Still Arysis fought on against Surak-Khand; and it had now been over two years since Amur Suladan and Haran Ysis first joined their ranks to fight with them. With the request of Haran’s grandfather, the King Kurhan, they had become soldiers under the Chieftain Fazjhar, one of the most renowned tacticians of their war, whom had kept Surakaris at bay in the eastern kingdom of Ammu Baj. Both Amur and Haran were given no higher position for either of their heritages, as they had wished so, but they had become respected by Fazjhar and well-liked by their fellow warriors for they were as spirited as they were skilful in battle; ever fighting side by side each with scimitar and bow. The scout of Dharan-sar whom Amur had once travelled with, Khulgana, had taught him archery from a young age, though he had never truly grasped the art, but Haran was more than willing to aid him advance his aim, for the arrows he fired were ever lethal.
For the two years they had served in the Arysis army, Amur and Haran had mostly worked on the eastern borders of King Kurhan’s domain or in Ammu Baj, for these were the places where their lord had tasked Chieftain Fazjhar to mobilise in. Ammu Baj, third of the kingdoms of Amrun, had dwelt south of Lurmsakun upon the shores of the Bay of Bulchyades, and had been the second domain to fall to Surakaris’ invasion. Its province was entirely hilled, usually making it easy to defend, yet the Variags were as used to highlands as they were to plains. Now in the hands of the Khandish, and together with Lurmsakun and Siakan renamed as Surak-Khand, of all the kingdoms King Kurhan wished to eject the Variags from Ammu Baj was the chief, for those invaders occupying Siakan in the south would be completely cut off from those in the north. Yet the fighting had been harsh upon the hills, but Fazjhar had brought up more archers such as Haran and Amur, which made the Khands’ high ground count for naught, and Arysis was now steadily winning its way into Ammu Baj. Several chieftains and their companies now occupied the ruins of Solendon, preparing to make the final strike.
In the days when a single king ruled all of Amrun, Solendon was the capital of all the land. It was as beautiful as it was mighty, the legends told, but when the four children of King Boyadla split the kingdom, many wars were waged for the winning of Solendon, until in the end it became a ruined skeleton of its ancient glory. It and the plains about it, named Central Amrun, had all been debatable between the four kingdoms, but now it seemed to be the no-man’s-land between Arysis and Surak-Khand – that was until the borders of Ammu Baj had been won by doughty Fazjhar.
In the ruins of the once-great city Amur and Haran sat and ate their rations, for it was nearly dusk and the day had been long of labour, piling up what old stone was movable to create a barrier about Solendon lest the Variags attack them here. Through their years of service together the two young men had told all of what they had been through to the other, and found that they were of similar mood and character, save Haran was quicker to cheer and Amur would rather sit for longer in thought and pondering. Both had lost their fathers to war (though with Valakar’s death Amur had always felt like he had lost two) and so often behaved older than they were, for Amur was now eight and ten years of age whilst Haran was one year the younger.
‘Did you ever sit and think to yourself, Suladan,’ Haran said as they rested, ‘what you would do if Surakaris was killed, and Surak-Khand finally defeated?’
‘Well,’ started Amur, ‘I would find what survivors and captives were left in Lurmsakun, and rebuild Enmahdah, and make a new start with the kingdom.’
“King Suladan” – it has a good sound to it, that title,’ smiled Haran. ‘But who out of you and King Kurhan would get Ammu Baj and Siakan, since both their kings and houses are all gone?’
‘I would have Ammu Baj and Arysis would have Siakan, obviously.’
‘But what if Kurhan wants both lands?’ continued Haran. ‘Would you go to war with him for them?’
‘No,’ answered Amur. ‘I think I would let him have them.’
At this Haran laughed. ‘You would make the worst king on the earth!’
‘Not all kings are tyrants, Haran,’ he retorted.
‘That’s debatable. But everyone only remembers the kings who are the biggest tyrants. I will not worry about it, though, I doubt either of us will be kings whilst we are still heaving around pieces of rubble…’ said Haran, and as he finished he took a large rock from the floor and threw it in boredom some distance away. But as it landed, there was a sudden crack, and a cloud of dust went up. Looking at each other in confusion, Amur and Haran ran to see what they had done.
Looking down, they found that they had snapped a section of wood that lay hidden under the sand. Amur unsheathed his sword and cut about the material, and then looked down into the larger hold he had made.
‘There is a chamber, or a tunnel down there,’ he said, shielding his eyes from the dust clouds rising from the impact. ‘Your rock must have broken a hatchway.’
‘I am a good aim, after all,’ chuckled Haran. ‘I will find Fazjhar; perhaps he could put our find to good use.’
As Haran ran to find the Chieftain, Amur decided to inspect the tunnel. Sliding down from the hole he had cut, he found himself in a stone pathway. Though dusk was beginning to settle, the sun was light enough to flood through the opening and dimly illuminate the surroundings. He slowly crept down the gloom of the tunnel, until he found it came to a chamber, serving as another crossroads for more subterranean paths across the base of Solendon.
‘Suladan! What have you found down there?’ echoed the voice of Fazjhar, Haran evidently having brought him to the wooden hatch. Amur began to make his way backwards until he was being assisted out of the hole.
‘There seems to be an entire tunnel system down there,’ he commented to the Chieftain, dusting off his livery as he spoke. ‘Perhaps we could use it to our advantage.’
‘Well perceived,’ said Fazjhar. ‘I shall send down scouts to inspect its routes – unless you two would be willing?’
Haran gave Amur a warning look to dissuade him from saying yes, but he was always ready to prove and better himself. ‘Of course, my chieftain.’
‘Very commendable of you, Suladan. Report to me when your excavation is complete,’ ordered Fazjhar, before returning to whatever duties he had before the find.
‘A fine mess you have put us in now,’ moaned Haran. ‘And it is still our meal break! This day just keeps on getting better…’
It was night when Amur and Haran finished wandering the forgotten pathways. Each taking a flaming brand, they had mapped out the routes as best they could, finding a few more entrances to the surface, yet nothing but dust, rubble and rats remained within, the latter of which were sent fleeing into darker holes at the sight of the fires. Haran had continued to be bitter towards Amur for volunteering to the task, but he himself took little heed, looking in wonder and curiosity at what they had found. They later gave their findings to Fazjhar, whom had decided to use the tunnels as a hidden store for his food and supplies, and as the moon waxed in the sky men piled sacks and crates into the under-ways.
With exhaustion the two young men went to sleep without a word, but in their dreams both of them were troubled. In his vision, Amur saw the graves of his family, with each of their names on the tombstones; his father Varnam, his mother Jerra, Adulam, his sister Adazra, dear Lasran and Jeldhun. But as he looked two of the graves were empty, only waiting to be filled, and behind the tombstones stood a shadowy man in a deep hood with a knife, and when Amur looked down he saw that he himself leant upon a spade.
With a sudden start both Amur and Haran awoke, but their minds were at ease when they saw the familiar face of the other.
‘Nightmares, too?’ asked Haran. ‘What did you dream of?’
‘Just ghosts from the past…’ he replied. ‘At least, I think so. What of you?’
Haran was immediately troubled again. ‘I saw the sun rising slowly on the horizon before Solendon, but men with axes and crimson armour with flags of crossed swords occupied it – Variags of Surakaris. And their standards blocked the light of the morning sun, so it was as if no dawn was coming at all.’
Even as he stopped speaking, there came a horn of alarm and the sound of several men crying in surprise through the ruins, and it eventually spread with others taking up the call, knowing full-well what was befalling.
‘Let us pray you have not foresight, Haran,’ Amur spoke, ‘for the Variags are indeed coming. Come, get your sword, or there will indeed be no dawn for any of us!’
Like horrors from the depths of the night the Variags came. Their axes shimmered with the reflection of the fires of the Arysis camp, and they rode upon horses swift and strong, crushing startled men under their hooves. Another wave of horsemen passed behind them, these with bows, mercilessly shooting down the defenders fleeing deeper into the ruins. The defence had been broken before it had even been organised.
But from the midst of the camp, up came Fazjhar. He stood in resplendent armour also upon steed, raising his broad scimitar to launch the counterattack. Arrows went up and fell upon the Khandish raiders, but more pressed on. A line of spearmen was formed by the Chieftain, and they skewered the Variags as they charged, but most wheeled away, and now more cries roared out of the blackness – many foot soldiers, crying hoarsely with their axes ready to swing appeared in the light. The Arysis spear-wall did not move, but as the attackers crashed into them, the line was broken, and they were swept away like sand against the tide. Fazjhar alone stood in a sea of enemies, slashing tirelessly with his blade, but he was dragged under the weight of their numbers. With his fall the battle was over; now the massacre would begin.
When Amur and Haran desperately entered the fray the soldiers of Arysis were in a disorganised rout. Who knew where this force of Khandish had sprung from, even as Fazjhar had pressed their territory? Occupying troops from Lurmsakun, Amur deemed, vicious men whom had sat guarding the slaves who were once his people, tiring of lashing their peons and lusting for open war. Now they had it, but it made Amur hate them all the more. With a shout of rage he drew his blade and cut down an onrushing horseman with no heed to danger, and Haran sprang to his side with his bow singing, but he was in better state to heed reason than his long friend.
‘Suladan, we cannot stay here, the battle is lost!’ he cried. ‘We must get to the horses and escape – we have but a few, and you must survive!’
Amur wheeled towards Haran, who almost jumped back in shock at the fury in his eyes. ‘Why? Why must I survive when all others are slaughtered by these curs? Death, I say, is my lot with them, though I shall teach them the meaning of the word more thoroughly before I am done with!’
‘You must survive, because you are the last of your father’s line,’ advised Haran calmly. ‘If you die, so does Lurmsakun.’
Amur breathed steadily, and eventually his anger subsided into rationality once again. He nodded curtly towards Haran, and with that they ran with all speed to where the steeds of Fazjhar’s riders were set.
Through the gloom of the ruins they raced, passing by men fallen by axe or arrow, many faces of whom they knew, and through the murk they would see the light of a fellow with a brand, only to disappear with a mortal cry.
At length they came to the horses, and several other survivors of similar mind were there also. Yet, to their dismay, the beasts had been slain – they lay lifelessly with arrows jutting from their hides, an act of barbarity by the enemy, but of tactical shrewdness. Whosoever led these Variags, Amur respected, but not as much as he hated.
‘All hope is lost,’ one man despaired. ‘We die with the moon!’
‘Well, Suladan, it seems you were right, as was my dream,’ spoke Haran in utter despair. ‘There is no dawn for us.’
Thoughts wheeled in Amur’s head, yet they were not of despair. He did not come so far only to fall to his enemies in a single night of butchery. Survival was improbable, but not impossible.
‘The tunnels…’ he said. ‘Get to the tunnels!’
‘The tunnels?’ men questioned. ‘If we are to die to the cursed Khandish, why not die with honour than like a rat skulking underground?’
‘Perhaps death is all that is left for us,’ retorted Amur, ‘but if we retreat underground we can do the Variags more damage before we are ourselves slain. There are enough passageways to harass them, all secret enough to keep hidden, and all our stores are down there, so we can subside long enough for aid, or perhaps victory.’
The others looked as if to laugh at such blind hope for a moment, but one by one they all began to see that this was the wisest option left available to them. With hurried agreements, they followed Amur and Haran to the under-ways, all as silent as ghosts in the night, ready to haunt the ruins of their land’s once glorious capital for as long as it remained in the hands of Surakaris.
It was true that none of the Arysis army saw the dawn, however this was because what remained of them hid now in the under-ways of Solendon. Others had secretly come to them, swelling their numbers, but there was still no more than fifty men left after the sudden slaughter of the Khands.
‘They have a new general,’ men had whispered. ‘He is the son of Surakaris. He leads his men cruelly and swiftly to war on us, for he seeks to better himself above his father in the eyes of his people. Such is the lot of the Variags, to combat against those of their own blood! Vangaris is his name, and it is a cursed one, but more of the disparate Khandish gather to it with every passing day.’
Of the mighty Arysis army of many companies that had occupied the ruins above in defence, no higher chieftains or ranking officers had survived. Men now looked to the more venerable and the veterans among them for guidance, but all now held the voice of Suladan in regard, for it was he who led them here, and they surely owed him their lives.
Two days had passed in the darkness of the tunnels. The army above could often be heard, roaring songs of victory and battle, and the sound of their voices made men stop in their tracks in fear. It was now that many had come to Suladan asking for advice on what should be done. Though he was still young by all standards, he had seen in his life what few of those among him could not even comprehend, and he was rife for the challenge, remembering well the profound leadership of Captain Valakar.
‘If I were a coward, my fellows, I would cower in these holes until the army above has passed,’ he spoke. ‘But to the regret of my own mortality, I am not, and would rather look to the wider picture – to the safeguarding of Arysis. When night falls, a band of us should steal above the surface and spill what Variag blood we can before returning in subtlety on what nights we dare. Thus, they shall remain confused, chasing phantasms for many more days yet, whilst our own forces at Maresh may attack them here, and perhaps save us in our hour of need.’
To this men agreed, remembering amid their anxiety their oaths to King Kurhan, and many volunteered to join the first party. And so, at nightfall, a group of those with best skill of bow went out by secret pass-ways led by Haran, shooting down the wardens of the camp before slaying many more of the Variags in revelry or in sleep. When the alarm was raised, Haran and his men rushed back to the safety of the tunnels. Thus such raids went on for two more weeks, and the fear among the Khandish was raised, sending tales among themselves of the unquiet spirits of the men they had killed here. Though what the Arysis survivors could take was stolen from the enemy camp when possible, the supplies were running low, and amid their success it seemed hunger would soon become a deadlier foe than any Variag general.
Over a month had passed. The enemy still remained above – Vangaris, scorning the tales his men told of phantoms, had remained at Solendon, using it as a base to send further raids into Arysis. Below the ground, the struggle was beginning to go ill. Some men had been caught and slain on raids, though they had all sworn to die rather than reveal the entrances to the under-ways, and rations were becoming much thinner. The spirits of all seemed to waver – at least, all but Amur Suladan’s.
‘Do you still have hope, my friend?’ Haran had asked. ‘For there is as little of it down here now as there is the sunlight.’
‘The Variags still lay entrenched here, as was our original purpose,’ Amur had answered. ‘In my mind, that is already a victory, however small. And remember we still have blades sharp enough to teach the enemy that all Amrun will never be lightly named Surak-Khand.’
‘If you have hope, then so do I. I swore I would stand by you through whatever danger, and so I shall. We may yet see the dawn!’
Death now groped in the tunnels of Solendon. The store of food was gone, ravaged by time, and all the survivors could eat was what they claimed from above. Hunger and illness spread through the soldiers, and one by one they would die, but with as much honour as any warrior slain upon the battlefield. Less than twenty men were now left to Suladan and Haran, and even they had begun to waver.
Yet one morning they awoke to a great uproar, followed by a shaking of the earth and a clamour of arms. To those below, it seemed as if the gods sent storms and rocks against the world, washing away the filth upon the ground below. Slowly, the noises ceased, and even in their states of near-death, the survivors wondered to themselves. With fatigue, Amur had opted to spy upon the world above.
Like a shoot appearing from barren earth he crawled from one of the secret doors, crawling slowly across the dirt, in utter pain and misery. Very soon, he could not go on any further, and he lay close to darkness in the rising rays of the sun. Yet he felt pressure upon his side, and finally noticed he was being rolled over by a heavy boot.
‘I swear allegiance to King Kurhan of Arysis,’ he spoke, though it was but a faint sound through his dry mouth. ‘Slay me if you must, but remember that this shall never be your land whilst a man of Amrun still lives.’
The voice answered loudly, and the speaker bent down to look at this strange man clinging to life by a thread. ‘And why would I slay a man loyal to my own father? For I am Kuradla, eldest prince of Arysis, and my army has Vangaris on the retreat. Tell me though, if you can, where my nephew Haran now rests?’
Amur was curtly brought food and water, and still weary, but bursting with hope beyond hope, he told Kuradla and his astonished men of his and the survivors’ deeds, and where the rest of them lay. More nourishment was rushed to them, and the victorious army of Arysis spoke in wonder and renown of the acts of the survivors of Solendon.
Now beginning to heal from their hurts, Haran came up from the tunnels and walked to Suladan, taking in the full light of the early waxing day.
‘Such hope beyond despair!’ Haran remarked. ‘You must be a fated man, Amur Suladan.’
‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘But I am thankful only that we can live to fight once more against the tyranny of Surakaris. Many good men he has taken from me, but I shall take many times over from him.’
‘And I shall be at your side to aid you. And see!’ Haran spoke, pointing to the sun creeping over the horizon. ‘We lived to see the dawn!’
Amur Suladan looked at the rising sun, and, like it, too felt he was ascending highly, up from the banishing of the night.