‘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.’
– Mârdat the Serpent Lord, T.A. 1241
Suladân sped towards the city. His enemies had found him quicker than he expected. As he had caught the sight of Badharkân, 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 – no, these men were guided by a purpose towards a target. Amur Suladân realised he was that target.
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, Suladân decided to retaliate in turn. He had never been skilled with a bow, let alone whilst mounted, but his friend Hâran 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’ horses. The beast collapsed, and brought another horse down in its ruin. Wherever Hâran was, thought Suladân, 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.
Although he fired several more arrows, he could no longer find a direct hit – save for one shot which pierced the shoulder of one of the mercenaries, which only seemed to make him angrier. Suladân was now in plain sight of the walls of Badharkân – 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 Suladân, he had foreseen this, and deftly jumped from his felled steed.
The mercenaries wheeled around the fallen rider, shooting to no effect. For Suladân 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. Suladân, 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 Suladân’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 Suladân 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 Suladân cut the head from his body. Wiping the blood from his blade, he set about gathering up his arrows with a certain satisfaction.
As he moved over the dust, he realised that one of the men was not dead, but simply unconscious after falling from his horse. Suladân kicked him before he awoke, and when he did, a sword was laid over his throat.
‘Tell me who hired you and you keep your life,’ ordered Suladân.
‘I’m a mercenary, I can only be bought with money,’ the man chuckled.
‘You have a strange attitude, given your position.’
‘Life comes an’ goes, it’s expendable,’ said the Variag. ‘The importance of money is unchanging.’
In spite of himself, Suladân was amused by the bandit. ‘I can at least admire that you stick to your belief. Very well, have this,’ he agreed, dropping a gold coin on him. ‘Now tell me who your employer is, or it will be two gold coins – laid upon your dead eyes.’
The mercenary fingered the gold, still casual to the blade by his neck. ‘Three hooded fellows coming out o’Abrakân, 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 ’em, but I bet on the gold you just gave me they were Hâsharii.’
Suladân expected just as much. He had seen with his own eyes the corrupt assassins Javitâkh, Drôzhna and Vâshnir abandon the fight in the chamber below Abrakân. Even now, the Cult of Sauron had survived, and was trying to end him.
‘Did you expect me here?’ Suladân asked.
‘No, we were told to look for you in the Golden City, or going eastwards along the Amrûn Road. I daresay, you’ve got the look of an Amrûnian yerself. Ain’t it been overrun by King Surakaris by now?’
Suladân ignored the question. He had kept the guilt of quitting the battles in Amrûn by Hâran’s side from his mind, but he vowed to return after his visit to Badharkân. If there was an Amrûn still to return to…
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 Suladân and his hostage.
‘Our thanks,’ he said to Suladân, ‘for not allowing us to waste our arrows. We do not take kindly to mercenaries in Badharkân, especially Khandish ones. But you had better give us compensation for making such a mess – or you will go to prison with your friend.’
Sighing, Suladân passed some coins to the chieftain, who looked them over and grunted in approval. ‘Now, what is your business in Badharkân?’ he asked, a little more friendly, as his men took the mercenary and hauled him towards the city.
‘I have come seeking the lineage of my mother, which is a mystery to me – one I seek to unravel,’ Suladân answered. ‘Her name was Jerra Suladân, and she once told me she hailed from this city.’
At this the chieftain’s face froze, and he glanced anxiously at his men. ‘You had better come with me to see my grandfather.’
‘Why? Who is your grandfather?’
‘The King Marudîr of Badharkân,’ said the chieftain, as he began to escort Suladân into the city. ‘He shall answer your questions.’
It had been a long journey from Abrakân to Badharkân, and there had been little rest on the way; for there were few homely places and Suladân wanted to make good time before his return to Amrûn. He had to pass the cursed forests and ruined city of Kârna, where it was said the dead walked, and magical wardens stalked the collapsed streets. At his only warm bed between there and Abrakân, at The Rebel’s Inn, the landlord informed him to bear due west after passing the Crossings of the River Umbar.
“The road carries south to the city of Azhkâhar, which recently has become just as cursed as Kârna,” he had said. “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 Hâsharin – Kharid Drôzhna, that’s his name – but how he could ruin a whole city like that I haven’t a clue. Nonetheless, the survivors still roam the area, the Ghost Tribe some call them, seeking vengeance and such. And with the Mahûd 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.”
Suladân had done what was advised, bearing west until he could smell the salty breeze of the sea and see Badharkân in the distance, but danger had still found him. Weary after his journey and his fight with the mercenaries, the chieftain leading Suladân 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.
‘I’ll be seeing yer around,’ smirked the rogue as he was separated from Suladân, who could not tell if the villain still wanted his head, or was genuinely pleased by his company.
Badharkân had stood for a very long time. It had been established by the Númenoreans after their construction of Umbar, as a support for the infamous port-city – although none in Harad could remember its name in Westernesse. Black Númenoreans had ruled the Haradrim of Badharkân since its creation, until the rebellion of Mârdat 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 Badharkân, called the Harwell. Being the second greatest port-city in the dominion of Umbar, it was continually used for the production of ships – 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.
Suladân 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, Suladân was relieved to meet a monarch who cast no false airs of grandeur and status – he liked the man already.
The King of Badharkân 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.
‘Yes? What do you need me for, and who is this man?’ he said casually, tilting his head to Suladân, who bowed accordingly. At this motion, the King irritably gestured him to rise.
‘This is Amur; he says he is the son of Jerra Suladân, grandfather,’ announced the chieftain. At this, the King stared at his guest shrewdly and with some surprise. It had seemed he recognised something in Suladân’s face when he began speaking.
‘Excuse me gentlemen, may I be left alone for a few minutes?’ the King asked, as all but Suladân and the escorting chieftain left the room and shut the door. ‘We have not been properly introduced,’ he continued. ‘My name is Marudîr, and this chieftain is my grandson, Mûrakir son of Mûrithir. We are both, as you too appear to be, of the House of Suladân. You see, Jerra was my daughter.’
Suladân was shocked. ‘My liege… I do not understand…’
King Marudîr grinned a little. ‘What is there to understand? You thought when your mother said she was from Badharkân, that she was a simple tribeswoman? You understand, but you do not comprehend.’
‘I just – I did not rightly know, my liege. Neither my father nor my mother told me of her past – I think my father simply wanted to reinforce the fact that I was a Prince of Lurmsakûn –’
‘A Prince of Lurmsakûn, now!’ exclaimed Marudîr. ‘Why, we do have a lot to tell one another! Sit at the table, Amur Suladân, perhaps I can finish the puzzle of your lineage.
‘First, you had better learn the history of our line. When Mârdat, the Serpent Lord, rebelled against Gondor he captured Badharkân from the Black Númenoreans, who had ruled our city since it had been created. In place of them, he appointed his brother Mârakar as the first King of Badharkân. Of course, Gondor never found out Mârakar was Mârdat’s brother – otherwise he would have been executed. It is for that reason that few in Harad know of our ancestry.’
‘So that means that I have the blood of the Serpent Lord in me?’ mused Suladân.
‘All three of us do,’ stated the chieftain Mûrakir.
‘As for Jerra, it seems my story finishes where yours begins,’ said Marudîr sadly. ‘In an effort to gain more influence in Harad, I betrothed Jerra to the Prince of Abrakân, 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 Amrûn Road to go to Abrakân and so meet her betrothed, Jerra and her company were ambushed by mercenaries. Their ilk are no longer welcome in the Kingdom of Badharkân – I have made even the profession of a mercenary a crime.
‘Nevertheless, the rogues captured my daughter and took her to Gadîrkarn, that rat’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 Gadîrkarn, 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 Amrûn. The Golden King considered her lost, and then I heard nothing of her for years.
‘I sent my eldest son Mûrithir 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 Mûrithir arrived, the King Varnam of Lurmsakûn 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?’
‘Yes, my liege,’ said Suladân. ‘His first wife had died in childbirth, and he required another.’
‘Was she happy with him?’ the King asked sternly.
‘I was a young child when I left Lurmsakûn, and my father died in battle with the Variags. I do not remember myself, but Jerra always spoke as if she counted herself an Amrûnian. Yes, she was happy.’
‘Then I am glad. It is a pity that Surakaris and his Khandish hordes attacked Amrûn – I know little of that land, but what I know is good and noble. I hear King Kurhan of Arysis still fights the invaders?’
‘Yes, he is – or at least, he was when I left him.’
‘But tell me, where is Jerra now? What has become of her?’ asked the King, with a flicker of hope.
‘I am afraid, as you predicted my liege, she is dead. She fell in a ziggurat of the Great Desert, claimed by fell spirits.’
The King Marudîr bowed his head. ‘It is as I feared – 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?’ With that, the grief left him, and he had a twinkle in his eyes that Suladân knew he could be trusting with.
And so Suladân told the King and his grandson of all his exploits; from his flight from Lurmsakûn; to his quests with the company of Captain Valakar; to the horrors of the Shadow Queen’s ziggurat; the ambush of the Hâsharii at Dhâran-sar (at which chieftain Mûrakir tensed with the name of Drôzhna); his return to Amrûn; his exploits at Solendon and his victories with Hâran; his discovery of his half-brother Lasran and their ride to Abrakân; and finally their attack on the Cult of Sauron, in which Lasran perished, and how Suladân began his journey to Badharkân.
‘You are indeed worthy to be of our house, my grandson,’ said the King Marudîr with respect. ‘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 – for you are of the house of Badharkân and will rest in the luxury of my palace. And if you must leave to Amrûn soon, so be it, but know that you will always have a place here.’
Bowing once again, Suladân quit to his room, as Marudîr mused; ‘Many years ago I lost a daughter travelling to Abrakân, and now, from that same city, a grandson comes home.’ Still exhilarated by the day’s revelations, Suladân collapsed into his silky bed, being joyful to settle down to his first peaceful sleep in weeks. Although with Lasran’s death he had lost one family, here, he had gained another.
For chieftain Mûrakir, 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;
12th November, 3002
Amur Suladân has come to the city of Badharkân, 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.
Suladân told me himself of your defeat at Abrakân. This is news to my ears, and if vengeance must be exacted upon the Merchant Guard, I am ready to fight at your behest.
I must also warn you that he proposes to return to Amrûn as soon as possible, but I suspect by the King’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.
Your loyal servant, Mûrakir.
14th November, 3002
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.
Yet, your prompt letter shows otherwise. The dotard will not be assassinated – I have concocted a better scheme for him. A day after this letter goes out, Badharkân will have two guests – Hâsharii. They are Garthik Inculdîr and Latir Corâzin; although neither are involved with the Cult, the latter was with me when I destroyed that rogue Raukazân at Dhâran-sar. Give them your full support, for they have an errand with Amur Suladân. Although their visit will not require knives, our intent is no less poisonous.
The Golden King is too strong – 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.
As for his return to Amrûn, the Hâsharii will be bringing some recent news, which Suladân will most likely enjoy…
Five days after Mûrakir had sent his letter, a black ship docked at the ports of Badharkân, and from it two assassins crept. As agents of Umbar, they were brought before the King Marudîr – and though he did not favour their presence, he was not so foolish enough as to trifle with the Hâsharii.
Suladân 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.
‘They are but messengers from the Lords of Umbar,’ Marudîr said. ‘They wish you no harm.’ Though the look in the King’s face said otherwise.
‘Amur Suladân, I am Garthik Inculdîr,’ the taller of the two said. ‘And this is my companion, Corâzin.’
‘I know who your companion is,’ he snarled, recognising the Hâsharin who had ambushed his company at Dhâran-sar.
‘The Lords of Umbar are impressed by your… exploits,’ Inculdîr hissed. ‘Your part in the culling of the hated Cult of Sauron is impressive, as are the stories of your trials at Solendon in Amrûn. In accordance to this, they have gifted to you a promotion.’
‘A promotion? I have never served the Lords of Umbar. How can I be promoted?’
Corâzin’s eyes narrowed. ‘By making travel and combat in Harad you have fallen under their jurisdiction,’ he spat. ‘And as you are the kinsman of a King of these lands, who are the vassals of the Lords’ will, not only your blood but your royal status ties you to the Council.’
Suladân looked darkly at this. ‘Very well, what is the offered promotion?’
‘Not offered,’ corrected Corâzin. ‘Obstinately required.’
‘You have been promoted to become a chieftain on the Harad-Khand border,’ continued Inculdîr in a businesslike manner. ‘Not just any simple chieftain, though, you will be the lieutenant under the Border Forts’ Commander, Môrvar Châric. A worthy position, and an honourable one, would you not say?’
‘Very,’ Suladân lied. He knew that this must be some scheme of Drôzhna’s making – life on the Border Forts was bloody and short, no matter your rank upon them. This was nothing but a disguised death sentence. ‘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 Amrûn.’
‘You do not have a choice in this,’ reaffirmed Corâzin. ‘Our lands, our dominion – I mean, the Lords’ dominion, of course.’
Suladân smiled at the Hâsharin’s slip of the tongue, but what Inculdîr said next changed his life forever.
‘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 Amrûn has become the kingdom of Surak-Khand under the Variags. Why, boy, you look as if you did not know?’
And so it was. Suladân could barely stop himself from falling to the floor in horror. All that Hâran and he had achieved – and Arysis had still fallen. Lurmsakûn was gone forever. Amrûn was gone forever. Most likely, Hâran was gone forever. All that Suladân had left now was Harad – a desperate exile in a wide and desolate land. All he had left was the blood of Mârdat.