Year 2996 of the Third Age
The company had departed the sins of Gadirkarn on the same night as the Hasharin’s attack. Tuor had to be practically dragged from the brothels by Ghurlasab, and once Valakar’s men were assembled they marched through the night south and east from the town until they had found the eastern shores of Near Harad, where the waves of the Bay of Sudu Cull washed onto the infinite sands of the Great Desert.
‘I think you are just jealous that I found a woman and you did not,’ said Tuor angrily as they marched, still sour about prematurely leaving his base pleasures.
‘You did not find a woman, Tuor, she found your pocket!’ Khulgana chuckled in retort.
By the next nightfall they had reached the sea, which Amur stared at with deep thought, and with relief the company made camp. Before any gave into their weariness, however, there were questions not yet asked that had to be answered.
‘Captain, Raukazan,’ started Belzagar, daring to enquire what everyone thought, ‘though we all maintain that we do not pester your secrecy, I believe we all have the right to know what exactly is going on before you drag us all across the desert in another of your ploys.’
Raukazan gave Belzagar a cold look for that, but Valakar was more forgiving, ‘You are right to say so, Belzagar. I hope all of you can forgive us for our sealed lips, but both I and Iaman maintain that what is past is past, though it seems last night it has come back to haunt us.
‘Raukazan and I first met at Gadirkarn many years past, and we soon bonded over a shared desire – to discover the hidden histories of Harad’s past, and in particular, the origins of the Hasharii Order. Recently, I was told of a lost ziggurat in the Nafarat where the secrets of the Hasharii’s dark deity, the Shadow Queen, can still be found and proved. Last night, Amur and I visited a man who knew where it lay, and at last we know its location. Yet it seems the man was working for another – the Hasharin who attacked us last night, Raukazan’s former fellow novice, Venmal Javitakh.’
‘But why would one of the Hasharii wish to expose the perhaps blasphemous secrets of their own goddess?’ asked Halatakh, as Amur suddenly remembered the ‘it’ Valakar and the man were speaking of.
Raukazan now spoke, ‘Javitakh was always an ambitious man – over-ambitious, you could say. Very early in his training, he joined a secret group that many other Hasharii have succumbed to after realising the truth – that the Shadow Queen is nothing more than a vassal of the Dark Lord of Mordor. This group is the Cult of Sauron.’
Several of the men tensed at such a name, yet Iaman continued, ‘The ziggurat must contain evidence to reveal the truth of their goddess to the Hasharii, and so merge their Order and the Cult into one – a horrific proposition.’
‘So we are going to find this ziggurat?’ asked Belzagar. ‘Despite the fact we would be working for a crazed Hasharin?’
‘Yes and no,’ Valakar answered. ‘We will find the ziggurat and take what secrets we can, but we shall ensure they do not go to either the Cult of Sauron, or the Hasharii Order, of whom the latter will instantly destroy what we have found. Instead, we shall give them to the Council of Umbar.’
This drew several exclamations, not least from Belzagar, who like Valakar had fled from the City of the Corsairs long ago, but as they died down the Captain explained, ‘The Hasharii are, officially at least, the servitors of the Council of Umbar, though any with insight can see that the reverse is much more to the truth. Each Myr Unghal, the leader of the Hasharii, have been manipulating the Council of Umbar for centuries. But if Umbar discovers the Hasharii are truly – though they do not know it themselves – servants of Sauron, battle will erupt between Umbar, the Hasharii and the Cult for the expunging of the others. In the aftermath, each side shall be so weakened that, at last, the common people of Harad can rise up and banish all outer control forever, and at last there will be rightful peace in all the South, where the tribesmen can live without any of their tyranny or oppression.’
A heavy silence fell on the group, but it was Valakar who broke it. ‘Now you all see what is at stake – a chance for heroism of limitless renown. Even Tuor cannot blanch at such an idea.’
A few chuckles broke around the group, but Tuor retorted, ‘Though it is such a lovely idea,’ he said sarcastically, ‘There is no profit in peace. And the Lords of Umbar have served Sauron plenty enough times in the past, why should they care that the Hasharii are linked to him?’
‘Do not worry about being paid,’ said Valakar. ‘The Council of Umbar will give us much for this evidence before their inevitable downfall. As for their allegiance, though it is true they are sometime allies of Mordor, it is most often out of coercion, or sharing similar goals; and besides, any who have any experience of their savage and selfish form of democracy will know that what they deem is theirs is theirs – they would not even allow Sauron to take it.’
‘But this all does not still explain why that Hasharin tried to kill us,’ reminded Halatakh.
‘Not us,’ answered Raukazan. ‘Me. Javitakh and I grew up as novices together – it was only natural of him to try and indoctrinate me into the Cult of Sauron as well. Unlike him, however, I was sickened to the core that the Order I had served was twisted by false truths, and I fled, which is the greatest crime a Hasharii can commit, for service can only be relinquished through death. Because I know of the truth, I am an enemy of the Cult, as well as wanted by the Hasharii for my departure, and so I deem Javitakh only sought to kill me, but leave the rest of you alive so you could continue to search for the ziggurat.’
‘That is very comforting,’ Tuor said bitterly. ‘Comforting that we have a walking magnet for assassins and cultists.’
Raukazan glared at Tuor in wrath, but Amur piped up, to the surprise of all. ‘But Raukazan is surely the best fighter among us. Does that not cancel out the fact that he is wanted, as well as benefit us?’
Tuor fell silent, but Valakar beamed at Amur, and strangest of all, Iaman gave the young man, whom he had been disgruntled by all his life, a respectful nod.
‘Now that your collective curiosity is quenched,’ the Captain spoke, ‘you should now all get some rest. For tomorrow we venture into the Great Desert – to the ziggurat, and to eternal glory.’
The mercenaries slept peacefully – or at least, a couple of them did, for the rest were thinking far too much to rest, simply lying in thoughts of heroism and ambition – even the usually restless Raukazan lay down in contemplation. Yet as similarly grand ideas went through Amur’s head, he stared at his mother as he rested his head on the cloth over the sand, for she was stood like stone upon the shore, staring out into the sea as if a great wave was to appear at any minute upon the horizon. He then heard the soft crunch of footsteps upon the beach and saw the Captain walking to her side, his arms calmly folded and his dark cloak billowing in the winds of the sea.
‘If one were to make a boat of sand and sail it to the other side,’ said Valakar, ‘On the other side of the Bay of Sudu Cull you would come to the mouths of the Rivers Imak and Siaka, between which stands the twin crossings of Imak Peh, the most westerly town of Siakan. If one were to travel north up the Amrun Road, one would travel past Kruk Azamna and pass into the land of Arysis, coming through the town of Layotam, and to the stoic capital of Maresh. But if one were to keep going north up the road from Maresh, it would lead them to the great city of Enmahdah, and so into Lurmsakun. For that is where your gaze takes you now, is it not?’
‘Yes,’ Jerra replied. ‘There lies Amrun and its four kingdoms. Or at least, there once lied Amrun. For now Surakaris has claimed Siakan, and Ammu Baj, and my beloved Lurmsakun, and men say he calls it all now the land of Surak-Khand.’
‘Your gaze then truly is as far as an Elf’s,’ chuckled Valakar. ‘But fear not. Not even Surakaris can wipe the memory of glorious Amrun from the world, and forget not that the last of the four kingdoms, mighty Arysis, still fights on.’
‘And if Arysis had only joined with my husband…’ Jerra mused, her face cold. ‘And Ammu Baj, and Siakan – if all four stood together against the Variags this would have never happened, and perhaps Varnam would still be here now, but they did not, all because of their petty disputes.’
Valakar now took Jerra’s shoulders comfortably in his hands, and he turned gently to face her. ‘Who are we to decide what things should have and should not have happen? We are far too small to control the devices of fate and destiny.’
‘Fate and destiny did not kill my husband. Surakaris did.’
‘I know,’ Valakar said compassionately, ‘yet perhaps fate and destiny will end him too, in time.’
‘Maybe I shall beat them to it,’ Jerra said with a glimmer of rage.
‘There are many who vow vengeance upon him, and I would not blanch to strike him down myself, though you know well enough now that I find honour is found more in forgiveness than vengeance. But revenge is a less hollow promise than it makes itself out to be,’ said the Captain, and his eyes wandered for a moment as if thinking bitterly on some forgotten piece of his past.
‘For a man apparently so intrigued by the past, you barely excavate your own.’
‘A man on a path trips up if he is looking backwards instead of forwards,’ he stated.
‘Then if you are so adamant on looking ahead, what is it that you now see?’ Jerra asked, looking at his sea-grey eyes as if she only now finally understood the man that saw through them.
‘I see you, Jerra Sakun-Suladan,’ Valakar said, as their hands clenched together, and he held her as she lay her head on his shoulder, both of them looking out into the endless waves of the bay, and as Amur closed his eyes to attempt to sleep once more he knew he could not, thanks to another surge of very different thoughts in his head.
All nine of the company were now well-experienced to travelling through the desert, yet that did not mean that every time they did it was easier, or they cherished it more. It had been now two weeks since their camp on the shore, and they had continued to trace down the Bay of Sudu Cull, which was relished, for though the water could not be drunk, fish could be caught to bolster their steadily dwindling supplies. Though they had no beast of burden, strong Ghurlasab was a mighty man, and would carry many stores of water and food upon his back as well as all his own belongings, and though they were few his axe-cudgel was a burden in itself for a lesser man.
‘Where in the world did you get that from?’ asked Khulgana, shaded in his wide circular wicker hat, noticing the wrapped wooden decanter in Tuor’s hand. ‘Did someone send you a message in a bottle from the sea, or did a scorpion spring out of the sand to give you it?’
‘You can take the man out of Gadirkarn,’ jeered Tuor, ‘but you can’t take Gadirkarn out of the man – or from his hands, for that matter.’
‘Calm yourself,’ the scout of Dharan-sar replied. ‘I shall not thief it – I suspect none of us are as witless as to dehydrate ourselves further out here, even if it was brewed by beautiful virgins from the fruits of Yavanna.’
‘True, but at least if I am witless for this journey it might stop me thinking about its foolishness.’
Amur had watched Valakar and his mother speak every day, and it was true that they were becoming much closer, though subtly enough for the other men not to take notice. Initially, he thought he would be enraged by the Captain attempting to step where his father King Varnam once stood, but he knew in his heart that for the past nine years Valakar had too been like a parent to him, perhaps more so than Varnam, and it began to make more sense in his head.
At night, the mercenaries stopped, once again close to the shore. Halatakh had brought back several large fish skewered upon his keen spear with a victorious smile on his face, though Belzagar was sooner to put his nose up at the smell than be thankful for them. As he and Raukazan peered over their small collection of maps, Valakar continued looking westwards and southwards, as if he had the eyes of a hunting hawk.
‘To our absolute west is the oasis-city of Dharan-sar,’ he announced, as Khulgana suddenly looked in the direction of his home, as if to catch a glance of the city standing many leagues away. ‘And to our absolute south is the port of Ornad. If we walk as straight as the hawk flies to the latter, we should find it.’
‘If such a place wants to be found,’ advised Belzagar. ‘Lost ziggurats like to remain lost, and I hear such unwholesome places have ways of keeping themselves undiscovered.’
Tuor chuckled as he heard this and took another long draught from his decanter. ‘At this rate,’ said Khulgana, ‘Tuor shall find it by tripping over it!’
As they laughed Ghurlasab stood up and walked a few paces, staring straight south and sniffing as if the wind bore him news. ‘What is it?’ asked Valakar as he went to his side.
‘There is something ill on the wind for you, Captain. You will find what you seek, but through it you shall lose everything,’ said Ghurlasab in the low rumbling voice he scarcely used, and at this Valakar wondered, but the large Mahud spoke again. ‘It is here. We shall find it, soon enough.’
It was now just over three weeks since they had set off from Gadirkarn, and still no sign could be seen of their quarry. Cold night set upon the desert, and since they had left the beaches of the Bay of Sudu Cull for the open desert of the Nafarat, Amur felt robbed of the comfort he felt knowing his land of Amrun was on the other side. Yet Halatakh had attempted to keep up his spirits, as always, and began singing the old songs of their home, holding a flaming brand to light their way.
‘In the land of Amrun,
There sat upon a single throne,
A great King named Boyadla,
In glorious Solendon!
Yet his mind was in doubt,
For children he had four:
Lord Sakun the staunch, Lady Ysis of passion,
Doughty Lord Baj and valiant Lord Siaka.
Four cities they had made,
And so when Boyadla lay down,
For Enmahdah, Maresh, Ammu Baj and Ankruz,
Each city had a crown.
Yet with four divided lands
Came four different thoughts.
In quarrels Solendon was ruined,
And four kingdoms were at war.
Centuries came and went,
Alliances made then torn,
Some hurts do not heal, yet perhaps someday,
Solendon shall be reborn!’
Only a little of the Lay of the Four Kingdoms for now, Amur, but there shall be more soon,’ Halatakh smiled.
‘It has been a long time since I heard that,’ Amur replied, granting Halatakh applause. ‘I did not know that the last single king of Amrun was named after the old Lurmsakun watchtower of Kruk Boyadla, where you and your brother fought.’
‘Yes,’ Halatakh replied glumly as the smile fell from his face.
‘What is the matter?’ asked Amur in condolence. ‘You should not be sad about your brother, he seemed to be a great captain, and a great man, and it was just an offence that a slimy hired assassin killed him.’
‘I am not sad about that in particular, Amur,’ he replied. ‘But sometimes I remember how great a man my brother was, and think of how I cannot rise to be as great a man as him.’
‘You shall, Halatakh,’ said Amur with a smile. ‘Remember what the Captain said – eternal glory!’
The outcast warrior of Lurmsakun raised his head a little, and a gleam was in his eyes. ‘Yes. Eternal glor-‘
Halatakh could not finish his last words as a mighty thud resounded out of the sand, as if a hammer had struck from below the earth. An explosion of sand flew upwards and then down, sending Amur and Halatakh reeling backwards, their torch tumbling in the air, and many in the company instantly cursed, yet Raukazan and Valakar drew their swords in a heartbeat, and the rest soon followed.
As Amur lay in astonished terror, his eyes blinking and his arms madly pushing the sand off his face, he saw in his vision a monstrous form rear before him, illuminated by the flickering fallen brand close to him. He had heard whispered tales of such creatures among the company, but not for a second did he think their words to be true.
‘A beast of the sand,’ stated Valakar, looking into the many shining eyes of the monstrosity. ‘A relic of ancient times.’
The Captain was indeed well-learned in the past of Harad. It was said that the South was once a fair and virtuous land, until horrors in forgotten vaults and pits and spires of dirt emerged to make war on Men and Elves, and they scourged the earth with their infestation and their unquenchable hunger. Far off cousins of the unholy broods of Ungoliant – they were the Great Scorpions of Imaegdel.
Ghurlasab was the first to find his heart. Dropping his many bags he raised his axe-cudgel with a deafening war cry, charging towards the abomination, its many limbs jittering and jabbing in anticipation, its many eyes barely unable to contain the endless malice within, and its jaws shrieking cries no tongue, however cursed, could ever emit. With a sinister snap of its obsidian claw Ghurlasab was suddenly gone, the mighty Mahud warrior bluntly cloven in two in barely a second.
The body of their fallen comrade immediately awoke the others into action. Raukazan and Valakar advanced steadily towards the beast, with Belzagar and Jerra behind them, all brandishing blades that flickered with the fires they bore whilst the bows of Tuor and Khulgana sang. But they could find no weak spot on the creature apart from its eyes, and it consistently swerved and blanched at each missile, and the dark night hindered their aim.
The swordsmen had little effect too. Not even the preternatural combat ability of Raukazan could get him close enough to attack, for the reach of its claws was long and mortal. Steadily moving to his feet, Amur was altogether disgusted by the giant beast, and the sight of it alone made him want to retch, though he was more concerned that not even Raukazan or the Captain could defeat the beast. But suddenly a thought came together in his head as he looked at Tuor and his sturdy bow. Moving quickly behind the relative safety of Belzagar and his mother, he picked up the still burning brand Halatakh had carried and went to Tuor, grabbing into his gear with panicked speed.
‘What are you doing, boy!’ shouted Tuor, still firing arrows. ‘You are ruining my aim!’
But then Amur found what he had sought. Running a few yards forward, he threw the brand and the decanter full square at the beast’s head, and it could not deter from the objects’ course. The alcohol ignited almost at once, sending the many eyes of the scorpion into utmost fear, and in sudden dread of these maggots it scuttled with speed away from them, yet it was not long before the flames spread all across the creature, and its wretched moans died down into a thin rasp.
‘Poor Ghurlasab,’ said Khulgana, ceremonially picking up the brave warrior’s cudgel as the company gathered themselves.
‘Too great a loss,’ replied Valakar sadly, holding his head in his hands. ‘Yet were it not for Amur, it could have been much worse.’
‘But the sight of such a legendary creature makes me believe that we are getting closer to what we seek,’ stated Belzagar.
‘We have found what we sought,’ said Raukazan. At his words, the company suddenly silenced and followed his gaze. As if it had appeared from thin air, the relatively large silhouette of a black pyramid stood solemnly close to the horizon.
‘At last!’ cried Valakar. ‘We have found it! And we may not have ever lived to see it if not for heroic Amur! Amur? Where are you?’
The Captain turned and looked to see the young man some yards away, kneeling in the desert floor. Close to him lay a keen spear broken in two, and on the sands were spatters of crimson. Under Amur was the lifeless form of a man, cut with force down the chest. Halatakh had too fallen to the Great Scorpion.