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The Golden Riders

Part 4-6


…the young men grow up in the habit of riding from their earliest boyhood and regard it as contemptible
to go on foot; and by various forms of training they are all skilled warriors.

Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum Libri, Bk. XXXI, 2: 20

Part 4

Ahasuerus may have been joking about the women, but he had been dead serious about the training. Never one for wasting time, the chieftain rousted his new student out of bed at first light, and Darius very quickly discovered how much he needed to learn before he could take his place among the warriors of the tribe, let alone face another Immortal in single combat. The Saka were a warrior people who lived by herding and raiding, and everyone, including the women and children, was trained to fight in order to defend their possessions and herds even if they did not ride with the warband into battle. Their primary weapon was a short but powerful composite reflex bow made from several different types of wood reinforced with plates of bone and horn. A skilled archer could fire off twenty arrows a minute with great accuracy. In addition to the bow, the Saka warriors also used spears, axes, maces, whips, lassos, and the long sword. Not only was Darius expected to master all of these weapons, but he discovered that he had to wield them from the back of a moving horse.

"A nomad warrior only fights on foot as a last resort, when he has been unhorsed or his mount has been disabled or killed," Ahasuerus told him. "The speed and mobility of your horse is also part of your arsenal of weapons. You must learn to make your horse, as well as your weapons, extensions of yourself." He took Darius outside the circle of wagons to where the horses belonging to the tribe were grazing, and pointed to a dark bay with a black mane and tail. "This one will be yours," he said, capturing the animal with the aid of a lasso. "You'll need more than one horse, naturally, but let's get you used to this one first." He showed Darius how to put on the bridle and padded saddlecloth, and how to make the horse kneel so that he could mount. "Later you will have to learn how to leap from the ground onto a horse's back even when he is moving, because in battle there may not be time for such a leisurely method of mounting. Up you go then. Now let's see what you can do."

Darius had ridden on horseback a few times, and because he had never fallen off, he considered himself a decent rider, but by the nomad chieftain's standards, he was a total incompetent. The Saka were practically born on horseback, and learned to sit a horse as soon as they were able to sit upright without wobbling. Any child in the tribe was a better rider than he was, and in fact, the children of the camp sniggered so much at the tall stranger's ineptitude that Ahasuerus decided to take him out of sight of the camp where he could practice without the distraction of a giggling audience.

Darius felt humiliated and frustrated by his lack of skill. "Well, you should be ashamed," Ahasuerus chided after his student had tumbled off his mount for the unpteenth time. "But only hard work and practice will remedy your shortcomings, not whimpering. Shut up about your wounded pride and sore butt, and get back on the damned horse, or I'll lead him back to the camp and you'll have to walk home."

The burly chieftain was a man of changeable moods, as his student soon learned. Some days, he was a model of cheerful patience, repeating the same demonstration over and over until Darius finally got the hang of things. At other times, he displayed a streak of arrogance and brutality worthy of a former King of the Achaemenid Empire. "Once I had thousands of slaves," he said with a cruel smile, cracking a long, braided-leather whip with a wood handle like a club as Darius practiced guiding his horse without the aid of reins. "And when they displeased me I would have them flogged until they could not stand. Or cut in half, if they really made me angry. Now I have only you to vent my wrath upon. Take care to stay in my good graces." More than once that morning, the young Immortal tasted the sting of that lash.

Compared to his sheltered existence at the Buddhist monastery, he found life among the nomads a great deal more interesting and exciting, but it was also much more demanding physically. Darius spent his mornings riding (or else picking himself up after falling off). In the afternoon came weapons practice with Ahasuerus or one of the other warriors. In the beginning, they worked with weapons only on the ground, but as soon as Darius' horsemanship had improved enough, he began to learn the techniques of fighting and hunting from horseback. And after that (as if that were not enough) Ahasuerus gave him grueling private lessons in the use of the long sword and the axe, both on foot and on horseback, as these were the weapons most often used by Immortals fighting each other in combat to the death. One could hardly take a head with a bow, after all.

"Concentrate!" the chieftain yelled when Darius became momentarily distracted by a bird suddenly taking flight behind him. In the split second that his student's attention wavered, Ahasuerus delivered a stinging slash to his sword arm. "See? Never, never take your eye from your opponent even for an instant, or life as you know it will be over! If I had been any other Immortal besides your teacher, you'd be dead now. In the Game there is no room for a mistake like that."

"How many other Immortals are there on the steppes?" Darius asked, fingering the scratch. The grasslands were vast, and apart from the Saka, he had seen relatively few people at all so far, and no other Immortals except Ahasuerus.

"There are more than you might think," his teacher growled. "I believe this land breeds them of itself and casts them out onto the surface. But their numbers are irrelevant. For someone as green as you, just one would be enough, believe me! And you would be a fool to think Immortals are the only ones you have to worry about. There are many tribes on the steppes who take heads as battle trophies, and given your present level of skill, any one of them would be quite capable of removing yours! They strip off the skin and scalps in one piece to hang from their horses' bridles, and make the tops of the skulls into drinking cups. A thick skull like yours would be considered quite a prize!"

By the end of each day, Darius could barely haul his bruised and aching body to the chieftain's tent to eat his supper, and was often half asleep before he could finish it. In contrast, Ahasuerus seemed to be positively invigorated by their workouts, and invariably wanted to talk late into the night. Darius would sit by him nodding and trying to keep his eyes open while the chieftain told of his long-ago war with Greece, and his later exploits as a trader on the Silk Road.

But after a few months, the relentless regimen of training, coupled with a high-protein diet, wrought a great change in the young Immortal. His endurance increased markedly, so that he could fight from morning to night without feeling more than a little healthy tiredness. His long body, which had been rake-thin when he first joined the tribe, began to fill out with hard, well-defined muscle. He would never have the massive shoulders and arms of his teacher, but his supple strength and longer reach gave him a useful advantage in swordfighting. His hair and beard grew out, so that he now looked the part of the fierce nomad warrior.

As his body grew harder and tougher under Ahasuerus' tutelage, so did his way of thinking. At first, still influenced by his early Hindu and Buddhist training, Darius tried to reconcile the religious beliefs from his mortal life with what his teacher had told him about his newfound Immortality. "Mortals go through successive reincarnations as a progresson towards Enlightenment, but perhaps for Immortals the process is different," he told Ahasuerus. "Perhaps the Unknowable has another purpose in mind for us which we must discover. By living for centuries in the same body I might be able to experience a continuity mortals cannot have. Instead of forgetting the lessons I learned in previous lives, I can build on what I have learned and become wiser."

Ahasuerus rapidly stripped him of these idealistic notions. "You would be wiser to spend your time concentrating on improving your swordsmanship instead of on this religious nonsense, or your so-called Enlightenment will go to the first Immortal you meet when he separates your illusion-filled head from your body! The Game has only one purpose that I ever heard of," the chieftain contemptuously replied.

"But I find it hard to believe that you and I have been granted this wondrous power just so that we can kill each other trying to be the last one," Darius said, puzzled.

"Believe it!" Ahasuerus spat scornfully. "When all is said and done, the Game is only about power. It is just that simple. Do you imagine that I did not ask these same questions of my teacher? I was a devout follower of the prophet Zoroaster at the time of my First Death, and when the man who was to become my teacher first told me I was Immortal, I thought he meant I had become like a god myself, one of the Beneficent Immortals who surround the Wise Lord Ahura Mazda. He knocked me flat on my ass for that particular piece of arrogant stupidity. Do you know what he told me? 'There is absolutely nothing Beneficent or benign about Immortality! You fight or you die. You kill your opponent before he kills you.' This was what his teacher had taught him. And what he taught me. And it's what I have been trying to hammer into your head, so that when you face your first challenge, you won't lose it. Forget religion. It is a lie mortals tell themselves for comfort because they know they are going to die. Forget everything you ever learned in your mortal life. It no longer applies to what you are now. The only thing an Immortal needs to believe in is that There Can Be Only One! One day you'll get down on your knees and thank me for setting you straight. If you live long enough, that is."

Darius never dared to mention religion to Ahasuerus again. And for his part, the chieftain drove his student even harder, so that he would not have the time or energy to dwell on such foolish thoughts. But overall, he was quite pleased with his protégé's development. By the end of that year, Darius had made a great deal more progress than he ever would have imagined possible, becoming reasonably competent with the numerous weapons used by the tribe, and vastly improving his riding skills. Now the younger Immortal could vault fully armed onto the back of a running horse, control his mount with only the subtle pressure from his legs and a touch of his heels, and fire off a succession of arrows in the true Parthian style, turning sideways to shoot backwards over his horse's rump as he raced in the opposite direction. What seemed even more remarkable was the fact that, more often than not, he could actually hit his targets.

For this he had Samara to thank more than anyone else. The girl was acknowledged to be one of the best shots in the entire tribe. One morning, shortly after his initiation ceremony, Darius saw her riding off with a group of hunters with her little bow and arrows slung behind her in a golden gorytos. He gave an indulgent smile and remarked to his teacher how adorable she looked. Ahasuerus snorted and said nothing. But when the hunters returned, Samara brought back more game than anyone else, and Darius realized what a fool he had been. That evening, as usual, he ate in Ahasuerus' tent and shared in the bounty Samara's skill had provided. Had the expression existed at the time, he would have said it tasted like humble pie.

Ahasuerus must have read the expression on his face. "Never underestimate the power of a woman, even when she is as small as Samara," he chuckled under his breath. "She will be a fine warrior and a priestess like her late mother before her when she grows to womanhood."

"A warrior?" Darius was shocked. He had seen Saka women with weapons, of course, and even the children, but he believed they only used them for defense or hunting. Where he came from, women did not touch weapons, or ride to war. Instead, they looked to men for their protection.

"You did not know this? You must pay more attention to what you see around you. Among our people many women choose to bear arms, and they are granted the same respect and privileges as male warriors. The warrior who shot you at the river was a woman, and I had a terrible time convincing her that she had missed your heart, because she practically never misses. Samara may be a child and a female, but she was born to be a warrior and has always known it. I expect great things from her."

Darius said no more, but from then on he regarded Samara with greater respect, and later he asked her for advice on how to improve his archery. The girl was delighted to teach him, although she concealed it. She had her own secret vision of the tall stranger's future. On nights of the full moon, the little huntress who was also a priestess-in-training went alone onto the steppe to make personal prayers to the Great Goddess, seeking Her help. Samara knew exactly what she wanted from life—to be a great warrior, a powerful priestess, and the mate of the tall, gray-eyed man she called Darya. And she was as methodical and as single-minded in her pursuit of these goals as she was in stalking game.

She taught Darya all she could about archery, riding, and other needful things, and was pleased when he treated her almost as an equal. She could tell he still thought of her as a child rather than a woman, but she had no doubt that this would change as she grew older and her body matured. Samara knew how these things worked—she had learned by observing the adults around her. She had seen Darya sometimes take other women to his bed, but this did not bother her overmuch, because most of the young men did this, and Darya did not attach himself to any woman in particular. In fact, he seemed to be avoiding attachments, and she thought she knew why. She knew from camp gossip that he had turned down several opportunities to marry, and had overheard one of the women surmise, with a significant glance in her direction, that this was because "Ahaz has other plans for him."

So she waited eagerly for the first signs of womanhood to manifest themselves, confident that in time she would achieve everything she sought, including Darya.

No temple or sacred place is to be seen in their country… but after the manner of barbarians a naked sword is fixed in the ground and they reverently worship it as their god of war, the presiding deity of those lands over which they range.

Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum Libri, Bk. XXXI, 2: 23

Part 5

Southern Ural Steppes, ca. 77 CE

During the late spring the tribe always migrated northwest onto the the steppes adjacent to the Ural Mountains, where they could find ample summer grazing for their herds. The route Ahasuerus took crossed the northernmost of the Silk Roads, and more often than not, the warriors would be able to raid a trade caravan or two along the way, acquiring gold, spices, rich fabrics, tea and other luxuries before moving on to their summer pastures. The chieftain's own experience as a trader made him an expert on the best times and methods of plundering others.

Other tribes were also on the move at this time of year, and although the steppes were vast, territorial disputes would inevitably arise. Sometimes differences could be resolved without bloodshed, but fights between rival tribes over land were common. Darius, now in his seventh year with the Saka (and recently elevated to the position of Ahasuerus' second-in-command) was a veteran of many such conflicts, and now considered them fairly routine.

But this year was different. New peoples from the East, whose language and customs were strange to the Saka and the Sarmatian tribes of these steppes, had begun to move in. It was rumored that they had been driven out of their own lands by stronger, fiercer hordes. This was a familiar scenario. Both the Saka and the Sarmatians had been in this situation themselves many years ago. But that did not make them feel sympathetic now towards the newest arrivals, whom they viewed as invaders. Up until now, there hadn't been enough of them to pose a serious threat, but this year, a fairly large group of them had taken over the territory Ahasuerus' Saka considered to be theirs.

The Immortal chieftain sent an embassy to the leader of the tribe asserting his rights to the land, as the Saka had occupied it every year for time out of mind, but the message fell on deaf ears. Ahasuerus merely shrugged, and told his people to prepare for battle. Every member of the tribe, old and young, set about increasing their already ample stock of poisoned arrows and javelins, and repairing their armor and other weapons. The chieftain also sent messages to several other tribes with which he had ties of allegiance to call for additional warriors, since the newcomers were a threat to them all. Meanwhile, the priestesses read the omens and made preparations for ceremonies to offer sacrifices to the God of War, so that He would grant them victory over their enemies.

Samara was especially thrilled by this turn of events. It seemed that all her dreams were about to be fulfilled. At age fourteen she was, in the eyes of the tribe, finally a woman. She had reached her full height of just over five feet tall, and while her slender, athletic frame had not yet acquired much in the way of womanly curves, she possessed a gazelle-like grace and an air of mystery that made the young men start to take notice of her. Just this spring, she had attained the rank of a junior priestess, and was allowed to serve at religious ceremonies. And now Ahasuerus had granted her permission to ride with the warband and fight in her first battle. She could hardly contain her joy when he presented her with new armor made especially for her, and an heirloom sword to carry. "I hope I can make you and the spirit of my mother proud," she told him, eyes shining.

"I am already proud of you, my daughter, and I am certain you will fight well and bring honor to me and to the tribe," he replied. It was true that he had great hopes for the girl, but these hopes had more to do with his own ambitions than hers. He was the military leader of the tribe, but the priestesses were the spiritual leaders and they still held a great deal of influence over the lives of the Saka people. By adopting Samara, the daughter of a high priestess, and grooming her for the top spot within their circle, he hoped to gain access to that sphere of influence. And it would not hurt if she were also a renowned warrior. Fully expecting that he would be able to guide her in the choice of a husband, he counted on her future marriage to bring him a valuable alliance with another tribe. But these plans he kept to himself.

The priestesses made sacrifices the day before the battle, just as the sun reached the highest point in the sky. Animals from the herd, horses and cattle, were strangled and bled, and their blood was poured over the ancient sword which the priestesses set into the ground to represent the War God. Many solemn prayers were spoken, and the priestesses cast the osier rods to determine the outcome of the upcoming battle. Of course they predicted a Saka victory, but then again, Ahasuerus also had a reputation for always winning, so no one was the least inclined to doubt the omen.

Before Samara performed her duties as a priestess in the ceremony, she and other young first-time warriors also underwent a purification ritual similar to the one that Darius had experienced when he was adopted by the tribe, and afterwards, their bodies were inscribed all over with secret symbols of good fortune, courage, victory, and protection. If they survived the battle and acquitted themselves well by slaying at least one of the enemy, they would receive permanent tattoos that identified them as warriors. Darius had one of these himself.

A feast followed the ceremony, and there was considerable consumption of alcohol, both koumiss and wine. Darius had finally learned to like koumiss, but he did not overindulge like some of the others, and instead retired early to his tent.

As he let the tent flap fall back into place, he noticed that the lamp was already lit, and by its light he saw that Samara was waiting for him, sitting on his bed in the darkness of the tent, the ceremonial markings still on her face and arms. Her honey-colored skin glowed in the golden light of the oil lamp, and her eyes sparkled with suppressed excitement.

"Should you be here?" he asked her. "Won't the priestesses be upset if they discover you are gone? I thought it was customary for priestesses to isolate themselves before and after a ceremony like this."

"I asked for permission. Zarina, the head priestess, was my mother's best friend. Sometimes it is useful to have inside connections. I wanted to see you before I fight tomorrow." She pulled him down to sit beside her. Darius could smell the fragrant smoke of the sacred fire in her clothing and her dark hair.

"Well, if you were hoping for some words of wisdom, I doubt I could be of much use—your skills as an archer are still so superior to mine that I should be asking you for advice," he told her with a laugh.

She laughed merrily. "I am glad to hear you finally admit it! But, no, that is not why I came. Tomorrow, with luck, I will make my first kill in battle, perhaps more than one. That means that I will have earned the right to choose my own husband."

Darius was well aware of the tribal custom—a woman who became a warrior and slew an enemy in battle gained the same prestige and privileges the men of the tribe enjoyed. One of these was the right to ask the man of her choice to become her husband instead of having to accept a match arranged by her family or the chieftain. She could also choose to remain unwed, but this did not happen often. Darius himself had been invited more than once to marry, but had declined, partly because he felt no distinct preference for any one woman in particular, but also because of Ahasuerus. The chieftain had never actually forbidden him to marry, but made it clear to his student that marriage, like religion, just another crutch that mortals turned to in their weakness, and Immortals should be above such things.

But Samara was mortal, and he could see that this was important to her. He smiled fondly at the girl. "I am sure any unattached young man in the tribe would consider it an honor indeed to be chosen by a woman with your beauty and courage. Have you settled on one yet? Who is the lucky devil?"

Her eyes twinkled at him. "Guess!" she whispered gleefully.

Darius named several likely candidates, all handsome young men whom he knew to be her admirers, but she shook her head at every one he mentioned. "Well, then, I am at a loss. Is it someone from another tribe? Someone I do not know?"

"You know him better than anyone," she said with a laugh, taking his face into her little hands and drawing him towards her. Darius thought she was about to whisper into his ear as she often did, but instead, her mouth claimed his in a passionate kiss. He was so astonished at this unexpected intimacy that he did not immediately withdraw. It was not until she slipped her tongue between his lips that he realized her intentions. Gently, but firmly, he took her by the shoulders and pushed her away.

"Samara, what are you doing?" he asked in consternation.

She stared up at him, hurt and disappointed. "Didn't I do it right? Did my kiss not please you? Let me try again!" She leaned forward once more, and Darius quickly moved backward.

"Samara, you should not be kissing me in this way," he said gently.

She looked confused. "Why not? I love you and I thought you felt the same about me. Didn't you just tell me how beautiful and desirable I was?"

"Yes, and it is true. Every young man in this camp considers you a prize beyond his wildest dreams and would be ecstatic to be chosen as your mate. Every young man except your brother."

"I have no brother, Darya. I am an only child, and and adopted one at that. What do you mean?"

He tried to explain things in a way that would not hurt her feelings. "I mean that I… that you and I… have always been like sister and brother to each other, ever since that first night when you brought the food to my tent, before we could even speak each other's language. I was alone in a strange place far from everything I knew and loved. You reminded me of my little sister back in India, and comforted me in my loneliness. For that, and for all your other kindnesses since, I can never repay you. I love you more than you know, but I cannot be your mate. What I feel for you comes from a brother's heart."

Her eyes grew bright with tears, but she blinked them away, hoping he had not seen. "And from that first night we met, I have loved you with a woman's heart, and waited for the day when I would earn the right to claim your heart for my own." She reached inside her tunic and pulled out a little leather pouch on a thong, an amulet such as all the tribe wore, with a talisman inside for luck or protection. She opened the drawstring, and took something out.

"This is the arrow point Ahaz cut from your body the day you were brought here." She held out the triple-lobed bronze point, with a bit of the broken shaft still attached to it, and he saw that it was stained with dried blood. "He tossed it aside, but I found it, and I have cherished it because it came from you, and had your blood upon it." Her voice diminished to a whisper. "I thought we understood each other, Darya. We have been together all the time since you first came here, and I thought you enjoyed being with me. When you did not choose one of the other women as your mate, I thought it was because you were waiting for me to become a woman." She put the arrow point back into the pouch, and her hand closed around it into a fist.

"Samara, I would never knowingly do anything to hurt you," he said softly, lifting her chin with one finger so that she was forced to look at him. "But if I have hurt you in ignorance, I am sorry for it. This is more my fault than yours. I have been completely blind. Can you forgive me?"

Her troubled eyes searched his for some sign of relenting. "Is there no hope that you will ever be able to love me in the same way as I love you? You don't have to say anything now! Think it over. Maybe now that you know how I care about you, your heart could change."

Darius was torn. How could he answer? He wished it was in his power to make her happy, but he did not want to lie to her. In the end, his silence told her what he could not bring himself to say. She opened her hand, letting the amulet fall to the ground between them, and left without a word.

Samara walked out of the tent with her back straight and head up. She was not going to let anyone see her misery, least of all Darya, who had in a single moment destroyed her every hope of happiness. Feeling the need to be alone, she left the circle of tents and wagons and walked out onto the dark grasslands. The moon was hidden tonight by clouds, but she did not wish to see it. She no longer believed the Great Goddess was listening to her prayers, and would make no more offerings in Her name. From this day on, she would give allegiance only to the God of War, and the sword that was His symbol.

A multitude of emotions were at war within her: the pain of rejection, which filled her eyes over and over again with burning tears despite her efforts to stop them; anger at her own stupidity for not seeing things as they really were; despair about her future here among her own people, for now that she knew Darya's heart, how could she face seeing him and speaking to him every day for the rest of her life?

I must leave the Saka and join another tribe, she decided. But I will not hang my head and slip away in shame. First I must prove my worth in battle. Tomorrow I will kill so many foes that every tribe on the steppes will want me among their warriors. And every great warrior will want me as his mate. But I will reject them all… and forever remain alone. So ran her thoughts as she walked onward across the steppe.

When she could no longer see the fires of the camp, she drew out the ancient gold-hilted akinakes that Ahasuerus had given her and used it to make a small cut on her arm. Then she stuck the point of the short sword into the ground, and knelt down before it, grasping the hilt so that the blood from the cut trickled down the blade to soak into the earth, and she prayed to the God of War to make her strong and brave in the battle tomorrow.

The lamp must be replenish'd but even then
It will not burn so long as I must watch:
My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,
But a continuance of enduring thought,
Which then I can resist not: in my heart
There is a vigil, and these eyes but close
To look within…

Lord Byron, Manfred, Act I, Scene I

Part 6

After Samara left, Darius picked up the leather pouch and weighed it in his hand. He wondered if he should follow and try to talk to her, but he did not know of anything he could say that would not make the situation worse. Instead, he lay awake far into the night, going over in his mind all the times they had spent together in the last seven years, trying to figure out what he might have done to cause this misunderstanding between them.

Whe he first joined the Saka she had been only a child. As Ahasuerus' student, Darius was treated as a member of his family, so it was easy to regard Samara as a little sister, especially since he sorely missed the younger sister he had left behind in India. And because she was by nature an affectionate little girl, it seemed only natural to return her affection. As fond older brothers were wont to do, he often hugged her, teased her, and told her she was pretty just to see her smile.

Like Ahasuerus, Samara had also been his teacher, helping him learn the language and customs of the Saka, spending many hours tutoring him in archery, riding, and hunting, things in which she excelled. While he continued to think of her as a little girl, he also quickly grew to admire her intelligence, insight, and judgement. She was right—he had spent a great deal of time in her company. Looking back on it now, he realized how much he had enjoyed that time, and how much closer he felt to her than to any of the women he had slept with. At least it had seemed to him that they were close, but obviously there were things she had not told him, things she assumed he would somehow understand without being told.

And perhaps that had been the problem all along. Darius had felt so relaxed and comfortable around her, so used to her, that he did not notice that she was growing into a woman, and beginning to desire him as a man. The possibility of it had simply never occurred to him. If her mother had still been alive, she might have caught the warning signs in time, as the self-absorbed Ahasuerus had not. And Darius, whose sheltered life in the Buddhist monastery had taught him little about the ways of women, was completely oblivious to the impression he was making on the young girl's mind.

He could see this clearly now, with perfect hindsight, but he had no idea how to make things right after the damage was done. When Ahasuerus found out, he would probably be furious, believing that his student had toyed with his daughter's feelings. Very likely, the chieftain would want to take his head, and who could blame him? Darius decided that the best thing he could do was to leave the tribe and go elsewhere. But he felt an obligation to at least stay and fight in the battle tomorrow. The Saka were his people now. He had taken an oath, and he owed them a debt of honor. If he left just before a fight, they would always think him a traitor and a coward, and they would be right, even if they did not know the true reason.

So he turned over for the hundredth time and tried to rest. When he did finally sleep, he dreamed of the girl. In the dream, he was simultaneously a participant and an observer, watching himself and Samara together in days past, and reliving it at the same time. He saw the two of them racing at breakneck speed across the steppes hunting hares with javelins. Then it seemed they were sitting side-by-side at a campfire while she told him the legend of Queen Tomyris and whispered to him the latest gossip of the camp. This was followed by a memory of hiding with her by a river waiting for game, and hearing her laugh at him for missing a shot. She laughed often, he remembered, and he suddenly realized there were many things about her he had never noticed consciously before, or had taken for granted. In his mind's eye, he kept seeing her heart-shaped face looking up at him, gray eyes crinkling up at the corners as she smiled, the husky tone of her voice whispering into his ear, little tendrils of hair escaping from her plaits tickling his face as she leaned close, the warm softness of her lips whenever she kissed him on the cheek…

Darius sat up with a gasp, still half-asleep. His mind was still whirling from the dream. What was its meaning? What should he do? He realized that he loved her very much, from the depths of his soul, and whatever the consequences might be, he knew he could not leave things as they were. He had to speak to her, try to make her understand that no matter what had passed between them, he still cared about her, and always would, even if he could never be her lover.

It was morning already. Rosy light spilled under the tent flap, and outside he could hear the sounds of people moving about the camp preparing for the coming battle. He should be out there getting ready himself. He knew he had to hurry, but perhaps there would still be time to find Samara before the warriors rode out. Quickly he gathered up his armor and weapons. At the last moment, he saw Samara's discarded amulet lying by his bed and put it on. Once outside, he saw he was not as tardy as he had feared; others were still cinching saddlecloths on their horses' backs and helping each other strap on their armor. He saw Ahasuerus in full panoply of war, striding about like a gold- and silver-plated giant in his scale armor, shouting orders and encouragement to his warriors. The burly chieftain spotted him and waved.

"About time you were up!" he called. "Have a bit too much to drink at the ceremony? Never mind. The excitement of battle will vanquish any hangover on earth! I'm living proof!"

The younger Immortal sighed with relief and tried to smile at his joke. Apparently Samara had not yet told her father about their conversation. His eyes anxiously scanned the busy camp looking for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. He put on his gear and mounted his horse, hoping that he might be able to spot her more easily from an elevated position. His efforts were rewarded. He soon caught a glimpse of her on horseback, just outside the ring of wagons.

The red light of the rising sun glanced off the new armor and helmet Ahasuerus had given her as she leaned down from her horse to speak to one of the priestesses. He saw that she also wore the chieftain's short sword, the gold-hilted akinakes he had once carried long ago as Xerxes I, King of Persia. She looked both deadly and beautiful, like a warrior queen out of legend, but her face was a tight, expressionless mask. He felt his heart contract at the sight of her, and he hesitated, uncertain of what to say. He knew he could make no false promises, for she would sense the deception instantly. And he had no assurance she would even want to see his face again after last night. But he could not let her ride off into battle with the pain of his rejection weighing her down.

The priestess finally moved away, and Darius urged his horse forward. At first, he feared Samara would refuse to speak to him, for when she saw him she turned her horse and started to canter off. But then she stopped a short distance away and waited for him to approach, sitting very stiffly, her expression guarded. Just as he reached her, they both heard Ahasuerus give the call to arms in his powerful voice. There was no time for lengthy apologies or explanations. Instead, Darius reached beneath his cuirass and quickly drew out his own amulet, which contained the little golden lotus that had been a gift from Parvati. He held it out to her, still warm from his body. "For luck," he said softly, then without knowing why, he added, "And for hope."

Samara stared at it, and then at him, the look in her eyes questioning and full of doubt. But she took the little leather pouch, and after a moment's hesitation tied it around her neck and stuffed it down beneath her tunic and armor. Without saying anything, she dug her heels into her horse's flanks, and they both rode swiftly back to take their places in the warband.

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)