‘Harad has never been ruled by my own people. But Harad is still my land, and I will defend her, even if I have to burn with Pâzghar to do so.’
– King Kâldor of Near Harad, Commander of the Border Forts, T.A. 1300
It was late in the year 3005– the same year that Hâran and the survivors of Arysis had come to Pâzghar; and the year of Môrvar Châric’s exile. In these stark winter months of dust and cold, from the prisons of Badharkân a mercenary came to the Border Forts. He had been released at the Commander’s request, and now came to him at the promise of employ. Upon his arrival at Pâzghar, he had been brought to the Commander’s quarters, where Suladân and his lieutenant Hâran convened.
‘Do you remember me, mercenary?’ Suladân asked as the man came before him.
‘Sure I do,’ he said with a light-hearted menace. ‘You’re Amur Suladân – the man I never kill’d.’
‘I thought you were the man that I never killed?’
‘That remains t’be seen,’ smirked the Khandish mercenary.
Hâran looked questioningly at Suladân and this old ‘acquaintance’ of his. Catching his look, Suladân explained; ‘Hâran, this is one of the mercenaries who attacked me outside Badharkân – at the order of Drôzhna and Javitâkh. But I still do not know his name…?’
‘My name ain’t not important. Just my services, and your gold. But it’s Asdriemu, since y’care to ask.’
‘Asdriemu?’ mused Hâran. ‘After the legendary Bandit Lord of old?’
‘Maybe he were named after me,’ stated Asdriemu. ‘Now, what d’yer need me for? Time is gold, y’know.’
‘I recall you knew a little about the Surak-Khand invasion of Amrûn?’ asked Suladân. ‘And I had wondered – have you worked for them before?’
‘Sure I’av. S’what brought me to Harad,’ replied Asdriemu frankly.
‘Cur,’ glowered Hâran. ‘You helped Surakaris destroy our people!’
‘I’ad no part in it. His gold did, though. Were nothin’ personal. Beside, I never worked for Surakaris – I worked for ‘is son, Vangaris.’
Suladân tossed a piece of gold at the rogue, which Asdriemu caught preternaturally. ‘Can you tell of us of your time in his employ? There will be more payment if what we hear… catches our attention.’
And so Asdriemu did. After having been working in Ananiké, the Land of Spice, to the east of Amrûn across the Bay of Bulchyades, his mercenary troupe was hired by Vangaris after the Variag defeat at Solendon. ‘At this time, Vangaris was still th’Prince – but he wanted us t’change that. He had some quarrel with ‘is father, about the leadership and shape o’th’war. It turns out that King Surakaris was a servant o’Mordor – where the Great God is readying ‘is attack on th’west. Because Amrûn were stayin’ neutral in ‘is war, He still thought it could be a potential threat – an’ so wanted it out o’th’way. That’s why Surakaris invaded.’
‘And that is why Javitâkh and the Cult helped him,’ figured Suladân.
‘But, it turns out that Vangaris ain’t on the same side of ‘is father. Surakaris works for Sauron; Vangaris works for Vangaris. An admirable work ethic,’ commented Asdriemu. ‘Surakaris was ordered to invade Amrûn and stop at that, but not Vangaris, he wants more. So, he hired me and my boys, and we cut up ‘is father the King for ‘im. We brought ‘im the Helm of Surakaris, and got out o’Amrûn quick-smart, in case any loyalists of Surakaris showed up. And so we took a boat across the Bay of Sudu Cull to Gadîrkarn, got to Abrakân, and got hired to kill you. I never did get round t’ the last bit, though.’
‘So if Vangaris is going against the command of Sauron,’ mused Suladân, ‘why is Javitâkh still helping him?’
‘Never mind the Hâsharii – what was Vangaris’ next move after he took Amrûn?’ asked Hâran. ‘What did he want to do after that?’
‘I ‘av no idea why that Hâsharin’s still helping Surak-Khand, honestly,’ said Asdriemu truthfully. ‘As for what Vangaris’ll do next though, don’t you think it’s obvious enough? I hope your Forts are properly manned, Suladân. Because he’s coming here. He’s going to invade Harad.’
The warnings of Asdriemu had disquieted Suladân. He had always suspected Surak-Khand would invade Harad, but did not grasp the realism of the situation until now. A dark tide beat upon the shore of Suladân’s heart – a mixture of hatred, and anxiety. He had never fought in a siege before – at least, he had not been on the defending side in one. He longed for the open field, where dozens of tactics and options were available to him as a captain. But to be shut up in four walls, against a countless horde – the very thought made Suladân claustrophobic. It was all too much like the horrors he had faced in the catacombs of Solendon: the darkness, the fear, the pestilence and the slow death of starvation. Solendon had been his greatest achievement, but it had in turn become his most haunting nightmare.
Nevertheless, he had prepared the defence of Pâzghar as best he could. He continued to exact vigorous training on his warriors, and although they were exhausted after a day’s work of it, secretly they were glad to be in their best shape before Surak-Khand came upon them. The intertwining of the Haradrim defenders and the Arysis survivors had been effortless. The battle-hardened men of Hâran had taught all their knowledge of war to the garrison, who in turn had much to share in the intricacies of the Border Forts and their various duties and struggles manning them.
From taxing caravans passing through, Pâzghar had a large quantity of gold – mostly from the dragon-like hoarding of Môrvar Châric – which Suladân had put to good use. With the rest of the wealth left to the Border Forts, he had bought supplies in great quantity – it would take a very long siege for them to starve to death. He had also hired Asdriemu in full, for he had a valuable insight into Surak-Khand, and seemed to be a formidable soldier – be he Variag or not. Besides, Suladân was uncertain whether the mercenary still sought to bring his head to Drôzhna and claim his reward, or sell him out to Vangaris. Better to keep him close and watched, than away and uncertain. Despite this, however, Suladân found himself warming to the rogue and seeking out his company whenever he could – for Hâran had gone out scouting for signs of Vangaris beyond the Forts. The lieutenant’s departure had made Suladân uneasy. He thought he had lost Hâran once – he could not bear for it to happen again. It was what had happened to his brother Lasran at Abrakân, and the misfortune of history had a way of repeating itself.
Five years passed as the whole garrison became more and more apprehensive of the coming assault. It was the year 3010, and Suladân himself was now thirty-six – a true man of war. A year after Châric’s banishment, the mustering Great Army at Kârnvald had been subdued by a Gondorian reconnaissance force, which had set back the plans of Umbar for many years. Suladân was happy that the schemes of Drôzhna had been thwarted, but it was a bittersweet sensation – his uncle, the Chieftain Mûrithir, had been slain in the attack. Suladân often wondered how his grandfather King Marudîr, and Mûrithir’s own son Mûrakir would take this news. It was still unknown to him that it was Mûrakir who had betrayed his location to Drôzhna at Badharkân.
It was in the arid summer months, when the River Pâzghar dried up, that Hâran and his handful of scouts returned to the fort-city. As the lieutenant passed up to Suladân’s chambers, those who saw his face knew what they had feared was true.
‘Vangaris is marching west along the Amrûn Road,’ he stated, entering the office. Suladân could only give a look of resigned concern, as like a man told that it was about to rain. ‘They will be here in three days.’
And so it was. The defenders of Pâzghar bonded in silent brotherhood, for their experience was now shared. For all of them, from Commander to servant-boy, it was the longest three days of their lives.
On the third day, the sun rose upon the eastern horizon, and against the glow of its red light, imposing shapes were illuminated. As inevitably as dawn stretched over the day, the host of Vangaris swept over the arid earth towards Pâzghar. The horns sounded with a mournful despondency, and upon the brink, over the gate of Pâzghar, stood Suladân, and his face shone crimson in the early morning sun.
The vanguard of chariots and horsemen rode closer and closer to the walls. Just out of bowshot, they stopped, and began to circle about the radius of the outer walls, orbiting like a moon that brings night. They cursed and spat threats at the men upon the walls, who were stoic with acquiescence. Their constant circling was maddening, but they drew ever closer and closer. Finally, Asdriemu plucked the bow from his back and fired it into the vanguard with his typical casual carelessness. The arrow, seemingly on a fluke, hit one of the chariot’s horses square in the head, sending it falling to the ground. The chariot crashed into ruin upon the horse, sending those riders and chariots behind it into a piled-up crash. The rest of the vanguard, shocked and alarmed, rode back to the full host.
‘A worthy shot!’ commented Hâran.
‘It were abou’ time someone did something,’ Asdriemu replied. ‘And you ain’t paying me for my pretty face.’
Suladân looked at the men to his side, his black locks flickering in the short bursts of wind. Warriors of Arysis and Near Harad, together under his rule. Like its Commander himself, the garrison of Pâzghar was made up of Amrûnian and Haradrim stock. A worthy union. As he looked into his warrior’s impassive faces, Suladân saw something in them that anyone else could not. They were ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to do as their Commander commanded. To them, death was but a passing worry – a side-effect they had no interest in.
In that moment, Suladân saw the worth of the land of Harad. Whereas before he had defended the Border Forts with hollow servitude, now pride swelled up in him. Indeed it was full of scavengers and rogues and traitors, scheming snakes like Javitâkh, poisonous infiltrators like Drôzhna, and immoral backstabbers like Belzagar, betrayer of Captain Valakar’s company. But it had its men worthy of recognition, too. His grandfather, King Marudîr of Badharkân and his earthy, generous warmth; his old trusty companion Khûlgana, the scout of Dhâran-sar, and his King Rhubâk; the proud Merchant Guard Gutharîc; and of course, the warriors who stood by him today. Harad was just like Amrûn, or any other land – it had its bad folk and its good folk. It just happened that Harad had done more bad to him than good. But Suladân would not do the same. He would defend Harad. He would defeat Surak-Khand, and save the lives of his men. On the spirit of his mother, he swore it.
The men of Vangaris were in range of the walls. Footmen, horsemen, chariots, with axes and bows and siege ladders and battering rams and the tyrannical greed of conquest on their minds. They had come for Harad – Suladân would give them Harad.
‘Fire!’ he cried, lifting his sword into the air. ‘Fire! Fire at will!’
The bows sung and the spears stood readied in the hands of five hundred capable men. Today, their training would pay off; today, their admiration for their captain would save them from the abyss. The Siege of Pâzghar had begun.
A first wave of ladders rose up against the wall, but more than half of them were thrown down by the unified effort of the defenders, despite their great weight. But several were secured, and the doughtiest of the Variags climbed. In desperate savagery they threw themselves onto the walls, their two-handed axes swirling, but the long spears dispatched the few that managed to get over the battlements. Hâran and Suladân marched to and fro along the walls, their direction and mere presence buoying the skill and spirits of their men.
It was clear that the greatest threat to the defence was now from the enemy bowmen. Seeing this, Asdriemu gathered a large mass of archers and made precise volley fires at the enemy’s units of marksmen. Groups of horsemen surged from the swollen mass of the Khandish host and rode north and south – their purpose seemed to be to cut off any aid from the other Border Forts. Suladân knew that this action was pointless – even the amassed defenders of Kârush, Vârnakh and Bâlghar would not be able to break through the strong enemy lines.
By now, an even circle of Variags had rounded about the walls, so that both the east and west gates were blocked. Simultaneously, two crimson and bronze battering rams with curved heads like dragon horns were brought up against each gate. Suladân’s archers brought the bearers down, but the chieftains roared and more went to take their place; until fearful men were literally being pushed by their fellows to take the rams, though they had to mount a hill of corpses to do so.
The efforts soon foundered upon the west gate, and their ram was left to soak in the blood of its past bearers, but the assault on the east gate would not relent. Supported by a block of covering bowmen who shot up at the walls above the gate, the battering ram found relief and its crew broke the passage open. Yet the hinges did not break and the doors did not snap, for these had been made in the height of Gondorian masonry. A fearsome chariot led by a troupe of horsemen passed into Pâzghar, but they did not go far. An ordered block of Arysis spearmen lay in wait upon the other side, and the cavalry fell into them like a trap of thickets. The great charioteer was shot from his wain by the marksmanship of Hâran, and the Arysis soldiery brought their phalanx further and further into the attackers until they closed the great door before them and braced it from intrusion.
Yet the wrath of Vangaris did not relent, it was only inflamed further. More ladders were thrown against the battlements, and more warriors took up the battering rams to gain entrance. And still the quick command of Suladân saw the ladders cast off, and the gates remained defended and closed. Three times the Variags stormed the walls, and three times they were thrown back. Even as he struck down a particularly brutish chieftain upon the ramparts and kicked down his ladder with an effort, a lull began to wash through the Variags. Despite the threats of their masters, the Khandish would not dare a fourth assault. To the attackers, it was a resignation of claiming an easy victory. To the defenders, it was a flame of hope.
‘It’s a good job they block’d that west gate,’ commented Asdriemu. ‘If they hadn’t, I might ‘av legged it.’
‘It is always good to know I have someone for my men to look up to,’ smirked Suladân.
‘Y’know, I thought they did need someone like me t’show ’em how much of a fool you are for thinkin’ you can stand up to Vangaris. But now, I think I can see why they do.’
‘We have a lot more fighting to do before we can assure our defence,’ said Suladân. ‘But you are right. If the men keep up their strength, and the gates are held, there is a chance we can get out of this.’
‘Sometime’s it’s better to put yer money on the underdog. If they win, you’ll get more gold than if yer bet on the obvious choice,’ philosophised Asdriemu.
‘I do hope that was some sort of mercenary proverb, and not an insinuation for a raise,’ warned Suladân as he turned and walked to find Hâran.
He found him in the courtyard before the east gate, with the ruined statue of Hyarmendacil facing into Khand. He was surveying the wounded Variags who lay about him in clumps, being finished by the spears of his men. There was a grim satisfaction in his watching of such bloodshed.
‘At ease, Hâran, the Khandish have withdrawn from the walls for now. Do we have an assessment of our current situation?’
‘I would say that we have lost about two-hundred and fifty men today,’ said the lieutenant.
‘That’s half of our defence,’ said Suladân with resignation.
‘But if my estimations are right, we killed one-thousand Variags at the least, and two-thousand at the most.’
‘That is a broad estimate!’
‘It is just so hard to tell,’ mused Hâran. ‘The piles below the walls are so thick, it is difficult to say how many dead lay under them.’
‘A good omen indeed,’ remarked Suladân. ‘Put half of our men on rest, and rotate them every two hours. I do not think the Khandish will attack again today, for they will be busying assembling their camps for a long-term siege. But our rationed supplies will outlast their patience, I am sure. We have put a great dampener in the designs of Surak-Khand today, my friend.’
‘I know,’ grinned Hâran. ‘It is just like old times.’
An eerie silence fell upon Pâzghar. Suladân, Hâran and Asdriemu convened in the Commander’s quarters. If Vangaris did not send a full-scale siege attack against the walls again, they would outlast him. If the Khandish attacks continued, however, they would fall, bravely and eventually, one by one. At dusk, a shrieking horn rang out from the camp of the enemy.
‘It’s a signal of parley,’ explained Asdriemu.
‘I will go alone,’ Suladân told them. ‘If they attempt some trickery, I would have only one man die.’
‘No, Amur, let me go in your stead,’ willed Hâran.
‘You must take authority if I fall,’ commanded Suladân. ‘And besides, I will not dishonour myself by perverting the terms of parley.’
‘Then just hope that they don’t,’ commented Asdriemu.
Suladân hoped the Khandish King would be trustworthy, but still, he did not go out of bowshot of the walls. From the circled camps came a small cloud of dust, until the Commander could discern from them a great chariot riding, crowned with large standards showing the flickering sun of Surak-Khand. Beside it rode two charioteers, and a small retinue of horsemen, who would have circled Suladân mockingly if not for the impressionable terror of the walls. The horses of the great wain stopped a few feet from him, and the King did not get down from his perch. This was the first time Suladân had come face-to-face with the royalty that decimated his homeland, and his blood ran with cold fire.
‘Behold King Vangaris, son of Surakaris; second King of Surak-Khand and conqueror of Amrûn,’ announced his herald.
‘I am Amur Suladân, formerly Amur Sakûn, son of Varnam the King of Lurmsakûn; grandson of King Marudîr of Badharkân, last heir and Prince of Amrûn, Commander of the Border Forts and victor of Solendon,’ stated Suladân. He felt arrogant for his boasts, but knew they would bite Vangaris like steel jaws.
One of the Variag horsemen spat impetuously, but the King was resolute. His armour was the studded crimson and gold of the Sar-Khandish, with black robes garnished with a decorative trim. He had an axe ordained with trinkets at his side. Over his face he wore a golden crown with a fearsome mask resembling the war-helms of the Zhamúrai of old, with a spire-like spike peaking the top of the ornament, rounded by protective scales that shone dull in the fading sun. It was the Helm of Lurmsakûn, the crown Suladân’s father and all his fathers before him had worn, which Surakaris had wrongfully taken as a token of Amrûn’s doom. Before their conflict was over, Suladân vowed to retake the Helm, and wear it with pride as its rightful owner.
‘Well met, Commander,’ slowly said Vangaris. Suladân did not know where to look, for the mouthpiece of the King’s Helm was so small that it seemed to come out of the large, black eye-holes of the mask, as if his sight spoke necromantic words into his mind. If he were to duel him, thought Suladân, he would stab him in those eye sockets; they almost seemed to be the source of his power.
‘What is the purpose of this parley?’
‘That is entirely your choice, Commander Suladân,’ spoke the King. ‘I have only wasted much time besieging your Pâzghar – and am prepared to waste much more time here – under the assumption that you will resist my invading of Harad if I did not contain and destroy you. I presume that this is correct?’
‘Then you are a loyal and a worthy opponent indeed. But an opponent you remain. And by applying your logic and your reason you can predict the very real outcome. For I have forces that hopelessly outnumber yours. Thus, being my opponent is not a very gratifying position to be in.’
‘I disagree,’ replied Suladân. ‘It is self-gratifying.’
‘I can understand your animosity, having come from Amrûn –’
‘– but you must understand that prejudices are not impermeable,’ continued Vangaris. ‘Setting them aside would be much more gratifying than your self-styled ideals of vengeance. I do not ask you to join me – nothing of the sort – simply allow me free passage into Harad, and remain securely in Pâzghar as we pass around you, without your hindrance. I have made allies in Harad before. They would tell you of how generous and influential my pocket can be.’
‘If I want to know about your alliances, I will go and ask Venmal Javitâkh myself,’ spat Suladân, at which Vangaris raised his head defensively. ‘And my prejudices are not set in stone. But my judge of character is – and so you may excuse me for being prejudiced against a man who broke my people into slavery and bought mercenaries to kill his own father!’
The retinue of Vangaris flinched at this, and gave one another troubled looks, but the King gripped his reins with an iron hand and turned his shoulder to Suladân. ‘Enjoy the rest of your life, Commander, though you shall never again live it outside of your precious walls. This parley is over.’
As the Surak-Khandish retinue rode back to the camp, the doors of the east gate were opened and Suladân returned into the bosom of Pâzghar. There, he was met by the weary, but proud faces of the defenders and the inquisitive Asdriemu and Hâran.
‘So, what can we expect?’ Lieutenant Hâran asked.
‘The hubris of Vangaris,’ said Suladân. ‘But it must be our wrath that is the first to strike.’