had fallen on hard times with the loss of so many of their cattle to the shah’s exactions.
He stopped to talk to Spityura. “Beware, my lord, for you are a hero to your people.”
Spityura eyed him in puzzlement. “Then why should I beware?”
“Your brother the shah can abide only one hero in Aratta, my lord.”
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.