“Art not thou he who is called Zoroaster?” he asked.
“I am he,” answered the mystic. “What wouldest thou?”
“Thou knowest that the Great King with his queens and his court are at the palace of Stakhar,” replied the man. “I go thither from time to time to sell cheeses to the slaves. The Great King has made a proclamation that whosoever shall bring before him Zoroaster shall receive a talent of gold and a robe of purple. I am a poor shepherd—fearest thou to go to the palace?”
“I fear nothing. I am past fear these three years.”
“Will the Great King harm thee, thinkest thou? Thou hast paid me well for my pains since I first saw thee, and I would not have thee hurt.”
“No man can harm me. My time is not yet come.”
“Wilt thou go with me?” cried the shepherd, in sudden delight. “And shall I have the gold and the robe?”
“I will go with thee. Thou shalt have all thou wouldest,” answered Zoroaster. “Art thou ready? I have no goods to burden me.”
“But thou art old,” objected the shepherd, coming nearer. “Canst thou go so far on foot? I have a beast; I will return with him in the morning, and meet thee upon the height. I came hither in haste, being but just returned from Stakhar with the news.”
“I am younger than thou, though my hair is white. I will go with thee. Lead the way.”
He stooped and drank of the fountain in the moonlight, from the hollow of his hand. Then he turned, and began to ascend the steep side of the valley. The shepherd led the way in silence, overcome between his awe of the man and his delight at his own good fortune.
It was now three years since Nehushta had been married to Darius, and the king loved her well. But often, in that time, he had been away from her, called to different parts of the kingdom by the sudden outbreaks of revolution which filled the early years of his reign. Each time he had come back in triumph, and each time he had given her some rich gift. He found indeed that he had no easy task to perform in keeping the peace between his two queens; for Atossa seemed to delight in annoying Nehushta and in making her feel that she was but the second in the king’s favour, whatever distinctions might be offered her. But Darius was just and was careful that Atossa should receive her due, neither more nor less.
Nehushta was glad when Zoroaster was gone. She had suffered terribly in that moment when he had spoken to her out of the crowd, and the winged word had made a wound that rankled still. In those three years that passed, Atossa never undeceived her concerning the sight she had seen, and she still believed that Zoroaster had basely betrayed her. It was impossible, in her view, that it could be otherwise. Had she not seen him herself? Could any man do such an action who was not utterly base and heartless?