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The Golden Riders

Part 7-10


…They shall hold the bow and the lance: they are cruel and shew no mercy:
their voice shall roar like the sea, and they shall ride upon horses, every one put in array…

The Book of Jeremiah, 50:41-42

Part 7

Storm clouds began to close overhead again as the warriors of the tribe and their allies rode forth to do battle for their grazing lands. The red glow of dawn had burned on for a little while like a warning, then faded to a dull gray as they moved westward across the plain. The air itself seemed alive with restless energy, gusting from first one direction, then another, making the bright battle standards whip about like snapping flames. Darius watched his horse's ears flick nervously, and reached forward to reassure the animal with a pat on the neck. The horse was a veteran of more battles than he, and should be used to the noise, but there was something else bothering him. Darius could sense something, too, and he didn't care for the feeling.

He was leading a group of warriors assigned to the right flank. Front and center, Ahasuerus rode at the head of his shock cavalry, the cataphracts. Both the men and horses of this unit were completely covered by heavy scale armor and each rider carried the kontos, a long lance which was wielded with both hands. Their horses had been bred for strength rather than swiftness, so that they could carry the extra weight of their own and their rider's armor. The cataphracts were far fewer in number and slower in the charge than the lightly-armed horse-archers of the warband, but they were still capable of maneuverability, and when they charged en masse, almost nothing could stand before them. They gave Ahasuerus' Saka a military advantage many of the other tribes did not possess.

Darius turned his head, trying without success to catch a glimpse of Samara, who was riding somewhere behind him. He could feel her amulet pressing against his chest underneath his tunic and armor. The bronze arrow point inside it was bulkier than the gold ornament he had given her. He hoped that she had understood what he had been trying to tell her this morning, and regretted that there had been no time to speak more clearly. And he desperately wished he knew what she was thinking now. But all of that would have to wait until this battle had been fought and won. Resolutely he faced forward and forced his mind to focus on the fight to come.

Samara had always expected to feel keyed-up before her first battle. After all, this was her big chance to prove her worth and earn a place of honor among the warriors of the tribe. She had spent most of her fourteen years training and preparing for this moment. She ought to be at least a little afraid, or maybe a bit nervous about how well she would do in the fight. A little fear was an asset for a warrior—it kept you sharp and ready for anything. But at this moment, she simply felt rather sad and empty. She glanced around her. She knew every one of these people by name, and they were like her family. But since she would soon be leaving the tribe, she felt as if she didn't really belong among them anymore.

Up ahead, Samara could see the back of Darya's helmet sticking up a good half-head above everyone else's. She knew it was his, because he was the tallest man in the tribe. As she watched, he twisted his body around and looked back at the warriors riding behind him. She hoped he had not seen her, and deliberately leaned forward over her horse's neck to make sure she was completely hidden from his view. As she changed position, she felt his amulet shift slightly between her small breasts. It was smaller and lighter than the one she had abandoned last night in his tent. She wondered what was inside it. Darya had never shown her, and she would never ask to see. An amulet was a very personal thing, an object invested with magical powers. For an instant, she was tempted to open it and have a look, but she was afraid someone might see her, or that she might drop whatever was in it as she rode, and lose it forever.

She did not know how to interpret the words Darya had spoken to her this morning, much less the look in his eyes. Last night, after she had kissed him, those eyes had stared back at her in shock, as if she had done something forbidden. And yet, just hours later, he had given her this talisman, "for luck, and for hope." What did that mean? Luck for her first battle, so that she might slay an enemy and not be slain herself? But that long-cherished goal seemed almost meaningless to her now. And hope… hope for what? That she might someday forget the pain of his rejection? Or hope for something else…? No, she dared not allow herself to give that hope a name for fear it might vanish into nothing. Maybe if she didn't think about it, maybe if she hid it away somewhere safe without looking at it, she could hold onto it for a little while at least.

So Samara imagined placing that unidentified hope inside the leather pouch Darius had given her, alongside its other unknown contents. Later, when the battle was over, and she could be alone, she might find the courage to open it and see what was inside, this tiny seed of hope, this burning spark lying next to her heart, waiting in the dark to burst into flower, or flame.

A moment later, warriors ahead of her slowed to a walk and then stopped. She reined in quickly, and turned to the man beside her. "The enemy has been sighted. Get ready," he said before she could ask. Samara made a rapid, last-minute check of her weapons and gear, then took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. This was it—the real thing, the moment she had been waiting for. And she was ready for it. She took her bow from the gorytos and fitted an arrow to the string. Up ahead, she heard Ahasuerus give a great shout, which grew to a mighty roar as the other warriors took it up, and Samara added her own voice to theirs. The riders began to move again, until they were all galloping, faster and faster, the sound of their hooves like thunder. And the gray sky overhead seemed to darken as they rode, and answered with a thunder of its own.

The morn the marshalling in arms,--the day
Battle's magnificent stern array!
The thunder-clouds close o'er it which when rent
The earth is covered thick with other clay,
Which her own clay shall cover, heap'd and pent,
Rider and horse,--friend, foe—in one red burial blent!

Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3, XXVIII

Part 8

The swift horse-archers on the right and left flanks rode out ahead merging into a single unit while Ahasuerus and his slower-moving cataphracts followed them in, hidden from view. The enemy forces, all cavalry like the Saka, were also in motion. Darius, riding close to the front, just to the right of center, had an excellent view of their lines as the distance between the converging armies rapidly decreased. Once the two forces came within shooting range of each other, hundreds of bowstrings began to sing, and screaming flights of arrows hailed down on the combatants of both sides.

Darius felt several strike his helmet and scale armor, but they failed to penetrate the layers of overlapping plates and were deflected off. He ignored the impacts and merely tried to shoot as rapidly and as accurately as possible under the circumstances. Soon he was almost on top of of the enemy's front line, and before he reached it, just as he was able to clearly distinguish the features of individual enemy warriors, he and the other Saka riders wheeled their mounts and broke hard to the right or left, flowing like a stream of water parting around an obstacle. As he did so, he felt a familiar, tingling sensation in his head which warned him of the presence of another Immortal close at hand. He knew Ahasuerus was somewhere behind him, but this new warning was coming from the enemy lines. They must have an Immortal among them, he thought, but it was impossible to tell who it was, and the sensation soon diminished as he rode out of range. Riding in a circular course, he turned sideways on his mount and fired off a few more shots back over his horse's rump. At least one of these found a mark, and he saw an enemy soldier fall.

Coming in hard on the heels of the light cavalry, the cataphracts under Ahasuerus' command charged directly into the enemy's front lines, wielding their long lances with deadly effect. This massed attack surprised the enemy cavalry, breaking it up and creating confusion as many men and horses fell before the armored riders. Propelled by the momentum of the charge, Ahauserus and his shock troops passed right through the main body of the enemy horsemen only to turn, regroup, and attack once again, this time from the rear. Meanwhile, the Saka horse-archers, Darius and Samara among them, renewed their assault, carrying out hit-and-run attacks on the enemy's flanks, dashing in close to hurl javelins and shoot more arrows before darting away again.

Samara, like Darius, made it through the first charge unscathed, and she shot her bow with a deadly accuracy acquired through years of practice. She quickly spotted vulnerable spots left uncovered by armor, and seldom missed. It was similar to hunting game on the steppes, although unlike the animals she hunted, the enemy soldiers could fight back. During the first few moments of battle, as the arrows came shrieking out of the sky in thick black clouds, and one or two warriors near her were wounded or killed, Samara had been afraid, but now her mind was far too occupied with the business of killing to waste a second's thought on dying. Her biggest problem at the moment was that she was running out of arrows. She had brought a reserve quiver, but she was halfway through it already. Better slow down and keep a few in reserve. She reached for a javelin, and hurled it into the open mouth of an unhorsed enemy who was trying to jab at her with a broken spear. It passed through the back of his neck and he fell, unable to even cry out.

Although the armored cavalry had been successful in breaking the enemy's charge, the battle was far from over. By this time, the two armies were intermingled, and much of the fighting was at close range and hand-to-hand. Warriors from both sides who had come off their horses or had their mounts killed under them were battling each other on foot using swords, axes and spears, or defending themselves against mounted attackers. Some of them had managed to collect in groups and fought in outward-facing circles as the horse-archers raced by them trying to shoot them or cut them down with their long swords.

Darius had exhausted his supply of arrows and javelins, and was now using his long sword together with a small shield he had worn on his back during the charge. He had received some small wounds, but these had healed rapidly without significant blood loss. Unfortunately, his horse had not been so lucky, and despite the padded leather breastplate and the bronze chamfron covering his head, the bay had been struck by several arrows in his flanks and haunches, and had also received a serious wound on his left shoulder that bled profusely and interfered with his movement. Darius knew the animal was weakening and would not be able to keep on his legs for much longer. As he fought, he began looking around for a riderless horse that he might be able to capture as a substitute. There were a number of them running about, some in better shape than others. He spotted a likely candidate not too far away, and guided his own mount in that direction, fending off several attackers along the way.

But as he approached the other horse, he felt once again the strong presence of another Immortal. Ahasuerus was nowhere to be seen—it wasn't the nomad chieftain he sensed. Darius wheeled just in time to see a giant of a man on a tall black steed aiming an axe at his head. Darius managed to block the blow with his shield, but the axe deflected downward and caught his horse on the neck, fatally wounding him. The animal went down, blood spurting from his wound, and Darius had to jump clear so the horse's falling body would not pin him helplessly to the ground. He landed on his feet unharmed, but even so, he knew he was in a very bad situation, as he was now on foot and had to defend himself against an adversary on horseback. He raised his shield and waited for the other Immortal to turn his mount and come at him again, hoping he could disable the man's horse and put them both on an equal footing. The big man had other hopes. He gave a great shout of triumph and charged straight at his unhorsed opponent.

Samara meanwhile had also run out of arrows and was using her akinakes and shield. She knew she did not have the size or physical strength to take on an enemy swordsman hand to hand, but she made good use of her speed and mobility to dash in and out, distracting and harrying enemy warriors on the ground so that others could finish them off. She had suffered a few cuts, but she barely even noticed them. Wheeling and slashing and urging her mount after fleeing enemies, she was like a fierce stinging wasp they could not get rid of, and nothing seemed to touch her. She cut down one man from behind as he ran, and sped towards another she saw standing on the ground not far away. His shield was up, blocking her view of his face but, Something is familiar about him, she thought, and as she got closer, she realized it was Darya, and saw that a huge man on a black horse was bearing down on him, bloody axe raised high.

Samara kicked her horse and galloped towards them at top speed. The mounted attacker, focussed on Darya, did not even notice the small rider swooping in from the side like a thunderbolt from the dark sky. She drove her horse right into the path of the oncoming black horse and his rider. Unable to stop or turn aside quickly enough to avoid her, the black reared, then fell, taking them all down with him. Samara felt a sharp pain as one flailing hoof struck her helmet, and then she was falling, for what seemed like forever, through darkness into sudden, brilliant light. She never felt the landing.

Darius dove out of the way just as Samara's horse went down heavily and rolled over the place where he had been standing, the falling animal crushing the girl clinging to his back. The horse got up again and ran off, but Samara lay still upon the trampled earth, blood coming from her mouth and nose. With a cry, Darius started towards her, but before he had gone a step, he heard a shouted curse behind him. The other Immortal had disentangled himself from his fallen horse and was stumbling towards him, this time with a drawn sword in hand. The fall had left the big man limping, which gave Darius just enough time to bring his own sword up in defense, but the other Immortal was far from finished. He hammered Darius with savage blows from his long blade, which he wielded with both hands. Darius was no match for his strength but he was quicker and more nimble, thanks to Ahasuerus' teaching. He feinted to the left to draw the other's attack and the blade flashed down, striking deep into the turf. But Darius had already stepped to the side, and in the split second it took the huge man to yank his sword free, Darius swung, putting every ounce of his body weight behind the stroke, sending the other's head spinning like a grotesque toy across the flattened grass.

Darius completely forgot about the imminent Quickening and the battle which still raged on around him. As a white mist gathered around the headless corpse of the other Immortal, he ran towards the place where Samara lay, crumpled and motionless. But the first stroke of the Quickening took him before he reached her and forced him to his knees. Blue bolts arced from the dead Immortal's body into his own, throwing every muscle in his body into spasm. His mouth opened in a silent cry of anguish as searing pain shot up and down his twitching limbs, and visions of blood, death, and mayhem flashed though his consciousness, the memories of all the deaths his enemy's life had encompassed. As if in response the black clouds above him opened, raining fire and water and stinging hail onto the bloody battlefield. Darius knelt in the midst of it, a human lighting rod, drawing down the fire of heaven and drawing all eyes towards him as the warriors stopped their fighting to stare in wonder.

Only Ahasuerus knew what was really happening. He had sensed the other Immortal earlier, but the man had chosen to avoid the Saka chieftain in his impenetrable armor. But Darius, it seemed, had found him and taken him down. Might as well take advantage of the moment. "A sign from the War God! The victory is ours!" the chieftain bellowed out in a voice that carried over the uproar and the storm. And all the Saka warriors within range of that powerful voice sprang upon their nearest foes with renewed energy, and their foes, in sudden terror, fled or fell before them.

But Darius, after the Quickening had released him and left him sprawling face down on the ground, crawled on his hands and knees in the rain to the now-lifeless form of the one who had given her life for his.

There the man is judged happy who has sacrificed his life in battle, while those who grow old and depart from the world by a natural death they assail with bitter reproaches as degenerate and cowardly…

Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum Libri, Bk. XXXI, 2: 22

Part 9

Forty days and nights must pass between the death and the burial, forty days and nights in which the spirits of the dead linger among the living before departing this world for the next. This is what the Saka believed, and those forty days and nights after Samara died were the longest Darius had ever known.

After the battle was over, Ahasuerus had come looking for him, and found him still sitting on the wet ground, cradling her body against his own. He had refused to give her up to the priestesses who had come with wagons to collect the bodies of the slain for embalming. Ahasuerus said nothing, but held out his hands, and Darius finally consented to let him take the remains of his adopted mortal child. The chieftain rode back to the camp carrying her in his arms, his face stern, his eyes like opaque stones.

Darius felt certain Ahasuerus must be grieving inside just as he was, but if so, the Immortal chieftain refused to let it show. Publicly, as the leader of the tribe, he praised Samara along with the other warriors who had died in battle, and confidently declared that she would occupy a place of honor in the afterlife. Privately, he refused to speak of her, and forbade his student to do so in his presence. When Darius tried to share his sorrow, Ahasuerus cut him off abruptly. "Have you learned nothing in your time among us?" he said coldly. "It is unseemly to mourn for her. Death in battle is considered the highest honor to which a Saka warrior can aspire. Now she will never know the shame and weakness of old age."

Or the joy of loving and of being loved, Darius thought, but dared not say.

To honor the courage of Samara and all the other fallen warriors of the tribe, Ahasuerus decreed that they would have a funeral procession such as the steppes had not seen since the days of the Royal Scythians, and at the end of it, they would be laid to rest in a great mound, or kurgan, with all the gold, weapons, and other goods that they would need for their journeys in the afterlife.

After the priestesses had embalmed the corpses of all the dead, coated them with wax to keep out maggots, and dressed them in their finest clothes and newly polished armor, they were arranged on wagons to be taken in a solemn procession to all the neighboring tribes. At each stop, feasts and ceremonies would be held and gifts for the dead would be added to the wagons' loads. During this time, the tribe would prepare a burial place to receive them when they returned. The night before the wagons were to depart, Ahasuerus told Darius that he must accompany them as leader of the military escort.

"You are my second-in-command after all, and since the battle, word has gotten around that you have been 'favored by the gods'. It will be good politics for you to travel to the other tribes as my representative, meet their chieftains, and let them see you and get to know you. Remember that you are an ambassador of sorts, and comport yourself with dignity. No unseemly displays of grief. And if you must engage another Immortal in combat, do it privately. You got away with it the first time, because of the circumstances, but as a rule, it is better not to have an audience when you take heads."

Darius suspected that politics was not the only reason he was chosen for this assignment. He wondered if Ahasuerus suspected something had occurred between him and Samara, and this was his teacher's idea of a fitting punishment. In his own mind, Darius thought he deserved to be punished, believing he had failed her somehow. She had died saving his life, and he had failed to say the one thing that might have made her happy before she died.

Day after day, he rode beside the funeral cortege, meeting the tribal leaders and exchanging appropriate greetings, enduring lengthy ceremonies and funerary feasts where he forced himself out of politeness to eat, although the food tasted like carrion in his mouth. Night after night he lay awake in his tent or walked out beneath the sky, tormented by Samara's death. Once, before he became Immortal and lost the faith he had grown up with, he would have been able to believe that her spirit still lived on and might be reborn to grace the earth again. But now, thanks to Ahasuerus, he knew better, and there was no comfort left to him. There was only a bitter sense of loss, and sorrow for things he had done, and not done, for things said and left unsaid. No matter how far he rode, he could not escape from it, because the source of his sorrow was travelling beside him, in a magnificent bier on one of the wagons. He could seldom bring himself to look at Samara's body, but her presence was with him always.

Despite the elaborate embalming process, the bodies inevitably began to decay somewhat, and by the end of the journey, the faint smell of death hung in the air about the cortege. The smell also attracted many furred and feathered scavengers, and Darius and his men had to kill them because they were unsuccessful in driving them off for very long. He actually found this killing somewhat of a release, a task into which he could direct some of his pent-up emotion, but it provided only a temporary respite from the pain that ate away at his heart.

Finally they said farewell to the last of the tribes they were to visit and turned for home. The trip back was much shorter, but more exhausting. Concerned about the condition of their cargo, they pressed forward with only the briefest stops for rest and food. Worn down in body and spirit, Darius felt as if the last hours of this journey were a nightmare he couldn't wake up from.

At last, the Saka camp came into sight, and the funeral party greeted their friends and families with relief and joy. Ahasuerus was there, of course, and after welcoming the weary travellers home, he motioned for Darius to join him in his tent. The younger Immortal first watered his tired horse and turned him out to graze, then he went to seek his teacher, wondering what they would have to say to each other.

But once they were alone, the chieftain deliberately avoided the topic that was foremost in his student's mind. Instead, he only wanted to hear Darius' report on the status of the other tribes he had just visited. Was So-and-So still feuding with his cousin? Was this chief having trouble keeping his son in line now that he was grown? What was Darius' assessment of the other tribes' wealth, herd size, and military strength compared to their own?

Darius answered all the questions as best he could, feeling all the while his teacher's shrewd eyes upon him, evaluating and judging his every word. Finally satisfied, Ahasuerus invited him to stay and have supper with him, but hungry though he was, Darius knew he could not endure a meal in this tent, because he would be constantly reminded of the one who was no longer here to share it. He begged off, pleading exhaustion, and went to his own tent alone.

Be the green grass above me,
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

Christina Rossetti, Song (When I Am Dead), st.2

Part 10

The tribe had been hard at work while Darius and the others had been away, digging the burial chambers and hauling in extra earth for the mound which would be raised over them. In all, many tons of earth were moved, and horses belonging to the dead warriors had been slaughtered and embalmed so that they could accompany their riders into the afterlife, all according to Ahasuerus' detailed instructions. Now that the funeral party had returned, the burial could take place.

At sunrise on the morning of the fortieth day after the battle, the burial ceremonies commenced. Warriors drove funeral wagons bearing the dead out to the site of the new kurgan. The priestesses sacrificed cattle, horses, and sheep, and the meat was cut up and prepared as if for a feast. Some would be placed in the graves to feed the fallen warriors on their spirit journey. The rest would be consumed at the burial feast. One by one, the wagons were driven along a specially-built processional way to the brink of the shafts leading to the individual burial chambers, and the bodies of the dead were lowered down, and laid upon the woven grass mats prepared for them.

Pottery, household goods, food and drink, weapons and armor, horse trappings, and gold ornaments were arranged around the bodies. They buried Samara with her bow and arrows, javelins, and the gold-hilted akinakes. She also had a small stone altar, bronze mirror, and koumiss-making paraphernalia to signify her status as a priestess. The amulet Darius had given her lay upon her breast. The one he wore now, which had belonged to her, dragged on his neck like a huge stone weight.

Pots containing glowing coals and sprinkled with hemp seeds filled the burial chambers with their smoke as the last of the tribesmen climbed thankfully back up into the light. The priestesses chanted prayers and sang songs of farewell to the proud warriors now on their way to the glory of the afterlife Then the shafts were filled with stones topped off with earth, and the task of raising the mound began. It took several days, and the people of the tribe worked in rotating shifts around the clock to complete the work. Everyone took part, even Ahasuerus. When the mound was finished, it was covered with sod. Strong men carried a small standing stone carved like an armed warrior to its top and set it into place, surrounding it with a circle of spears stuck into the ground like a crown.

After a funeral feast at the site, the Saka began to leave for their new campsite on the land they had won back in the battle, but Darius still lingered at the foot of the mound. Ahasuerus saw him there and frowned. This had gone on far too long. It was time his student got over this sentimental nonsense. He had hoped that sending Darius on the long journey with the funeral wagons and forcing him to travel with Samara's corpse for over a month, would make him accept her death for what it was—a great pity, yes, but something that was bound to occur sooner or later anyway. But apparently this approach hadn't worked. His student was still moping about like a sick dog. The time had come to snap him out of it.

Ahasuerus rode over to his student. " Ride with me," he said, in a tone that made it clear this was a command, not an invitation. He led Darius far out onto the steppe until the departing wagons and the kurgan were out of sight. The two Immortals dismounted and stood in the midst of a vast ocean of grasses and flowering plants, which rose and fell in the wind like the waves of the inland seas where the tribe sometimes stopped on their seasonal migrations. " What do you see?" the older Immortal asked his student.

" Nothing," Darius replied, puzzled by his teacher's question.

" What do you see?" Ahasuerus repeated with more emphasis, demanding a real answer.

" Grass," Darius finally replied, unable to think of anything better.

" Just so. Grass. And the two of us, standing head and shoulders above it," Ahasuerus added by way of correction. He reached out and tore off a handful of the bobbing seed heads, then scattered them to the winds. " This is the way it is for us, Darius, and the way it will always be," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. " The mortals we live among are like these countless blades of grass, growing and dying with the seasons, forever being cut down and trampled and consumed, but every blade and every flower that dies will be replaced by another much like it. You and I are different—we stand above them, and are superior to them. We do not age, and we are not subject to the laws of Time as they are. For Immortals only the Game really matters. You are still young, and relatively new to your Immortality, so this will doubtless sound cruel and hard, but you must learn not to become overly attached to any mortal. They will all die and turn to dust, and there is not a single thing you can do to change it."

Darius looked down at the broken stems beneath his feet. Soon grass would cover the new kurgan, the spearshafts would rot and fall, and there would be only a stone and a swell in the earth to mark the place where she lay. In a few years' time, perhaps less, he would not be even able to tell this mound from the others that dotted the steppes. A part of his mind knew that Ahasuerus was right, but knowing did not make him feel better. How could the man stand there and speak so coolly and logically after the funeral of his only child? He doubted he could ever be so detached as his teacher.

" Samara and all the rest who lie beneath that mound believed that dying in battle is the happiest of deaths, while lingering on to die of old age or sickness is the most shameful. In this death, she has honor, and she will never grow old. She herself would want you to rejoice for her rather than mourn. She was always very fond of you, and I could see that you made her happy while she was alive."

Darius winced, glad that his teacher did not know the truth. He remembered the haunted, doubtful look he had seen in in the girl's eyes when they met for the last time before the battle. Ahasuerus' words, although meant to be helpful, jabbed like an arrow point through his heart. Clenching his teeth and focussing his eyes on a single blade of grass, he willed the chieftain to stop talking.

Relentlessly Ahasuerus droned on with his lecture, his voice maddeningly rational and calm as if serenely unaware of the salt he was pouring on his student's wounds, but his dark eyes glittered dangerously although Darius did not see. " Dying is part of their lives, and they accept it, so why should we not do the same? Try to think of it this way—mortals are useful to us, like the tools and weapons that we own, but eventually even the best-made tools wear out and must be replaced. Use them well, as you would a tool, or a horse, or a sword, but do not allow yourself to be drawn into loving them. It will only bring you misery in the end. And distractions of that sort are a danger as well. They can destroy your focus and make you vulnerable. For instance, while you are standing there feeling sorry for yourself, I could easily take your head."

Something about the way Ahasuerus said that last sentence broke through Darius' apathy. He turned his head just in time to see his teacher's sword flash in the sun as it swung at him. He ducked and rolled away, drawing his own weapon just in time to parry Ahasuerus' next stroke. The chieftain was attacking in dead earnest, giving no quarter, pushing him to the utmost limits of his ability. Darius fought back desperately, using every trick he had ever learned, but Ahasuerus had taught him all the tricks he knew and anticipated his every move. In short order, he lay flat on his back, bleeding, weaponless and breathing hard, with his teacher's sword at his throat, certain that he was going to die.

Ahasuerus glared down at his student with narrowed eyes, and his voice had an edge as sharp as steel. " Love is an emotion Immortals cannot afford to indulge in. If I ever have to repeat this lesson, Darius, it will be the last time." He sheathed his long sword, mounted, and rode off in the direction the wagons had taken without a backward glance.

Darius sat up in the tall grass, his breath still coming in gasps. The man's words were even more vicious and cold than his actions, but he could not deny the truth in them. If Ahasuerus was a hard master, the Game was a harder one still. He picked himself up, found his sword, and waded shakily through the grass to his own horse, which stood grazing quietly nearby. Darius made the horse kneel so he could mount. He didn't feel up to jumping on at the moment. From his horse's back, he gazed at the empty steppe around him. He suddenly felt very alone, and began to understand for the first time the terrible isolation his Immortality had brought upon him. He could never really trust another of his own race because the Game divided him from them, made them all potential enemies—even his teacher, as Ahasuerus had just pointedly demonstrated. Samara and all the other mortals he would ever know would eventually die. The question was, did he want to die with them?

And the answer came to him more easily than he expected. Dying would end his own loneliness and pain, but it would change nothing else—he saw that now. His death could give Samara's no meaning, nor could it bring her back to life. Ahasuerus' brutal "lesson" had served its purpose. If nothing else, it showed him that when push came to shove, he would fight to survive, and kill if he was able. He had accepted his Immortality, even if it came at the price of his humanity. Everything he had learned from Ahasuerus indicated that Immortals were better off without it anyway. Digging his heels into his mount's flanks, he galloped after his teacher.

He paused only briefly at the new kurgan, just long enough to bury the amulet he wore in the uneven sods between the spear shafts. He felt as if it was his own heart he buried there, and with it all the pain that loving her had brought him. Remounting, he turned his back on the mound, and urged his horse towards the now-distant wagons moving like ships across the sea of grass.

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)