‘In Gondor, we see our border with Harad as a thin veil in front of a constant threat. And yet it is nothing compared to Harad’s border with Khand. There, no threat of war is feared. That is because war there never ends.’
– Captain Maethor of Velsinir, T.A. 3006
Three years. For three years, Suladân had served on the Harad-Khand border. For three years, he had been subject to his commander, Môrvar Châric, perhaps the most stupid, arrogant man alive. For three years he had mourned the loss of Amrûn, swallowed up by the Variags of Surak-Khand. For three years, he had wished that Drôzhna would just stick a knife in him and be done with it. It would be less painful than another year of this torture.
Even as he had found a new family at Badharkân, and a monarch admirable enough to be worth serving – his own grandfather, Marudîr – he had been ratted out, by whom he knew not. And so the workings of Drôzhna and the Hâsharii Order had brought him here – to the most forsaken patch of land on Middle-earth.
The Border Forts of Near Harad had stood since 1300 of the Third Age, when a Khandish army under the dragon Malpheridon had descended on Pâzghar, ruining the city. In wake of the attack, the occupying Gondor built Kârush in the north, in the shadow of the mountains of Mordor; Vârnakh on a wide hill, a little north of Pâzghar; and Bâlghar in the south, at the mouths of the River Pâzghar by the Bay of Sudu Cull. The river itself ran by all the watchtowers – but there was only a bridge across it at Pâzghar. This did not stop those who wished to penetrate the border, however; for in the summer, when even greater drought was inflicted upon Harad, the river dried before it even reached Pâzghar. This was when the garrisons of the Border Forts were most busy – and when Suladân felt most exhausted with his current life. Nevertheless, duty bound him to Pâzghar – if not duty to the callous Lords of Umbar, then duty to the dead who lay in his invaded land, who would not want the tyranny of Surak-Khand to spread further westwards.
The city of Pâzghar itself was much older than the other three Border Forts. Its beginnings spanned back into the Second Age, and though its constructor and original purpose was a mystery, the oldest buildings within it pointed to a sect of Númenorean architecture. The city’s proximity to the warlike Khand left it mostly abandoned at the start of the Third Age, but when Gondor took control of Harad, it was fortified into their most eastern holding. The fort-city waxed until the disastrous siege of 1300, when Malpheridon burnt it into ruin, despite his eventual defeat by the heroic King Kâldor, who died wounding the beast. The border was held, but the repairing of Pâzghar was neglected by the Gondorian Kings. And so in time it came to be in the control of the Lords of Umbar, who had even smaller care in the upkeep of the Border Forts. Although Pâzghar was still a considerable fortification to lay siege to, Suladân doubted it would be considerable enough if all the armies of Surak-Khand came against it.
A letter had come for Commander Châric in the night, and Suladân wondered at its content. Messages barely came to Pâzghar, such was its neglect, so when one did it was usually something of import. Perhaps the most significant thing Suladân had seen in his three years here was the identification of an individual who carried a letter to Châric himself once. It had been none but the corrupt Hâsharin, Venmal Javitâkh – a member of the Cult of Sauron. He had masterminded Captain Valakar’s quest to the ziggurat of the Shadow Queen, resulting in the deaths of both the noble Captain and Suladân’s own mother Jerra. He had also taken Suladân’s half-sister Adazra as his concubine, who, under her lover’s instruction, betrayed the defences of Lurmsakûn to the Khandish invaders. Amur Suladân reserved a special kind of hatred for Javitâkh. But what had he wanted with Châric? The Commander of the Border Forts was stupid enough and in enough power to be under the control of someone more wily, and Suladân deeply suspected him to be a servant of the insidious Hâsharin. To Suladân, it seemed every other person he met was.
When Môrvar Châric emerged from his chambers, the letter having been read, some surprising news indeed was thrust upon his lieutenant.
‘I am taking half the garrison and heading west.’
‘What?’ exclaimed Suladân. ‘You are supposed to be the Commander of the Border Forts – what business do you have in the west?’
‘Careful, boy. You are my lieutenant, not the other way around.’
‘My apologies, sir,’ replied Suladân, nearly spitting out the words. ‘But do you think it wise to take half of our defence force, especially with the motives of Surak-Khand still unclear?’
‘You think too much, boy,’ mocked Châric. ‘One day you will learn that thinking does not get you anywhere – the only thing you have to do is listen, and obey. If you don’t think, maybe one day you’ll be like me.’
Suladân did not doubt this logic one bit. ‘Then you are going west because of orders?’
‘That’s you thinking again,’ grumbled the Commander. ‘But you’re right. Orders from the top – from Umbar, nonetheless. The Great Army is gathering at Kârnvald as we speak, and they could do with a few more troops to help them attack the Harnen.’
Suladân had heard of this news. It was inevitable that the Lords of Umbar would marshal a force to attack Gondor, with all the unrest spreading from Mordor, war was indeed brewing. What had surprised Suladân, however, is how fast they were preparing for it. It could have been premature action on the part of Umbar – or, it could have been the work of a few key individuals – certain surviving members of the Cult of Sauron. Drôzhna himself was at the mustering army’s central camp of Thrihja Peh – this Suladân knew because his uncle, Mûrithir son of the King Marudîr, had command of the organisation of the encampment.
‘Duty calls, Suladân,’ stated Môrvar Châric. ‘But, it calls on you now as well, so stop thinking and start listening. Whilst I am away, you will command the Border Forts as my regent. If you mess it up, though, you’ll have me to deal with.’
‘Of course, sir, thank you,’ said Suladân; although, in truth, he could not have cared less.
Châric and his picked men were gone in due time, and Suladân was glad to see the back of them. Even if he was not going anywhere, at least Môrvar Châric was not with him.
In the courtyard before the west-gate was the statue of Kâldor, Pâzghar’s defender of old. Suladân stood in the figure’s shadow as he watched Châric and his army march across the dust into the distance. As they passed out of sight, he looked up at Kâldor and wondered at the legendary hero. What was worth defending about Pâzghar, exactly? Suladân almost asked the statue the question. What was even worth defending about Harad? A vast land with more petty tribes and Kingdoms than righteousness, with more sand than grass, and more gold than honour. It was not like Amrûn. Amrûn had been worth defending. Once upon a time, Suladân had been ready to die for Amrûn. Death seemed to be too valuable for a land like Harad.
Sighing, he passed the rubble of the ruined stone streets, where tents and coverings constructed by the garrison as shelters contrasted against the archaic structures like patchwork – like a poorly made bandage attempting to cover up a gargantuan wound. What brightened Suladân’s mood, however, was that as he passed men bowed at him, and gave greetings of respect. A few men even called him ‘Commander’. Châric had been gone less than an hour, and men had opted to his rule instantaneously. It appeared he commanded more respect than he had first thought.
Seeking to address what few duties he might have and get out of the garish midday sun, Suladân bounded up the stairs of the inner wall of the city, where a squat tower jutted from the battlements. This was Châric’s quarter – his chambers and his office – but whilst he was away, Suladân had no trouble at all in upgrading his own living conditions to something as grandiose.
Moving into Châric’s office as if he owned it, which he realistically now did, he sat down at the desk and tutted at the disorganised scrolls and papers scattered over it. Yet, as he looked over the parchment, something caught his eye. It was the letter that had ordered Châric to take half the garrison west. Suladân immediately picked it up and read it voraciously:
I would again like to thank you and congratulate you on coming into my employ. As long as you do exactly as I command, your heart’s desire of gold will be satisfied, and you can retire from your miserable Border Forts as a wealthy man into a harem full of virgins.
But, I digress. As a test of your loyalty, and as your first command, you must take half your garrison to Kârnvald, to meet the muster of the Great Army. At the encampment of Thrihja Peh, seek out the Hâsharin, Kharid Drôzhna. He is a colleague of mine, and shall give you any additional information you are required to know.
Until then, your mission stands as thus; commanding half of your garrison (I would estimate this at about 300 men, if you have any less than this, take more than half), sack the Gondorian watchtower of Velsinir. This will be the first strike of the Great Army, and you could earn much glory from this if you are successful in your attack. Do not, however, speak to anyone of your purpose prior to the assault – this is not a command from Umbar, it is a command from me. Remember that. But also remember that I am giving you more gold than Umbar ever would. The Lords devalue loyalty, and no famous songs that speak of their generosity spring to mind.
Once your attack is complete, return to Pâzghar, victorious or in defeat. I shall send you word once you have returned.
Regards, Venmal Javitâkh.
Suladân slammed down the letter in rage. He knew it – Javitâkh had control over Châric. And yet, thoughts buzzed through his mind over why the Hâsharin would want Châric to attack Velsinir. Being part of the Cult of Sauron, it was characteristic of Javitâkh to speed Gondor’s downfall – but why do it with men from the Border Forts? Suladân thought back to the fall of Lurmsakûn, and Javitâkh’s part in it. It was clear that the corrupt Hâsharin was working with the Variags as well as the Cult of Sauron, but why both? What would he have to gain from Surak-Khand gaining more power? Whatever the answer was, Suladân was sure on one thing – Javitâkh was trying to weaken the garrison of the Border Forts so that the Surak-Khandish could easily defeat them.
Months had passed upon the Border Forts as they always had done – slowly, and with little consequence. However, Javitâkh’s letter had been a sort of catalyst for Suladân and his new authority. He would be cursed before he let what happened to Lurmsakûn happen to the Border Forts, no matter their small worth in his eyes. He fortified what he could of Pâzghar, and began hiring chieftains and mercenaries from far and wide to train his warriors to become accomplished bowmen and spearmen. Many of the garrison had come from the gutter – exiled tribesmen in shame, petty criminals, and the meek drafted in by the threats of Umbar. Under Suladân’s command, they began to turn into true, skilled fighters. As the despondency of his situation became sidelined by their Commander, so the same happened to his men.
With the last of the gold gifted to him by the Golden King for his part in the attack on the Cult of Sauron, Suladân sent one of his riders to Badharkân with a letter for the King Marudîr. Not only did he wish to inform his grandfather of his dealings, but wished to learn more of both Javitâkh’s devices and of the Khandish military. ‘There is a mercenary locked in the prisons of Badharkân,’ Suladân explained to the messenger, ‘who I reprimanded myself. He may be of some use to us. Ask the King to free him for me, and promise the mercenary my wealth if he chooses to come here.’
Word had also come to Suladân from the Great Army of Châric’s doings. He had inflicted a heavy blow upon the watchtower of Velsinir, slaying its Captain Baranir himself. However, the Swan Knights under their Prince Imrahil had reinforced their border mere days after Baranir’s death – and now none knew the current condition or the whereabouts of Môrvar Châric and his men.
Not long after this news came, the men in the night-watch spied something from the outer walls of Pâzghar. As Suladân sat at the desk in his office, summing the finances that had been spent to train his warriors, one of them burst in with a look of anxiety.
‘Commander, we have spotted a cloud of dust coming from the east. It looks like a force of mounted men.’
Suladân immediately lurched up from his desk and grasped his sword. ‘Show me.’
As he peered from the battlements of Pâzghar, over the bridge and into the horizon, Suladân indeed saw a cavalry army – around two-hundred strong. As they galloped towards the border, though, their plight became suddenly apparent.
‘Commander, those men are being pursued!’
The watchman was right. A much greater force of riders was indeed in chase. Suladân strained his eyes to make out what this strange sight meant.
‘The pursuers look like Khandish horsemen, Commander, but the men they are chasing have a livery I have never seen before.’
‘I know who they are,’ stated Suladân. Sound the alarms – get the men to their posts. I want archers on the walls, ready to fire upon the Variags at my word.’
‘What about the other men, commander?’
‘Open the gates.’
‘They are as much my men as you are. Open the gates.’
Shrill horns echoed through the ruins of Pâzghar. The garrison awoke from their rest with dazed, but determined eyes, and very soon the outer walls were full of bowmen standing to attention. Suladân stood atop the wall above the gate, and tried to hide the hope blooming in his heart behind his steely face of command. With a dull clang the gates opened, and Suladân himself sounded a horn at the pursued horsemen – the defenders did not understand the meaning of the blasts, but the horsemen below knew it to be their signal of peace and shelter. They passed into Pâzghar like a waterfall into a pool, and the gates were secured behind them; even as the Khandish came into range.
‘Volley fire!’ shouted Suladân. Even as their fellows dropped to the floor, stuck with arrows, the Variag cavalry realised their folly at riding against such a fortification, bearing no siege weapons. Wheeling backwards, the Khandish host roared, and then were away.
‘Those Variags were showing the colours of Surak-Khand,’ one of the archers observed. ‘We may as well be at war with King Surakaris now.’
‘It is about time we were,’ said Suladân, as he walked from his position and leapt down the stairs of the outer wall, ready to meet the horsemen he had rescued – the men arrayed in the wargear of Arysis, kingdom of Amrûn.
The garrison of Pâzghar eyed the newcomers warily, who would have returned the hostility if not for their utter exhaustion. Nevertheless, they seemed to not wish to dismount until they had some explanation from one of authority.
Suladân stopped halfway down the stairs from the battlements to elevate himself above the Arysis horsemen. He knew of their livery well – each had a glittering scimitar at their sides, but were divided into spearmen and bowmen, much like the warrior tribesmen of Harad. The spearmen wore overlapping plates of gold on their fronts, and wore a golden helmet with a permanent visor that came down to the nose. The archers, however, did not have such heavy armour, wearing only a tough leather coat, and a headdress that kept back their hair, so they would not be encumbered when aiming their shots. A banner was carried in the midst of the cavalrymen, showing a single, dazzling topaz jewel – the symbol of the house of the King Kurhan.
‘Where is your captain?’ ordered Suladân. Even as he spoke, he saw the Arysis men give querying stares at him, as if they recognised him, but could not place it.
A lean man slipped from his saddle, bearing a longbow at his back. He moved through the mass to speak with the Commander of the Border Forts, but when he broke free of them, his jaw dropped in amazement, as did Suladân’s. Their reverie was broken when the captain leapt up and embraced him.
‘Amur Suladân – well, this is a fine surprise!’ Hâran exclaimed, before turning to his own men. ‘Bow before the Hero of Solendon!’ At that, the cavalrymen instantly recognised Suladân’s identity, and all lowered their heads in respect and wonder. ‘But how is it that you are here? I thought you went to Abrakân with your half-brother? Why did you not return to us?’
‘My old friend, we have much to speak of, and much of it is dark and dire,’ said Suladân. ‘But first, I would keep the joy I feel at seeing you alive! Tonight we shall have a feast, now that my men are all awake too, so that the brave warriors of Arysis can be refreshed from their ride, and share their tales with the defenders of Pâzghar!’
A fire was made in the courtyard of the inner walls, and the scant supplies of ale and meat were brokered out in merriment – and the men were extremely grateful for both. A few determined watchers remained their vigil on the outer wall, despite Hâran having informed them that the only Khandish host around for leagues was the one they had already defeated. Still, they busied themselves in staking the bodies of the fallen Variags on the far side of Pâzghar’s bridge in warning.
Despite their differences, the men of the Border Forts and of Arysis bonded well – although the many disparate kingdoms and lands of the south each had their own language, the Common Tongue had been introduced by Gondor’s occupation and still served as a divide between peoples and nations. This new companionship was helped by two things – a mutual respect of Suladân, and the ale they drank.
In the centre of the host stood Suladân and Hâran. Despite the mood, their talk was not as frivolous as their men’s.
‘Shortly after you left – after our victory at the Field of Torask – the tide began to change against us,’ explained Hâran, after Suladân had recounted his own tale since they went their separate ways. ‘There was a rumour that King Surakaris had been deposed of by his own son – the one who we fought against at Solendon, Vangaris. Once he became the new King, everything started going wrong. For starters, he brought in a fresh batch of mercenaries from Upper Khand – being a threat to our capital city Maresh, all the outlying armies retreated to defend the city. Vangaris had us altogether – right where he wanted us. And then he played his next card.
‘In the Siege of Maresh, he brought massive numbers to bear – not only his Variags and the mercenaries, but the slaves he had captured from Lurmsakûn, Ammu Baj and Siakan. At first, we thought it odd how Vangaris had not put a weapon in any of their hands, but then it became very clear what he was doing. He used them as a human shield as he marched up right to the walls. Once the gate was breached, it was all over. I went to Kurhan’s side with my men, to stand by him to the last, but my grandfather the King would not have it.
“Take the rest of our peoples and flee, flee west!’ he ordered me. ‘You are the last hope of our people now. If you swear allegiance to Harad, they will receive you – now go!’ And so I did. Vangaris had only posted a small force at the north gate, and so my cavalrymen broke through the lines whilst the women and children escaped. I told them to escape up to the border, to the northernmost fort of Kârush – I thought that there, they could work in the farmlands of Chelkar behind it. And so we acted as a rearguard for them.’
‘I do not remember any refugees pass through Kârush,’ noted Suladân. ‘But, that would have been before I came to the Border Forts, and Châric is not the sort of man who remembers things.’
‘They did escape, I assure you,’ replied Hâran. ‘For the last three years, my men defended Zhaneen, as the surviving warriors flocked to us, and the common folk fled to Kârush. Now, Zhaneen has been taken, and with it, at last, the final pocket of Amrûn has been claimed by the name of Surak-Khand. But I do not think Vangaris will stop there.’
‘That is what I fear,’ mused Suladân. ‘But what will you do now?’
‘Why, what else?’ smiled Hâran. ‘Help you defend the border of course! What remains of our people in Chelkar are behind the Forts now, and if Vangaris comes, we are their last protection. And of course, I would not have the Variags take the lives of any more. Suladân, you can consider us, from this day forwards, defenders of the Border Forts.’
It was late in the year when Môrvar Châric returned to Pâzghar. Followed by under a third of the three-hundred he had taken, the bruised and weary warriors sought sanctuary from the wrath of Umbar (and of Javitâkh) after their ejection from Velsinir at the hands of the Swan Knights. To their surprise, however, when they returned to the fort-city, the west gate was shut against them. Grunting, Châric marched up to the doors and banged on them like a raging beast.
‘Suladân, you son of a wench! Open this gate now!‘
‘No,’ replied a voice from the top of the wall. Suddenly, archers bent their bows and appeared upon the battlements, and Suladân himself addressed the weary soldiers below.
‘Môrvar Châric,’ he cried, ‘by the evidence found in your chambers criminalizing you as conspiring against the orders of Umbar, I hereby banish you from Harad and strip you of your title as Commander of the Border Forts.’
‘What?!’ Châric screamed.
‘As for your followers, they now have two choices,’ continued Suladân, ignoring his former master. ‘They can follow you into Khand and be at your mercy, although as followers of a traitor they will also be branded traitors and exiled. Or, they can call me their Commander, and join my men on the Border Forts. The choices are before them. I hope they choose wisely.’
All but the smallest handful of Haradrim warriors bowed before Suladân, as Châric kicked the gate in a last show of fury (although he injured his foot in the process, to the amusement of his old lieutenant), and taking what few men still remained loyal to him, walked away from the walls, eastwards, into the desolations of Lower Khand.
‘Rise, my wise friends, those who have truly made the right choice,’ proclaimed the new Commander, as his new followers chanted the name of Suladân. In the heat of pride, he smiled confidently. If he could inspire so much in his warriors, then Vangaris truly did not stand a chance against him.