Sat high upon his steed, Amur Suladan smiled with pleasure as he raised his scimitar and heard his men behind him cry aloud; he had the Variag force on the retreat, and with his success he had captured the Field of Torask from Surak-Khand.
Three years had passed since the ordeals at Solendon, and three years had passed since the tales of the survivors there had spread across the lands. Now in full adulthood at one and twenty years of age, Amur had been promoted by King Kurhan to a captain, a chieftain of Arysis, along with his long companion and grandson of the lord, Haran. Though as commanders they no longer fought side by side upon the field as they once had, they planned their campaigns in unison with one another, and against the two chieftains the Khands were defeated battle after battle by the hammer of Suladan and the anvil of Haran. And so they had obtained victory together once more; yet this was a battle that would propel further hope to the remaining free peoples of Amrun.
Using ancient Solendon as their base of attack, the canny directors of the Arysis forces had subdued the threat from Ammu Baj in the east, and now looked to the fourth and most southerly kingdom of Amrun – Siakan, whilst it was cut off from Surakaris’ power base in the north at captured Lurmsakun. Yet because of Siakan’s weighty defence upon the borders of its rivers, there was only one accessible entrance into the land – the Field of Torask. It was a difficult plain of battle for any general, for it was at the end of three surrounding rivers – Azamna, Solendor and Ankruz, making it a boggy marshland at many times in the seasons. But still Suladan and Haran had won the day, and now their hosts pressed into Siakan with renewed hope for the salvation of all of Amrun.
‘The day is won!’ cried Haran, galloping up on his horse to intercept Amur. ‘South lies the tower and town of Torask, the last defence the Variags have before the capital of Ankruz. Suladan, we could capture Siakan within a week!’
Amur beamed at his good friend. ‘Indeed! Whilst Surakaris and his offspring Vangaris sit and brood in the north, we will recapture all their lands from them! Onwards, then, for Kurhan, for Arysis, and for Amrun!’
The day wore away when their hosts reached Torask. A single, tall stone tower sprouted from a base of many stone houses, and a stone ring ran about the city, but it had been broken in many places from the Variag’s original taking of the town. Against Suladan and Haran’s attack, the bruised stronghold would not last long.
But this the Khandish already knew. Leaving a small rearguard at the tower, the rest had fled to the far sturdier walls of the city of Ankruz. Torask seemed deathly quiet when the Arysis army halted before its broken walls, and with confidence, Suladan trotted to the shattered gates and spoke as herald.
‘I Amur Suladan, last prince of Lurmsakun, lieutenant of King Kurhan of Arysis, demand that those who give loyalty to the wrongful tyrant Surakaris put down your arms and surrender; for Torask, nor any of Siakan, or any other kingdom of Amrun shall be held in the name of Surak-Khand whilst we still fight for her freedom!’
Then slowly, one by one, the defenders sheepishly came from the gate and lay their weapons down, for even though the code of warrior-honour amongst the Khandish was very great, the force arrayed against them was greater still. Their leader came before Suladan, pleading for mercy, but with patience taught to him by Valakar he spared his life, yet set him and all his fellows to work – to rebuild all that they had torn down in Torask.
‘We shall stop here for a night or two, to regroup our forces and request additional aid,’ Amur advised Haran. ‘For we do not know yet how stout the defence at Ankruz is.’
The warriors of Arysis were delighted to be given rest for a while, and set about sending riders to Solendon, their city of Maresh, and to Ankruz as to discern the enemy strength there, and harass the fleeing army as they might. But as Haran spread about these orders, Suladan went among those people who originally dwelt here forced to slavery by Surakaris, but now set free. But as he walked among them, speaking to them, hearing of their tidings and their woes with interest and sympathy, suddenly he heard a voice, a voice which he had not heard for what seemed like a lifetime, a tongue that had crept out from the depths of death to speak to him with affection as he had once done before.
‘You heralded yourself as the last prince of Lurmsakun, little Amur. But that is not strictly true.’
Hope beyond hope hit Suladan like cold water as he turned to see whom had spoken. Indeed, this man had aged one and a half decades since Amur had seen him last, but he looked older than he should have been, grizzled and ragged by the ravages of his long slavery.
‘Lasran,’ spoke Amur as if in a daze, or a dream. ‘My brother Lasran!’
For a moment the two long-lost siblings stared at one another, Amur in astonishment, Lasran’s face beginning to crack with a smile and tears of joy. Then with a swift movement they embraced, laughing amid their confusion.
‘Surely I must have strayed into some illusion!’ cried Suladan. ‘I believed you long dead, Lasran!’
His older half-brother continued to smile, but it eventually wavered into a grim frown. ‘As did I, little Amur. But come, we have much to talk about; much of which is dark and dire, even amidst the joy of your victory.’
The siblings retired into the central tower of Torask, where Suladan’s servants were bidden to groom the weary Lasran, and as he was washed Haran was told of what had transpired, and took singular command of the Arysis forces, knowing full well his friend would need time alone.
When the brothers came together again, they sat upon the higher climbs of the tower, looking out north over the Field of Torask, still littered with the bodies of the dead, and further north still to the plains of Central Amrun, and the distant silhouette of the ruins of Solendon.
Lasran would not let a word escape his mouth until Amur had spoken first. He recounted his departure from Mikarin Peh with Jerra, of their joining with the company of Captain Valakar and their many adventures, of the Hasharin attack, of the Great Scorpion and the ziggurat of Adunaphel, of Dharan-sar, the treachery of Belzagar, and his eventual return to Amrun where he had finally joined the forces of King Kurhan.
‘I had heard rumours, stories,’ mused Lasran, ‘of a man named Amur Suladan and his men’s exploits at Solendon, but never did I suspect it would be you!’
Now Lasran spoke of all that had transpired in the defence and taking of Lurmsakun. ‘Indeed I had met Valakar and his company, as our father Varnam had requested all mercenaries to his aid. But I will always remember him; he was like a lord, a king in a house of brigands. But before he had come, there was the business at Kruk Boyadla, the most northerly watchtower of Lurmsakun.’
‘Yes, one of the men from Valakar’s company once served there,’ Amur backed. ‘His name was Halatakh; he told me that his brother was the commander there, but was slain by a hired assassin, and his death was blamed on him and thus was banished.’
‘This I know, but only too late did I discover it,’ said Lasran regrettably. ‘I was the one who banished Halatakh. But in truth, it was no mere hired rogue, but a Hasharin. He must have been bought to the service of Surakaris – Venmal Javitakh is his name.’
‘I too know of him. He trained in that order alongside another of my companions, the renegade Hasharin, Iaman Raukazan, and set us with the information to find the ziggurat in the hope that the Hasharii and the Cult of Sauron would become merged.’
‘Aye, a corrupted soul he is,’ spat Lasran. ‘But it was he whom caused the fall of all Lurmsakun. In the defence of our second watchtower, Talazhan, we were ejected after long fighting, and our brother Jeldhun was slain in the retreat. But the walls of Enmahdah were too thick, and could not be won. Yet I am sure you will remember that our older sister, Adazra, remained in the capital, to help heal and serve the rations?’
Amur remembered, but of all his fallen family, he had never given much mourning to Adazra. She had ever been scornful and wretched towards him in his infancy, remembering they were but half-siblings more acutely than the rest of their family.
‘She was, and is, a secret acolyte of the Cult of Sauron, and Javitakh’s mistress. It was she who sold us out to Surakaris.’
The words hit Suladan with the force of an axe-blow. Not only were two of his family still alive, but one had been the reason for the demise of all their kingdom. Amur could not find the words to speak, and so Lasran continued.
‘Enmahdah fell soon. King Varnam and our eldest brother Adulam fell at the last, and the Khands took me and many others and forced us into slavery; they apparently knew not of my heritage. When Ammu Baj and Siakan were taken, I was transported here, onto the borders of Surakaris’ assault against Arysis.’
Amur still digested the information his half-brother had spoken, the idea of Adazra’s utter betrayal sending tumults through his head. ‘And what of our cursed sister? Where is she now?’
Lasran leaned forwards conspiringly. ‘I see vengeance in your eyes – such as it is in my heart. Hidden from the eyes of my old Khandish overseers, I have been trying to find out all the information I can on her whereabouts. I discovered, through rumours of rumours, that the secret base of the Cult of Sauron is based somewhere in the Golden City, Abrakan. If we are to find Adazra or Javitakh, it would be there.’
For long, Amur sat in silence, his thoughts impervious to his half-brother, who studied his face in attempt to crack what his intentions were. At length, Suladan stood tall and proud, and Lasran looked to him as like his captain.
‘Ready yourself,’ Amur spoke, ‘for tomorrow we ride to Abrakan.’
With that he walked down the stone steps of the tower, leaving Lasran to muse on what he would as he stared over the wide lands below him.
Amur met Haran in a large hall close to the base of Torask’s tower, which had since been converted into the seat of the higher officials and tacticians of the Arysis army. Haran had at first given leave to his great friend to speak to his long lost half-brother rather than aid in the planning of their next movements, for he knew of the hardships of Suladan’s life and was almost as surprised as he at Lasran’s reappearance. But now Amur had explained his renewed purpose, Haran refused to take its finality.
‘Suladan, we have little work to do before Siakan is won, if the siege of Ankruz turns in our favour,’ he had said. ‘You know how quick we can win back Amrun with three of the four kingdoms under our banner. And now you want to desert us, to flee into the west in search of the Golden City?’
‘I do not want to, Haran,’ Suladan retorted, ‘it is what I must do; to settle the ghosts of my family.’
‘I thought slaying Surakaris and recapturing your land would settle them!’ Haran stated, beginning to become enraged. ‘And now one comes out of the shadows to tell you to seek out another vain desire!’
‘You of all should know I seek vengeance, nothing else! I want the House of Sakun to be remembered with glory, not as a barn of fallen rogue lords whose last spawn is a sorceress bandying with cultists!’
‘Vengeance and vanity have little difference between them,’ snorted Haran, before calming himself and cooling his tongue. ‘Suladan; I am your greatest friend. I have been with you through many dangers, which will lead up to the liberation of our home. We have worked with such toil, and the blood of many of our men has been spilt to obtain it. Remember not the fallen who lay still at Solendon, fighting the Khands even as they starved to death, or those who have freshly fallen upon the Field of Torask.’
Yet it was too late for Haran to back down from their tenacity. ‘Then surely liberation and vengeance cannot be far apart, Haran!’ Amur cried. ‘This is a task I have to perform – I shall return, I shall never utterly forsake Amrun, nor forget those that have fallen by our side, and never believe that I forget that.’
‘But why must you leave upon the eve of our victory?’ Haran said, now obviously upset.
‘I know it is not mine, but yours,’ Suladan said, now also calming himself in his friend’s sadness. ‘Men praise my name above yours for our deeds at Solendon – and that is unjust. Perhaps this is your hour – yours alone, Haran Ysis.’
‘I do not think I can achieve it without you,’ Haran spoke with a flicker of a smile. ‘You are far too great a captain, Suladan. My mind tells me the departure of one man cannot change the course of this war, but my heart forebodes it.’
But no more would Amur say. He smiled at the cold face of his friend, who did not return it. And so he left the chamber with a brotherly glance at Haran, and then was gone. Thus the two champions of Arysis had taken separate roads, though they would cross once again.
Amur and Lasran took to horse in the morning. Alone they sped from the town of Torask and across its still corpse-laden field, and men wondered at their chieftain’s riding as he passed, but he said no word, not even to his half-brother by his side. After the field they went east at the sight of Solendon, following the banks of the River Azamna which had ever dictated the boundaries of Siakan and Arysis. The land, however, was mostly silent – it seemed as if all the Variags in the south had retreated behind the walls of Ankruz, whilst all the men of Arysis had gathered to take it. Suladan felt the gauntlet of regret close around his heart as he thought this, of not rallying his soldiers in the shadow of the walls of Siakan’s capital. Soon they passed over the crossings of the river at the southern watchtower of Arysis, Kruk Azamna, where Amur’s status would open all barriers. They rested there only as long as to refresh their supplies before speeding into the west once more.
They went up the Arysis Road, taking them towards the eastern beaches of the Bay of Sudu Cull and the mouth of the River Ysis, where they crossed through the port-towns of Branfenas and then Zhaneen, the same that Suladan had come to when he first came to Arysis. At the last town, Amur stayed a little, looking out over the walls of Zhannen towards Lurmsakun. Lasran did not think to disturb his thought, but his gaze too strayed towards the exiled land of their birth as dusk overtook Amrun. Before the dawn had come, however, they had gone once more, passing the bridge over the River Maresh and into the desert plains which no man ruled, standing desolate between Arysis, Khand and Near Harad.
Over two weeks had passed since they had set out from Torask when Amur and Lasran reached the Border of Harad. Ever it stood upon the River Pazghar, though such was the drought in this region that it would often drain or dry, or lie dormant under the earth until the changing of the seasons. Yet in spring or autumn, on its far side stood the four watchtowers of Far Harad – Karush in the shadow of Mordor, slender Varnakh, the largely ruined fortress-city of Pazghar, and Balghar by the northern shore of the Bay of Sudu Cull. It was remembered that Gondor had built these strongholds during their occupation of the South, as to block out any threat that might come from further afield, but through the ages enough Haradrim blood had been spilt upon the garrisons to render them theirs. To the main crossing, to the hold at Pazghar, Amur and Lasran came.
Men upon the battlements quickly noticed their oncoming, but the two riders held out their hands in token of peace, even as they came before the walls. From them, a horn blew, and out of the ancient gate came a broad man, built like an ox, upon horseback, and around him were six other men, all with jagged spears ready to lunge.
‘You are not Variags, yet you are not any men of mine,’ the broad man mused, seething decadence with every word and minor movement. ‘I should guess that you are men of Amrun, but they do not come this way any longer – not unless you have come to hide from the Khandish behind my walls?’
‘I am Amur Suladan, and I have fought the Khandish for many years whilst you have sat idle upon your walls, if they even are yours,’ retorted Suladan, undaunted.
‘And who are you to question my authority here?’ he spat, his men tightening their grips on their spears. ‘For I am Morvar Charic, high commander of the border-forts, and none may pass without my leave.’
‘You do not seem very tall for a high commander,’ smiled Amur. It seemed the influence of Haran was lasting on him.
‘I should slay you where you stand,’ spoke Charic, now with murder in his voice.
‘You are more than welcome to try, small commander -‘
Lasran brought up his hand before fighting broke out among them, ‘Please, stay your arms, all of you! Now, Commander Charic, I understand that we must give payment in order to cross the border?’
‘Payment, or bribery?’ thought Amur aloud. ‘You are truly an asset to your lords, Morvar Charic.’
The commander ignored this last comment, ‘You understand correctly. However, as charge for your companion’s insolence, you must give double.’
‘Very well; I believe this shall do…’ Lasran reached deep down into his robes, until he pulled out a gold chain with a token upon it, a pure amethyst smoothed to a point, a twin of the same Amur revealed at Maresh to prove his lineage.
‘No, Lasran,’ warned Amur. ‘It is far too high a price to pay! None would dream to trade a prince’s stone for an open door!’
‘There is no price too high to pay to take us to reach Abrakan, and so to our vengeance,’ he answered.
‘Yes, yes, yes… This shall do nicely!’ noted Charic, taking the necklace from Lasran wolfishly. ‘Now, get out of my sight.’
The two riders continued their journey, but even as they passed the gates, Amur heard the twang of several bowstrings.
‘Quicker, Lasran! Ride!’ he shouted. ‘The avaricious curs must think us to be of high wealth because of the necklace…’
They nimbly escaped the rapid shots, the arrows of the border-guards hitting only but the dust from their steed’s hooves. The last princes of Lurmsakun had passed into Harad, and the Amrun Road pounded against the speed of their passing, resounding even as they drew closer and closer, day by day, to the Golden City of Abrakan.