I – An Unremembered Birthday
Year 2986 of the Third Age
When Amur Sakun, fifth child of the King of Lurmsakun, was nearing his fourth birthday, only he seemed to be excited, for all the faces of those he looked on were in worry, or in desperation, or blank, as if they were holding back panic and tears like a dam. Everyone seemed to be either moving too quickly or moving too slowly, spoke too loud or too quiet, and none of them seemed to spare him any heed. Only his mother Jerra he saw at length, and even she behaved oddly, always silent in deep thought, and though once or twice she had broken from her reverie to maternally smile at him and stroke his fair hair she soon fell back into herself.
As for his father, he had not seen him for days. One day he had rode from the capital Enmahdah with Amur’s older brothers and was yet to return. He still saw his sister Adazra however, skulking about the chambers as if on some secret errand, looking upon him with only a frown to spare. Only one of his siblings truly liked him, for they had all been born from another mother, Hyulra, who had died in the childbirth of Jeldhun, whereas King Varnam had married Jerra and had Amur years later. And so Adulam, Adazra and Jeldhun never truly acknowledged their half-brother, yet Lasran, the third child, liked Amur well, telling him stories of their father and of Lurmsakun’s history. But now he was gone, along with Adulam and Jeldhun, riding away on strong steeds with their father the King to places where Amur could only follow in his dreams.
Desperately Amur hoped that everyone would stop acting so strangely, and that things in the court of Enmahdah could return to the way they used to be, but as the days went on the anxiety only seemed to increase. Continually bored by the servants of the King who tended to him, hidden away in the back-chambers of the King’s quarters, he decided to mischievously sneak out, and perhaps find an adventure, one which he often imagined dear Lasran and his father galloping off to find.
Sneaking like his shadowy sister Adazra through Enmahdah, he crept in the seclusion of crowds and through paths obscured by homesteads until he found his way to the walls of the city. He clambered up the stairs to the battlements but he could not see over the carved stone to the other side. Though he tried in vain to lift himself, he could only settle for gazing in awe at the view of the city of Enmahdah itself, the sturdy round wall he stood upon permeated by four tall towers, and in the centre of the ring the mound where the quarters of the King stood, and all about them the barracks, homes, markets and halls of the subjects of King Varnam. As Amur looked at the city, he wondered, for it seemed to him he had walked a smaller distance than he had actually travelled.
Enmahdah was the chief city and stronghold of the Kingdom of Lurmsakun, one of the four dynasties that made up the land of Amrun. Nestled between Lower Khand and Near Harad (the latter of which the land was often considered a part of) Amrun was largely coastal, its boundaries set with the Bay of Sudu Cull in the west with the Kingdom of Arysis upon its shores; in the south was the open ocean itself, where the waves were brought in from the wide Bay of Ormal onto the Kingdom of Siakan; in the east were the hills and the Kingdom of Ammu Baj, with the Bay of Bulchyades beside it separating Amrun from the strange, yet neutral Land of Spice, Ananike; and in the north were the mountains of Ered Mikarin, which dictated the upper bonds of Lurmsakun, the realm of King Varnam. The histories of the Kings of Lurmsakun, Arysis, Ammu Baj and Siakan were forever intertwined, whether in friendship or in war, yet now storm clouds were gathering further north of their land which had coerced the four kingdoms into peace – but not alignment – for many rumoured that the doom of all of Amrun had come.
It was not long since Amur had ventured to the walls that one of the city guardsmen noticed him. The soldier was both concerned and amused that the child had found his way to the battlements. He proclaimed to him loudly, ‘Greetings young one, have you come to help us watch against Surakaris?’ And several of the other guardsmen heard him and too noticed the boy, some laughing warmly whilst others watched in confusion.
The soldier anticipated the child to be at the least bashful of his actions, but to his surprise he kept a resolute and curious face. ‘What are Surakaris?’ he asked casually.
Crouching down to inspect this brave child, the soldier answered, now a little more informative, ‘Surakaris is a man, young one; a tyrant king from Khand in the north. Your clothes seem strange for someone of your stature…’
Only then did he realise that this was the youngest son of the King, and he immediately straightened himself back up, almost leaping in his astonishment. ‘This is the Prince Amur, men. We would do best to escort him back to the King’s quarters.’
‘There is no need, guardsmen,’ said a woman draped in fine blue robes as she walked up the stairs to the battlements. ‘I shall take him myself.’ Amur looked up to see his mother Jerra, her emotions more relieved than angry to have found her young son.
‘Yes of course my lady,’ the soldier quickly replied, instantly recognising the wife of the King before attempting to go back into his prior duties. Jerra patiently took Amur by the hand and led him from the battlements, down the stairs and back towards the King’s quarters, though Amur turned to stare at the livery of the guardsmen many times, thinking of the battles and heroism of men of such attire.
‘I know I have not looked after you as well as I have done these days, Amur,’ Jerra said, now more sternly. ‘But that is no reason for you to wander where I cannot find you.’
‘But mother, why do you not look after me as well?’ asked Amur.
‘Because I am afraid of something, dear,’ she replied. ‘Everyone is. Something very bad could happen to all of Lurmsakun.’
‘Is it the Surakaris man?’ he suggested.
‘Where did you hear that name?’ Jerra asked, instantly troubled by it.
‘The hero on the walls told me. He asked me to help him against Surakaris.’
‘Not every soldier is a hero, Amur. It takes more than holding a weapon to make you a hero. And you are far too young to be troubled by such things,’ his mother advised, trying to draw a line under the subject. ‘Let your father deal with these matters.’
‘Do you know he can kill any man, mother?’ Amur said fondly. ‘Lasran and father, they could kill whole armies.’
‘You talk like battle is a good thing, Amur. If everyone in this city thought so, they would not be so afraid, but then I would not want to live in a place where everyone thought like that. Perhaps one day you will learn not to glorify death so much.’
‘But we do want them to kill Surakaris, do we not mother?’ asked Amur, but Jerra did not reply.
The next day Amur rose hopefully from his bed at the sound of men shouting clearly and wildly to announce the return of King Varnam and his riders, along with his sons Adulam, Lasran and Jeldhun. Jerra and Amur waited with all the house of the King’s quarters, standing in the front courtyard where the statue of Sakun, the founding king of Lurmsakun, stood central and obstinate. Looking around at the assembled peoples, Amur noticed that his sister Adazra was not there. As the King and his company approached, servants moved to take their horses.
Varnam rode directly towards his wife and youngest son, stopping to a halt as he dismounted with the energy of a younger man as his sons followed close behind. The King and his wife embraced and kissed, and as Adulam and Jeldhun uncaringly stepped to whatever high business Amur perceived they attended, even if that only entailed to show off their princely power to others. However Lasran walked with a slight grin towards his half-brother, who met Lasran with a stern officer’s greeting, to which Lasran met with respect. The tall young man knelt down to speak to Amur as he almost instantly spoke;
‘Have you killed Surakaris, Lasran?’
There was a troubling wavering in Lasran’s eyes, but he answered Amur with a smile, ‘I am afraid not, Amur.’
‘Who is Surakaris?’ Amur’s curious mind was only seemingly sated by his most patient of brothers.
‘He is a King, from the lands north of here called Khand. He is leading an army of Variags who are pressing on our borders.’
‘I have heard stories of the Variags,’ Amur said, trying to inform, and impress. ‘They say they have fangs for teeth, because they eat the people they kill, and that they would stab their own mothers for just one piece of gold.’
At this Lasran chuckled caringly and gazed away from Amur for a moment, perhaps thinking on deeds he had recently performed. To Amur, Lasran was the avatar of the tales of the heroes of legend, some noble lord ready to slay a dragon or defeat entire armies of villains. ‘If that is true, then they must mistake us for their mothers, and they would also be already quite full.’
Amur wondered at this, but Lasran gave an affectionate stroke of his hair and followed where Adulam and Jeldhun had apparently wandered. He now stood in the shadows of his mother and father, who were speaking in distress and desperation.
‘It is true what was said, beloved Jerra, the outer watchtower of Kruk Boyadla has fallen. I attempted to besiege and retake the stronghold, but the army of Surakaris seems to be swelled almost daily… I deem that many of the other Khandish Kings are investing in his invasion. The army awaits attack at the fort of Talazhan; we have only returned for additional supplies and to muster our warriors here. Forgive me that I cannot stay for long.’
‘I rue that war must divide you from me, but there is no higher duty than the defence of our homeland,’ Jerra calmly said, and Varnam then kissed her before striding into his quarters, granting Amur with a brief pat on the head as he passed. Yet Jerra did not follow, her hand upon her face for a moment in thought, before then too walking from the courtyard without a word, and Amur could only trail in her wake.
The joy of that morning soon dissipated, for both Varnam and Lasran were kept busy throughout Enmahdah on mainly tedious errands, and Amur began to see less and less of his mother. It was no more than three days before King Varnam and his soldiers tread once more on the road from the city gates, and though the people watched them passing with reverence; their proud banners flying in the morning winds and the strengthening sun made the livery of Lurmsakun resplendent – but all watched with an unspoken sadness of loss in their hearts, for the dread of Surakaris had grown so that few believed victory could be achieved.
One of those few was Amur, and he watched the bold form of his father ride at the head of the advancing host, and behind him were Adulam, and noble Lasran, and Jeldhun. As he was about to cross out of the city gates, Varnam stood his horse up on high and raised his sword, and the glance of its shimmering silver caught against the dawn and made Amur blink for a moment, and such a swelling of pride grew inside him that a tear fell from his eye, and he raised a small, simple flag he had been excitedly crafting throughout the week for such an occasion, and as he did he cried in a voice shrill but clear, ‘Go father! Go Lasran! Go for Lurmsakun!’
Yet the distant figure of King Varnam did not seem to hear, and he trotted resolutely through the gate and began the march west and north to the tower-fort of Talazhan.
Amur still stood on his high perch, looking as the army of Enmahdah crossed over the horizon, where he peered hopefully trying to make out some form, like a cockerel that looked for a sun that would never come.
‘Here you are,’ said Jerra, finding her young at last. ‘I knew you would be here.’
‘They could not stay for my birthday, mother,’ said Amur, his standard now lowered and his face starting to well.
‘Do not weep, Amur,’ responded Jerra, holding Amur in comfort. ‘Because of them you may yet live to see your birthday.’
‘I hope they will, too,’ sulked Amur, sinking into his mother’s robes, and at that Jerra too felt the same doubt that hung across the hearts of the city.
Hungry for incoming information of the army, Amur wandered about the King’s quarters as much as he could dare, attempting to find someone who would tell him, or to spy on an overheard conversation. He saw his sister Adazra several fleeting times, yet when he tried to ask her she now not only openly ignored him but cursed and scorned his intruding as well. Yet he would find what he sought soon enough.
Later in the day a messenger came for Jerra, from the holding at Talazhan, whom Amur patiently listened to as stealthily as he could.
‘The King Varnam sends his word,’ said the rider, ‘that the plight of Lurmsakun may be greater than he feared. Even now Surakaris surrounds Talazhan and only the efforts of the King stay his hand, yet if the tower falls Enmahdah may be used as a place of strength to quell the invaders if it should ever come to that. Thus, the King has decreed that the populace of the capital must evacuate to the hill-town of Mikarin Peh some miles east whilst all guards will remain, and any among the people wishing to aid the city may choose to do so too.’
‘Very well,’ said Jerra with determination. ‘I will lead the people there myself with my son Amur. For if it is destined for the King’s forces to fail, the line of Lurmsakun must be preserved.’
‘Yes my lady. Let it truly be hoped that destiny is at our side, though I wonder how even that may halt the hordes of Surakaris,’ spoke the messenger.
‘Nothing can be that dire, brave sir. Return to Talazhan if you may, and tell them that the King’s word will be done.’ Amur watched his mother walk from the discussion, and he saw that her face was colder than he had ever seen, for she thought to herself of how distant the possible last words of her husband were. But Amur silently returned to his room, and his dreams were at peace from a vision of Lasran standing at the top of Talazhan’s spire, in one hand holding the standard of Lurmsakun and in the other a sword that cut away all foes who came against him.
The wishes of King Varnam were spread across Enmahdah all through the night and were expected to be performed during the morning. At midday the majority of the populace was assembled and walking in anxious exodus from their homes, sadly looking up on the walls or in the four towers of the guard and at the defender’s faces like dear fellows on their deathbeds, but the guards themselves were silent and disciplined, facing the horizon on the west with hardened hearts.
The carriage of Jerra and Amur moved along through the centre of the march, with four men walking vigilantly beside it, spared from the walls to accompany the family of their King. To Amur’s relief his spiteful sister would not be travelling with them, for she had decided to stay at Enmahdah against Jerra’s wishes, as Adazra knew she was no child of Jerra’s, and would only be commanded by herself. Amur frequently stuck his head of the window to look at his home with awe, for he had never seen the walls from the outside, and suddenly dull Enmahdah had become an unassailable fortress of greatest strength, yet Jerra persisted on making sure his head was inside their transport in half-hearted dourness, yet the seriousness of the situation was bereft of Amur, who was excited to leave the city for the first time in his life, but as the city disappeared his excitement slowly turned into a loss, and a doubt.
At nightfall the tired refugees rested uncomfortably, and Amur slept long undisturbed into the morning of the next day. With a less cheery feeling he had awoken, and remained in gloom for all the rest of the long day. Yet as he lay in boredom inside his carriage, he suddenly moved up and said to his mother, ‘It is my birthday today. I had forgotten.’
Jerra looked at Amur, and as she did she could almost see what was even now, so early, happening to her child; he was being affected by war, he was being hardened, but with the sacrifice of his childhood naivety and joy, his unremembered birthday brought not one tear to his eyes. She, however, broke into them, but Amur, emotionless, fell back down into a weary and dreamless sleep.