The Helm and the Sword - Chapter I: The Blood of Mârdat

<p><em>&lsquo;What creates a man is the blood he is forced to hail from. What makes him a man is the blood he chooses to spill.&rsquo; <br /> - M&acirc;rdat the Serpent Lord, T.A. 1241</em><br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n sped towards the city. His enemies had found him quicker than he expected. As he had caught the sight of Badhark&acirc;n, the port-city of Far Harad, he saw dust rising on the road behind him; a troop of Khandish mercenaries galloped over his tracks. Brigands would not dare to attack him so close to the city walls &ndash; no, these men were guided by a purpose towards a target. Amur Sulad&acirc;n realised he was that target.<br /> <br /> Launching his dusky steed with a shout, arrows whined past him. He ducked sharply in the saddle, and pushed his horse to an even swifter pace. As a shaft whistled past his flank, Sulad&acirc;n decided to retaliate in turn. He had never been skilled with a bow, let alone whilst mounted, but his friend H&acirc;ran had taught him well. As he took out the arc and bent the string, he was suddenly glad to have the practice. Steady and patient, he loosed the shaft, which plunged into the forelegs of one of his assailants&rsquo; horses. The beast collapsed, and brought another horse down in its ruin. Wherever H&acirc;ran was, thought Sulad&acirc;n, he would be proud of that shot. Wisely, he released his feet from his own harnesses, to avoid trapping lest the same would happen to his horse.<br /> <br /> Although he fired several more arrows, he could no longer find a direct hit &ndash; save for one shot which pierced the shoulder of one of the mercenaries, which only seemed to make him angrier. Sulad&acirc;n was now in plain sight of the walls of Badhark&acirc;n &ndash; but the gates were not open. As this dismay wracked him, the Khandish found a target and his horse collapsed, pierced in its flank. Luckily for Sulad&acirc;n, he had foreseen this, and deftly jumped from his felled steed.<br /> <br /> The mercenaries wheeled around the fallen rider, shooting to no effect. For Sulad&acirc;n hid in the cover of his dead horse, and continued to fire back. His aim now flourishing, he struck two more of the horsemen down, until only two were now left. Roaring, they drew out their cruelly curved hand axes, and charged at their young prey. Sulad&acirc;n, however, had anticipated their onset. Drawing his sword, gifted to him by Captain Valakar, he struck into the neck of one of the horses, sending the rider to the ground in a daze. The second man leapt from his mount and slashed inches above Sulad&acirc;n&rsquo;s head; this was the ferocious warrior with the arrow jutting from his shoulder. The great man, built like an ox, brought his weapon down in brutal, strong cuts, but Sulad&acirc;n was swift as a snake, darting from the Variag with keen expertise. Cursing, the mercenary brought his axe down with such force that he again missed his enemy and landed it stuck in the horse corpse. As he struggled to pull it loose, with one striking motion Sulad&acirc;n cut the head from his body. Wiping the blood from his blade, he set about gathering up his arrows with a certain satisfaction.<br /> <br /> As he moved over the dust, he realised that one of the men was not dead, but simply unconscious after falling from his horse. Sulad&acirc;n kicked him before he awoke, and when he did, a sword was laid over his throat.<br /> &lsquo;Tell me who hired you and you keep your life,&rsquo; ordered Sulad&acirc;n.<br /> &lsquo;I&rsquo;m a mercenary, I can only be bought with money,&rsquo; the man chuckled.<br /> &lsquo;You have a strange attitude, given your position.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Life comes an&rsquo; goes, it&rsquo;s expendable,&rsquo; said the Variag. &lsquo;The importance of money is unchanging.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> In spite of himself, Sulad&acirc;n was amused by the bandit. &lsquo;I can at least admire that you stick to your belief. Very well, have this,&rsquo; he agreed, dropping a gold coin on him. &lsquo;Now tell me who your employer is, or it will be two gold coins &ndash; laid upon your dead eyes.&rsquo;<br /> The mercenary fingered the gold, still casual to the blade by his neck. &lsquo;Three hooded fellows coming out o&rsquo;Abrak&acirc;n, the Golden City. They gave us half then, and half more when we brought them yer head. They were trying very hard not to look like &lsquo;em, but I bet on the gold you just gave me they were H&acirc;sharii.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n expected just as much. He had seen with his own eyes the corrupt assassins Javit&acirc;kh, Dr&ocirc;zhna and V&acirc;shnir abandon the fight in the chamber below Abrak&acirc;n. Even now, the Cult of Sauron had survived, and was trying to end him.<br /> &lsquo;Did you expect me here?&rsquo; Sulad&acirc;n asked.<br /> &lsquo;No, we were told to look for you in the Golden City, or going eastwards along the Amr&ucirc;n Road. I daresay, you&rsquo;ve got the look of an Amr&ucirc;nian yerself. Ain&rsquo;t it been overrun by King Surakaris by now?&rsquo;<br /> Sulad&acirc;n ignored the question. He had kept the guilt of quitting the battles in Amr&ucirc;n by H&acirc;ran&rsquo;s side from his mind, but he vowed to return after his visit to Badhark&acirc;n. If there was an Amr&ucirc;n still to return to...<br /> <br /> The two men were alerted to a contingent of warriors marching from the gates of the city. Their chieftain looked at the fallen warriors, and at Sulad&acirc;n and his hostage.<br /> &lsquo;Our thanks,&rsquo; he said to Sulad&acirc;n, &lsquo;for not allowing us to waste our arrows. We do not take kindly to mercenaries in Badhark&acirc;n, especially Khandish ones. But you had better give us compensation for making such a mess &ndash; or you will go to prison with your friend.&rsquo;<br /> Sighing, Sulad&acirc;n passed some coins to the chieftain, who looked them over and grunted in approval. &lsquo;Now, what is your business in Badhark&acirc;n?&rsquo; he asked, a little more friendly, as his men took the mercenary and hauled him towards the city.<br /> &lsquo;I have come seeking the lineage of my mother, which is a mystery to me &ndash; one I seek to unravel,&rsquo; Sulad&acirc;n answered. &lsquo;Her name was Jerra Sulad&acirc;n, and she once told me she hailed from this city.&rsquo;<br /> At this the chieftain&rsquo;s face froze, and he glanced anxiously at his men. &lsquo;You had better come with me to see my grandfather.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Why? Who is your grandfather?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;The King Marud&icirc;r of Badhark&acirc;n,&rsquo; said the chieftain, as he began to escort Sulad&acirc;n into the city. &lsquo;He shall answer your questions.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> <br /> It had been a long journey from Abrak&acirc;n to Badhark&acirc;n, and there had been little rest on the way; for there were few homely places and Sulad&acirc;n wanted to make good time before his return to Amr&ucirc;n. He had to pass the cursed forests and ruined city of K&acirc;rna, where it was said the dead walked, and magical wardens stalked the collapsed streets. At his only warm bed between there and Abrak&acirc;n, at The Rebel&rsquo;s Inn, the landlord informed him to bear due west after passing the Crossings of the River Umbar. <br /> <br /> &ldquo;The road carries south to the city of Azhk&acirc;har, which recently has become just as cursed as K&acirc;rna,&rdquo; he had said. &ldquo;A terrible malady took hold of the city, and drove the peoples out. This was of course after it rebelled against Umbar. From what men have told me, they tell me it was that famous H&acirc;sharin &ndash; Kharid Dr&ocirc;zhna, that&rsquo;s his name &ndash; but how he could ruin a whole city like that I haven&rsquo;t a clue. Nonetheless, the survivors still roam the area, the Ghost Tribe some call them, seeking vengeance and such. And with the Mah&ucirc;d migrating up from the deep south, and so many brigands in the area, you might just live a little longer by staying off the roads. Maybe.&rdquo;<br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n had done what was advised, bearing west until he could smell the salty breeze of the sea and see Badhark&acirc;n in the distance, but danger had still found him. Weary after his journey and his fight with the mercenaries, the chieftain leading Sulad&acirc;n permitted him a few morsels to eat and water to drink before seeing his grandfather the King, whilst the surviving Variag was driven into a cell.<br /> &lsquo;I&rsquo;ll be seeing yer around,&rsquo; smirked the rogue as he was separated from Sulad&acirc;n, who could not tell if the villain still wanted his head, or was genuinely pleased by his company.<br /> <br /> <br /> Badhark&acirc;n had stood for a very long time. It had been established by the N&uacute;menoreans after their construction of Umbar, as a support for the infamous port-city &ndash; although none in Harad could remember its name in Westernesse. Black N&uacute;menoreans had ruled the Haradrim of Badhark&acirc;n since its creation, until the rebellion of M&acirc;rdat the Serpent Lord, where he deposed them, seeing them as no better than the occupying Gondor. It had remained in control of a new line of Kings since that time, whose history had been tied to the efforts of the ancient Serpent Lord. Forests flanked the city on either side, for they grew plentifully close to the coasts of Far Harad, and a river flowed out of the sea and through Badhark&acirc;n, called the Harwell. Being the second greatest port-city in the dominion of Umbar, it was continually used for the production of ships &ndash; although these were lesser Haradrim vessels, that went to war beside the formidable dromunds of the Corsairs, and so the coastlands of Calenfalas were stored with quays and swift ships ready to move at the command of Umbar.<br /> <br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n was not brought before a grand throne room, decorated with ancient and proud sigils, watched by a hundred resplendent guardsmen. Instead, he was led to a small chamber, scattered with scrolls, where the King was occupied with talking about taxes and more mediocre affairs with a couple of his advisors. Before either of them had said a word, Sulad&acirc;n was relieved to meet a monarch who cast no false airs of grandeur and status &ndash; he liked the man already.<br /> <br /> The King of Badhark&acirc;n was an old man, but his face suggested a youthful spirit unburdened by hours sitting on his throne in boredom. His eyes were as keen and bright as scimitars in the sun, and his voice had an earthy honesty which commanded the genuine respect of even the simplest man.<br /> &lsquo;Yes? What do you need me for, and who is this man?&rsquo; he said casually, tilting his head to Sulad&acirc;n, who bowed accordingly. At this motion, the King irritably gestured him to rise.<br /> &lsquo;This is Amur; he says he is the son of Jerra Sulad&acirc;n, grandfather,&rsquo; announced the chieftain. At this, the King stared at his guest shrewdly and with some surprise. It had seemed he recognised something in Sulad&acirc;n&rsquo;s face when he began speaking. <br /> <br /> &lsquo;Excuse me gentlemen, may I be left alone for a few minutes?&rsquo; the King asked, as all but Sulad&acirc;n and the escorting chieftain left the room and shut the door. &lsquo;We have not been properly introduced,&rsquo; he continued. &lsquo;My name is Marud&icirc;r, and this chieftain is my grandson, M&ucirc;rakir son of M&ucirc;rithir. We are both, as you too appear to be, of the House of Sulad&acirc;n. You see, Jerra was my daughter.&rsquo;<br /> Sulad&acirc;n was shocked. &lsquo;My liege... I do not understand...&rsquo;<br /> King Marud&icirc;r grinned a little. &lsquo;What is there to understand? You thought when your mother said she was from Badhark&acirc;n, that she was a simple tribeswoman? You understand, but you do not comprehend.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I just &ndash; I did not rightly know, my liege. Neither my father nor my mother told me of her past &ndash; I think my father simply wanted to reinforce the fact that I was a Prince of Lurmsak&ucirc;n &ndash;&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;A Prince of Lurmsak&ucirc;n, now!&rsquo; exclaimed Marud&icirc;r. &lsquo;Why, we do have a lot to tell one another! Sit at the table, Amur Sulad&acirc;n, perhaps I can finish the puzzle of your lineage.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;First, you had better learn the history of our line. When M&acirc;rdat, the Serpent Lord, rebelled against Gondor he captured Badhark&acirc;n from the Black N&uacute;menoreans, who had ruled our city since it had been created. In place of them, he appointed his brother M&acirc;rakar as the first King of Badhark&acirc;n. Of course, Gondor never found out M&acirc;rakar was M&acirc;rdat&rsquo;s brother &ndash; otherwise he would have been executed. It is for that reason that few in Harad know of our ancestry.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;So that means that I have the blood of the Serpent Lord in me?&rsquo; mused Sulad&acirc;n.<br /> &lsquo;All three of us do,&rsquo; stated the chieftain M&ucirc;rakir.<br /> &lsquo;As for Jerra, it seems my story finishes where yours begins,&rsquo; said Marud&icirc;r sadly. &lsquo;In an effort to gain more influence in Harad, I betrothed Jerra to the Prince of Abrak&acirc;n, who now rules there as the Golden King. It was a selfish and greedy act, which I have had to live with all my life, for I loved my daughter very much. On the way up the Amr&ucirc;n Road to go to Abrak&acirc;n and so meet her betrothed, Jerra and her company were ambushed by mercenaries. Their ilk are no longer welcome in the Kingdom of Badhark&acirc;n &ndash; I have made even the profession of a mercenary a crime.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;Nevertheless, the rogues captured my daughter and took her to Gad&icirc;rkarn, that rat&rsquo;s nest of renegades by the Bay of Sudu Cull in the east. They ransomed the Golden King and I for her return, but her betrothed was far too incensed by her capture. He took a great army of the Merchant Guard and marched on Gad&icirc;rkarn, but when they had arrived to claim her, the mercenaries took to ship and sailed up the River Sar, into the Bay of Sudu Cull, and across to Zhaneen, the port of Arysis in Amr&ucirc;n. The Golden King considered her lost, and then I heard nothing of her for years.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;I sent my eldest son M&ucirc;rithir to search for her, and when he came to Zhaneen, he discovered her fate. The mercenaries had sold her to the captain of that port-tower, being of course a woman of great beauty. But just a year before M&ucirc;rithir arrived, the King Varnam of Lurmsak&ucirc;n had attacked Zhaneen, and slain its captain. With that news, I despaired, and thought her dead. And so I have ever considered her, until you came here. I suppose that King Varnam took her to wife?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Yes, my liege,&rsquo; said Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;His first wife had died in childbirth, and he required another.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Was she happy with him?&rsquo; the King asked sternly.<br /> &lsquo;I was a young child when I left Lurmsak&ucirc;n, and my father died in battle with the Variags. I do not remember myself, but Jerra always spoke as if she counted herself an Amr&ucirc;nian. Yes, she was happy.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Then I am glad. It is a pity that Surakaris and his Khandish hordes attacked Amr&ucirc;n &ndash; I know little of that land, but what I know is good and noble. I hear King Kurhan of Arysis still fights the invaders?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Yes, he is &ndash; or at least, he was when I left him.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;But tell me, where is Jerra now? What has become of her?&rsquo; asked the King, with a flicker of hope.<br /> &lsquo;I am afraid, as you predicted my liege, she is dead. She fell in a ziggurat of the Great Desert, claimed by fell spirits.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> The King Marud&icirc;r bowed his head. &lsquo;It is as I feared &ndash; although her fall was one I could have never predicted. She was always an adventurer, even as a little girl, wanting to play soldiers with the boys rather than... But, I digress. It seems you have had many adventures yourself, by what you allude to. I would have you tell me all, if you feel confident enough around your new grandfather yet?&rsquo; With that, the grief left him, and he had a twinkle in his eyes that Sulad&acirc;n knew he could be trusting with.<br /> <br /> And so Sulad&acirc;n told the King and his grandson of all his exploits; from his flight from Lurmsak&ucirc;n; to his quests with the company of Captain Valakar; to the horrors of the Shadow Queen&rsquo;s ziggurat; the ambush of the H&acirc;sharii at Dh&acirc;ran-sar (at which chieftain M&ucirc;rakir tensed with the name of Dr&ocirc;zhna); his return to Amr&ucirc;n; his exploits at Solendon and his victories with H&acirc;ran; his discovery of his half-brother Lasran and their ride to Abrak&acirc;n; and finally their attack on the Cult of Sauron, in which Lasran perished, and how Sulad&acirc;n began his journey to Badhark&acirc;n. <br /> <br /> &lsquo;You are indeed worthy to be of our house, my grandson,&rsquo; said the King Marud&icirc;r with respect. &lsquo;But I regret to say, it is getting late, and I need to continue with my meagre affairs. Taxes will now seem even duller to organise after that tale! But quarters will be prepared for you, and I shall see you in the morning &ndash; for you are of the house of Badhark&acirc;n and will rest in the luxury of my palace. And if you must leave to Amr&ucirc;n soon, so be it, but know that you will always have a place here.&rsquo;<br /> Bowing once again, Sulad&acirc;n quit to his room, as Marud&icirc;r mused; &lsquo;Many years ago I lost a daughter travelling to Abrak&acirc;n, and now, from that same city, a grandson comes home.&rsquo; Still exhilarated by the day&rsquo;s revelations, Sulad&acirc;n collapsed into his silky bed, being joyful to settle down to his first peaceful sleep in weeks. Although with Lasran&rsquo;s death he had lost one family, here, he had gained another.<br /> <br /> <br /> For chieftain M&ucirc;rakir, however, the night was far from over. Unconcerned with the revelation of his new cousin, he was more concerned that this cousin was the target who his master had been searching for. Taking up pen and scroll, he wrote a message to be sent by ship to Umbar, and taken to the shadowy tower of the Hsar Karnak;<br /> <br /> <em>12th November, 3002<br /> My master,<br /> Amur Sulad&acirc;n has come to the city of Badhark&acirc;n, and revealed himself to be a kinsman of mine. My grandfather the King has seemingly taken the man under his wing, and so if you wish to assassinate him, he will be in the palace rooms. Otherwise, at your command, I will do it myself.<br /> Sulad&acirc;n told me himself of your defeat at Abrak&acirc;n. This is news to my ears, and if vengeance must be exacted upon the Merchant Guard, I am ready to fight at your behest.<br /> I must also warn you that he proposes to return to Amr&ucirc;n as soon as possible, but I suspect by the King&rsquo;s hospitality he will stay for around a week. I have dispatched this message as soon as I could, and it will travel by the fastest ship in the harbour. I pray it reaches you promptly.<br /> Your loyal servant, M&ucirc;rakir.<br /> <br /> 14th November, 3002<br /> Servant,<br /> I do not hope you have any sympathies towards your kinsman. He is my enemy, and if you were to become his ally, you will have me to answer to.<br /> Yet, your prompt letter shows otherwise. The dotard will not be assassinated &ndash; I have concocted a better scheme for him. A day after this letter goes out, Badhark&acirc;n will have two guests &ndash; H&acirc;sharii. They are Garthik Inculd&icirc;r and Latir Cor&acirc;zin; although neither are involved with the Cult, the latter was with me when I destroyed that rogue Raukaz&acirc;n at Dh&acirc;ran-sar. Give them your full support, for they have an errand with Amur Sulad&acirc;n. Although their visit will not require knives, our intent is no less poisonous.<br /> The Golden King is too strong &ndash; but the fool and his repulsive guardsmen will fall, in time. For the shadow will come to full force in Harad, and those who rule against its will shall be annihilated.<br /> As for his return to Amr&ucirc;n, the H&acirc;sharii will be bringing some recent news, which Sulad&acirc;n will most likely enjoy...<br /> Kharid Dr&ocirc;zhna.</em><br /> <br /> <br /> Five days after M&ucirc;rakir had sent his letter, a black ship docked at the ports of Badhark&acirc;n, and from it two assassins crept. As agents of Umbar, they were brought before the King Marud&icirc;r &ndash; and though he did not favour their presence, he was not so foolish enough as to trifle with the H&acirc;sharii.<br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n was called before the King and the two hooded men. At their sight, he instinctively reached for his sword, but the King motioned him to be calm.<br /> &lsquo;They are but messengers from the Lords of Umbar,&rsquo; Marud&icirc;r said. &lsquo;They wish you no harm.&rsquo; Though the look in the King&rsquo;s face said otherwise.<br /> &lsquo;Amur Sulad&acirc;n, I am Garthik Inculd&icirc;r,&rsquo; the taller of the two said. &lsquo;And this is my companion, Cor&acirc;zin.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I know who your companion is,&rsquo; he snarled, recognising the H&acirc;sharin who had ambushed his company at Dh&acirc;ran-sar.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;The Lords of Umbar are impressed by your... exploits,&rsquo; Inculd&icirc;r hissed. &lsquo;Your part in the culling of the hated Cult of Sauron is impressive, as are the stories of your trials at Solendon in Amr&ucirc;n. In accordance to this, they have gifted to you a promotion.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;A promotion? I have never served the Lords of Umbar. How can I be promoted?&rsquo;<br /> Cor&acirc;zin&rsquo;s eyes narrowed. &lsquo;By making travel and combat in Harad you have fallen under their jurisdiction,&rsquo; he spat. &lsquo;And as you are the kinsman of a King of these lands, who are the vassals of the Lords&rsquo; will, not only your blood but your royal status ties you to the Council.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n looked darkly at this. &lsquo;Very well, what is the offered promotion?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Not offered,&rsquo; corrected Cor&acirc;zin. &lsquo;Obstinately required.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;You have been promoted to become a chieftain on the Harad-Khand border,&rsquo; continued Inculd&icirc;r in a businesslike manner. &lsquo;Not just any simple chieftain, though, you will be the lieutenant under the Border Forts&rsquo; Commander, M&ocirc;rvar Ch&acirc;ric. A worthy position, and an honourable one, would you not say?&rsquo;<br /> <br /> &lsquo;Very,&rsquo; Sulad&acirc;n lied. He knew that this must be some scheme of Dr&ocirc;zhna&rsquo;s making &ndash; life on the Border Forts was bloody and short, no matter your rank upon them. This was nothing but a disguised death sentence. &lsquo;But, I regret to inform you I have prior engagements. I am bound by oath to the King Kurhan of Arysis, and I intend to return to him in Amr&ucirc;n.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;You do not have a choice in this,&rsquo; reaffirmed Cor&acirc;zin. &lsquo;Our lands, our dominion &ndash; I mean, the Lords&rsquo; dominion, of course.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n smiled at the H&acirc;sharin&rsquo;s slip of the tongue, but what Inculd&icirc;r said next changed his life forever.<br /> &lsquo;Oh, but have you not heard the news? Our agents informed us just before we left Umbar, and by the sound of it, I think your help will be direly needed upon that border. The King Kurhan is dead, and Arysis is taken. All of Amr&ucirc;n has become the kingdom of Surak-Khand under the Variags. Why, boy, you look as if you did not know?&rsquo;<br /> <br /> And so it was. Sulad&acirc;n could barely stop himself from falling to the floor in horror. All that H&acirc;ran and he had achieved &ndash; and Arysis had still fallen. Lurmsak&ucirc;n was gone forever. Amr&ucirc;n was gone forever. Most likely, H&acirc;ran was gone forever. All that Sulad&acirc;n had left now was Harad &ndash; a desperate exile in a wide and desolate land. All he had left was the blood of M&acirc;rdat.</p>
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