Year 2997 of the Third Age
Slowly, sadly, what remained of the company walked across the desert sands north and west, attempting to come to the oasis-city of Dharan-sar. In the weeks that passed there were few words spoken, for the pains the ziggurat had caused were far too near. Belzagar carried the sack of plundered artefacts they had taken from the chambers of the Shadow Queen, his thoughts unreadable to any. The cheer of Khulgana was quenched, even with the thought of returning to his home at last. Raukazan led the way, making barely a sound; the others had only assumed that after their valiant Captain’s death that he would take over, yet Raukazan made no comment on the matter, saying naught and moving as if in a funeral march, his face closed off by hood and balaclava. As for Amur Suladan, he did not know what to feel, for all he could do was keep walking, for the deaths of Valakar and his dear mother Jerra had numbed him into a dreamlike submission.
These four were the only remnants of the bold company of nine that set out from Gadirkarn, and all felt robbed greatly; of Ghurlasab the mighty Mahud, and Halatakh the warrior of Lurmsakun, and the Gondorian rogue Tuor, and the fiery Lady Jerra Suladan, and the Numenorean Valakar with his sea-grey eyes, who would never return to his exiled home in Umbar in victory to rid the corruption that bred there.
As the weeks passed the year had ended and begun anew, though to the sombre party it was just another day of silent marching through the sands. But steadily upon the horizon line appeared shadows, distant at first, yet eventually rising into high masses – it was the trees of the Forest of Dharan-sar, where palm and high canopy stood like a shield about the Haradrim city and the famed oasis.
With trepidation the four entered the shade of the trees, and soon they had found one of the small paths leading through the depths towards the city, though it had begun to be reclaimed by the forestation, with small plants and vines creeping onto it in effort of reclamation. They made camp once within the shroud of the trees, though Amur did not sleep, for not only was he kept awake by the constant buzz of insects and the howl of apes and other such creatures, but his mind felt like it was on pause, all his thoughts were static.
Suddenly there was a great crash of trees and a bellow, sending Amur bolting upwards. Raukazan too awoke and stood, though Belzagar and Khulgana remained asleep. The great noise seemed to stutter Amur’s thoughts back into his head, and as he remained standing, staring into the blackness of the trees, hundreds of things came pouring back into his mind like the lifting of a sluice.
‘A Mumak,’ whispered Raukazan. ‘Some thrive at Dharan-sar, brought up from the dark forests further south, and bought by the coin of Umbar and some Haradrim Kings, but kept here for their access, ready to have howdahs built upon them.’
Yet Amur was not listening to a word Iaman said, though they had been the first he had uttered in weeks. ‘She is dead, Raukazan. They are dead. I will never see Halatakh, or Valakar, or my mother again. Just like my father, and brother Lasran. All my family is dead.’
As if he had been hollowed out inside, Amur crumpled and fell to the floor, tears streaming from his wide eyes. He expected no condolence from the rogue Hasharin, but slowly, cautiously, Raukazan walked over to him and kneeled down beside him, speaking wisely, but softly.
‘Amur Suladan, do you know how the Hasharii Order recruit new members? They take infant children from their victims, or any they would care to kill, and rear them within the order. I cannot remember my father, or my mother, though sometimes when I dream I see a woman’s face, and I think it to be hers, but when I awake I cannot remember what she looks like. The only family I ever had was a sect of assassins who forced me to do their butcherous will from the time I was old enough to hold a blade – of my real family, all I have left of them is my father’s name, and I can only hope I can redeem myself enough to keep that name proud. So be glad, glad in that you still have precious memories of your family, and carry their hopes on the names they have passed to you: Sakun, last Prince and heir of Lurmsakun; and Suladan, son of Jerra.’
‘I thought we could live together again, as a family,’ wept Amur. ‘Me and Jerra, and Valakar. They loved one another.’
‘Valakar was like a brother to me,’ retorted Raukazan. ‘I knew him long before you knew life. So believe me when I tell you, he would not have us give in to grief and despair.’
‘It was the Cult, and the Hasharii, and their cursed Shadow Queen that did this to us, to them,’ seethed Amur, his sadness turning to fiery wrath as he wiped the tears from his face. ‘I will destroy them.’
‘I too feel your hatred. But remember what Valakar used to say; ‘True honour is found more in forgiveness than in vengeance,” and with that Raukazan left Amur’s side, though in his face Amur could tell he grappled with the concept, and in time they both lay down into unsettled rest, though they both kept one eye open lest the Mumak would come trampling back their way.
Thin slivers of light broke through the canopies to stir the company into morning. With tired eyes they awoke, yet none were as tired as Amur’s, for his restlessness and his grief made his lids red and black.
‘Come. Dharan-sar does not lie far away,’ said Raukazan, and they remarked at his break from silence, apart from Amur.
True to his word, they walked through the day and arrived at the city in the late afternoon. Their travel down the forest path had been largely unremarkable, apart from briefly a great hunting cat came into the clearing, looking at the four men for a moment, before launching back into the shroud of the trees.
‘He knows he is more of a threat to us when he is hidden,’ remarked Belzagar.
The city of Dharan-sar itself was a remarkable place. Few stone structures existed amidst the bustle, apart from the oldest buildings and several sturdy towers of defence and watching, though there were also a good amount of wooden and especially wicker-made residencies, a product for which the oasis-city was famed for, among other things, and like at Gadirkarn there were many tents sprouted up by the travellers of the deserts and the market sellers.
As they passed out of the forests and by one of the towers, as one was posted at each entrance to the city as well as a few towards the centre, two men halted them, each carrying a spear, though they had two long twin daggers at their sides. Amur noted how similar these men were in appearance to Khulgana, for they both wore the same green robes and the long wicker hats of much shade.
‘What is your business at Dharan-sar?’ they ordered, their spears moved defensively.
‘We are merely travellers of the Nafarat,’ said Raukazan.
The leader of the two looked suspiciously at Iaman. To his surprise, Amur noticed this man could only be a handful of years older than himself. ‘Why should I believe you? You look like one of the Hasharii to me. Though we have no qualm with the agents of Umbar,’ the man lied, ‘we prefer that they only come with the expressed invite of the King Rhubak.’
At this Khulgana moved to Raukazan’s side. ‘Prince Raza, these men are all with me; this is the esteemed company I have been travelling with for the past decade. I am Khulgana, a scout and traveller of Dharan-sar, as you may guess by my attire. I expect your father the King would wish to see me promptly.’
‘I do not know the name of Khulgana,’ said the Prince Raza, his suspicion deepening.
‘I suppose you would not. You were still a boy when I left the oasis-city, and am gladdened to know both you and it thrive still.’
A flash of recollection passed across the Prince’s mind. ‘You do have a familiar air to you. You may pass through. If it is the King you seek, he is presently in the Emerald Hall, though I do not like you travelling there with an assassin.’
Raukazan gave Raza a warning look. ‘I am no assassin. I am a fair fighter of men.’
‘Yet be you fair-fighter or no, there will be eyes on you whither you go. Do not expect me to slacken in my guard, especially towards the well-being of my own father. I asked to be posted with the guard to prove my worth as a soldier to him, and I will be cursed if I should fail in that duty.’
Raukazan did not lower his aggressive gaze, but Khulgana replied, ‘Of course we understand, Prince Raza. We thank you for your allowance of passage.’
The company walked by the guardsmen and into the streets, though Raza kept a shrewd eye upon them, even as they passed into the streets, watching like a hawk on the higher levels of the tower.
The Emerald Hall of Dharan-sar was at the centre of the city, not sent upon mound but raised up by laboured stone, and carved steps ran up into the entrance. Guards stood about the hall everywhere, yet the company had only to say they had the word of Prince Raza and they relented. The outer wall of the hall was unremarkable but for green cloths that hung from it, yet as they went inside they found it to be very different. Windows allowed slits of light to wash into the hall, by some craftwork filling the whole space with light. Many standards stood proudly against the sides, though in the interior the name of the structure was truly given, for emeralds large and small were stuck or lay in dazzling clusters upon the ground.
At the end of the hall was set a throne of green and gold, and upon it sat a tall and alert figure, his robe regal and his crown too set with emerald. By him stood two guardsmen, captains of his highest esteem, wearing gold armour and mask-helms upon their faces and bearing tall spear-flags of the keenest forgery, and behind them all stood a young woman, no older than Amur, in long, concealing garments and dazzling jewellery. Before them the company came, and they all bowed.
‘Khulgana?’ said the King ‘My thoughts tell me that my eyes deceive me. It has been a very long time.’
‘My grace King Rhubak,’ Khulgana replied, ‘I must apologise for my weighty absence, though I confess that I have learnt much for the wider knowledge of our glorious city, though in the recent weeks both great luck and great tragedy has befallen the company I have travelled with.’
‘I can empathise for you, for recently tragedy has struck here as well. My wife has died, poisoned. She was stung by a foul scorpion, and we had no remedy that could cure the venom. Now my children and I are left alone; this is my young daughter Ruvil you see behind me, and my eldest Raza has taken to the duty of the guard in the wake of his mother’s departure.’
‘It was Raza who gave us passage, and it was good to see he has been raised well, as well as Ruvil here. Yet let us not speak of such befallings, for I have much to tell you, both exotic and wondrous.’
‘Very well, Khulgana. I had forgotten how you lift the weights from men’s hearts so,’ smiled Rhubak. ‘Let us speak privately at length, if that is no trouble with the rest of your company. Allow my men to set you up with good accommodation.’
‘It is no trouble,’ retorted Raukazan. ‘We thank you for your hospitality.’
Iaman, Belzagar and Amur bowed again and walked from the hall, assisted by a guardsman as King Rhubak and Khulgana went into a smaller chamber to speak. As they walked, Amur thought of how pleasant and admirable such a place was – not just the Emerald Hall, but the city, and the people, in some ways it made him think of his old home in Enmahdah. He even granted the Princess Ruvil a smile to set such thoughts in stone, and with a warm glow she returned one to him, and he thought how strange it was that she could make him smile even in his near grief, and she had thought the same.
The company stayed in a cosy, yet fine establishment for under a week. Belzagar would often slip away, presumably grateful to be back in civilisation, and Khulgana would come back once or twice to speak of the city, its dealings, and his words with the King, though he took the time once to show Amur about Dharan-sar, revealing its wonders and lifestyle. As for Raukazan, he did not leave the confines Rhubak had set up for him, keeping a watchful eye on the artefacts that Valakar had died to claim.
On the early evening of the fifth day, Raukazan lay in the main room upon a long chair of wicker, resting uneasily, barely subconscious, as if to always keep some footing and understanding in the waking world. Amur sat upon a swathe of cloths on the floor, eagerly reading a map of the wide lands of the South, and the blank, uncharted and estimated lands beyond the shield of Gondor, yet every time his eyes scoured a region he had traversed with Valakar, and Tuor, Halatakh, Ghurlasab and his mother Jerra, a grim thought crossed his mind. True to Raukazan’s warning, with every memory of her face, it became a little less defined. Belzagar came back into the quarters as the last light of the sun crawled back from the night.
‘Belzagar,’ remarked Amur, ‘where have you been?’
The rogue warden seemed surprised, as if caught in a guilty act. ‘The inn. It is good to talk to others than ourselves once in a while; hear things one would not usually hear, and speak about things one cannot usually speak about.’
This seemed satisfactory for Amur, though he thought about his words for a second. ‘When do you think we shall leave? Surely we should not stay in one place for too long, and Raukazan must be anxious to set to our task.’
Belzagar stopped and looked at the young man. ‘Maybe we stay because he is starting to see clearly. There is little hope for us, and even if we do what we have set out to achieve, we would probably be assassinated by some agent of Umbar, or a Hasharin, or a Cultist. Is that a price you would willingly pay?’
‘Perhaps, for heroism and glory,’ Amur said without a pause.
‘Valakar is dead,’ stated Belzagar, ‘you do not have to repeat his idealisms anymore.’
Khulgana entered the homestead even as Belzagar finished, moving quickly
and with a crazed hurry. At his urgent entrance, Raukazan awoke from his half-sleep. ‘What has happened?’
‘We have stayed for too long,’ said Khulgana, nearly out of breath. ‘Someone must have spread rumour of us. The King has commanded that I stay; though I will do all I can to keep your trail clean. You must leave with the artefacts at once.’
‘Khulgana, what is wrong?’ asked Amur impatiently even as Belzagar and Raukazan hurried to pack their necessities.
‘Raza’s watchers saw them moving through the borders; the quest is in dire peril. The Hasharii have come for you!’
With rushed goodbyes the three of them said goodbye to Khulgana, Amur electing to take the sack of artefacts so Belzagar and Raukazan could keep guard.
‘I will return to Dharan-sar,’ said Amur to Khulgana as they departed. ‘It is a fair place where one day I would hope to live.’
Khulgana smiled grimly, ‘I hope so Amur Suladan. I shall miss your company. Now go, go with all speed!’
The three men escaped the city, darting past a tower and down one of the forest paths. The city guard had been informed to turn a blind eye to their departure, but the trio knew all too well from experience that no place was bereft of corruption.
The two Hasharii crept through the brush as stealthily as snakes, their fingertips poised to clutch their weapons; blades, throwing daggers, blowpipes, all tipped with the poison of the most deadly desert creatures. The forest that encapsulated the oasis and hidden city Dharan-sar of Far Harad was thick, but Kharid Drozhna and his companion, Latir Corazin, moved through it with expert poise.
‘I can hear something up ahead,’ whispered Corazin, his words as thin as air.
Kharid nodded to back up his claim, and they drew their blowpipes without as much as a sound. As one, they loaded venomous darts into their projectiles, and crept closer and closer to the noises of footsteps upon the ground.
The assassins, still creeping through the shrub like creatures born in the forests, soon came to a clearing, where a rudimentary path was made through the brush. There they stopped, their blowpipes poised against their lips. Up through the felled ground came their quarry, each individual unmistakable. Belzagar strode clad in silver armour and a black cloak; Raukazan in what was once the traditional garment of a Hasharii, but had lessened through weathering; and the young Suladan in poor cloth, carrying a large sack which was most definitely where the blasphemous artefacts were kept.
But suddenly Raukazan, harking some sound that only one of his background could hear, instantly dropped to the floor, pulling his two companions down with him as the pair of darts whistled overhead.
Branches cracked harshly as Drozhna and Corazin leapt lightning-fast from the shadows. Their blades were drawn in a flash of silver, but so were Raukazan’s. Renegade though he was, his ability was still an easy match for the two young Hasharii.
‘Belzagar, get Suladan and the artefacts and go, they are all that matter!’ cried Raukazan between his strikes. But Belzagar did not move from the floor, though he now slowly groped for his sword. Amur, however, gathered his courage, and made a war cry as he drew his scimitar against the attackers. Yet valour has no mention in the pages of assassins, and Corazin deftly kicked him mid-chest, sending him flying to the earth, winding him, the impact a white shock to his body. Once again though he gathered himself, and watched the desperate fight taking place before him between Raukazan and the two assassins, the sack of artefacts, and Belzagar apparently motionless on the floor.
‘Belzagar!’ shouted Suladan desperately, the Hasharii now beginning to weary their skilled opponent. ‘Why don’t you help him? Why don’t you help Raukazan?’ He made to cry again, but to his horror, Belzagar in one movement leapt up, smacking Amur to the ground again with his fist, and, in an action that seemed to take a cruelly long time in Amur’s head, brought his sword up through Raukazan’s chest.
The old rogue Hasharin did not seem to be shocked, yet his eyes, which had always been ever keen and secluded, had a retired look of both surprise and disappointment, though through dying breaths he spoke to Suladan; ‘Run, boy. Fly.’ And with that he ran into the trees, carrying still the sack of artefacts, now far too deep into the forest to see Drozhna behead his old companion.
‘Curse you, Belzagar! Curse you, betrayer!’ cried Suladan as he disappeared, half in rage and half in sorrow.
‘Go! After the boy!’ Belzagar screamed to the Hasharii, but they were away before he had even finished speaking. Moving like a pack through the density, Corazin and Drozhna dispersed in a scissor-shape, bolting through branch, leaping over root, slashing at brush.
Drozhna’s heightened senses easily heard the desperate footsteps and panting breath of his prey, hungrily trailing the sounds with maddened righteousness. He then heard a crash, and coming upon Suladan found that he had tripped upon a particularly bloated root and lay grovelling in the shrub.
The young Hasharii leapt on him like a hunting cat, but Suladan managed to stop the press on him and hold the dagger locked in Drozhna’s hand from finding his throat.
‘Venomous worms like you should be crushed into the dirt,’ swore Suladan, kicking outwards with his feet and sending Drozhna reeling backwards. The Hasharin came back at him with a swooping strike of his knife, but before its stroke was finished, without thinking Amur felt the heavy weight of the artefacts in his grasp, and wheeled the large sack smashing into Drozhna’s face. The ancient works crunched and broke, and the young Hasharii fell down in a heap as his foe continued to run through the forest; though Amur immediately knew that the great dream of Valakar had broken with the same artefacts he, and Jerra, and Halatakh and Ghurlasab, Tuor and now Iaman Raukazan had died to claim.
‘Run coward! Run! Such craven fear has no place in opponents worthy enough to face me!’ cried Drozhna, though his threats eventually began to fade away as he fell into black, but Amur did not notice them as he bolted through the shrub, all his body moving to escape, but his eyes streaming tears at the failure he had brought upon himself and the memories of those whom he had loved.