The first days of the new year had come hazily and slowly, but they held no comfort to Amur Suladan, for it would be now one year since he had come to Dharan-sar with a company, only to leave alone. After escaping the betrayal that transpired within those forests, he had come to the great pathway of the Southlands, the Harad Road.
It was said to be made by many hands, of the hated North and of the South, ending at the rumoured Black Gates of Mordor, passing down the mysteries of Gondor, through its long-debated southern fief of Harondor, and across Near Harad before coming to the Golden City of Abrakan, where it crossed with the Amrun Road, which stemmed from despised Umbar, City of the Corsairs eastwards, to his homeland of Amrun. But the Harad Road went further still, flowing to the city and the dunes of Hidar, across the desolate Nafarat, the Great Desert, until coming to the hilltop city of Kirmlesra; Isra standing warden between two ranges of hill and mountain; the warrior-city of Chennacatt with its warriors of great spiked shields of yellow and black; through the fields of Gan and the legendary Sultanate of Raj; across the ruined Numenorean land of Ciryatandor once ruled by the mythical Sightless King; and finally to the deep forests of Mumakan, ending at last at its holy city of Amaru, where the god-king Ji Amaav was said to rule, commanding as many fearsome Mumaks as most kingdoms have foot warriors. Yet unknown to most he too was a Nazgul of Sauron, Indur Dawndeath the Outcast was his name, and the true purpose of the road was to transport his Mumakil to the land of his master in war.
Yet it was south down this road that Amur had walked, having known the insidious Hasharii to have greater command to the north. As he had passed the massive expanse of desert that stood between the dune-hills of Hidar and the city of Kirmlesra, heavy darkness had been upon his mind. The everyday perils of running out of water or being caught in a sandstorm had been eclipsed by the shrouds upon his thoughts – he was not yet even sixteen and all his family and friends were dead. Apart from one; Khulgana, who was still at Dharan-sar – but Amur had dared not go back, in case he led the Hasharii there, or come into their grasp there. For all he knew Khulgana could too have been dead; and perhaps Khulgana thought he was dead, yet it was safer for both of them that Amur remain away. Even so, he was ever assured that there was a curse about him.
His mind ever turned inwards on the attack. Why had he broken the artefacts in a bid for his own safety? It was indeed a matter of life and death, and more than that he was faced against a Hasharin. But still, so many had died to claim those relics, and now all hope of avenging them was bereft. In his dreams he saw the people he had cared for – Captain Valakar, doughty Iaman Raukazan, and his mother Jerra and father Varnam, but the look on their faces were of disappointment.
The only remedy he could find for the self-loathing was to turn the hate outwards, to blame another. Belzagar. The name almost made Amur shout on instinct. For a decade they had travelled together, but he had sold him out, along with Raukazan, whose life was the cost for his immorality. His fists tightened at the thought of Belzagar, sitting on a pile of gold somewhere in Umbar, laughing and eating heartily, shaking hands with the Council and the Hasharii. ‘True honour is found more in forgiveness than in vengeance,’ Valakar had always said, but the death of Belzagar was a dream Amur swore to make a reality. Halatakh had told him that the villain was once a warden of the City of the Corsairs, but had defected to find glory and wealth in the deserts. It was apparent to Amur now that Belzagar, finding no such material thing, knew he had made a bad choice – but there was no good reason for betrayal in the process.
Still, the battle between his outward and inward blame was a tumultuous struggle. When Amur finally arrived at Kirmlesra he was barely alive. The city had maintained relative peace for years, yet small, stout towers stood dotted about the relative perimeters as a testament that it could still be defended. Like Gadirkarn, it was a town for travellers and sellers, but of a more wholesome variety, and the denizens readily welcomed newcomers unless they sought to disturb their peace. Here Amur spent the last of his belongings – a little given to him by Raukazan – on food and water. For a couple of months he had plied the city, attempting to find work, honest or dishonest, but his malnutrition and his age had him turned down many times. Soon he had slunk to the bottom of the hierarchy, a Prince living among the streets as an urchin.
Several more months had passed carelessly before Amur moved again. Taking what provisions he could steal and muster, he travelled east on the banks of the River Sara, coming to the port of Ornad, thinking he could find better work there. To his fortune he was right, for the port had a little more need of dirtier duty. He worked many times for the higher members of the port-town, helping them to rid the night streets of brigand scum, earning himself some coin and a place to rest during the night. Though Ornad had been pleasant enough to him, Amur knew this could not be his full stop. And so, after two months, a few days into the new year on the anniversary of Raukazan’s death, he had made ready to leave, to go and settle the ghosts of his past. It would begin far north and east from here, across the endless waves of the great seas of the south, to the massive Bay of Ormal and up the Bay of Sudu Cull. He would return to Amrun, the land of his birthright, and aid in the struggle against the Variags of Surakaris there.
The captain of a vessel setting out from the fishing port had agreed to take Amur on board, for he was travelling to make a delivery to Branfenas, the harbour of the west Amrun kingdom of Arysis, which of the four thrones was the only one not yet captured by Surakaris. Few ships now made this trade-route, for it ran perilously close to the Siakan port of Tereze, whose navy was now controlled by the occupying Variags.
The seas proved restless, yet not overly perilous throughout their journey. Amur mostly kept to his own quarters – an old, but functional cabin, practicing the strikes of his sword or pouring over a map of the South he still kept – both granted to him by Valakar. Though the memories of all those he lost continued to resurface, in his time at Ornad he had learnt to remember them pleasantly rather than with sorrow, a piece of advice Raukazan had suggested shortly before his departure. He was now simply glad to be returning home to fight his original enemy Surakaris, who had taken his father Varnam, his sister Adazra, and his brothers Adulam, Lasran and Jeldhun in the defeat of Lurmsakun – faces long deprived of peace in Amrun’s continued occupation.
Much time had passed during their travel upon the waves when Amur was awoken by a quick burst of knocks on his door, in response to which he promptly made himself reasonably presentable and opened the door.
‘I had just come to inform you,’ said the man standing on the other side – a sailor working upon the vessel, whom Amur had made conversation with several times, ‘that the captain has sighted land. The south shores of Siakan – of Amrun – are across the horizon.’
Amur thanked him before going to the top decks to see the sight for himself. The vessel was entering the Bay of Sudu Cull at last – so called for there was once (according to legend) a great city of men that was built here of the same name, before the world became changed and the rivers flowed different courses, and so the land about the city was swallowed by the sea, dividing the lands of Near Harad and Amrun and bringing it to drowned ruin. Sudu Cull was said to still exist below the waves, but Amur could not see it – all he saw was the shadowy silhouette of the captured port of Tereze. Fortunately though to his relief, and the rest of the ship’s crew, no sails haunted its territories – the Variags must have had more pressing matters inland, probably with the resisting kingdom of Arysis.
Some days passed before the trade ship of Ornad reached Branfenas. All throughout their journey up the Bay of Sudu Cull, Amur had been intently watching the land before him, as if to spy some gathering army or movement. Yet instead it seemed all hushed and quiet, as if it were a poised spring ready to erupt into movement. Even the usually bustling trade port was eerily silent, the few souls moving about its cold streets reclusive and unresponsive, as if they were mourners at a funeral. In thanks for his travel, along with his pay, Amur offered to aid the sailors unload their goods from the ship, and as they did the vessel’s captain shed a little more light on the reasoning for Branfenas’ sobriety.
‘Most of the men here have been bidden by the King Kurhan to fight for him against the Variags,’ he explained. ‘You will find few towns in Arysis more welcoming, save perhaps the capital of Maresh, where the banners of the King’s armies hang and people sing of their warriors’ valour even in the direness of Surakaris’ campaign.’
‘Then perhaps I should go there,’ replied Amur, ‘for I too seek to fight the Khandish invaders. Would you suppose the King Kurhan would allow me to join his hosts?’
‘I see that you are younger than your appearance or your character would say, but I believe any common enemy of Surakaris would be welcome in the company of Kurhan.’
With that Amur Suladan bid farewell to the captain and took little provision from the stores of Branfenas, limited from rations by the war against Surak-Khand. He travelled north up the Arysis Road until he came to the watchtower and town of Zhaneen, where the path crossed the River Maresh and joined with the Amrun Road. True to the ship captain’s word, Zhaneen was also poised in anxiety. It made Amur think of his young years, before he left his home city of Enmahdah, and of the attitude of the citizens then. Upon the walls of the town soldiers stood like carven figures in their dull silver and yellow uniform, gripping tall black spears and looking ever north, where the land of Lurmsakun, where Amur should now be rightfully ruling as monarch, lay in the hands of Surakaris. He did not stay long before turning east along the Amrun Road, which ran beside the swift River Maresh, and like the waters that ran from the Bay of Sudu Cull he too would soon come to the great city of Arysis.
The midday sun hung radiant and absolute in the clear blue sky when he found the heart of the last of the four kingdoms of Amrun. Like an impenetrable mountain it stood; Maresh, the city raised by Lady Ysis second child of King Boyadla, the last single monarch of Amrun. As Amur’s home city of Enmahdah, it too had a wide stone circular ring penetrated by four towers, but the battlements higher and the masonry thicker. Within, mighty barracks and halls stood, paying homage to heroes and kings valiant from days passed, but standing taller than them all was Lasna, the tower of topaz, which atop sat a circular globe of yellow gemstone that dazzled all who looked upon it with the reflections of the sun, and at that famed structure’s base was the court of the King Kurhan, the seventh and fortieth since Boyadla divided his realm and his four children were enstranged.
Almost sheepishly Amur walked up the road to the gate; for on either side of the pathway there were tents set where warriors busied themselves with the upkeep of their arms, though some stood in groups of conversation, and not a few did turn a suspicious eye towards Amur. It seemed to him that all the people left in Amrun had been drawn to this place, and now so many soldiers readied themselves within it that they had to spew out before the gates. But he was yet glad for all their hostile glances, for within those same eyes, in every man there, burned a hatred for Surakaris and his Variags.
As he passed them by, Amur fingered through his robes for an artefact he had kept hidden for a very long time. On the day of his birth, he had been granted a necklace by his father the King Varnam, signifying his lineage in the House of Sakun. Ever since he and his mother Jerra had fled in exile from Lurmsakun, she had bidden him keep it off, and so it had remained whilst the bounty Surakaris had placed on his head lasted. But here, in this city of his foes, he felt ready to finally reveal it; the token of the Prince of Lurmsakun, a dark purple amethyst smoothed into a point on a golden chain, for as the symbol of Arysis’ heraldry was the topaz, Lurmsakun’s was the amethyst.
Men looked down on him from atop the gates, their hands ready to reach for their arrows, yet another bearing an ivory horn stood just before it, and it was he whom halted Amur before the city of Maresh.
‘None may pass into the stronghold of Arysis who has not sworn allegiance to the mighty King Kurhan. Begone, stranger.’
Yet Amur stood firm. ‘It is for that reason which I wish to enter the city. Revenge against Surakaris runs hot in my veins, and I would join with those who wish to defeat him.’
‘And for what reason would one such as you have for vengeance against him?’ asked the man, now more curious towards this seemingly simple traveller.
‘My family and my land has been wrested from me, and all the status that my bloodline rightfully holds. My name was once Amur Sakun, fifth child of King Varnam, but now I am exiled from Lurmsakun by force of Surakaris’ war, and I hold my mothers’ name, Amur Suladan, but with no less honour.’
And then he showed the guardsman his token, and the warrior’s face was torn between amazement and doubt. But nonetheless he gave a sudden blast upon his horn, and the mighty gates were opened before them. Amur passed them through and began to walk towards the shining tower of Lasna, and even as he did word that the last Prince of Lurmsakun had passed from the shadows into Maresh, but so subtle and simple was Amur’s guise that none who sought him would ever find him, much to the dismay of those who would sack loyalty for Surakaris’ bounty.
In contrast to the sobriety of Branfenas and Zhaneen, the streets of Maresh were writhe with movement. Maidens and young boys carried about stores of food and equipment, whilst the doughty soldiery of Arysis with their silver and yellow armour were ever to be seen, carrying long black spears, or shining curved broadswords, or short sturdy bows, moving alone, in pairs or in companies down the city pathways. Amur looked at all this in wonder – whereas he remembered Enmahdah as cold and fearing in war, Maresh was fully prepared and awaiting any onset. Perhaps it was wiser to be afraid of the massive hordes of Variags under Surakaris’ command, but such determination could not be gainsaid. At length Amur came to a rectangular set of walls about the tower of Lasna, wherein stood a gate smaller yet fairer than the city entrance. Here Amur stated his cause and title once more, to which he was told that the King was allowing any to come before him freely and swear an oath of fealty to him. Thus he passed through the inner gate, and came into a wide courtyard standing before the tower. At its base were three joined halls of stone, with a set of stairs and another gate leading into them, and midway up the tower was a balcony wherein the King could look out across the city. But arrayed in the courtyard was a full host of warriors, standing so to make a path towards the royal halls, and as Amur passed down the centre of the tall, grim men with their spears held high he felt a shiver of awe pass through him, and a sense of honour to too hold himself as a man of Amrun. He stood now at the door to the halls, and was finally submitted into the chamber of King Kurhan.
Many sturdy hewn pillars held high this inmost centre of Arysis, and in the centre of the room a hole was cut in the roof so as to let in the dazzling rays that danced off the jewelled spire of Lasna. All about the room were tables of maps and plans, where captains and officers planned their advances against the captured lands of Surak-Khand. Another spearman came before Amur though, and knowing his intent walked him towards the back of the chamber, wherein the throne of the Kings of Arysis lay, and sat upon it with a crown set with a single topaz jewel was Kurhan, scion of Lady Ysis. All about him was a ring of guardsmen, so that no assassin feigning to give allegiance could succeed, yet within their circle a man spoke with the King, and it by his stature Amur guessed he was only a little younger than he. When he was drawn as close to the throne as he was allowed he took out the small scimitar he bore, which Captain Valakar had given to him when their company traversed the southerly havens of Tanturak and now bore his memory, along with all those others whom Amur had cared for, and was hungry if not revenge, then for justice.
Placing the edge of the sword against the floor and kneeling low, Amur spoke in a loud voice, ‘Hail, King Kurhan of Arysis! Great praise I give to you for yet standing against the rampage of Surakaris, whom others have fallen to.’
The King looked at the newcomer with a hint of annoyance, for he had still been in converse with the young man next to his throne, and this stranger had not yet been bidden to speak, though Kurhan answered. ‘And what would make a man such as you so worthy as to lend me praise? I deem you have come here to give fealty against the Khands – if so, then I would rather you have more courtesy in your coming to the face of a King.’
‘Forgive me, my lord. I must confess that this is true, and if I am lacking in respect it is only because I am impatient for the blood of those who would dare call the mighty land of Amrun Surak-Khand.’ At this Kurhan looked please, but Amur continued. ‘You too asked me of my worth sire, and I say that my worth now is no greater than any common man, but in the days before Surakaris set his avaricious gaze upon Amrun I was once a Prince; for I am Amur Sakun, fifth son of King Varnam of Lurmsakun, whose head now lies as a trophy for the Variags, along with the heads of the Kings of Ammu Baj and Siakan. But not yours, my lord.’
Again he held forth the amethyst token, and a guardsman handed it to the King on his throne, and as he studied it his troubling turned to joy. ‘It gladdens my heart that a seed of the House of Sakun still lives. Though our two nations have had strife in our histories, Varnam was a man I admired, and still do, for I hear the last siege of Enmahdah was long in the taking, and the numbers of the Variags would be greater if not for the valiant soldiers of Lurmsakun.’
‘Your words are kind and do humble me, my lord, but all I wish for is a place alongside your men who fight still against Surakaris.’
‘Yet you are a Prince, even if but a prince of a land taken,’ replied Kurhan in confusion. ‘Surely there is higher ambition that you crave which I can give?’
‘Nothing, my lord, for now at least. All I desire is to combat those who have done wrong against my land and my family; for long I have been but a rogue Prince, a simple warrior against the fates of the world, six and ten years of age but as experienced in its woes as any full-grown man.’
‘Very well. Then I accept your servitude, Amur Sakun, and hope that your desire may be fulfilled. Rise now, warrior of Arysis.’
And so Amur rose. ‘I thank you greatly, sire. But until I am restored to the monarchy of Lurmsakun, if ever such a day should come, I will keep the name of Sakun at bay, and be known as the name of my mother Jerra’s line, Suladan.’
The King went to speak, but suddenly the young man at his side raised his voice. ‘He is only a year older than me, and not even from Arysis, but he is allowed to join the army?’
‘Silence, Haran,’ Kurhan said with a stern voice, before turning again to Amur. ‘You must forgive my grandson. I regret that his father, my second son Kurun, perished in Surakaris’ first stroke against us, and I have forbidden him from joining the war, for I feel it would dishonour my son’s memory to place him in the way of harm.’
Amur studied Haran for a moment, seeing the pool of disappointment in this young man’s eyes, and spoke to the King again, ‘My lord, like Haran I can vouch for the pain one feels at the death of their father, or of any of their family, which I am more than sure you too can confess to. Could you allow such torment to fester in his heart still, or let him seek a way in which to quench it?’
King Kurhan looked at both these two young men in depth, and finally said, ‘You speak wise words, Amur Suladan. In these times men would rather say things of falsehoods in order to raise themselves, but you ask for naught even with nobility. I see that Haran’s wish can too not go unanswered, but also that you two will become fast friends. With such counsel I will too allow him to join the fight against the Khandish invasion, and I only ask that you two stay by the side of the other, through hope and hopelessness.’
‘I swear it,’ said Haran with confidence and excitement, bowing low to the throne of his grandfather.
‘Very well,’ stated the King with finality. I suggest then that you should both now go to the armoury and ready yourselves, for you shall be committed to the force of Chieftain Fazjhar, whom I shall reveal to you will be leading the offence to reject the Variags from Ammu Baj.’
Saying farewell to the King, Amur and Haran walked from the chamber together, the latter leading the way towards the forgeries, but forever turning and beaming at Amur in gratitude.
‘There are no words I can say to thank you accordingly, Suladan,’ said Haran.
‘Then they need not be spoken,’ he replied. ‘From this day onwards, we begin the path to glory and honour, together.’
‘Or to Ammu Baj, at least,’ smiled Haran. ‘And there our vengeance will be sated.’
‘I did not say vengeance. For honour is found more in forgiveness than in vengeance,’ quoted Amur.
‘And I did not say that. I said that vengeance is found more in Ammu Baj.’
Leaving the King’s chamber, the two young men continued towards the armouries, laughing even in their seriousness, ready to begin their path together.