More from Tales of Ancient Persia, retold by Barbara Leonie Picard (a story introduced here).
As frequently it seems to happen, Zohak’s power, evil, and the extent of his control continued to grow.
As the strongest of a group of under-kings his peers came to him, begging him to lead their armies in the overthrow of their current lord, which Zohak did, becoming the new King-of-kings. It was too late that the other rulers realized they had replaced self-centered vanity with overt evil, but now Zohak was too powerful to oppose, and all bent to his will.
Zohak took as his unwilling wives the two daughters of the king he overthrew, and continued every day in killing two strong men in order to feed their brains to the snakes on his shoulders.
Then came the night, as it always should happen, when Zohak dreamed of the one who would overthrow him. He dreamed the name: Feridun, and feared it so much he sent out emissaries to seek the name and kill anyone who bore it.
Now, of course, there was only one with that name. He was the youngest of three sons, and when the Zohak’s men heard of him they went to the house to kill him. But his father denied them entrance long enough for his mother to escape with all three boys.
Feridun’s father was killed, and the boy grew to manhood with the one goal of someday avenging his father’s death.
Now, even as the youth was growing in strength, Zohak was growing in fear.
Too late he realized that loyalty was earned, not forced, and he sought to ingratiate himself to his under-kings and the people. He had a type of contract drawn up, and urged those wishing to be known as loyal to sign it. As they were overswearing their loyalty, Kava, a master smith, came to Zohak to beg for the life of his youngest son.
He had once had 18 sons, and the first 17 had all been taken to feed Zohak’s snakes.
Hastily Zohak praised Kava for his past loyalty and ordered that the smith’s youngest son was to be spared and restored to him; and Kava bowed down to him in joy and thankfulness.
Thinking such a time appropriate to gain another loyal subject, Zohak then urged Kava to sign the oath that he had prepared against the arrival of Feridun.
But when Kava heard the oath in which those who swore to it declared their loyalty to Zohak and maintained that he had ever been a just and merciful ruler and worthy of their loyalty and love, his honest heart rebelled, and he could not bring himself to swear to such a lie.
He snatched the tablet on which the proclamation was engraved and flung it to the ground so that it shattered, setting his foot upon it and crying out, “Are all the men here cowards, that they are so swift to swear themselves slaves to one who is a slave of Ahriman [king of demons, the source of all evil]? And are they wanting in their wits, that they pronounce him good and just? Or is it that they are all as evil as he is? Never will I swear to such a lie, or declare myself loyal to such a slave of Ahriman.”
Then, while everyone, speechless, stared at him— Zohak in anger and all the others in a kind of fearful admiration— Kava strode from the hall of audience, hurrying his terrified son before him.
As soon as he reached home, Kava took his leather smith’s apron and attached it like a standard to the top of a spear. With it he marched to the marketplace, urging all who would oppose Zohak to follow him and join the army of Feridun.
(to be continued…)