‘When you fight for a country, you do not fight for a spit of land upon the vast and ancient earth; when you die for a country, you die for something that cannot be explained by a banner, a boundary or a king’s name.’
– King Kurhan, last King of Arysis, T.A. 3002
Hâran stood beside his King with his veteran warriors. The outer walls had been climbed and the great gate had been breached. The Variags of Surak-Khand were flooding through the city of Maresh like a tide. How had it come to this? If the four kingdoms had stood against invasion together… But petty divisions and pride had kept them separate, to be devoured, one by one. And now stood Arysis, the last; in its death-throes. Where was Suladân?
“Hâran, you must leave here,” said his grandfather. “You must go.”
“I will not leave your side, my King!” promised Hâran. King Kurhan had known what was coming. He saw that now. Whereas Hâran had a vague shimmer of hope, his grandfather had resigned to die with his kingdom, like a captain with his ship. In a great speech before the siege, he spoke to his warriors of fighting and dying for a country. Now he was living his theory.
“Take the rest of our peoples and flee, flee west!” Kurhan ordered. “You are the last hope of our people now. If you swear allegiance to Harad, they will receive you – now go!”
Hâran did not stay for any detailed schemes or emotional last words – the King spoke a few words of command, and then, before he could even contemplate what he was doing, he took his soldiers and went. Charging out of the palace, the fires and screams of the city streets were a blur. He unconsciously cut down several Variags. He raised the standard of Arysis and men flocked to him. He went to the refuge of the civilians and set up a column of his horsemen to guard them. As the Variags flooded into the city, the strength at the great gate was dispersed. Hâran and his knights cut through the mass, and escaped. He rode west. He looked at the flames scorching from the city on the horizon. It was the pyre of King Kurhan. It was the funeral pyre of an entire civilization.
And the pyre felt cheated. It hungered for the warmth of another body. The flames were reaching out for him. The flames were coming for Hâran…
Hâran woke from his troubled sleep. He had only caught a couple of hours of rest, yet his dream-visions had become so unnerving that he awoke with renewed alertness, despite the exhaustion of the day’s efforts. The Variags had been halted for now, and they had lost many lives – but the garrison of Pâzghar was at half its numbers. The Khandish warriors of King Vangaris would not stop, and Hâran knew that Pâzghar’s troubles were far from over. Unless they acted soon.
The mercenary Asdriemu walked into the Commander’s chambers, where Hâran had made his makeshift bed. The rogue gave the lieutenant a cursory nod as he rose from his rest.
‘I s’pose it’s hard to catch any shut-eye, given the situation?’ Asdriemu asked.
‘Indeed. Have you not slept yet?’
‘I don’t sleep durin’ battles. Once upon a time, I ‘ad to do a job down in the jungles of the Mahûd. Trust me, after you’ve gone down there, you won’t want to sleep much again either.’
‘I do not suppose, in all your adventures and travels,’ Hâran began, as he put on his armour, ‘that you have learned anything about the portents of dreams?’
‘Firstly, I don’t have adventures nor travels, just jobs. But I ain’t too good with anything that can’t be seen by waking eyes or bought with solid gold.’
‘Then what do you dream of?’
‘Palaces… Khandish virgins… and gold,’ smiled Asdriemu.
‘I wish mine were as… charming,’ said Hâran. ‘Recently, simple pleasures have not been haunting my sleep.’
‘What’s on yer mind?’ the rogue asked, with a strange note of sympathy.
‘Ever since I left Maresh,’ spoke Hâran, slowly and troubled, ‘I have been having the same dream.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘Amrûn burning. And its flames seeking me out. Sometimes I see myself, alone in the dark, hiding like a snake under a rock, as the fires grope in the black for me – usually they come close, and I cower more. But I know that they will find me, eventually.’
‘Hmm. I think I’ll stick to my gold and virgins,’ mused the mercenary.
‘A wise choice. But, unlike yours, I think my dream is a portent of the future.’
‘I hope mine are portents o’the future,’ grinned Asdriemu. ‘But y’know, one night when I was down in the Far Harad forests, my party was surrounded by a great wildfire, some trap the Mahûd set on us. It was like a great ring of flame around us, and we were caught in the middle, and we knew the tribesmen were waiting for us on the other side of the fire.’
‘What did you do?’ asked Hâran.
‘We jumped into the fire and came out the other side.’
‘Were you not terrified, though?’
‘Of course. But I survived, and that’s the main thing,’ he stated.
‘No,’ said Hâran, ‘I think the main thing is that you mustered the courage to jump through the flame.’
‘In your dream,’ recalled Asdriemu, ‘you say you were a serpent hiding under a rock? Well, serpents don’t cower. They strike. That’s something your Commander Suladân knows – but don’t tell ‘im I said that. Perhaps that’s what your dream’s trying to tell you.’
‘Perhaps, and do not worry, I will not tell him,’ Hâran smiled. ‘Speaking of Suladân, where is he?’
‘On the battlements over the east gate – he’s been there all night.’
‘Tell him to get some rest, I will take command whilst he sleeps.’
‘Actually, he told me to come and get you when yer woke up. He’s waiting for yer now,’ said Asdriemu.
‘Then let us go. Did you know what he wanted?’
‘I guess he was thinkin’ about striking,’ Asdriemu smirked.
As the glow of the brands of the guards flickered in the deep night consuming Pâzghar, Hâran and Asdriemu walked up to the battlements, where the defenders walked to and fro with a disciplined, enduring purpose, and the dim lights of the Variag camps burned in the distance. They found Suladân stood like a carved statue atop the east gate, looking blankly into the distance of the enemy threat, as if he were concealing some hidden designs that would undo them, or quenching a wrath that would burn the very foundations of his fortress into ash. He turned almost mechanically to meet his lieutenant.
‘You requested my presence, Amur?’ asked Hâran.
‘Yes,’ spoke Suladân coldly. ‘I would speak to you in my offices so that we can draw up an intricate plan, but I fear time is against us; as the pride of Vangaris grows, and the weariness of our men continues to bear on us.’
‘It sounds like you have something in mind,’ queried the lieutenant.
Suladân halted for a moment, and turned again eastwards, to the enemy camp. His gaze remained fixed there as he spoke.
‘I have told you all that we have the supplies to outlast a long siege,’ he said, ‘and that remains doubly true after today’s loss of half our forces. In fact, the only supply that is dwindling is our men. Ever since I returned from my parley with Vangaris, I have been weighing the options.’
‘What options are those?’ wondered Hâran.
‘That we remain here, in Pâzghar, surrounded on all sides, in the hope that Vangaris will elect for a long siege in a hope to starve us out – in which, he will most likely fail. But there is the other chance that he will not, and attack the walls with renewed strength. If he chooses the latter course, even if our men perform doubly better than their valiant efforts today, we will eventually be whittled down and destroyed.
‘Bearing on the attitude he unprofessionally revealed to me today, and Asdriemu’s account of his assassination of his own father, it does not take more than a fool to guess that Vangaris can be a rash and impatient tyrant. In many cases this would make him vulnerable, but instead it makes us vulnerable to him. The most likely event is that he will not make a prolonged siege – he will whip his men into meat if it makes them pull down our defence any faster. If we take the first option and stay here, we will, most likely, all of us die. And so I am forced to plan for the second option.’
‘And what is that?’ asked Hâran.
‘We jump into the fire,’ said Asdriemu.
‘Yes,’ continued Suladân. ‘We must make a sortie and break through the enemy lines and escape, or die trying.’
His Commander and old friend’s pessimism disheartened Hâran, but he knew that Suladân’s logic and Asdriemu’s agreeing responses were unavoidably true.
‘But the Surak-Khandish are spread in an even ring all about us,’ he reminded. ‘How can we hope to break through such a mass before the rest of the Variags are alerted to our presence?’
‘That is what I have been chiefly pondering, and I have elected a solution,’ replied Suladân. ‘I believe a small force – of about fifty or so – could charge out of the east gate, riding towards the tents of Vangaris, and so provide a great enough threat for the whole Khandish army to go to. Whilst this diversion is staged, the rest of the garrison will ride out from the west gate, where the Variags will most likely be fewest by then, and escape into the Korondaj Hills behind us.’
‘A sound plan,’ Asdriemu consented.
‘Indeed, but what about the fifty that ride from the east gate?’ inquired Hâran.
‘Although there is a chance that they too will break through the enemy lines, they must completely understand that near-certain death awaits them. I would not have them told any differently. I owe them more than that. But I believe there is enough hatred for Surak-Khand amongst our folk, particularly against the men of Arysis, to warrant a full consent to die in battle with the takers of their homes.’
‘But still, their nerves will be likely shaken to the marrow – our warriors are courageous, more courageous than any men I have seen, but what level of courage does one need in the unveiled face of death?’ The lieutenant was now becoming hostile to the plan, although he seemed to have already accepted it completely.
‘They will ride straight into the heart of the enemy with both Amrûn and death upon their lips,’ retorted Suladân, turning from the east to face Hâran. ‘They will ride, for I shall lead them myself.’
With that, Hâran knew why Suladân had been so distant. He knew that it had not taken the Commander long at all to decide on his plan of action – what had taken time was his acceptance to die. Suladân marched away from Hâran and Asdriemu before either could protest, and began speaking to separate warriors upon the walls; it seemed that he was already asking and picking men to ride with him into the maw of doom.
The mercenary walked from Hâran and went down the stairs of the battlements in silence – Hâran knew his mind, as surely as Suladân did, and as surely as the rogue did himself. Asdriemu would ride to survival through the west gate with the better part of the garrison. It was written in his very bones to survive, no matter the necessities. Hâran almost felt pity that he could not express honour or valour against such an immoral shackle. As for Hâran himself, he now turned and stared at the distant fires of the enemy camp from atop the east gate. Like Suladân, he had a lot of thinking to do.
“I reckon we should split, now,” the leader of the mercenaries had said. The small band of Khandish sell-swords sat together in a darkened corner in The Lamplight Inn, a drinking-den at the port-town of Tereze in the south Amrûnian kingdom of Siakan. They had delivered the Helm of Surakaris from the bloodied body of its former wearer to Prince Vangaris at the kingdom’s capital of Ankruz, though he was most likely King Vangaris by now. They had left the capital city to Tereze, where they were needed in a battle against Arysis for control of the port; the Surak-Khandish had won, and now they drunk the spoils of their victory.
“And why should we do that?” another of the mercenaries asked. “We got plenty of gold from Vangaris, why not do him a few more favours and keep reeling in the money? We got a nice payment for this battle, didn’t we?”
“When you do a thing like killing a King,” said the leader, now in a hushed tone, “it puts a certain stain on you, even if it is secret, and especially if you’re operating in the country that King used to rule.”
“He don’t rule it yet,” another said, “Arysis’ still got a stake in it.”
“Not for long, now that Vangaris is in control. And anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that we’ve still got a blotch on us that stinks of King-slaying, and that not ain’t a good blotch to have on. I’d rather go somewhere less blotchy, see?”
“You’re right,” said Asdriemu. “We should get a ship from th’harbour tonight, one sailing across the Bay of Sudu Cull, so we can get into Harad without messing around with the Border Forts. I reckon we go up the River Sar, to Gadîrkarn – it’s so full of boys like us we won’t ever be seen.”
“That’s a good idea,” agreed the leader. “We could go up to the Golden City, there’s always good work there, and plenty of rich pockets to pay for it. Besides, Gadîrkarn’s a rat’s nest – so we’ll feel right at home!” The mercenaries burst out into laughter. They stayed in the pub until nightfall, and travelling to the docks managed to find such a vessel heading to Gadîrkarn. From there, they travelled to Abrakân, and were hired to kill a man named Suladân, who they found outside the walls of Badharkân. Asdriemu survived. And now he was being paid by the man he had been told to kill.
Running away was second nature to Asdriemu. He had been doing it all his life. He would stay for a while, granted, if there was money involved, but then he would run – run to the next opportunity, and so on. It had never crossed his mind to complete the opportunity until he had come to Pâzghar. But instinct took him. He would gallop out of the west gate and run as far away from Vangaris as he could. Running away from responsibility was his lot, and keeping the mercenary motto: ‘gold is all’. It was a philosophy that had already passed its greatest test.
Asdriemu’s father had been a scout for the King of Nîth-Khand, the northern guardians of all of Khand. He had been to Nûrn, Rhûn, even into the madness of Chey Sart. Asdriemu always wanted to be like him, to travel the world. And so he had become a mercenary. One day in his career, he returned to Kyzilkûm, the city of Upper Khand, and went to the same brothel he had visited on his trip there before. There was a woman there who claimed to have his child, after falling pregnant during his first stay. Asdriemu took the young boy with a feeling of old pride, a feeling he always wanted his own father to feel for him. And so he decided to care for the boy, to make him a traveller as well. But a messenger from the King of Kyzilkûm came to Asdriemu with an offer. The boy would be taken to be made a servant of the King, and he would be handsomely paid. Gold is all. The boy was taken from him. If Asdriemu came close to regretting one thing in his life, it was that. But some sense came to him from the immoral transaction. At least he had stuck to his beliefs.
But, in memory of his lost son, he had vowed to do something worthwhile. Something, perhaps, that glinted at honour or bravery, or heroism. He would charge out from the east gate of Pâzghar tonight. What would he do after that?
Under the resolved judgement of Suladân, the sorties of Pâzghar were soon set in order. Fifty men, whether wounded, vengeful, or truly ready to die for an ideal, were ready to ride out from the east gate with their Commander at their head. Two-hundreds were prepared for their signal at the west-gate, and Lieutenant Hâran and Asdriemu would ride with them. The horses that Hâran and his Arysis warriors had ridden into Pâzghar to had been tended to in the stables of the fort-city, and now, after their losses in the siege, there were enough for each man to ride a horse. Blazing brands still stood upon the battlements, so the Khandish would see no sign of attack. A single horn-blower stood upon the walls over the east-gate. He would sound the diversion charge, and then sound for the best time for the west gate riders to sortie. He was proud to be the last defender who would stand in Pâzghar.
At the east gate, Hâran convened with Suladân as the final preparations were made. The lieutenant had stood alone upon the battlements for a long time, and searched his mind and soul for what he should do.
‘Everything is ready, Amur,’ he said. ‘We are ready to move at your command.’
‘Very good, Hâran. It is time. Too many who I have loved have been consumed by Surak-Khand – it is time that I am as well. Although I hope to take many of the villains down with me before I go! Now go, Haran, go to the west gate – you must be ready to lead our people to salvation, for you are the last heir of Amrûn now.’
‘Not yet,’ Hâran replied. ‘Nor shall I ever be.’
‘What is the matter, my old friend?’ said Suladân, puzzled.
‘I am taking these fifty men, Amur Suladân. I am leading them into the heart of the enemy, whilst you escape with the others.’
‘No, Hâran,’ Suladân pleaded. ‘It is too late to change our plans. My destiny lies with Vangaris, it is into that I ride.’
‘No, it is you who are wrong – your eyes are wide and yet they cannot see! Your destiny is far greater than what transpires here, but you are too humble a man to see it! You are the hope of Amrûn, Suladân, you have been the hope of Amrûn ever since your mother took you from the ruins of Lurmsakun. And now you must be the hope of Harad as well. That is where your destiny lies.’
‘And are you so quick to squander your own destiny?’
‘My destiny was always with Arysis,’ said Hâran. ‘And Arysis is east. It is east that I ride.’
No matter how hard Suladân argued, he could not win. And soon he began to see it. Two-hundred men in the wilderness were naught but two-hundred men in the wilderness. But with Suladân at their head, they were a tool for the liberation of Harad from Vangaris.
‘I have lost so many to Surak-Khand, to the Cult – I do not want to lose you as well,’ he said to Hâran.
‘You must carry on. It was always I who followed you, Amur, just as so many other men have and will do. You are my Commander now in title, but you have always been. And you have always been my friend.’
Hâran took his place at the head of the east gate riders. Most of them were his soldiers from Arysis, and they were glad to fight and die beside their captain once again. The horn above the gate rang out clear, and the gate opened. With a charge like lightning unleashed, they sprang from Pâzghar and out towards the camp in the blink of an eye. Suladân watched them go, before the gates closed behind them, like a portal into another world.
Suladân rode to his two-hundred followers with the deepest pang of sorrow in his heart, and try as he might his men still saw his face cracked by grief. But Asdriemu came to the Commander, and put his hand on his shoulder.
‘Y’know, I was gonna leave you lot as soon as those gates were open,’ he said, ‘but I want to see this through to the end. I want to follow you, Suladân. So do me a favour, and do a good job of it.’
The horn rang a second time. The west gate opened to reveal the starry sky above. With a cry of ‘Pâzghar!’ Suladân rode and two-hundred warriors and one mercenary followed him. Shattering through the weak lines of the Variags, they thundered out of sight of their fort-city, and climbed up into the Korondaj Hills. They were free of Vangaris’ entrapment – Suladân’s plan had succeeded.
Chaos swirled around him. The crimson armour and the splattering blood of the enemy seared flame-like in Hâran’s vision. His fifty men, screaming Amrûn and Arysis and Death had broken into the Khandish mass, and now they fought until their last. The fires swirled about Hâran. For half a moment, he was scared. And then he remembered the words of his grandfather, the King Kurhan, at the siege of Maresh. He had spoke to his warriors of fighting and dying for a country. They did not do these things for a banner, a boundary or a king’s name. They did this for the very foundations that their country was founded on; that existed even after it had been invaded and usurped. This was Hâran’s last thought. And then the fire took him, just as it had taken Arysis. But Arysis remained.