Year 2997 of the Third Age
The two Hasharii crept through the brush as stealthily as snakes, their fingertips poised to clutch their weapons; blades, throwing daggers, blowpipes, all tipped with the poison of the most deadly desert creatures. The forest that encapsulated the oasis and hidden city Dharan-sar of Far Harad was thick, but Kharid Drozhna and his companion, Latir Corazin, moved through it with expert poise.
It had been two years since Drozhna had taken the Oath of Venom, making him now fifteen years of age, but he was already proving himself to be one of the deadliest agents of the Hasharii Order. Corazin had only been anointed barely a year ago, but he too was showing much promise to his masters.
At his oath-making, Drozhna had given the rest of his order cause for concern after speaking aloud the Shadow Queen’s words that he was ‘her champion’, spreading talk of the young Hasharin being a chosen member of their order. However, Drozhna himself did not like to give fervour to such rumours, rather letting his skill show his brilliance than religious talk – although he had enjoyed the respect and power shown to him of late.
‘I can hear something up ahead,’ whispered Corazin, his words as thin as air.
Kharid nodded to back up his claim, and they drew their blowpipes without as much as a sound. As one, they loaded venomous darts into their projectiles, and crept closer and closer to the noises of footsteps upon the ground.
Drozhna and Corazin had been tasked by the elder council and the Black Scorpion, the head of their order, to delve into the forests of Dharan-sar and hunt down a band of fortune seekers who had ventured through the Nafarat – the Great Desert of Harad – and found blasphemous evidence that stood against their worship of the sacred Shadow Queen. The two young assassins, highly loyal to their goddess, had taken up the assignment with zeal.
Much had been told to the two Hasharii of the group they were to ambush, for one of their number, an erstwhile warden of the port-city of Umbar named Belzagar, had sold out his two other companions to a source of the Black Scorpion’s at Dharan-sar. One was himself an ex-Hasharin called Iaman Raukazan, for whose head the elder council had bayed for a very long time, and the other was but a young man, the same age as Drozhna nonetheless, the son of a lost kingdom, Amur Suladan. The orders relayed to Drozhna and Corazin were to protect Belzagar, kill Raukazan and Suladan, and destroy any incriminating evidence against the Shadow Queen.
The assassins, still creeping through the shrub like creatures born in the forests, soon came to a clearing, where a rudimentary path was made through the brush. There they stopped, their blowpipes poised against their lips. Up through the felled ground came their quarry, each individual unmistakable. Belzagar strode clad in silver armour and a black cloak; Raukazan in what was once the traditional garment of a Hasharii, but had lessened through weathering; and the young Suladan in poor cloth, carrying a large sack which was most definitely where the blasphemous artefacts were kept.
But suddenly Raukazan, harking some sound that only one of his background could hear, instantly dropped to the floor, pulling his two companions down with him as the pair of darts whistled overhead.
Branches cracked harshly as Drozhna and Corazin leapt lightning-fast from the shadows. Their blades were drawn in a flash of silver, but so were Raukazan’s. Renegade though he was, his ability was still an easy match for the two young Hasharii.
‘Belzagar, get Suladan and the artefacts and go, they are all that matter!’ cried Raukazan between his strikes. But Belzagar did not move from the floor, though he now slowly groped for his sword. Suladan, however, had the courage of a man twice his youthful years, and made a war cry as he drew his scimitar against the attackers. Yet valour has no mention in the pages of assassins, and Corazin deftly kicked the boy mid-chest, sending him flying to the earth.
‘Belzagar!’ shouted Suladan desperately, the Hasharii now beginning to weary their skilled opponent. ‘Why don’t you help him? Why don’t you help Raukazan?’ The young man made to cry again, but Belzagar in one movement smacked Suladan and brought his sword up through Raukazan’s chest.
The old rogue Hasharin had a look of both surprise and disappointment, though through dying breaths he spoke to Suladan; ‘Run, boy. Fly.’ And with that he ran into the trees, carrying still the sack of artefacts, now far too deep into the forest to see Drozhna behead his old companion.
‘Curse you, Belzagar! Curse you, betrayer!’ cried Suladan as he disappeared, half in rage and half in sorrow.
‘Go! After the boy!’ Belzagar screamed to the Hasharii, but they were away before he had even finished speaking. Moving like a pack through the density, Corazin and Drozhna dispersed in a scissor-shape, bolting through branch, leaping over root, slashing at brush.
Drozhna’s heightened senses easily heard the desperate footsteps and panting breath of his prey, hungrily trailing the sounds with maddened righteousness. He then heard a crash, and coming upon Suladan found that he had tripped upon a particularly bloated root and lay grovelling in the shrub.
The young Hasharii leapt on him like a hunting cat, but Suladan managed to stop the press on him and hold the dagger locked in Drozhna’s hand from finding his throat.
‘Venomous worms like you should be crushed into the dirt,’ swore Suladan, kicking outwards with his feet and sending Drozhna reeling backwards, unexpecting such an attack and such wilful strength. The Hasharin came back at him with a swooping strike of his knife, but before its stroke was finished Suladan wheeled the large sack of artefacts and smacked them into Drozhna’s face. Ancient works crunched and broke, and the young Hasharii fell down in a heap as his foe continued to run through the forest.
‘Run coward! Run! Such craven fear has no place in opponents worthy enough to face me!’ cried Drozhna, though his threats eventually began to fade away, as he soon he felt his eyes and his world turn to black.
Kharid eventually awoke in the familiar contours of his rough bed, blinking blindly first, but then he darted up, drawing a sword that was not there, the memories of his fight with Suladan returning in a torrent. Yet as the cold sweat seethed from him, a calm voice spread from the corner of the room, the words gentle, but one of a trickster.
‘It is five days since your ambush on Raukazan and his lackeys. Belzagar was rehabilitated safely and is now under one of the Lords of Umbar; and the head of the renegade sits as a trophy upon the Altar of Venom; but the boy Suladan escaped. We ordered a scouring of Dharan-sar for him, and made him a wanted fugitive – yet the artefacts they possessed were ultimately all destroyed. Which leaves your mission, for the most part, complete, although I gather you did not initially plan to break the blasphemous objects with your own head?’
‘Vashnir? Talvir Vashnir?’ said Drozhna, in weak, hissing breaths.
‘The very same,’ he said, emerging from the corner of Drozhna’s sight and above his bed. Vashnir had taken the Oath of Venom to become a true Hasharin roughly one month before he had done, having quietly watched over his own oath-making, and among the other younger members of their order he liked working with Vashnir the most; though he took the codes and rules to such a serious extent that he did not show his face to anyone, not even inside the hidden stronghold of the assassins.
‘Apparently Corazin has been spreading lies that it was he who beheaded the cursed Raukazan, but the wise of us know that it was truly you, champion,’ continued Vashnir.
‘I am no champion of the Shadow Queen if I cannot slay a meagre child…’ he rasped, thinking menacingly of Suladan.
‘Such mistakes happen from time to time, and even at our young ages they are rare. The Shadow Queen will enable your vengeance, one day.’
‘I too put all my trust and faith in our almighty goddess,’ replied Drozhna. ‘Yet still, situations like the fight at Dharan-sar sometimes make me, though momentarily…doubt.’
Kharid expected his companion to exclaim in shock at such a thought, but to his surprise, Vashnir stood firm, still staring with the same, green eyes.
‘You are right to,’ said Vashnir. ‘For great men of potential such as you see through delusions forged by religion. But such a shade of doubt has guaranteed to me that you are ready.’
‘Ready? Ready for what, Vashnir?’
‘To learn the truth,’ he cooed, moving to Kharid’s closet and throwing his robes at him. ‘Get dressed quickly, and follow me. Then you shall know what it is to be a true Hasharin.’
Drozhna had followed Vashnir, to his surprise, out from their secret stronghold, where they took to horse and road towards the north. After several days of riding Drozhna had a good idea of where they would lead to. At dusk they had reached it – where the two great roads of the Southlands, the Harad Road and the Amrun Road, met at a crossroads, and like a beating heart at the centre of the traffic was the golden city of Abrakan. Thought by many to be the wealthiest trade centre in all of Middle-earth, its shining spires were a beacon of opulence, and her strong walls a silent threat against any seeking to plunder her riches. Here the Merchant Guard held authority as the soldiery and vassals of their Golden King, but they were not so mighty yet as to dare to bar the way of the Hasharii, and the two agents passed through the bustling market streets unhindered.
Soon they came to an empty house in the less populous regions of the city, though two guardsmen protected it. These however were not in the uniform of the Merchant Guard, but in black cloaks, wielding spears of dull silver.
Vashnir spoke a password to the two guardsmen, but it was a foul language Drozhna had never heard before. The spears slackened, and Vashnir thrust open the doors. Kharid halted before following him through, suddenly highly hesitant, but he had no sure reason to turn away now.
The building seemed to be possessed by one of high standing, though as they passed inside, all the walls and cloths were furnished to a dark shade, and all seemed older than they at first appeared. Vashnir’s movements about the building showed to Drozhna that he had been here many times before, and after moving through several dim rooms, Vashnir came to a sizeable portrait of an ancient king draped in splendour, whom the well-learned Drozhna recognised as Ar-Pharazon, the last monarch of Numenor. Why such a hated icon of the Haradrim would be hoarded here was beyond Drozhna, but Vashnir moved to it and plucked it from the wall, revealing a hidden stairway spiralling downwards. Vashnir , taking a flaming brand beckoned Drozhna to follow him below.
After a relatively short walk, Drozhna found that they had led into what seemed to be a small room, a foyer of sorts, and on the opposite wall to the staircase stood a large, black iron gate, and above it, both entrancing and menacing, hung the emblem of a great eye.
Drozhna, suddenly hesitant, turned to his companion, whispering harshly, ‘Vashnir, I am very uneasy about this place.’
But Vashnir undeterred walked past him, and then turned and beckoned to him, ‘Follow me, Drozhna. Behind these doors, your true destiny awaits.’
Drozhna did so, and what darkness transpired in that hidden chamber plagued his mind for many years to come.