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The Golden Riders

Part 1-3


…A people without fortified towns, living… in waggons which they take with them wherever they go,
accustomed, one and all, to fight on horseback with bows and arrows,
and dependent for their food not upon agriculture but upon their cattle…

Herodotus, The Histories, Bk.4: 46.

Part 1

Central Asian Steppe, ca.70 CE

Darius slowly regained consciousness to find himself lying bound and gagged on the floor of a felt tent. At least that was what it looked like, considering that the light was rather dim, and his view rather limited. Through the thick walls came the muffled sounds of voices and what sounded like the lowing of cattle. He had no idea where he was or how he had gotten here. His last clear memories were of trudging north along the Oxus River with six other Buddhist monks and their armed escort, on their way to the wilderness site where they had planned to found a new monastery. Then a group of fierce nomads on horseback had overtaken and attacked them. The escort fought bravely, but they were heavily outnumbered and soon fell before the arrows and spears of the mounted warriors. The monks themselves bore no weapons, and had no training in how to use them anyway. The nomads shot them down mercilessly as they huddled together by the wagon for shelter.

In vain, Darius tried to defend them. He dashed forward, picked up a bow from the hands of a dead guard, and took aim at one of the swiftly-moving attackers, but before he could get off a single shot, he felt a stabbing pain go through his back, and looked down to see the point of an arrow protruding from his chest. He noticed with a strange sense of detachment that the metal point had three cutting edges and seemed to have passed through his heart, judging from the great gush of blood that came pouring out after it. Then he blacked out, and knew nothing more.

Until this moment. What was this place? Some waystation for souls awaiting their next incarnation? For he was certain that he had died by the river. No one survived a wound like that, did they? But if he was dead, why did he still feel pain and discomfort? His chest still burned where the arrow had come through, and his wrists and ankles ached from their bonds as he strained against them. Biting down on the sodden gag in frustration, he gave a muffled groan.

Then he heard movement behind him, inside the tent and nearby—a quick intake of breath, the swish of fabric, and the soft sound of retreating footsteps. With a great effort, Darius managed to roll over in the direction the sound had come from, just in time to see a tent flap go up. Suddenly, he felt a strange buzzing sensation in his head, and he instinctively knew it as a warning. The sensation grew stronger as a burly figure stooped slightly to pass through the opening. Silhouetted against the dim light of early evening, Darius saw two thick, trousered legs terminating in a pair of soft leather boots. The figure squatted down close to him, and now he caught a glimpse of a face—male, middle-aged, bronzed by the sun, a deeply-lined brow, a great hooked nose, and a full, curly dark beard sprinkled with gray—Darius recognized him as one of the nomads, and guessed from the richness of his attire and the many gold ornaments he wore that he was probably their leader. Shrewd black eyes gazed back at him speculatively. Then the man smiled slowly, a smile that could have signified either cruelty or amusement, or both. "Back among the living, I see," his deep voice rumbled in a dialect that Darius understood.

The chieftain drew a gold-hilted dagger from a sheath on his belt. Darius tensed, wondering if he was about to have his throat slit, but instead the man reached behind his captive's head and cut the knot holding the gag in place. Then he severed the rest of the bonds. He waited as Darius sat up slowly and rubbed his ankles and wrists.

"Better?" he asked.

Darius nodded by way of reply.

"Now you and I must have a little talk. Do you remember what happened to you today?"

"You attacked us by the river," Darius croaked. His mouth and throat were bone dry and it hurt him to speak. The bearded man tossed him a waterskin, and he drank it dry.

"And what else?" the man prompted when Darius had finished drinking.

The young man hesitated, then answered, "You killed us all, the guards, the monks, the wagon driver. You killed me. At least I thought so. Why am I still alive?"

"Why indeed?" the chieftain chuckled. "You come right to the point! I like that!" The he added in a lower tone, "You live because I allow it. And because of what you are." He reached out and seized Darius by the arm, and before he could protest or pull away, dragged the point of the dagger along his bicep, leaving a thin red line that beaded, then dripped blood.

Darius hissed in pain. The chieftain released him and gave a loud guffaw. "You're all right! Wipe the blood away and see!"

Darius wiped his arm on his bloodstained robe to find that the scratch had already closed and no trace of it remained. Then he tore open the garment to expose the place on his chest where the arrow had pierced him. The hole he remembered seeing was now gone—except for some redness and lingering soreness, he could hardly tell where the wound had been.

"How?" he gasped in astonishment.

"Magic!" the nomad whispered, drawing his thick black brows together ominously. Then he laughed at Darius' shocked expression. "Well, a kind of magic. I have not been able to think of a better word to describe it, anyway." And then he proceeded to explain the nature of Immortality, the Rules, and the Game to its newest pawn.

When he had finished, Darius sat stunned and overwhelmed by this revelation. This morning as he marched among his fellow monks, he thought he knew what his future held in store—an ascetic life of devotion and meditation, in which his ultimate goal was to achieve nirvana, a state of spiritual perfection and release from the sufferings and illusions of the physical world. The entire concept of Immortality and The Game went against everything he believed in. The violence of it, the idea of an entire race of beings all trying to kill each other in their desire for unlimited power and a never-ending earthly existence seemed to him evil and perverted. And the possibility that he might die a thousand deaths only to return over and over again to the same body made him want to gag with revulsion.

"I cannot live like this!" he declared. "Slay me now and end my torment. If these Quickenings you spoke of are so powerful and desirable, why have you not already taken mine?"

"I must admit I thought about it," the chieftain said with a sly grin, "But the Quickening of a newborn Immortal has but a little power to offer an old devil such as myself. Far better to let you mature a bit first, like a jug of wine, until you acquire more of a kick. And besides, I found it intriguing that of all the monks you were the only one who tried to fight back. I thought to myself, a warrior's heart beats beneath those monk's robes. Perhaps I was wrong, but I do not believe so. I suggest you think things over before making your final decision. Being Immortal has a great many advantages you may not have considered yet. If you still want to die, I can always take your head tomorrow, or at any time you choose. But I cannot put it back on again, should you suddenly have second thoughts."

He stood up and turned towards the door. "I will send someone with food and drink shortly. And do not try to depart before this matter is settled—you would not get far, I assure you, and dying still hurts, even for an Immortal." Then he was gone.

The Immortal chieftain left the tent with a little smile playing around the corners of his mouth. It had been a rather long time since he'd taken a student, and for good reason. The last one had been cocky, vicious, and stupid. Within a few weeks he had tried to take his teacher's head by treachery. Not that he didn't appreciate a bit of viciousness in a student, and even treachery had its place in the overall scheme of things, but cockiness and stupidity—those he would not tolerate. The final lesson had been short and sweet.

But this one, now--he might prove to be a bit more interesting, the chieftain mused. He is a monk, which is not the most promising beginning for an Immortal, but on the other hand, he showed a surprising survival instinct this morning at the river, and more than a little courage just now in daring me to take his head. Plus, he seems intelligent, which is refreshing. Perhaps he could provide some decent conversation. And it might be a rather amusing challenge to turn a pacifist into a killer. If not, there is always his Quickening to look forward to.

Stroking his beard and chuckling softly to himself, he sauntered back to his own comfortable tent and his supper. "Samara!" he called out cheerfully as he entered. "There is something I would like you to do for me, little one…"

Shortly afterwards, a child brought Darius the promised food—roasted mutton, a dish of sour curds, a beaker of milk, a little dried fruit, but no vegetables—the typical animal-based diet of the nomadic tribesmen who lived off their herds. Darius did not feel the least bit hungry, but the child, a girl of seven or so, was quite adamant. She would not leave, and kept repeating by emphatic gestures that he *must* eat, until finally he gave in. A vegetarian because of his religion, he did not touch the meat, but she seemed satisfied when he accepted the rest.

She sat crosslegged by the door, watching intently as he ate the curds and fruit with his fingers and drank the milk. She, too, was dressed in boots and trousers, and her little scarlet tunic was heavily embroidered and ornamented with sewn-on plaques of gold depicting stags, panthers, and riders on horseback. A pointed cap, also ornamented with gold, completed the outfit. Although her eyes were gray like his, their shape revealed a touch of Far Eastern ancestry, and her skin was the color of honey. She wore her dark hair in two long braids bound at the ends with scarlet ties. While she watched and waited, she pulled a long, wicked-looking dagger from a belt sheath and carved herself a slice of the mutton. Even the children in this place went about armed, it seemed. When he was finished, he handed back the dish and beaker, and thanked her in his own language. She said something unintelligible and turned to go, but stopped at the door. Pointing to herself, she said, "Samara," and then she gestured towards him, waiting for an answer.

"Darius," he answered, indicating himself as she had done.

She frowned in concentration and pronounced the strange name, which came from her lips as "Darya." Close enough. He nodded to her in approval, and her small mouth curved up at the corners into an enchanting smile such as young children have, full of mischief and mystery and secrets as yet unrevealed. When she smiled, she reminded him a little of Parvati, his adopted sister whom he had left behind in Northern India. Darius felt a sudden pang of homesickness and loss. He knew he would probably never see any of his family again.

When the girl had gone, he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself through meditation, but his mind was in turmoil because of what had happened to him, and he could not concentrate. What should he do? He had no desire for Immortality under the terms of The Game, and he did not fear death. But neither did he wish to throw his life away for no good reason. Perhaps this was meant to be a test of his faith, to see if he could reject the temptation of Immortal life to save his eternal spirit. And yet, according to this chieftain, he had been destined from birth to become Immortal and be a part of The Game, so perhaps it was his karma to suffer through this existence to atone for something he had done in a previous life. If so, refusal to accept this would be wrong, and his next life, when he reached it, could be even worse.

He was desperate for someone to talk to, someone to listen and give him counsel, but the chieftain was the only one here who even spoke a language he understood. Suddenly, he remembered something. He reached into a hidden pocket in the sash of his robe for a little gold ornament in the shape of a lotus. Parvati had given it to him at their last parting. The nomads had taken his knife and his other things, but thankfully they had missed this because it was so small and well-hidden. Holding it tightly in his hand for comfort, he went on wrestling with his conscience through most of the night, finding little rest and no answers. At last, exhausted, he fell into an uneasy doze, and dreamed of men with swords coming to take his head.

The Sacae (a Scythian people) wore trousers and tall, pointed hats set upright on their heads,
and were armed with the bows of their country, daggers, and the sagaris, or battle axe.
'Sacae' is the name the Persians give to all Scythian tribes…

Herodotus, The Histories, Bk.7: 64

Part 2

The following morning, the nomad chieftain returned. As before, Darius could feel the man approaching before he actually saw him. He looked into Darius' tired, bleary eyes. "I can see that you have spent much of the night pondering your future. Have you made your decision?"

Darius did not reply. The man drew out his long sword, sat down opposite him, and began sharpening the two-edged blade with a stone. The sound set the younger Immortal's teeth on edge. He tightened his jaw and looked down at his hands, studying the lines of his palms as if he might find some answer there, but no insight was forthcoming. After a few minutes, the nomad spoke again. "Far be it from me to influence you, but let me acquaint you further with some details that may help you make up your mind. Should you choose to remain among us, you will be formally adopted by the tribe, and I will take you on as my student. We do not have slaves here—you would be treated the same as any person born among us, and as such, you would be required to earn your keep as a hunter and warrior."

He paused briefly, tilting the sword blade to the light and inspecting the edge. "But should you feel that your life is no longer worth living under these conditions, your head belongs to me, as the leader here, and the only Immortal around for miles. A Quickening is a terrible thing to waste, even a small one. And properly staged, even yours will have great theatrical value. I will see to it that you make a memorable exit. You will be sacrificed to our God of War. First wine will be poured over your head, then your throat will be cut, and the blood collected in a ceremonial vessel. Next I will cut off your head. After I have taken your Quickening before the tribe, your blood will be poured over a naked sword stuck into a mound of earth as an offering. Quite an impressive way to go, although being dead, you will miss all the best parts." The chieftain put away the stone and tested the blade's edge with his thumb. "Well," he said in a conversational tone, smiling pleasantly at Darius, "This sword is ready for you. Will you wield it or die by it?"

Darius opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out. He had no idea what he should do; his exhausted brain was refusing to respond. Then to his surprise, he suddenly heard a voice that sounded like his own, saying, "I… want to live." And in that instant, he knew that it was the truth. He was still young, and there was so much in life that he had never had the chance to experience. Who was to say that this was not his karma? Yesterday, he had lost his life and miraculously it had been given back to him. Why should he throw away such a gift? Perhaps it was a sign or omen. Surely there must be some purpose to all this which would be revealed in the fullness of time if he were patient and accepting. As this thought crossed his mind, an overwhelming sense of relief washed over him, and he laughed out loud without knowing why.

The chieftain laughed, too. "Good!" he said, giving Darius a punch in the shoulder that knocked him over backwards. "I was not looking forward to explaining your death to my little daughter. Samara seems to have formed quite an attachment to you. She tells me that she has already christened you Darya after the river where we found you."

Darius was confused. "The river? You mean the Oxus?"

"Amu Darya is what we call it. Darya means river. I hope you like it, because I fear it belongs to you now. Once Samara bestows a name on someone, it sticks."

Darius gave a little shrug and smiled. "I suppose I can adapt to a new name to go with my new life. It does not sound so very different from my old name, after all."

"Which is?"

"In early childhood, I was called Arya, but for most of my life I have gone by Darius. It is the name of a Persian king who once conquered Northern India and made it part of his empire."

The chieftain's dark eyes flashed, and their gaze became suddenly intense. "Then it is more than coincidence that we met by that river, you and I. Darius was the name of my father, and the name I gave to my eldest son, who died as I did at the hands of a traitor over five centuries ago. It was only afterwards that I learned he could not have been my true son, but I had loved him as if he were my own. I was Xerxes I, King of Persia, the heir of Darius the Great, whose empire you spoke of. After my First Death, I was forced to leave all that wealth and power behind. I fled into the North and became Ahasuerus the Parthian, a wanderer. For centuries, I followed the Silk Roads to China and back again, and then I came to love the nomad's life." He paused, and gave a short laugh. "Now I am only Ahaz, chieftain of an obscure Saka tribe, but it suits me better than a throne. And now it seems that fate has suddenly decided to give back something of what I have lost. I will teach you what you need to know to survive in your new life, and this sword will be yours when you have learned to use it."

The chieftain threw open the tent flap and strode out into the morning light. The camp was already bustling with activity. Cookfires had been lit, and the smell of roasting meat greeted Darius' nostrils. Somehow, this morning, he found the smell enticing, and felt his stomach growl. Ahasuerus called back over his shoulder, "Come! Let us find you some proper clothes. No more monk's robes for you—trousers are much better for riding. And you will need a horse—you can ride, I hope…"

As Darius hurried to catch up with his new teacher many curious eyes followed him, including a pair of inquisitive gray ones belonging to a small girl who had been hiding behind the tent with her ear pressed against its side. Her little face wore an almost imperceptible smile of satisfaction as she nonchalantly strolled along in the wake of her foster-father and his tall, oddly-dressed companion with the shaved head.

When the Scythians swear an oath or enter a sacred compact, they fill a large earthenware bowl with wine and drop into it a little of the blood of the two parties to the oath… then they dip into the bowl a scimitar, some arrows, a battle axe and a javelin and speak a number of prayers; lastly the two contracting parties…drink the mixture of wine and blood…

Herodotus, The Histories, Bk.4: 70

Part 3

Preparations for the adoption ceremony began at once, and the following day, Darius was initiated into the tribe. First came a purification ritual, in which he, his sponsor Ahasuerus, and a number of the leading warriors stripped naked and crawled into a small, stifling leather tent, where they sat in a circle around a bronze cauldron filled with glowing coals. (For the sake of appearances, Ahasuerus had "renewed" Darius' arrow wounds, as the originals had already healed leaving no trace.) When all were seated on rugs around the cauldron, the nomad chieftain tossed a handful of dried hemp seeds and leaves onto the coals, followed by a sprinkling of water, which quickly filled the tent with steam and a throat-irritating, acrid-smelling smoke. Darius began to cough.

"Breath deeply," Ahasuerus commanded, as he began chanting the ritual words in his booming voice. Soon Darius' body was drenched in sweat and his head began to swim. His perception became distorted, so that the rhythmic chanting of Ahasuerus and the other men faded in and out of his hearing. He felt as if he were floating a foot off the ground, and glanced down to see if it were true. The little figures of men on horseback that were woven into the rug he sat upon seemed to come alive. Fascinated, he watched them gallop back and forth across its surface, and he had the oddest sense that he was riding with them. Finally the chanting reached a crescendo, and the men around him broke into shouts and whoops. Darius whooped with them, uttering fierce, savage cries he never knew he was capable of.

Still whooping and yelling, the men staggered out of the tent one after another, bodies dripping with sweat. After the heat of the tent, the warm air outside felt cool. Priestesses in ceremonial robes and tall headdresses covered with gold were waiting for them with pots of an aromatic paste-like substance. The men coated their bodies with the mixture, which quickly dried to a thin crust. After shedding this crust like a second skin, Darius felt completely cleansed and refreshed. Because of the affects of the smoke his body seemed weightless, and he moved as if in a dream. Someone helped him to dress in a clean tunic and trousers, and he stepped into a pair of soft, leather boots. Someone else strapped a leather belt decorated with metal plaques around his waist, and attached to it a long sword, dagger, axe, and a gorytos containing a bow and a sheaf of arrows. A spearshaft suddenly appeared in his hand, and he gripped it tightly. Two men led him to a low mound where an ancient-looking sword had been stuck point-downwards into the earth. The high priestess stood next to it, guarding the sacred fire burning on a portable stone altar in front of the sword. In her hands she held a drinking cup filled with wine as red as blood. Ahasuerus was there waiting for him, also armed.

Somewhere in the back of his drug-fogged mind, Darius vaguely recalled Ahasuerus talking about some ceremony having to do with the God of War, but he could not remember exactly what was supposed to happen. He joined the nomad chieftain on the mound. Slowly, Ahasuerus drew his dagger, pushed up his sleeve, and deliberately cut himself on the arm. The priestess held the cup so that the blood dripped into the wine and mingled with it. Then the chieftain held out his arm to let a few drops fall sizzling onto the fire, and pointed the tip of his bloody dagger towards Darius as if to say, "Your turn."

Darius carefully repeated the actions, dripping a little of his own blood into the cup, and offering a few drops to the fire. He didn't even feel any pain as the knife point cut into his flesh. Then Ahasuerus spoke a few words which Darius did not understand, and dipped all his weapons, one after the other, into the cup. The younger Immortal followed suit, repeating the strange words at the chieftain's prompting, and baptizing his dagger, sword, axe, arrow points, and spear. His memory began to return a bit as they reached the most important part of the ceremony. Ahasuerus moved to stand close to him. The priestess lifted the cup high above her head towards the sun before holding it out to the two men. As one, Darius and Ahasuerus took the cup, and simultaneously drank from it the mixture of their mingled blood and the wine until the cup was almost drained. Finally they poured the last few drops onto the fire as an offering, and as the steam rose from the altar towards the heavens, the rest of the tribe broke into a deep murmur of approval. Darius was now one of them. From that day on, he was bound by a blood oath to live and die by the laws of the Saka.

A jubilant feast followed which lasted well into the evening, with great quantities of food and drink. Darius sat in a place of honor by Ahasuerus' right hand, and partook of the many delicacies that were passed around. Samara served them, seeing to it that their plates and cups were never empty. She was splendidly dressed in a new tunic glittering with gold ornaments, and on the ties that held her braids secure were tiny bells that made music at her slightest movement. She said little, but her gray eyes shone with excitement. Even though the effects of the hemp smoke had worn off, Darius, too felt elated. From time to time the chieftain had translated the words of the many people who came over to wish him well. He had never in his life received such a warm welcome as this from people he did not know. He only wished that he knew more of the Saka language so that he could thank them properly. All he could do was nod and smile, but for now it seemed to be enough. He glanced over at Samara. She whispered something to Ahasuerus, who grinned wickedly as he replied. She ran off laughing.

Soon she was back, bearing a skin bag which she presented to Darius with a flourish. Ahasuerus made a single imperious gesture with his hand and the merry-making stopped. Every eye was turned expectantly towards the chieftain's fire. Darius suddenly felt nervous. He hadn't been told about this, and he didn't know what he should do.

"This is koumiss, the preferred drink of the Saka. Now that you are one of us, it will be your favorite, too. Drink up!" Ahasuerus urged.

Darius took the bag and raised it in a salute to the watching tribe. Then he tipped the bag up and took a large swig. An incredibly foul-tasting, sour liquid filled his mouth, making him want to retch and spit all of it out onto the ground. But he knew he couldn't—that would be an unforgiveable insult. He forced himself to swallow, eyes bulging with the effort. "Good!" he gasped, with a brave attempt at a smile that was more than half a grimace. The entire tribe broke into gales of laughter, followed by cheers.

"Congratulations!" Ahasuerus guffawed, slapping him on the back so that he choked. "You have just passed the final test. A man who can't swallow his koumiss is not brave enough to be a Saka."

"What is koumiss made from?" Darius had to ask, hoping desperately that the ingredients did not include horse piss, which was his first thought upon tasting it.

"Fermented mare's milk," the older Immortal chuckled. "It's an acquired taste, I know. I had much the same reaction as you did the first time I tried it. But it grows on you. And it puts hair on your chest. Trust me—soon you will prefer it to all other kinds of drink. Here, have some more!"

Darius smiled and shook his head. "I think I have had enough tests of my courage for one day."

The chieftain feigned disappointment. "But what will I tell all those women who have been drawing lots to see who will be the first to visit your tent tonight?" Seeing his student's alarmed reaction, he laughed. "Just checking to see that you were paying attention! Not that you couldn't have a bedmate or two if you chose. But tomorrow I intend to start your training, and it would be better for you to be well rested."

This story is Copyright ©1999 by tirnanog and may not be reproduced without permission.

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(This page last updated 02/28/2002)