Year 2987 of the Third Age
The exodus to Mikarin Peh had gone on for some months now, yet still folk from the westerly villages came to swell the town’s already bursting capacity, for though the discomfort of over-population was unwanted by all, the fear of King Surakaris exterminated any unnecessary pleasures.
Amur did not much like Mikarin Peh – the semi-circular wall that ran around it from the cove in the hills the town was sat upon seemed lesser to the majesty of his city Enmahdah, and he had begun to feel like one of far too many trapped animals in a cage, fearful of their keeper’s wrath. It was too shady under the hills for his liking; for he had been used to the open sun of the capital, and the ever-bustling refugees distressed him, for though he was of the royal household, space was rare even to him and his mother Jerra. The only joy Amur found in these days was listening to the adventurous stories of those older evacuees who would indulge him, or hearing word from the messengers of the efforts of the struggle in the west.
Some weeks after the caravan from Enmahdah had reached the darkened walls of Mikarin Peh news had reached them that the watch-tower of Talazhan had fallen to the Variags, yet King Varnam and his men had broken from their grasp and returned to Enmahdah itself, fortified against Surakaris. At that some of the men who had not initially heeded the call to arms left and went to their King’s aid in a coercion of shame, pride and duty, and soon there were few men left at Mikarin Peh, and those that stayed were for the most part too young, too old, or were among the few guardsmen who manned the walls lest the storm reach them here.
News came to the town seldom, but when it did it always came as relief, and the people praised the name of Varnam; for now Surakaris could not breach the defence of Enmahdah, for she seemed to have not a weak spot on her, and the standards of Lurmsakun still hung proudly from the four towers. Amur would often imagine his bold father and his brothers Adulam, Lasran and Jeldhun, each aloft in their own spire, single-handedly slaying the Khandish invaders, but Lasran would always kill the most.
Today Amur waited with his mother in giddy expectation, for signals came from the walls that a rider sent from the King was approaching, and not even the cramped conditions of Mikarin Peh could entrap Amur’s excitement. But people wondered as the messenger passed through the gates and up through the streets, for he cried not loud proclamations of heroic deeds, but had a stern and cold face, and he sought only the Master of the town and the wife of the King.
The rider had soon finished speaking with the Master of Mikarin Peh and came to Jerra with haste, and though Amur did not hear or understand all he said he could not help but notice the grave and tearful face of his mother. His words came out slowly, as if he were a speaker at a funeral ceremony.
‘My lady, Enmahdah has fallen. They say that someone betrayed the city to Surakaris, and Variags swept through the streets, killing all they found. Even now they march on Mikarin Peh.’
Jerra surprised herself by managing to find words amidst her horror, though indeed in the months of her exodus she had been hardened, and knew as the wife of Varnam that leadership and example came before all else. ‘There is no word of…’ She could not bring herself to finish her sentence.
‘The only survivors I know other than myself were those they took for slaves. I am sorry,’ spoke the messenger in a hushed tone, knowing his words could offer no comfort. ‘The Master has been ordered that all who can wield a sword must be ready for the defence of Mikarin Peh, but the King also bid me send you one last, personal, request.’
‘What duty would he have me do?’ asked Jerra, her face as stone even as her cheeks dampened.
‘Firstly he has bid you take your son far from Surakaris’ clutches – he has agents and accommodation ready at the capital city of Arysis, Maresh, for you. Perhaps then, the lineage of Lurmsakun can live a while longer.
‘Secondly, he told me that he was unable to send you any speaker with a tongue as silver to convey what he would grant you, for words could never do justice for what you meant to him.’
She nodded solemnly at this, before dismissing the rider and retreating into her own chambers, leaving Amur to only wonder and guess at what had befallen, though he grimly had a good idea of what had.
Early at dawn the next morning Jerra and Amur were ready to depart Mikarin Peh, and Lurmsakun, for most likely forever. The fact was not lost even to young Amur, who sat before his mother upon a sturdy horse, looking round at the walls of the town they had just exited the gates from, and a glint of the rising sun passed through the mountains and shone upon a high banner of Lurmsakun that stood still. As the clouds swallowed the light of the ray, Jerra broke her mount into a quick gallop and the last of the House of Sakun sped away west and south.
Two days into the ride Amur began to feel highly exhausted. As night fell they camped huddled against a rocky outcrop, and Amur relished the chance to get some rest, for Jerra had stopped seldom and her son had to be content to only sleeping uncomfortably in the saddle. His mother, still aggrieved from the news of her family’s death, was silent, yet still cared to cheer Amur as much as she could, and decided to light a fire and cook some of the precious small supplies they had taken from Mikarin Peh. She had asked for little despite the Master’s willingness to give her all she could ask for, and she had even refused a guard to accompany her. ‘For,’ she had said, ‘if the plight of Lurmsakun be so great, then the walls will need every man that can stand upon them. And I am not altogether helpless, woman though I am, for I am come from a line of warriors before me, being able to wield a blade at need, and now I have much vengeance yet to quench.’
The fire was well-met to the two travellers, and once they had their fill they fell into a deep sleep against the rocks. But Amur’s slumber was disturbed, for he dreamt of a great trident, as tall as a tower, stuck upon the shore, and a tall wave washed over it in a storm, yet the trident did not move, and every time the sea did not succeed in conquering it, it was as if the prongs of the weapon were punctured into Amur’s very heart.
Suddenly he awoke with a start. The last embers of the fire were dying, yet much of the area was still illuminated. He attempted to fall back down next to his sleeping mother, but he sensed something moving beyond the light of the camp, and he thought he heard the stomp of footsteps, and armour clunking against armour. Amur slowly shook Jerra from her rest, and no sooner had she opened her eyes that from the shadows of the night two fierce men charged, their armour crimson red trimmed with gold, with black beards and axes poised in wrath – Variags of Khand. Jerra immediately jumped up and tore a scimitar from her robes, drawing s!@#$%^s from the attackers, yet her face was desperate and maddened, a lioness protecting the last of her pride.
And then a cry went up, but it was not from the Khands, nor from Jerra, but from the outcrops they had rested against. Like a bolt sent down from the heavens a black shape leapt close in front of Jerra, and drew a long, broad sword with a gallant chime, swinging it two-handed into the first Variag without a fight, before intercepting a roaring blow from the second and striking him swiftly through the chest. The stranger victoriously cleaned his sword and sheathed it, though as he turned he found that Jerra still uncertainly gripped her scimitar, wary of this newcomer, even as the Variags lay slain.
As Amur studied the man, he knew he was like no warrior he had seen before. His face was paler, and he was taller, and he wore light Haradrim cloth under a cloak and dull black armour, though he had wrapped cloths about his garment in some places, as if ashamed of the heraldry adorned upon them.
‘Well met,’ said the man, raising his hands to Jerra in a sign of peace, but she was not so trustworthy.
‘Who are you? What is your business here?’ she demanded, moving her scimitar closer to him with each word in threat.
‘I may be nothing more than a mere traveller aiding a fellow wanderer, though appearances can often be deceiving. Yet names can often be less so, and I shall tell you mine truly. I am Valakar son of Sangakar, and your appearances certainly do not deceive me, for if I had to guess, I would say that you are the wife of the King Varnam of Lurmsakun, and your young companion is his last son, Amur.’
At the mention of her husband’s name Jerra paced towards the man and pointed her weapon right into his neck. ‘How do you know Varnam? Tell me your true purpose, or you shall not speak a word again, false or true.’
‘Forgive me; I should have been more considerate. I am the captain of a small mercenary band, whom your King employed at the defence of Talazhan and Enmahdah. If you wish, you may accompany me to my camp, where there are stores aplenty, and perhaps I can shed a little more light to you.’
Jerra had agreed to follow the man after consideration, pulling the horse along in one hand as Amur tottered beside her. Valakar had continued to talk as they stepped across the increasingly craggy stones of the rather large outcrops.
‘You were sleeping against the outer rocks of the pass of Sulam, which the Solendon Road runs through from Enmahdah to the south. My men were too camping here, and we quickly spotted you. I asked them to put a watch on you whilst you slept, but none would choose to sacrifice their rest so, and I had to do it myself. A loyal bunch of rogues they are…’
Jerra, however, was silent, and Valakar knew that she would not be truly put at ease until all he knew of her husband was told. ‘The King called for as many mercenaries he could find to come to Talazhan, some more loyal to employ than others. We answered the call, for one of my band once hailed from Lurmsakun until he was cast out, yet it appears his faithfulness to his people still remains. We gave battle for many weeks at the watch-tower, until the enemy brought up ladders beyond count, and we escaped from the hordes through a sortie, riding to Enmahdah with all haste, though some were cut down in the flight. I saw your brave son, Jeldhun, pulled from the saddle by a Khandish champion myself.’
‘He was not my son,’ Jerra said lowly. ‘Adulam, Adazra, Lasran and Jeldhun were born from another, who died in childbirth.’
‘Nevertheless, he was still brave,’ continued Valakar. ‘We reached the capital itself, and at this time the more faithless mercenaries had already abandoned the campaign, which as you can imagine was a good many, yet upon the walls were a number of men waiting for us. The city was fortified to the best of our ability, and we waited for over a week for Surakaris to come for us; and we were ready when he did. Try as they might, the Variags could not best the defence, for everywhere the King and his sons Adulam and Lasran went the walls seemed undefeatable, and Varnam was revealed to us as like a hero of old – I had the honour of fighting by his side many times in that siege. But for all our valour, we would be undone by base treachery.
‘I can only guess some green-eyed mercenary bought to Surakaris’ promises revealed it to the enemy, but whoever it was, they told the enemy of a weak point in the walls where an old gate once stood, and they brought many engines of war against it and breached it at last. Yet in the last moments before it fell, the King called all his mercenaries to him, and bid them go from his service, so that some life may be spared.
‘”We must stay,” said Halatakh, the fellow in my band from Lurmsakun, “For what honour is there to be found in flight?”
‘But I bid him that the King’s wish must be done. “For,” said I, “Honour is not found in lives cast away without regard, and how in death can the memory of the King be preserved, or his spirit be avenged?”
‘And so we departed the city with heavy hearts, making a swift sortie where the enemy lines were thinnest, and we rode away, and not one of us did not look back. On the walls I saw Varnam and Adulam at the last taken by a wave of foes, and as for Lasran, I cannot say. Yet Enmahdah soon became a hive of the Khandish, its might sundered and its glory plundered. It is from there that we come now, seeking to return to Near Harad, for Surakaris’ wrath will not stop at Lurmsakun alone I deem, but will spread through Ammu Baj, and Siakan, and staunch Arysis, and maybe onto the borders of Harad itself.’
Jerra acknowledged all that he said, but bowed her head and was silent still, but as he walked, Amur’s eyes began to fill with tears, and his love for Lasran and his father broke his heart.
Captain Valakar’s camp was on a high perch over the pass of Sulam, and from it could be seen the Solendon Road stretching out down below. As they arrived, Amur counted four sleeping men, as well as two who sat conversing on jutting stone as seats. One was dressed in strange green garb, as if he had sewn the colours of a forest onto his robes, and he had a bow and a quiver of green-feathered arrows at his back, and a large, mostly flat circular hat resting at his feet. The other however was stranger still, wearing a dark cloak that swathed his body, and his hood was so deep that his face was bathed in shadow. The latter did not move at the sight of the approaching woman and child, but stared in study at both of them, and as he looked into Amur’s eyes the boy could only stare back in wide-eyed fear. Yet his companion was far heartier, and rose to greet them.
‘Good evening to you both,’ he said, bowing slightly. ‘May I introduce myself as Khulgana, scout of the oasis-city of Dharan-sar, and temporary servitor of the Captain Valakar.’
‘You still pronounce yourself as ‘temporary’?’ said Valakar with a smile. ‘Are you still trying to distance yourself from working with such unwholesome characters such as us?’
Khulgana looked a little shameful. ‘Of course not, Captain. But you should be reminded that I am only here because our objectives are for the most part similar. I must report the dealings of the wider world to my city, and it is indeed the wide world that you ply.’
‘Very well, Khulgana. Do not be too cautious of mingling with us,’ Valakar now said to Jerra and Amur. ‘We pride ourselves on being more welcoming than others like ourselves. I am afraid however that the rest of my company need their rest, and if I were to wake them from it they would more likely cut off my head than bid you welcome. But this other man here is Iaman Raukazan, my greatest companion, whom I have accompanied through many dangers.’
Raukazan did not make any effort of greeting, but instead stared at Valakar sternly. ”Mingling?” he questioned, and Amur was astonished, for his words were barely whispered, and all sounded strained and harsh as if he had endured great torture. ‘Why would they seek to mingle with us? You do not seriously wish to invite them into our band?’
Valakar turned his gaze back to Jerra and Amur. ‘You must excuse me whilst I speak with my companion. Khulgana shall keep you good company.’ Valakar then walked to the edge of the camp, whispering coarsely with Raukazan for some minutes, and though Jerra and Amur sat with Khulgana all three were intent on overhearing their conversation rather than holding their own.
‘What purpose would they serve?’ rasped Raukazan. ‘Other than for us to claim the bounty Surakaris has set upon their heads; but somehow I believe that is not quite your morality, unless you truly have spent too long amongst foul folk.’
‘They are merely trying to escape the Variags’ wrath, as are we,’ said Valakar. ‘Is it so dire that they may accompany us? Remember that we fought by their King’s side – would it not scorn his memory not to protect them?’
‘Very well, Captain,’ the hooded man finally accepted. ‘But I still foresee that the child will become nothing more than an instrument for Tuor to torment, and the woman for the men to enact base pleasures upon -‘
Hearing this, Jerra instantly leapt up and drew her scimitar, alerting Khulgana, but Valakar and Raukazan were mostly unfazed. ‘I am no device to be toyed with, by you or anyone else!’
Raukazan sneered at her and walked towards her. ‘You think that I would want you? You think of yourself far too highly. You have a strong spirit – that much I see. But you would shrivel like a flower in the midday sun before the horrors that we have faced.’
‘I think it is time that we all took some rest,’ sternly spoke Valakar. ‘Know that no-one here will give you any harm, Jerra Sakun, even Raukazan here, for his mood is darker than his true spirit.’
At this Raukazan chuckled grimly and walked to the outskirts of the camp, and Jerra calmly sheathed her weapon. ‘Why would you assume that we would wish to travel with you anyway, for we have housing ready for us at Maresh?’ she asked.
Captain Valakar smiled grimly. ‘My lady, Surakaris has placed a high bounty on your heads. Very soon word of it shall spread everywhere from here to Umbar, and I doubt every single occupant of Maresh is honourable enough to not reveal you to him; I doubt there is even any safety for you in all of Amrun. A mercenary band of warriors is your only chance of escaping this land alive, and you are fortunate that our only payment is goodwill.’
At this Jerra relented and nodded her head, before walking with Amur to set up her own sleeping conditions.
‘Are we going on an adventure, mother?’ Amur queried.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, Amur, it seems that we are.’
At this Amur beamed, and looked over at Captain Valakar, who returned the gesture. As he did, Amur thought of how lucky he was to be travelling under such a great warrior, and perhaps, under a hero.