Year 2996 of the Third Age
For nine years the boy who was once known as the Prince of Lurmsakun had been dead. For on the day that he and his mother had joined the mercenary band at the pass of Sulam, the royal heritage that had come with the name of Sakun – that once hailed a valorous lineage – was bereft, taken from them along with everything else in a vicious grasp by the greedy claw of the Variag King Surakaris. For nine years, the last son of King Varnam, Amur Sakun, had been known by the maiden name of his mother’s warrior line – they were now Jerra and Amur Suladan, rogues of the company of Captain Valakar.
When they escaped the lands of Amrun from the clutches of Surakaris now so long ago, the mercenaries had considered the two refugees of Lurmsakun only temporary companions. Yet Amur and Jerra had proven their worth, and they had merged well into the group over their many quests and battles, although the shadowy, long-acquainted friend of Valakar, Iaman Raukazan, had grumbled at this somewhat. Though the newcomers did the majority of their work in labour, Amur had been raised by the others to become skilled with a blade and with body, whilst his fierce mother could too easily best the ability of any man.
Of all the mercenaries, over the years Amur had warmed to two of the travellers in particular – the scout of Dharan-sar, Khulgana, whom had been highly friendly and courteous from the moment they met; and Halatakh, a warrior of Lurmsakun who had been banished several years ago yet was still true to his nation, and so still regarded Amur and Jerra as royalty. Amur’s youthful curiosity could be easily quenched by a man who knew much and saw him as his better.
“I once served under the soldiery of the northerly watchtower of Kruk Boyadla,” Halatakh had told Amur of his past, ever hungry for stories, especially concerning the men he was travelling with. “And my brother was the captain of the tower, a great captain as well, and no Khandish attack could ever defeat Kruk Boyadla when my brother defended it. But a hired assassin crept into the tower in the dead watches of the night, and slew him. Because I was the second-in-command of the tower, I was framed for killing my own brother, and cast out of Lurmsakun, until I found Valakar.”
“But why did you return to aid my father King Varnam?” Amur had asked. “Especially after what our country did to you?”
“True honour is found more in forgiveness than in vengeance,” Halatakh had said, quoting a saying of the Captain’s.
Over time Halatakh had answered the young man’s questions concerning the other members of the group. “There is little I can tell you of Khulgana which you do not know, for it is well-known he is a scout of the oasis-city of Dharan-sar, working with us only to wander the lands we travel, and report them back to his King.
“But Ghurlasab is a strange one, that you would have surely discovered by now,” Halatakh had said of the dark-skinned man who bore a great axe-cudgel, built like an ox and as mighty as one. “He comes from the forested lands in the south of Far Harad, where the peoples known as the Mahud live. They are a mystery to all, and Ghurlasab offers little enlightenment, for though you may think he does not wish to talk to you, in fact he does not wish to talk to any – aside from the Captain. There are strange stories about the Mahud, though; it is said they can talk to beasts, and that their shamen can read the fates of the world with the weather.
“The man in the black armour, Belzagar, was once a Warden of the dreaded port-city of Umbar. It is said those men live like kings, for their masters, the seven lords of the Council of Umbar, are ever fearful of treachery, and must grant their servants all their hearts’ desires to dispel a villainous knife in the back. But Belzagar must have had greater ambitions still to have left Umbar and banded with us – he must be hopeful we shall uncover some rare treasures, and be able to buy his old port-city three times over!
“Tuor is among the best shot with a bow that I have ever seen, but his life is less straight than his aim. He originally hails from the north, from the hated stone-lands of Gondor, but was cast out for some reason that he shall not speak of. Yet I am often led to believe that he secretly thinks himself to be better than all of us, which I can only put down to his heritage, but he is rarely well-humoured, choosing rather to be ever bitter and sarcastic, and if he has any joys they are only in drinking and in brothels.
“None of us know much of the Captain Valakar or Raukazan, except perhaps themselves of one another, for they were travelling across the South together long before our company formed. But from what I can guess, and what I have seen, I would say that Iaman Raukazan was once part of those assassins most loathed, the Hasharii.”
At this Amur had gasped, for tales of the wicked and horrific deeds of the nigh-preternatural agents of the Hasharii Order had reached even the ears of Lurmsakun.
“As for the Captain Valakar, I know that his father Sangakar was a great captain of Umbar, one of the four Fleetmasters of the Corsairs, for his family is of strong blood of that race known as Black Numenoreans. Valakar indeed could have had a majestic life at Umbar, for he was a Captain of the Wardens before his departure. That he does not speak of, but seeing how noble a man he is, and how corrupt a city Umbar is, I predict he eventually became sickened by it.”
“Why does he wear cloths wrapped on his armour though?” Amur had asked.
“The armour of the Captains of the Wardens is adorned with the heraldry of Umbar – the three-pronged steel trident. I suspect it is for the reason I have just spoken of – he is ashamed of it. I am sure that he sometimes doubts whether others would like him because of his once-ascendant heritage.”
“But we can find honour in forgiveness more in vengeance, can we not Halatakh?” Amur had said with a smile, to which Halatakh had proudly returned.
Dusk was starting to settle on the sands, and the shadows lengthened in the town of Gadirkarn. Found on the eastern reaches of Near Harad, Gadirkarn was constructed upon the sparse River Sar in the Nafarat, the Great Desert of Harad, as a haven for the few travellers in the desolation. Though such use of it had remained, over the centuries Gadirkarn became increasingly notorious for being a nest for mercenaries, and many men of wealth and need came here to buy such services. Yet such a town of rogues and brigands could never be stable, and so Gadirkarn had become drenched in inns, brothels and sin, the only governor of the town the brew-master or bandit lord with the deepest pocket to hire out the most mercenaries to serve their purposes. Yet Gadirkarn’s magnet of unwholesome types meant a lot of news and information could be found here, and one could meet whom one would not expect to meet; for it was here that Captain Valakar and Iaman Raukazan first encountered one another and their fast friendship began.
The company made rest at a curious, yet relatively secluded establishment called The Sand Wyrm, where the men quickly moved to the bar and ordered ale and rooms, whilst Jerra hung back a few yards, ready to unsheathe the scimitar at her side lest any drunken fool attempt to lay hands on her. Yet Amur knew this was not the time for merry-making – the company had indeed come here to rest, but Valakar had another design. He had received word that a man was here, one who had information that the Captain highly desired. Paternally, Valakar gave the fourteen-year old Amur a look that dissuaded him from the bar.
‘A man you will soon be, Amur Suladan, but I deem it would be far too irresponsible of me to allow you to have the fill of your older companions,’ frowned the Captain.
‘Let him up to the bar, Valakar!’ heartily said Khulgana. ‘He’s done as much work as the rest of us; let him reap the rewards!’
‘Besides,’ continued Valakar, ‘I have a better use for you than getting witless with these vagabonds. Raukazan, make sure the others stay out of trouble.’
The rogue Hasharii nodded as he slowly, almost cautiously, lightly sipped on a goblet, and Amur eagerly followed Valakar from the bar.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked.
‘To find the man whom I seek to talk to,’ Valakar said. ‘The one who knows what I wish to learn. And if all goes to plan, then perhaps we shall see about that ale for you.’
Valakar and Amur made their way through the dark, crowded streets of Gadirkarn, often having to move as if attempting to find the centre of a labyrinth, for recent stone buildings had been built where what space was available between the sturdy constructions of old, and everywhere tents had been raised by the town’s impermanent occupants like growths sprouting in the gutters. The tall Captain cast his cloak about him like a shroud, and Amur moved as closely beside him as he could, holding the sheath of his small scimitar granted to him when they had traversed the distant havens of Tanturak, for the young man knew of the nature the men of this town possessed. However, Valakar’s inconspicuousness had removed such threats, and it was not too long until they halted at a dull, unadorned door, though the anxiety Amur had felt had made the length of their journey exaggerated in his mind.
‘Speak to him as little as you can,’ Valakar warned before he knocked thrice on the door. ‘Though I would have the nature of all men honourable enough to be trustworthy, such a notion is at its most unbelievable here. Nine years is not long enough for a man with a memory as keen as his avarice to forget that the last son of King Varnam is still wanted by Surakaris for enough gold for all of Gadirkarn to squabble and brawl over.’
The door creaked to reveal a slit, from which uttered a hushed and husky voice, ‘Your name?’
‘Rakalav,’ the Captain answered; for his true name was kept from those who might remember, or have heard, of his adventurous but dogged past. ‘I hope you do not mind that I have brought a companion?’
From the narrowly opened entrance the man curiously eyed Amur, deeming him too young to bring any factor of threat. ‘And the boy’s name?’
‘Suladan,’ replied Valakar. ‘Now may we do business?’
Without a sound the man fully opened the door and began walking further into the building, not waiting to welcome them into his household. Valakar cautiously stepped in before Amur, who closed the door behind them. They walked into a wide, basic room, where a veiled window sat closed on the right wall and the man was already sat upon a chair facing another empty one, with an unadorned small table sat between them. Nothing in the chamber gave any idea of its inhabitant’s life or occupation, as if the very room was a mask. Valakar sat down in the empty chair, after it was clear their host would make no sign himself of asking him to do so, and Amur stood obediently behind his Captain.
‘Without sounding discourteous’, the man said discourteously, ‘I would like to make this meeting as swift as possible.’
‘That would make two of us,’ faintly smiled Valakar. ‘Tell me, you have our names, but what is yours?’
‘Such niceties would slow the speed of this encounter,’ he brashly stated. ‘Besides, I choose not to state it; firstly because of traceability, secondly because I am simply standing as a channel for someone much more ascendant than I, who too does not wish to be exposed.’
‘Then perhaps you can relay what I want to know,’ Valakar firmly said, realising the mood of his informant and brazenly dropping a bag of coin on the table before him. ‘Where is this place I have been told of?’
The man scrutinised the satchel for a second before returning his gaze. ‘Trace the coast of the Bay of Sudu Cull until you are adjacent with Dharan-sar. In the desert midway from there to the port of Ornad as the hawk flies, you shall find it.’
‘Many thanks,’ the Captain said, standing from his chair and moving to the door, Amur immediately behind him, wondering of what the ‘it’ the two men had been referring to was.
‘Just before you exit,’ the man started, halting his two guests. ‘Rakalav seems to be a bizarre name to me. It seems to be ‘Valakar’ spelt in reverse. I know of a man called Valakar. I also know he travels with a man called Iaman Raukazan. I know that Raukazan is a rogue Hasharin – and I know that his head is much desired.’
The man was still sat there, his face expressionless, but he turned his head slowly to the window and made a short nod. Valakar instinctively drew his sword and moved towards the man, but still unflinching, he said, ‘It is too late for that.’
The startled Captain looked at the window for a moment before sheathing his blade and striding to the door, Amur following him in much confusion.
‘We were being watched,’ said Valakar.
Making no effort of stealth from the occupants of the evening streets, Amur and the Captain raced through the haphazard paths, lunging by wanderers and bolting around corners. Valakar was racing far ahead on his long tireless legs, and Amur struggled to keep up, but he thought to himself, ‘Whatever could trouble as mighty a man as the Captain so? It must be something dire – he shall need me by his side, for what worth I can give,’ and he panted up into his master’s shadow.
The Sand Wyrm was far less quiet than when they had left. Raukazan, Jerra, Khulgana and Halatakh sat upon one of the smaller tables, wearily sipping mugs of ale and talking amongst themselves now and again. They all looked up at once as soon as Valakar and Amur burst into the inn, as did all the other customers, so dramatic was their entrance.
‘What has happened?’ Valakar desperately asked Raukazan. ‘Where are the others?’
‘Belzagar and Tuor went chasing up the brothels,’ said the erstwhile Hasharin, ‘and Ghurlasab went for a wander. Other than that, there is nothing to report.’
‘Then why…’ mused the Captain – and then a sudden cold realisation hit his very heart. ‘They followed us here!’
‘Who did?’ Jerra inquired, moving out of her seat to his side. ‘Why are you acting so strange, Valakar?’
She was soon informed why. With a mighty crash a blur of a form dived sleekly through the wooden window on the other side of the inn, drawing twin blades with a chime and cutting down two drinkers before it even landed. In the same deft motion it kicked the table in Amur’s direction, sending him, Jerra and Valakar all reeling to the floor.
One or two men stood and raised their weapons, but most ran from the establishment crying in terror, for they knew who and what the figure was and wisely, yet not bravely, sought to keep their lives. The barman slowly crouched down behind his serving point, but not so low as to keep an eye on the action. Before all this happened however, Raukazan was instantly up and moving to meet the attacker, and though Khulgana and Halatakh had left their bow and their spear in their rooms, they drew a long knife each from their robes and went to reinforce their companion.
Raukazan and his foe moved in a flurry of blows and strikes with such speed that the naked eye could not acknowledge every movement. They seemed to be equally matched in skill, as if they were two sides of a conscience, though even as Khulgana and Halatakh entered the fray the best they could do to aid Raukazan was frustratingly parry the attacks made on themselves by their enemy.
As Amur regained consciousness, he watched through blinking eyes as the inn door barged open again and Ghurlasab the Mahud entered with his great cudgel, bellowing like a Troll as he charged into the fray, swinging his broad weapon with immense strength. But might meant naught against such a swift opponent, and with a shout Ghurlasab was kicked away and fell through one of the tables in a heap.
Now Valakar was up, and drew his old sword as he patiently went to the side of his long friend Raukazan. As he steadily walked, he noted each strike and action the attacker made, and by the time he had reached the combat he had most strokes made by his foe already portended. The skill of the Captain was recognised by the attacker, and knowing he could not win against two warriors to match the ability of his own he leapt through the broken window once more and vanished into the night, though he was not pursued.
‘What was that?’ asked Amur breathing heavily, as Ghurlasab shook to his feet and Valakar pulled Jerra up by her hand.
Raukazan sheathed his weapons and stared straight at the young man, and Amur reactively flinched, for the rogue assassin barely apprehended him at all. ‘That, boy, was a foe you were lucky to survive an encounter with. He was a Hasharin. And more specifically, he is a man that goes by the name of Venmal Javitakh,’ he now said directly to Valakar.
‘He was schooled into the order alongside you,’ realised the Captain, knowing the name. ‘You were novices together.’
‘Yes. And his coming here is a grave threat for us all. Gadirkarn is no longer safe for us – we must leave at once.’