(adapted from my novel The Dark Side of the Fylfot. Fourteen-year-old Gretl is eager to hear the story behind the talisman her grandfather wears at his throat)
‘Jemshid, son of Tahmuras, ruled Persia for seven hundred years. He was a wise and just monarch, skilled in forging weapons, weaving fine cloths, and shaping ornaments from silver and gold. They say he discovered medicine and knew cures for all the sicknesses suffered by the people of his country. His most valued possession was a seven-ringed cup, one ring for each of the planets, a gift of the gods, in which he was able to see the whole world, past, present and future.
‘King Jemshid had two daughters, whom he loved equally, and spoiled equally with lavish gifts. Their names were Shahrinaz and Arnawaz. Both were beautiful in their own way; but whereas Shahrinaz had fair skin and golden hair, Arnawaz had a complexion and hair as dark as a starless night.
‘When the girls were sixteen, Jemshid gave each of them the most wonderful present of all – a gold necklace made by his own hand. On each gold chain hung a talisman of well-being – one of the su-asti, crosses on which each of the four arms was bent at right angles. To Shahrinaz he presented the cross with arms bent to the right. In its centre was engraved the emblem of the sun god, Ormazd. To her sister he presented the left-handed cross, which carried the engraving of a crescent moon, symbol of Ahriman, god of darkness. For Jemshid honoured both gods and was afraid of offending either.
‘As it happened, the adjacent country was ruled by a prince named Zohak, who had been tricked by a demon into murdering his father and stealing his throne. Zohak was determined to seize the throne of Persia too and, at the head of a huge army, crossed her borders. King Jemshid was a proud man, blinded by his love and by his daughters’ charms. He took no account of their different characters. A seventh part of his magic cup was dark and he did not see the danger until it was too late. Because Zohak was handsome, Arnawaz fell in love with him and came under his influence. She conspired with him to kill her father so that she could become queen herself.
‘Whereas Jemshid had been a just ruler, Zohak used magic to oppress the people, and they lived in fear of him. On his shoulder and that of his queen, where once they were kissed by Lord Ahriman, grew two black snakes that consumed human brains, and each day the pair offered two of their subjects as sacrifice to these monsters. As for Arnawaz, because she wore the emblem of the dark god round her neck, she held the real power in the kingdom and through her Zohak ruled for a thousand years.
‘Shahrinaz was determined to avenge her father. She was patient, and prayed to Ormazd to help her.
‘The sun god answered. “Is light not always greater than darkness? When the sun rises, does not the moon flee? You already have the means to lift the shadow of your sister from the land. She is Ahriman’s creature, and cannot bear the sunshine. Take the su-asti, the cross your father gave you, and go to the palace. Hold my image in front of your sister, so that the daylight is reflected upon it, and the power of the one she wears will be broken. Then you will see Arnawaz as she really is.”
‘Shahrinaz hesitated. “And what of Zohak? Even if my sister is destroyed, he is still king.”
‘ “His time will come,” answered Ormazd. “I have chosen your son, Faridan, to be the instrument of his fate.”
‘Shahrinaz protested. “My son is just a child!”
‘ “Have faith,” answered the god. “He will grow. When Arnawaz is no more, give him the su-asti so that he will be protected from evil, and can accomplish the task I shall set for him.’
‘Shahrinaz did as she was asked. When she held up the su-asti of the sun, Arnawaz screamed in terror and her human form shrivelled up until all that remained was a black serpent. Then Shahrinaz said to her, “Because you were once my sister, I will spare your life, but from today you are banished from human company. Crawl away to the desert, to the wild places of the earth where you belong.”
‘When Faridan was sixteen, Shahrinaz placed the cross of Ormazd around his neck. “Now you are ready to fulfil your destiny,” she said. “Go and break forever the power of Zohak. Lift the shadow of fear from the people and restore justice to the land.
‘ “But remember! Because the su-asti was a present to me from my father Jemshid, and because I now give it to you, it should always be passed from father to daughter and from mother to son, down through the generations.
‘ “And tell your children this: the su-asti of the sun god will protect them as long as they do not allow evil into their hearts. For, should that happen, it will be as if they wore the left-hand cross of Arnawaz.
‘ “Goodness will be despised, and the creatures of the night will rule again in the world!” ‘
(The Dark Side of the Fylfot, a novel of the Black Death, is available from Amazon as an e-book.)