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by John Bruno Hare

Once upon a time, King Rostevan ruled in Arabia. He had one daughter, named T'hinat'hin, who grew up to be as beautiful as the sun. The knight, the commander-in-chief of the Arabian army, Avt'handil was in love with T'hinat'hin. King Rostevan, feeling his age, commanded that his daughter be enthroned 'as the King'. T'hinat'hin is crowned ruler and gives away much of her wealth. The king regrets that he has no son, but considers Avt'handil a worthy knight.

One day Avt'handil proposes to the King and his Vizier, Sograt, that there be a friendly competition between Rostevan and him to see who is the best archer. They ride across the plain, shooting game for three days, and Avt'handil kills much more game than King Rostevan.

While resting after the competition, they spot a strange young knight weeping by the side of a stream, wearing a panther skin. When the king tries to ask him what the matter is, the Knight in the Panther skin slays the some of the king's slaves who have been sent to summon him, and rides off so fast nobody can find him.

When the King returns home he is sad and bitter, and wonders whether the mystery knight is even human. He sends search parties to the "four corners of the heavens" but nobody can find him. Finally T'hinat'hin comes to Avt'handil and sets a quest for him: he has three years to seek the Knight in the Panther's Skin. She acknowledges Avt'handil's love for her and implies that if he finds the mysterious knight she will marry him. Avt'handil agrees to this quest, and puts his slave Shermadin in charge of the Arabian armies, and if he does not return in three years to consider him dead.

Avt'handil gallops off. When three months are left before the three years are up he meets six horsemen, three brothers with three squires. They have seen the Knight with the Panther's Skin, who killed their younger brother when he attempted to seize him. Avt'handil and the horsemen ride after the Knight for three days and finally reach a rocky area. They watch the Knight ride up to a cave where he embraces a maiden. The Knight stays with her overnight in the cave, and rides off the next day. Avt'handil then confronts the maiden, but she will not tell him anything. Finally Avt'handil breaks down in tears and tells the maiden of his sad quest.

The maiden tells him that her name is Asmat'h, and the Knight in the Panther's skin is Tariel. When Tariel returns, Asmat'h hides Avt'handil in the cave. Tariel is still sad. He is seeking a companion. Where can he find one? Asmat'h brings out Avt'handil and introduces him to Tariel, and the two men are bonded immediately.

"Tariel met him. They were both fit to be ranked as suns, or as the moon in heaven, cloudless, spreading her rays on the plain beneath. Compared with them the aloe-tree was of no worth; they were like the seven planets; to what else shall I liken them?

They kissed each other, they were not bashful at being strangers; they opened the rose, from their lips their white teeth shone transparent. They embraced each other's neck, together they wept; their jacinth, which was worth rubies, they turned into amber." (276-277)

Avt'handil tells Tariel his story, and then Tariel finally tells his.

Tariel was the son of King Saridan, seventh of the seven kings of India. P'harsadan was the supreme ruler of the other six kingdoms. Saridan made an alliance with P'harsadan, who made Saridan his Amirbar, Commander-in-Chief. They treated each other as equals. Tariel was the only son of Saridan. Because P'harsadan had no son, Saridan gave Tariel to P'harsadan and was raised as the heir to the six kingdoms. Tariel and was a mighty hero; when he was five "to me it appeared no labour to slay a lion--it was like a sparrow." When Tariel was five years old, the queen gave birth to a daughter, who was named Nestan-Daredjan. She was "not equalled by the sun in beauty".

Since she was now the official heir, Saridan returned Tariel to his birth father. Nestan-Daredjan was given to Davar, the King's sister. Asmat'h, Nestan's sister, and two slaves were her companions. Nestan-Daredjan grew up in seclusion.

When King Saridan died, Tariel, after a year of mourning, was given his kingdom, and his duties as Amirbar. He is honored by P'harsadan as a son.

One day the king and Tariel come home from hunting, and the king tells him to go take some partridges they caught to the house where Nestan-Daredjan is secluded. Tariel sees his adoptive sister for the first time in many years. "I saw the maiden (Nestan); a lance pierced my mind and heart." He faints, and Asmat'h revives him. He is bedridden for three days, raving with madness and melancholy. He recovers but is saddened with his secret love of Nestan-Daredjan. Finally Asmat'h, acting as a go-between smuggles a letter from Nestan-Daredjan, who tells him that she is also secretly in love with him, but instead of moping around he should prove himself with deeds in battle, by warring against the Khatavians.

Tariel is overjoyed and sends an emissary to the Khatavians with an ultimatum. King Ramaz of the Khatavians rejects this and war is declared. Tariel sets off for Khataet'hi, the land of the Khatavians. When he arrives at the border, Ramaz sends a message of surrender, along with tribute, and Tariel is to come with a small party to his castle. Tariel leaves his army behind, and advances with a party of three hundred knights. However, one of the Khatavians informs Tariel that this is a ruse: when he meets with Ramaz he will be ambushed by superior force at the parley. Tariel sends for his full army, which makes a forced march to the arranged location. When the Khatavians unleash their trap, Tariel springs his. In the ensuing battle he unhorses King Ramaz and takes the field; they take the Khatavians prisoner and plunder their kingdom. Ramaz is carried back to the King of India, who pardons him, but levies a heavy tribute on him.

After this triumph, the King decides to marry off Nestan. He throws a feast to celebrate victory which is also a coming-out party of sorts for Nestan. After the feast, Nestan and Tariel exchange letters again, pledging their troth.

Then next morning, Tariel gets some bad news. He is summoned by the King, who tells him that Nestan is to be married to the only son of King Khvarazmsha, ruler of the Khvarazmians. Tariel takes counsel with Asmat'h, and they discuss the dilemma. If he confronts the King it will tear India apart. They decide that the best course of action would be to kill the bridegroom by stealth. Asmat'h says: "When thou hast killed him, [tell the King that]: "I could never let India be food for the Persians; it is mine own heritage, never will I give up even an ounce of it; if thou wilt not leave me in peace I will make a wilderness of thy city!"

When the bridegroom arrives, Tariel takes a hundred warriors; they go into the tent where the bridegroom waits, and slay him. The next day the King sends Tariel a message asking why did he slay the Khvarazmsha's son? "If thou didst desire my daughter, why didst thou not tell me so? Thou hast made life distasteful to me, thine aged foster-father; thou thyself hast brought it about that thou remainest not with me till the day of my death."

Tariel responds that he is by right the sole heir of all India. "I want not thy daughter, marry her, rid her of me. India is mine, to no man else will I give it; whoever contests my right, him will I cause to be uprooted from the earth; kill me! if I need any foreign helpers!"

The King is wroth and swears that his sister, Davar, the guardian of Nestan and Asmat'h will die in retribution. Davar beats Nestan and has her spirited away by two supernatural slaves. They fly out the window over the sea. Davar commits suicide. Asmat'h flees to Tariel, and the two of them flee India by ship, in search of Nestan. Eventually all of his companions except for Asmat'h and two slaves die on the quest.

One day Tariel lands and meets a wounded knight. One of Tariel's slaves heals him. The wounded knight is Nuradin P'hridon, king of the nearby city of Mulghazanzari. P'hridon is fighting his father and uncle for an island, and has just been in a skirmish with his uncles' troops. Tariel joins forces with P'hridon and they triumph. Tariel becomes P'hridon's second in command. One day P'hridon tells Tariel that he once saw Nestan with her two captors, and Tariel tells P'hridon his whole story. P'hridon sends out ships to search for Nestan but there is no sign of her anywhere.

Tariel departs Mulghazanzari; P'hridon gives him a swift horse as a parting gift. He searches for Nestan in vain, wandering the wilderness. Finally he finds a cave inhabited by Devis. He fights them. In the battle, the Devis kill his two slaves. Finally it is just him and Asmat'h. They live in the cave, and Tariel roams the fields, weeping and fainting. He cannot bring himself to kill himself, although he longs to. He wears the panther skin because it is, for him, the symbol of Nestan.

Avt'handil sees something of himself in Tariel; they have both been impelled on miserable quests. He swears eternal friendship with Tariel and they pledge to assist each other. Shermadin returns and tells Rostevan and T'hinat'hin the good news. Avt'handil arrives in Arabia and is feted. He tells T'hinat'hin the whole story. He says that he wants return to Tariel and help him find Nestan. Tariel asks the Kings' vizier to tell him that he is leaving to help Tariel. King Rostevan is furious. However, Tariel settles his affairs, once again leaving Shermadin in charge of the army and leaves secretly, to the Kings' dismay.

When T'hinat'hin meets Tariel again, Tariel is overjoyed to see him, so happy to see him that he faints. Tariel has been hunting and has just killed a lion and panther who had been fighting, which reminded him of his friendship with T'hinat'hin. They return to the cave and are greeted by Asmat'h. T'hinat'hin decides leave to go look for Nestan solo. He will first find P'hridon, their only lead. Tariel and Avt'handil have an extended parting, upon which Avt'handil laments to the sun, moon and planets (934-945).

Avt'handil journeys for seventy days. He nears Mulghazanzar. He meets P'hridon in the fields hunting and tells him that he has come from Tariel. P'hridon throws a feast and Avt'handil tells him his story and how he met Tariel. P'hridon gives him four slaves to accompany him and takes him to where he saw Nestan, and Avt'handil takes leave. Avt'handil roams for a hundred days, asking everyone he meets if they have seen Nestan. He joins a caravan of merchants from Bagdad and help them fight some pirates. He joins the caravan incognito and they cross the sea to a city called Gulansharo, the Sea Realm, capital of a mighty mercantile empire. Gulansharo is ruled by King Melik Surkhavi. Usen is chief of the merchants and P'hatman Khat'hun is his (estranged) wife. She takes in the caravan and entertains them. P'hatman is an attractive mature woman who loves to entertain. She exchanges gifts with Avt'handil.

P'hatman falls in love with Avt'handil, still in disguise as a merchant. They exchange love letters, and he agrees to meet with her alone. P'hatman and Avt'handil make love, but a man intrudes on them. They are discovered! P'hatman tells Avt'handil that he must either kill the intruder or flee the country. Avt'handil agrees to take on this task on her word that it is a matter of life or death.

Avt'handil tracks down the witness, Chachnagir, and breaks into his house. He slays two of his guards and then kills Chachnagir in cold blood, tossing his body into the sea. He returns to P'hatman, who explains why this murder was necessary.

On New Year's day, in Gulansharo, there is a feast day with gifts and sports. One New Year's day, P'hatman was entertaining the merchant's wives, when she was seized with a strange sadness. Her guests leave. P'hatman opens the window and turns to the sea. Far out on the sea there is a boat with two Indian men and a woman in a chest. They land and open the chest. P'hatman, secretly spying on this, falls in love with the woman. She tells four slaves to go to the beach and buy this woman; if they cannot persuade the slaves to buy her, they are to kill the two men. The slaves go to the beach and haggle with the two men. They will not sell. When P'hatman sees that they cannot be swayed, she calls out to her slaves to slay them. They behead the two and bring the woman to P'hatman. P'hatman has her brought to her. "I received her; I made my heart faithful to her. I kissed her every part, and thereby I wearied her. I seated her on my couch, I caressed her, I loved her."

It is apparent that this is the long-sought Nestan. Nestan is distraught and unable to tell her story, though grateful that she has been rescued. "She said to me: 'To me thou art a mother, better than a mother. Of what profit can my story be to thee? It is but the tale of a chatterer. A lone wanderer am I, overtaken by an unhappy fate. If thou ask me aught, may the might of the All-seeing curse thee!'

P'hatman secretly houses Nestan. Nestan weeps day and night. P'hatman does not tell her husband that she is sheltering Nestan at first. However, eventually she tells him and they both go to see Nestan. They both try to soothe her, but she is still inconsolable. They both visit her frequently together "When we had leisure from affairs of trade we used to see her. Our hearts were inextricably prisoned in her net."

Usen is drinking one day with the King. He foolishly mentions Nestan to the King and suggests that she would be a worthy bride for his son. The King orders Usen to bring Nestan to the court. P'hatman is surprised when the King's slaves show up to take Nestan. She is heartbroken, but Nestan is resigned to her fate, and agrees to go. P'hatman gives her a parting gift: "I went into the treasure-house; I took out gems and pearls on which no price was set, as much as I could, every single separate one was worth a city. I went back; I girded them round the waist of her for whose sake my black (sad) heart was dying."

The King sets up a bridal chamber for Nestan. She is still silent as to her origins. His son is away at the wars, so the betrothal will have to wait. Nine eunuchs stand guard at Nestan's door. The King gives Usen lavish gifts in return for Nestan and they celebrate with a drunken feast.

Nestan bribes the eunuchs with the pearls and gems that P'hatman had given her, and she escapes the palace in disguise while the King is in a stupor. She returns to P'hatman's house and tells her that she must flee. P'hatman gives her a fast horse and Nestan flees. The King suspects that P'hatman was complicit, but nothing can be proved.

This is why P'hatman is estranged from Usen. The man who had intruded on Avt'handil, Chachnagir, was a love of P'hatman. She had told him the story and he had threatened to expose her.

Then P'hatman relates what she subsequently learned of the fate of Nestan. One day some wanderers arrived who she struck up a conversation with. One of these, a slave, told his story. He was the slave of the King of the Kadjis who live in the land of Kadjet'hi. The King died of an illness and his sister, Dulardukht took over in his place. Dulardukht's sister dies and she, along with the her chief slave, Roshak, journeyed to her funeral. One dark night a strange light appeared. A rider came into view. It was Nestan. They prevailed on her to return with them to Kadjet'hi, where she remained. She is to be betrothed to prince Rosan, who is still a boy.

The city of the Kadjis is well-defended. Inside the city is a tall rock with a hollowed out passage for climbing up. Nestan is at the top of that rock, surrounded by thousands of guards in the city. The Kadjis are sorcerers and artificers.

Avt'handil is overjoyed that P'hatman has discovered where Nestan is held captive, although he does not tell her his side of the story just yet. After they spend the night together, Avt'handil arrives for a meal with P'hatman, now dressed as the knight that he is. At dinner, he tells P'hatman who he is, about Tariel, and Nestan's origin who he has sought through the wide world.

P'hatman writes a letter to Nestan telling her that Tariel has been driven near to madness by her absence, and that Tariel's sworn brother, Avt'handil is looking for her. She gives it to a sorcerer, who flies invisibly to Kadjet'hi and delivers it to Nestan. She write back and tells them that she is being held prisoner but has not yet wed. Avt'handil writes to P'hridon, and tells him what has transpired.

Then Avt'handil voyages back to Tariel. When they meet, Tariel has just killed a lion. Avt'handil shows him a letter from Nestan. Tariel faints and Avt'handil revives him with Lion's blood.

Together they resolve to rescue Nestan from the Kadjis. They return to the caves and tell Asmat'h the news. Tariel tells Avt'handil that there is a treasure room in the cave of the Devis. They break down forty doors and find not only forty rooms full of treasure but a fully stocked armory. In the armory is a coffer. "Upon it was written: 'Here lieth wondrous armour: chain helmet, habergeon, steel-cutting sword. If the Kadjis attack the Devis it will be a hard day. Whoever openeth at any other time is a slayer of kings!'"

Tariel, Avt'handil and Asmat'h all head off. They first visit the land of P'hridon, who joins them along with three hundred mounted warriors. Asmat'h stays behind in Mulghazanzari.

Tariel, Avt'handil and P'hridon cross the sea and come to the city of the Kadjis, Kadjet'hi. They decide on a surprise attack. Their horsemen will attack the city on three sides. The three heroes enter the city in disguise, open the gates, and overwhelm the city and the castle. Nestan and Tariel are finally united. They set up a garrison, loot the city and set out for the City of the Seas.

They give the land of the Kadjis to the King of the City of the Seas, and there is a great celebration with many gifts. Tariel adopts P'hatman as a sworn sister. Then they travel to P'hridon's city and reunite Asmat'h and Nestan.

Nestan and Tariel are married in Mulghazanzar by King P'hridon. Tariel takes P'hridon to the cave of the Devi. Tariel gives him the treasure of the Devi.

Finally Avt'handil returns with Tariel to Arabia and is united on the throne with T’hinat’hin in marriage.

(c) 2006. John B. Hare, all rights reserved.