(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 town criers were shouting the shah’s threats as the sun set. Kaveh’s heart sank as he sat with the others in the courtyard.
“Is it a bluff?” he asked his father.
Cyrus sat cross-legged on his outdoor carpet, brooding. “Jamshid has in the past been wise enough not to provoke a complete rupture with his people. But he is behaving strangely. Look at what he did to the priests.”
Jamaspa rubbed his belly. “The zoatars have the best cattle. I hadn’t had that much steak in my entire life.”
Kaveh punched his shoulder lightly. “I think giving the artisans beef was meant as a bribe. You ate it and then went on strike.”
Jamaspa shrugged. “He gave us beef once. He makes us pay taxes every month.”
Cyrus stood, his joints creaky. “No, Kaveh, I do not believe it is a bluff. I think this day we may see a great slaughter in the bazaar if we do not call off the strike.”
Kaveh stood as well. There was somewhere he needed to be. “I don’t get a sense that anyone is willing to call it off.”
Cyrus shook his head slowly, then went to bed.
“Jamaspa, I’m going to see Kavi Daena. Come get me if there is more news.”
“You and that pairaka. It’s as though she feeds you sweetmeats.”
“Just keep your ears cocked for news of an attack.”
Kaveh hurried to Daena’s hut behind the gods bazaar. Despite the air of danger that hung over the city, he breathed the spring evening air deeply into his lungs, made capacious by working the blowpipe.
“You said you would come yesterday.” Daena threw one grey pony tail over her shoulder and straightened the rows of gods in annoyance. “An appointment is like a word given. To break it is to lie.”
“Everything is up in the air because of the strike.”
“Then your mistake was to have promised to come, when that was not really in your control. You should fashion an offering for the god of contracts at your forge. It is a weighty thing to break your word.”
Kaveh’s ears burned. “I’ve been practicing the mantras you taught me. I have to admit, I don’t understand the point of the breathing exercises.”
“All my teaching is designed to allow you to overcome evil.”
“But why does there have to be evil in the world?”
She slapped him.
“Ow, that hurt!”
“You have a choice. If you like, I’ll tell you why I did that. But then I’ll slap you again, harder. Or if you like, I can tell you how to avoid being slapped for good. Which would you rather know?”
“Oh, please tell me how to avoid your cruelty, teacher.”
“You see? Knowing what practical action to take to avoid evil is much more important than speculating on its causes. Your task is to erase evil from the world.”
“I’m just an apprentice smith.”
“You have already dispatched a black demon. This is because you have a higher spiritual self, who fights your moral battles for you if you nourish her.”
Daena nodded, beaming. “Sometimes when you are between sleeping and waking you may get an inkling of your spiritual ego. She is like a spear-bearing, celestial amazon, a paladin of the will.”
“Why is it a she? I am a man.”
“When Vouruna fashioned human beings, first he created the spiritual form of each with his mother-nature. Then he endowed them with a material form with his father-nature.”
“If the fravashi is my real self, who is speaking now?”
“All who stumble are still children. The mature mind recognizes the borders of the shadows cast by the evil one. Even the shah is now faltering.”
“Why do the priests keep supplying him the haoma, since now he stays drunk on it all the time instead of just consuming it before battle?”
“Fear of death? The promise of a rich recompense?”
Kaveh wanted to change the subject. “So the mantras, the breathing, the focusing—all this is supposed to put my in contact with my fravashi?”
“For some reason I cannot divine, you and Roxanna have been chosen to intervene in the events about to unfold. An eldritch horror skulks toward the seven climes.”
“What will that be, teacher?” A feeling of icy cold swept into the pit of his stomach.
“I think evil intends to incarnate himself on earth.”
Jamaspa stuck his head inside the threshold and interrupted them. “They’re coming! Help me arouse the artisans to the threat!”
Kaveh’s heart clenched. “Is it the Nar?”
“Cyrus sent me. Jamshid has decided that this is the moment to break the strike.”
Kaveh jumped to his feet, bowed hastily to Daena, and joined Jamaspa. “The city quarter doors haven’t been closed for a long time, but they probably still work.”
“Yes, that’s the plan. Jamshid insisted we keep them open. He said to close them was an insult to his ability to keep order.”
“He calls this order?”
Jamaspa grunted. “Order is what the upper class calls it when they eat well and are obeyed.”
Jamaspa, Utana and the other young artisans began banging at the entrances of other houses, spreading the alarm, and Kaveh arranged for them to meet him at the quarter gate nearest them. Kaveh arranged for them to meet him a the quarter gate nearest them. He arrived there at the head of a growing army of craftsmen, at one of the thresholds to the Germani precinct. The two huge cedar doors had been tied to iron rings protruding on metal pegs from the walls, to be left permanently open. Kaveh’s corpulent friend Artabanu clapped him on the shoulder.
“You rascal, what are you doing outdoors this time of night?”
Kaveh grinned. “I was bored, decided to take a walk.”
“I think your boredom is about to be cured.” Artabanu produced an enormous butcher knife from his belt and began hacking at the hemp rope, as big around as five fingers. Meanwhile, the oil dealers applied sesame oil to the encrusted hinges. In short order, they freed the doors and swung them shut, pulling down the heavy crossbar with a sense of relief.
Kaveh remembered the stories his father had told him about times when the Elamites or the Medes had looted Aratta. “I’m going to head for the other quarter entrances. Artabanu, please stay here and organize the defense of this gate. Have bags of dirt brought up to the roofs of the houses on either side, to put out arrow-fires, and see if some big pots of water can be boiled up there, to throw down on attackers.”
Artabanu cocked an eyebrow. “I didn’t know you were a tactician.”
“My father’s instructions. It isn’t his first bazaar siege.”
“A lot of lives are riding on him being right.”
By now some of the older men were arriving, and they concurred with Kaveh’s plan, to his satisfaction. The closing of the second gate also went off without a hitch.
The third gate wouldn’t budge, no matter how much oil they applied. The artisans’ muscles strained and eyes bulged as the pushed on it. It had settled off kilter, so that it leaned into the earth and met resistance.
Kaveh called for ropes. They would have to try to pull the pole upright. Then he saw two warriors approaching. “Try again! Let’s close it! They’re coming!”
Nothing they did would make the gate move more than a few inches.
The two Nar galloped through, whooping. Kaveh uttered a smith’s profanity. He looked behind him, gratified that at least twenty more artisans were converging on the area, though he knew unarmed craftsmen unused to battle would be no match for seasoned warriors.
“There are only two of them! We can stop them!” he shouted as loudly as he could, and saw others relaying his message. He knew that more warriors inevitably followed these two, who would only wish to keep the gates open long enough for their fellows to flood into the quarter.
The warriors rode down on him, hailing the sight of easy prey. Kaveh grabbed for the hammer hanging from his leather apron and hastily extracted it. It slipped from his sweaty hands.
The first horseman was almost upon them, and he could hear some of the craftsmen running away. He quickly bent down and grasped the mallet’s dirty, leather-sheathed handle. The savage rider raised his double-edged axe, measuring the distance to the blacksmith’s neck.
Kaveh tossed the mallet instinctively at its target, as he used to when playing as a boy. The hammer flew straight at the horse’s knee, and Kaveh could hear the crisp snap of bone shattering on impact. Kaveh leaped sideways as the tawny animal went ponderously down, neighing pitifully and spilling its rider, who landed head-first on a brick porch. He tried to rise, then collapsed, his head a bloody mass.
A cheer went up, but Kaveh had no time for rejoicing, with yet another of the Nar fast bearing down on him.
The warrior let his lance fly from a distance. He felt its wake tickle his earlobe. He turned to see it in the belly of a wiry coppersmith not far behind him. The man writhed, wide-eyed and bellowing, pulling on the pole, then toppled over backwards.
Kaveh turned frantically, put his foot on the fallen man’s chest, grasped the spear handle with both hands, and yanked as hard as he could. It came back up through the late copper smith’s abdomen, trailing his carmine entrails.
The pounding of horse hooves thundered worrisomely near. Kaveh turned to see a double-bladed axe bearing down on him. He pitched the spear with all his might at the warrior who had loosed it. The shaft looked as though it migh fall short.
Kaveh had never regretted not being a warrior more than at this moment. He had misjudged. He wondered if the axe was from his own workshop. But then he realized that his misjudgment was of another sort. The warrior had sped up and was galloping forward so fast that his right thigh met the descending, bloody spearhead. The Nar screamed and fell from his snorting black stallion.
Ten craftsmen rushed past Kaveh, some of them butchers, and practiced their skills on the fallen shrieking cavalier.
“Leave him! We have to get that gate closed immediately. There will be dozens more just like him on his tail.”
The artisans lassoed the top of the beam from which the door hung down and formed a line, pulling it upright.
There was not much time. A band of warriors turned a corner and rode furiously at them. Kaveh ground his teeth as he watched some of the craftsmen turn tail and make a run for it. Grimacing, he pushed on the heavy cedar door, its obstreperous hinges ancient with grime. The mounted warriors’ eyes gleamed in the moonlight. They yipped their war cries, drunk on the haoma. The door barely moved. The hooves sounded like a waterfall in his ears. Kaveh knew deep inside that he was too late, and would die here.
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.