Suladan drank the last of the rich wine from the bronze goblet. His father Talkhir sat beside him at the long table in the chieftain’s tent, where his three younger brothers and older sister sat along with several of the chieftain’s best fighters. They were feasting at his achievement, for this was the day when Suladan had finished his combat training and was ready to fight with his father upon the garrison of Varnakh. Suladan had also now come of age, and he knew his father the chieftain had little left of life, and was ready to take control of the tribe. His brothers sat in order of age – Lavrik, Kelsud and Harleth. Suladan knew that Lavrik and Kelsud, the two oldest, greatly desired to be their father’s heir, yet tradition commanded that the oldest son must be so. Yet if one of them were to slit Suladan’s throat, they could take his rightful place as chieftain, but he would not let that easily happen. His youngest sibling, however, was on much friendlier terms with his brother, for Suladan and Harleth were good friends. Yet his sister, Yalszik was a mysterious individual. She would leave the tribe’s village for long periods, then return and stay for a week or so. Rumours told she was a lethal fighter, but Suladan had no right to fear her, as even if Yalszik killed all her brothers, women can never be the chieftain of a tribe and so she would have naught to gain from his death. Talkhir stood up, raising his goblet and calling a toast.
“Good friends, beloved family! We are here today to celebrate my son as he reaches his age!”
Suladan smiled awkwardly as those in the tent clapped their hands in approvement.
“Tomorrow, he and I shall travel to Varnakh and his true scope of battle will begin, as we fight side by side against the Khandish!”
Another round of applause followed, until Yalszik stood up, raising her hand to stop the clapping.
“Why do you interrupt me, daughter?” asked Talkhir.
“Forgive me father. I know it is not the custom of Haradrim women to speak of war, but I have recently travelled to the Khandish lands.”
Several people gasped and Talkhir was taken aback. Suladan leaned forwards in intriguement.
“You have been to the land of the Variags? Please continue Yalszik, this interests me greatly!”
Obviously waiting for her father to say this, Yalszik continued, “I went there with a band of fortune seekers recently, for they wanted company and I wanted to see Khand for myself.”
Suladan knew this was a lie. More likely she had travelled with the group just so she could kill them at the right time and steal their tresures.
“We travelled by night and hid by day, so as to avoid any trouble with the Variags. But one night we saw a great band of mercenaries travelling this way. When I realised they were heading in the direction of our tribe, I instantly came back here.”
“A wise decision, my daughter. Very well, we shall assemble all our able-bodied men and march for Varnakh in the morning.”
Yalszik was a very cunning person. Suladan knew this, and rightly suspected her. Why would she wish to draw the soldiers away from the village? Was her story about the Khandish raiding force true? He rode by his father with a host of about seventy Haradrim warriors behind him. Whatever Yalszik was up to, Suladan thought, it would not be directly against him. After all, what would she gain by trying to eliminate him?
It took no more than an hour to reach Varnakh. The garrison was part of the defences that stopped Khandish invaders coming into Harad. Along with Karush, Balghar and the ruined fortress of Pazghar, Varnakh held a vigilant watch over the Harad border. The laws of the south commanded that all tribes within a certain area of each defence garrison must defend it in times of battle, and Talkhir strictly kept that rule. Varnakh was consisted of a large tower with a stone ring about it. The walls were almost impenetratable, for Gondor had built these defences in the days of its occupation over Harad. The reinforced gate of Varnakh swung inwards to let in Talkhir’s tribe, and they found that another two tribes had heard of the Khandish party and were already busying themselves in the stone circle. A broadly built man on horseback rode up to address Talkhir.
“Ah, greetings Talkhir. This must be your son, Suladan,” said the man.
“Yes, Captain Melkir. How goes the defence?”
“The Khandish foe is about two-hundred strong, with a sizeable amount of cavalry. We have little cavalry, and only one-hundred and thirty soldiers, but within this tower we should outlast them.”
The sun scorched the sands of the Harad border, causing the stone of Varnakh to heat up and make the defenders incredibly hot. Suladan strode along the ramparts of the outer circle, baking in his armour. He carried a spear in his hands and a bow of good quality at his back, along with a leather quiver with many arrows inside. It was tradition amongst the Haradrim to coat the tips of their arrows in poison, so even if a missile hit but did not hit a vital part, the venom would bring them to an agonizing death. Suladan had freshly coated his with red scorpion toxins this morning, which would make the victim burn to death as their blood heated up to alarming levels inside them. And in Harad, there were creatures with even worse poisons than that, so all Haradrim had to be careful where they placed their foot.
As Suladan made his way down the stairs, a cry went up above him.
“Enemies ahead! Khandish sighted!”
Suladan raced back up the stairs to stand next to the man who shouted the alarm. Several others gathered around him, and the man pointed to the horizon.
“There they are! They will be here in no more than a few hours. By the gods, they have chariots, too!”
Suladan looked to where the man was pointing, and too saw a large host of warriors on foot, flanked by racing horsemen and deadly Khandish chariots. Not long after, a horn went up from the tower – warriors were darting in different directions, some up the tower, some upon the walls, some barring the gates and some racing to the armoury. Suladan quickly leapt back down the stairs to find his father. And there, inside the stone circle was Talkhir, seemingly surprised by the sudden burst of activity.
“Have you seen the Khandish?” he asked.
“Yes. They are but a few miles away, and should be here at sunset.”
“By the gods, they’re quick. I will go and find my warriors, you take up positions on the walls with the rest of the archers.”
Grunting, Suladan went back up the stairs, again. This was going to be a long day.
The Variags were just out of firing distance. The horsemen and chariots wheeled around the tower, either mocking the defenders or looking for weak spots. Their foot warriors were placed in position so that when given the order they would race towards the gates and batter them open. The king in control of the army stood in the centre of the infantry, mounted on a great chariot. He watched with powerful eyes the Haradrim archers. Well, at least he can’t stare us to death, though Suladan. Otherwise they would all be dead already.
Melkir gave the command for another ranging shot. A lean looking soldier fired his bow, and surprisingly hit one of the cavalry, knocking a man off his horse.
“We’re in range!” shouted Melkir. “FIRE!”
Suladan loaded his bow with the rest of the archers and fired. He hit the leg of a horse, which reared up in shock and fell to the ground, crushing its rider. At that moment, the Variag king shouted a guttural command and the infantry raced towards the gate. The horsemen took out their bows and began firing at the men on the walls whilst still wheeling about the garrison. One man to Suladan’s left fell to the ground, a black arrow protruding from his neck. Suladan loaded again, fired, but missed in the circling mass of Khandish cavalry. Below, the infantry hacked again and again at the gate, making an impact over time. In the stone circle, about ten Haradrim cavalry awaited, with Talkhir in their midst. As soon as the gate was opened, the cavalry would ride over the Khandish infantry with ease. Or so they hoped.
Suladan fired again, hitting the arm of a Khandish horseman, who fell to the ground as the arrow’s venom began to do its work. The man limply crawled in the sand, raising his hand to the sun and crying in pain. Fortunately for the man, one of the horsemen tripped over his body, the horse crushing the Variag and ending his life without suffering more of the horrifying pain that the venom brought. Yet as the Haradrim bows sang death, the Khandish infantry were almost through the gate. One man tried to push himself through a gap in the gate, but one of the Haradrim cavalry fired at him. Suladan, now out of arrows, let out a hoarse curse, throwing his quiver to the ground. He unsheathed his sword and leapt down the stairs to join the Haradrim cavalry and moved next to his father.
“This is a nice day out, father!”
“You think this is a game, son?” said Talkhir. “This is a life or death situation!”
“To the Khandish maybe. They’re fighting so terribly we could sit and bathe in the sun whilst they run rings around our walls!”
“It’s true the Variags aren’t masters of siege,” replied Talkhir. “But when they break down our gates we’ll have a true fight on our hands. And they’ve got lots of mercenaries – they’re monsters at hand combat.”
“I better prepare myself then.”
Suladan walked away and sharpened his scimitar on a rock by the base of the walls. So for now we wait, thought Suladan.