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Wind, Sand, Stars

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Listen, O noble soul, and hear of the days before the people of the desert were one, the time of gods and heroes, and the mighty lord - Tash give him rest and glory! - who made all Calormen one and first ruled as Tisroc.  

Know, O most honorable gentle, that in those days the many clans held each to their own territory, and warred amongst themselves for beasts and slaves and other riches.  And in those days  there was  a mighty Tarkaan, lord of a small but prosperous clan, who had but one daughter. And this lady was more beautiful than a gazelle under moonlight, but strong and clever as well, and her father’s greatest joy.  He swore that none but the worthiest man should have her, and no man was worthy in his eyes.

Now it was not only mortal men who desired her.  The great god Tash — all glory and honor to him! — also saw and desired her, and he sent his winds to her at night, and she conceived.

Now when her father discovered she was with child, the sun grew dark in his eyes, and rage came upon him.  He demanded to know what man had been with her, but she answered him, “Nothing but the wind has entered my chambers.”  And he cursed her for a liar and cast her from his home.  She wept and wailed but he would not be moved, and he turned his face from her and closed his ears to her words.

Some of her kin took pity on her and took her in, for that they could not bear to see her cast out while with child. When the babe was born, it was a boy, strong and lusty, well-formed in limb and fair of face, and she called him Ashkar.  All exclaimed over his great beauty and they said to the Tarkaan, “Sir, here is a grandson you should be proud to claim, for surely his father is a mighty lord indeed!”  This pleased him, and his heart softened, but still he would not see his daughter.  He sent gifts to her instead, that she might care for the child as befitted his rank, but he swore she should not return to his home until she named and wed the boy’s father.

So she brought the child up alone, living at the edge of the clan’s settlement.  She taught him to sit a horse, and to shoot a bow straight and true, and the words of the poets and every manner of noble art.  When he was old enough to take up the sword as a boy should, she journeyed with him to the home of the Tarkaan Mazhar whose clan had long been allied with hers, and she said to him, “See, this is my son, the grandson of the Tarkaan my father.  I have taught him poetry and courtesy and every noble art, but I cannot teach him to be a man. I pray you take him into your home, that he may be as a son to you and as a brother to your sons, and he may grow to be a warrior worthy of his clan and yours.”

And Mazhar Tarkaan said, “Truly, a noble lordling is he. Gladly will I foster this one, and when he is a man he shall wed my daughter, and be my son in truth.”  And so they lived among the Tarkaan Mazhar’s clan until Ashkar was a man.  And he learned to wield the sword and to throw the spear straight and true, and all the arts of war. And he was as a brother to the Tarkaan’s sons, but most especially to the eldest, Dzetin. And also as he grew he came to look upon the Tarkaan’s daughter, Najet, with great favor, and she upon him likewise.

When he was grown tall and straight and began to scrape his cheeks, his mother took him out to the edge of the settlement and showed him the desert that stretched away endlessly. “That you are a son of a great house you know,” she said.

“Yes, mother, and you have taught me the honor of that blood,” he made answer.

“Did you not think it strange, then, that you know nothing of your father’s house?”

“Aye, mother, but I know he must be a lordly man, for everyone says so.”

And then she said, “Thy father is more lordly than any know, but he is not a man.  He is Tash, lord of the desert, who sent his winds to me in the very walls of my father’s home.  Now you are a man, it is fitting that you know this.”

Then he was consumed with wonder but felt no surprise.  He said, “O my mother and O the delight of my eyes, give me leave that I may  go into my father’s lands and seek my fortune.”

And she replied, “O my son and O the delight of my eyes, I can refuse thee no good request.” And she gave him food and bade him take their steed - “for, as you must know, the desert is wide and you will not go far afoot” -- and bid him farewell, carefully hiding her tears.

Then into the desert Ashkar traveled, following the caravan routes, and determined that he should find some manner of proving his great blood.  But he had not journeyed long when he saw on the western horizon a dark, hazy blot, and he knew that a storm should soon be upon him. He made haste to cast up what shelter he could, and took his horse into it with him though there was scarce room, for he would not leave a fine mount to the stripping sands.  Then the storm was upon him.  The wind howled and raged, the sand bit even through his coverings, and all was blackness.  “Ah!” thought Ashkar, as he huddled there, “the lord of the desert is cruel and merciless.  So too must I be, then.”

In good time the storm passed.  Ashkar carefully dug himself out, shaking off the sand that had settled over his shelter, and tending to the hurts of himself and his mount.  By then the blackness was that of night, so he spread his sleeping roll on the desert floor and lay beneath the brilliant stars.

The next day he continued on his journey.  In the heat of the day, when he grew weary and the sun beat down mercilessly, a sweet breeze brushed him, cooling and welcome, so that he sat straighter and felt he could go on further.  “Ah,” he thought, “my father is kind and uplifting.  So too must I be, then.”

Ill fortune beset him then, for the storm had scoured away many of the track-signs, and he became uncertain of his path.  Then in the heat of the day he found that his waterskins both were leaking.  Though he tried to hasten his journey, he only became more lost.  Thus we see the truth of the poet’s words: the imprudence of haste labors twice but the prudent man is rewarded in the fullness of time.  At night his condition was something bettered, for he could read the stars well, but not knowing where he was he could only guess where he should go.  He kept on, however, for he felt he must come to civilization eventually if only he continued.

The next day his water ran  out and both he and his horse suffered terribly of thirst.  Ashkar thought, If this poor beast should die I might drink its blood and so live myself, and then he grieved, for it was a fine steed and he felt, as the poet has said, the spirit of a noble horse exalts a man more surely than the saddle raises him from the ground. But if they continued, one of them should die, and Ashkar wished that it should not be he.  Then in despair he cried out, “Ah, Tash! Tash, Lord of the Desert, Tash my father! Let not your son perish here in your own lands, under the cruel pity of the terrible sun!”

Then a wind blew, so fierce and strong that Ashkar had to turn his face aside to shield it, and thus it was he beheld two birds not far distant, stooped, it seemed, it to the very desert itself. Ashkar urged his weary mount towards them, certain that where there were birds there must be sustenance of some sort.  He hoped to find some hapless creature newly dead, or perhaps a small spring.  Instead, he soon beheld before him a cleft in which bloomed a great oasis, with the center of this rich greenery being a huge, shimmering lake.

Then Ashkar fell down upon his face and gave thanks to Tash for his deliverance.  And when that was done in all propriety and goodness, he rushed forward to drink and felt the life returning to him.

Then he said to himself, “How is it that such a bountiful place should be unknown to anyone?  For surely this should support a fine settlement, a jewel among cities.”  He walked along the lake’s shore, and saw where the date-palm grew, and the fig, and all manner of good and useful plants, and where cultivation might better what nature had wrought.  Then he turned away from the water and saw in his mind where there might be homes, and space for herds, and yes, even places for horses to run and men to meet in the practice of warrior arts.

“Surely the great Tash sent the sandstorm in order that I might see this,” Ashkar thought. “He is clever and far-seeing.  So too must I be, then.” Then again he knelt and gave thanks to Tash for revealing his plans.

“I shall bring my bride here, and such of her brothers as will swear to me for the lands that I give them,” he decided.  “And such herds as we may carry away with us, and peasants and slaves to work the soil and harvest the crops.” So he thought and planned while he repaired his gear and refilled both food and water.  But he was still unsatisfied, for it seemed to him such a humble settlement was unworthy of the grandness of Tash’s gift. “It must be a city,” Ashkar  thought.  “A city devoted to the glory of mighty Tash, the wonder of the world.  No less will be a fitting tribute to my father.”  And he began to think how he might achieve this.

When all was in readiness and his horse well-rested, he followed the course of the water, which ran to the vast and open sea.   Thence he turned northwards, along the coast, and soon came to a small fishing settlement. Now he was no longer lost, and he knew he could find his way back to the place Tash had given him.

Then he set about proving himself a warrior and a leader of men. For many months he roamed the desert, striking the enemies of his clan and trading with their allies.  Many other young men did likewise, and had since the sun first scorched the sands. They fought among themselves and made alliance where they wished, and such was the strength and skill of Ashkar, and so great was his good fortune, that many pledged themselves to him.  In this fashion he soon acquired wealth and might, and thought it well to marry.   So he took the richest of his things and the strongest of his men, and he journeyed back to the lands of his foster-father.

And when he arrived before Mazhar Tarkaan he cast himself to his knees and spread gifts before him, saying, “O father of my brother and O my heart’s father, receive these gifts which I bring for love and devotion’s sake, and receive also these others which I bring for the hand of your daughter, Najet, whose beauty is surpassed only by her righteousness.”

Then Mazhar raised him up and embraced him, saying, “O son of my heart and O beloved of my daughter, a thousand welcomes! Greatly we rejoice at your return, for we feared you lost to us in the desert.”

“I thought myself lost to it once,” Ashkar said, “but I have naught to fear from that realm any longer.  I have journeyed far and found many great things, and now I think it a fitting thing to claim my bride.”

Mazhar saw the richness of the gifts Ashkar had laid before him, and his heart rejoiced for his son’s fortune.  But he said, “Certainly the gods have smiled on you, O my son, but in truth you have scarcely become a man, and your name is not spoken among the clans. Shall I marry my daughter and the delight of my eyes to an unblooded boy?”

“I am neither unblooded nor a boy,” said Ashkar, “but I pray you tell me how I may find favor in your eyes.”

Then his foster-father said, “The clan of Shivin steals from our herds. Go you, then, and teach them the strength of Zardaba and restore what was lost to us.”

“If that is your will,” Ashkar replied, and he took up his sword and went forth. He gathered to him his foster-brother and others among the young men of the clan, and he took them forth into the desert.

At the dark of the moon, when the sands were lit only by starlight, they came upon the herds of the Shivin. Their hearts were fierce and their arms strong, their horses swift and their blades sharp, and they took many head of sheep and goat from the Shivin herds and some slaves, returning in victory and rejoicing.  Ashkar it was who had the greatest prize of the night, the finest stallion of the Shivin’s herds, and all praised his valor for such beasts are guarded more dear than gold. None could now say he was less than a man.

Now it passed that Ashkar wished to prepare a dwelling for his bride in the place Tash had shown him. So he went to his brothers and said to them, “venture forth with me into the sands where fortune for all of us may come by the grace of Tash,” and they took their herds and servants and rode forth.  When they saw the place which Tash had given Ashkar, his brothers all exclaimed in great delight.  “Truly, O brother of my heart,” said Dzetin, “you have indeed been greatly blessed!”

“This bounty of great Tash I share freely with you, my brothers, that we may all prosper and make here a city for his glory.”

So they turned the herds to graze and cast their tents, and they set the servants to the preparing of farmland along the water’s shore, and they chose the land where they would build homes.  And the first dwelling that they built was for Ashkar and for Najet.

The season turned, and the crops grew, and the herds bore calves. Homes rose up and down the banks of the waters.  Then one day, as the sun burned down into the mountains of the west, a rider came out of the sands, and he stumbled to the feet of Ashkar, crying, “Woe! The banners of our clan are trampled into dust, and the Shivin ride triumphant! Woe!”

When Dzetin heard the messenger’s words, he tore his clothes, and cried aloud, “Alas! Alas for my father, dead beneath  the barbarian spears! Alas for my sister, their captive and slave!"  So Dzetin lamented, and Ashkar with him.  Then they cut their skin and let the blood flow into the sand, and vowed that the blood of the Shivin would feed the hidden life of the desert, and the flesh of the Shivin should be meat for jackals, and the bone of the Shivin cracked by hyenas, and their names fall out of memory.  Then they gathered their weapons and rode to fulfill their oath.

Having not the numbers to challenge the Shivin outright, they came upon the camp in darkness, and by the stars' light they sought those of their own people who had been carried away, and when they found one they pressed a knife into his hands and bade him join them.  And they crept all through the encampment and slew those who were wakeful, but the blood did not run thick before it was morning and they had to withdraw.

When the sun rose so too did the Shivin, and so too did the sound of their lamentation, for those who greeted the day with death-blind eyes. The Shivin moved on, swift and anxious, so quickly that they did not even bury their dead with proper honor.  But they could not run far enough, or fast enough, and the next night Ashkar and his brothers did the same, with the captives they had freed beside them, and in the morning the Shivin bewailed their fate, to have brought down the wrath of some angry ghost or demon. Once again they fled, hoping to reach their places of safety, praying to their god that he would protect them.  On the third night they were yet wakeful, knives glittering in their hands against flesh, salt in pouches at their waists against spirit. And Ashkar and Dzetin rallied their kinfolk, and descended against the Shivin in a great host, and the sunrise was not redder than the sand.

And when Dzetin found his sister, she was bathed to the elbows in blood, for she had turned the knives of her captors against them, and the battle-spirit rode as high in her as any man, and she led her kinswomen into the night with hair loose and hands red, to visit their revenge upon the Shivin.

Then by noon the clan of Shivin was no more. The blood ran thick and the few survivors were slaves.

Then rejoiced the Zardin and feasted well.  And Ashkar came before Dzetin and Najet and he said unto them, "Come, let us be joined at last.  Now, as our sorrow and our victory show, we are strengthened together and weakened apart.  Give now to me, O my brother, your sister to be my wife, that the bonds of kin shall be forever bound between us."

"Full willingly," Dzetin said, "for I have long wished we should be brothers in truth."  And he put her hand in Ashkar's.

"Come, Najet, and pledge with me before Tash, and we shall be one and build a new city for his glory, and our children shall be mighty Tarkaans."

But Najet frowned, and she said, "I do not consent to this, for I am a servant of Zardeenah, whose grace has always been with my clan.  I shall not abandon Zardeenah,” she declared, “and I shall teach my children to honor her as I do.”

At this Ashkar was much dissatisfied, for it seemed to him that Tash was the greater and more worthy of worship.  He said this, and also he said, “Furthermore, is it not fitting that a woman should adopt the gods of her husband’s tribe clan?”

“Should not a man adopt those of his foster-tribe?” Najet countered.  “And I do not see that Tash is greater, for as the desert is merciless, so without the cooling night we should never survive, and without the stars (which are Zardeenah’s jewels) we should all stumble lost among the trackless sands.”

Then Ashkar thought himself of how grateful he had been for the cool night and guiding stars when he himself was lost, and relented.  “Then keep to her,” he said, “but you shall have Tash besides.  And though you teach your daughters to worship her, they shall leave her service when they go to the house of their husbands and thereafter hold Tash before all.”  And to this Najet agreed, provided the Lady of Night’s sacred places should continue to be tended and honored, and so they agreed and were wed.

And when the celebrations were ended, Dzetin took his leave of them, and he returned home to take his place as Tarkaan, while Ashkar took his bride to his new settlement.

Then there was peace upon them for a time, and they built their settlement.  Others came from the Zardin to join Ashkar and his brothers, and also some from the Tashin, Ashkar's kin by birth, sought him among the desert sands and swore their allegiance to Ashkar, for, they told him, his grandfather was nigh unto death and some of the clan would follow the heir of his blood regardless of his mother's shame.  And at their heels came a trickle of younger sons from among the Zardin's allies, eager to win a better place than they might have at home.

But the Shivin too had allies, by oath and by blood, and these would not long suffer the Shivin's destroyers to go unpunished.  They first refused to trade with the fledgling clan, then began to raid their caravans and herds, until Ashkar was obliged to send more guards with each one.  This was an outrage to Ashkar, and he began to plan ways to stop the interference.

Accordingly he gathered together his brothers and all the men who could bear arms, and they planned a great raid on the most troublesome of the clans. On the appointed day they rode forth and gave fierce battle, and by the unveiling of night the warriors of the meddlesome clan lay dead before them.  They took some of the herds and slaves, but Ashkar said, "It should be foolish to waste this land, or to let another enemy claim it," and he made one of his brothers lord over it under him.

Now meanwhile Najet had been speaking among the clan, and learning all the bonds of kinship that their settlement might claim.  And she said to Ashkar, "Husband, let us not risk men in bloody battle for that which we may gain by wisdom. For is it not said by the poets, 'a keen mind is fiercer than any sword, and flies further than arrows'?"

And he said, "O my wife and O my heart's joy, it is so indeed.  But how should these wretches cease to torment us unless we teach them to dear our swords?"

And she said, "Teach them instead that to aid us is joy to them.  You have already shown the terror of your sword arm.  Now speak to those who do you but little harm, biting as the sand flea, and make them instead your friends and shelter." And she told him which Tarkaans had kin within their settlement, and might so be brought to friendship.

Ashkar saw there was much wisdom in his wife's words, and he kissed her in the joy of it, and then asked that she set all in readiness for such an embassage. So she prepared their servants and rich gifts to give the Tarkaans, and they put on their finery and went to the Tarkaan Orkun. And they gave to him many good gifts, and honored him as kin, and he was overjoyed and forgot his wrath.  Then pledged they friendship in wine and salt, and Orkun said, "Let us go now and give thanks to Nidash for the new bond between us."

Now this was the custom, that a new alliance should be brought to the god even as a new babe, but Ashkar would have none.  His countenance darkened, and he rose up, saying,  “For none but Tash will I bare my neck,” he declared. “It is you who should bow, even as the water-reed bends to the desert wind.”

Hearing this, Orkun was wroth, and he too rose with black anger upon his face.  "Upstart boy," he thundered, "what are these words but hot wind themselves? Nidash sustains us all, and no man shall give insult unto him!"

Then it might have been ill between them, but for Najet, who sprang to her feet and set herself between the angry men.  "My lords," she said, "such quarrels are not meet among kin such as we. It is right for a Tarkaan to honor only the god of his clan, and kneel to no others.  But let us send gifts to the temple, that the priests may do all with right ceremony to bring this joining before Nidash, for such matters are the concern of priests." And so it was done as she said.

They broke their journey in their brother’s new-won land, and he feasted them well and they went to their sleep much satisfied.  But in the night a dream came to Ashkar, and he woke crying out.  Najet sat up and lit a lamp, snapping her fingers through the flame to chase the dream-spirits away.  She begged him to tell her what vision had so disturbed his rest.

“I dreamed that I walked beside the water here,” he said. “There were dates heavy on the trees and melons thick on the vines, and beyond the fields the herds were in, hundreds of fine beasts.  Then a woman rose up from the mud at the shore, and she towered over me even as the trees, and when she spoke her voices was as the thunder.  ‘Begone!’ she said, and ‘Begone!’ and ‘Begone!’ yet a third time, and then she raised a spear.  I fled, and her cast went wide, but she pursued me still, and I ran for my life. I called out, ‘O my father, mighty Tash, defend your son!’ and then came a wind from the desert, and a swirl of sand surrounded her.  Faster and faster it spun, and she shrank within it, screaming, and her screams were the fall of rocks in the cliffs and the roar of water in the dry gullies, and terrible to hear.  And she raised a hand to point at me, even as she shrank, and she cried, ‘My curse upon you, Ashkar son of Tash! Famine and pestilence shall walk where you walk, and you shall thirst but drink only sand. Scorpions shall sting you, jackals shall bite you, lions devour you! Let your father of the wastes guard you from his own domain!’   And she laughed terribly, so that I clapped my hands over my ears, and so woke myself.  Interpret this dream for me, my wife, I beg.”

“It needs no great wisdom to read,” Najet replied. “The god of this land is angry, for her hold places are not tended, and her shrines are home to rats and creeping things, and her priests do not speak the rites for her.  And that is by your decree, my husband and lord.”

“I conquered this land in the name of my father,” Ashkar replied coldly, “the great Tash, to whom all other gods must bow.  Did not his power defend me, in the dream?”

“A lord must be honored in his own place, even if a mighty king visits.  The honor of the one is not lessened by the other.”

“And should the king bow to the lord?” he snapped.

“Should he command his servants not to?” she countered.

To this Ashkar made no reply, but lay down again, turning his back to her, and she, offended, did likewise, and they slept again.

At the dawn the sound of lamentation woke them, and they looked out to find that the waters had receded far from the shore.  Even as they watched the pool shrank still further, leaving only a sticky grey mud behind. The edges were already drying beneath the morning sun.

Ashkar could not bring himself to look at his wife, but went out and called for someone to fetch the old priests, and for others to clean the shrine. He himself  went to the herds and chose the finest beast among them for sacrifice, which he then sent to the priests.  Then in full view of all he took up his knife and cut his palm, letting the blood drip to the place where water met shore.  And the receding of the waters ceased, and reversed, until he was standing waist-deep in the returned waters.

And when this was done he went into the new shrine of Tash to pray, but ever after he gave of his blood when he conquered a new land.

In this fashion, by conquest and by alliance, he gathered together the many clans of the desert lands.  And Ashkar’s power grew great in the land, and many clans bowed to him.  And the rest of the clans feared him, and they thought he wished to swallow the world, and they called him Demon for the demon that had tried to devour the sun, and been imprisoned in it by the gods for his crime, so that his rage scorched the world.

And those who feared him the most banded together, and they sought them a leader to put in his place, one who would respect other clans and the old traditions, and the man they chose was Dzetin.

Now in the years since Dzetin took his place as Tarkaan, much had passed between him and Ashkar.  Both men had children and their eldest were fine, healthy sons born within days of each other.  And these boys grew straight and tall and were the very joy of their fathers.  When the time came for his son to learn the sword, Dzetin sent him to Ashkar, saying, “O brother of my heart, this is your nephew, my son.  I entrust him to you, that he may learn to be a man and a great warrior.”  And Ashkar took the boy in gladly and treated him as his own son, and it was arranged between him and Dzetin that Ashkar’s second son should go to his uncle for fostering in turn, and the men parted as brothers in joy.

So the boys grew together under Ashkar’s eye, and he taught them the ways of the sword, and the cousins were as brothers, and this was a joy to him. Then it passed that one day they quarreled, as boys will, and as boy will they made to settle their quarrel with fists.  So they had done before many times, slinking home scuffed and bruised, their clothing rent and their faces dirty, laughing as brothers.  So it should have been again, but that they were well up into the cliffs. And when Ashkar’s son struck Dzetin’s, the boy fell and kept falling, tumbling down the rocky slope to land broken at the bottom.

Dzetin was sent for and came, riding his horse near to death with the speed he made. “The boy lives,” Ashkar said to him, even before any words of greeting, and took him straight to the child.

Live he might, but he would never again wield sword or bow, never sit a proud horse.  He would be fortunate indeed even to walk.  Dzetin sat with him and comforted him, for a time, and then he went out to Ashkar.

“I gave my son into your keeping,” he cried, “and this is what becomes of him?”

“I would defend your son with my life,” said Ashkar, “but I cannot defend him from life.”

“Can you not protect him from knaves and scoundrels?” Dzetin thundered. “What of the one who has done this? What of my son’s vengeance for the life stolen from him?”

Ashkar said, “His cousin has neither slept nor ate since this terrible thing, but weeps constantly. Surely his own guilt punished him enough, for they were brothers in spirit, even as we.”

“No true brother would dismiss this crime to mine! It is as murder, what has been done to him!”

“An accident,” Ashkar replied.  “Brother, this is Tash’s will—”

“Curse Tash!” Dzetin roared.  “And curse you, who are no brother of mine! I will take my son and go from this accursed place — ha, and my sister, too!”  And he called his servants and prepared a litter for his son to ride in, and was gone before the sun set.  And Ashkar did not try to stop him, but gave him many things to make the journey more comfortable, though his heart too rode high in anger at the words between them, the moreso when Najet refused the journey and her brother cursed her with vile insults. And so they parted as enemies, with wrath.

Now this was the state of things when the clans came to Dzetin, and he had not spoken to Ashkar in the years since that day, nor wished to.  And when they said to him, “O mighty Tarkaan, grant unto us the protection of your strong right arm, for that Ashkar seeks to claim all the desert in his name, and trample the clans into dust.  He defiles the holy places and tears down the banners of the proudest clans. He takes our herds and our women and our water for his own. Nothing will sate his lusts save his own blood,” Dzetin heard them and thought him of his son, lying broken on a pallet, while Ashkar mouthed excuses, and so he said to them, “I will lead you.”

So they gathered together in a great host, and armed themselves, and they stood against Ashkar.  And when Ashkar learned that Dzetin was leading  the forces arrayed against him, the sun grew dark in his eyes and he cursed the day they had parted in anger.  Yet he likewise called together his allies into an army, and went forth to meet them.  And when they came to the place where battle would be joined, Ashkar saw that his forces were greater in number and in armament than Dzetin’s, and that the victory should surely be his. His heart wept at this, for he wished mightily that he had never broken with his brother.

So Ashkar took his steed and rode to the bare ground between the armies, carrying a wreathed spear in token of peace.  And Dzetin came to meet him there, likewise arrayed, and they met together beneath the dimming sky.

Then Ashkar said, “O my brother, why should it come to this, that we should war? We who should stand as each other’s shoulder-companion!”

And Dzetin replied, “O my brother, deep runs my sorrow that we should come to this pass! But certainly it is true that there can be only one lord among the people. Truly, if you spare me, I shall be a stone in your sandal ever after.  You should have no peace from worrying about me, no matter what oaths I swore.  Better to die an honest enemy than live to see the brotherhood between us soured by the venom of suspicion.”

“So it must be,” Ashkar said.  “But drink with me, now while we are yet brothers.”

“Gladly I will,” said Dzetin, and so they shared the cup like kinsmen, and then returned to their camps, each to each.

In the morning the armies met again, and the fighting was fierce and the blood ran bright and free.  But when dusk fell, the brothers met upon the war-stirred sands, and shared the cup between them. And so it passed for three days and nights.

On the fourth day, the fighting was fiercer still, and many men fell, and all was confusion on the battlefield.  And Ashkar was unhorsed, and his standard-bearer struck down, and he fought alone on foot for some time, while the sun beat down upon them all and cast heat-visions into their eyes. Then from the sands rose a dark figure, which came towards him, and the only brightness about it was the sword in its hand. Ashkar raised his own sword to meet it, and they fought back and forth across the sand, one combat among many, and there was no one to mark their battle.  

Then Ashkar saw his chance, and took it.  His blade slid deep into the side of the other, and the dark warrior fell upon the bloody sand. And when he did so, his helmet came loose, and then Ashkar saw that his opponent was Dzetin.

“Tash defend me!” he cried. “This fate I never wanted!” And he cast himself to the sands and took Dzetin into his arms, pressing his hand to the wound.  But it was for naught, for he had struck true, and his brother’s lifeblood flowed free to water the desert.

“It is well,” Dzetin said.  “A brother’s blade bites less coldly. To have killed you should have been the deeper wound. Promise me but one thing, O my brother.”

“Anything,” swore Ashkar, gripping his hand tightly.

“Care for my sons,” instructed Dzetin, and Ashkar vowed, “They shall be as my own, they shall be mighty lords and prosperous.  In Tash’s name I swear it.”

“It is well,” said Dzetin again.  “Now kiss me, before my eyes dim--”  And Ashkar bent and kissed him as a brother, and the light went from his eyes and he died.  Then Ashkar wept bitter tears, saying, “A thousand curses on this black day! Let all the stars weep for the blood of a brother spilled on this wretched plain!”

When they saw their champion fallen, all the heart went from the  army, and they laid their arms down in the dust.  Then was Ashkar Tisroc acknowledged lord from the northern mountains to the southern river, and from the the Great Water to the Cliffs of the Sun’s Resting.  And he conquered the Tuvar and brought to heel the Caitiri, and laid waste the Orsomo and made the Irival to pay great tribute, until all the world trembled at his name and his empire was renowned.