Many have been led to believe throughout the ages that the people of Harad were entirely evil, devoted to the Dark Lord, bloodthirsty and lovers of darkness and death. This was not so. They did not join with Sauron of their own will.
A long while ago, when Sauron was just beginning to muster his troops for use in the War of the Ring, he attempted to recruit Harad's army. The King refused, being proud of his country and not wishing it to be manipulated by another.
Around this time, a baby was born to Moroke and Eishali, peasants who lived behind the first wall of the capital city of Harad. There were six walls, and behind each lived progressively richer people, as the the first wall faced the desert and each wall behind it came closer to the more fertile, less harsh forest. The six walls and their denizens enclosed the Palace on all but one side. Moroke and Eishali were not rich people and did not live in the most comfortable part of the city, but they had become used to the harsh sand-bearing desert winds that whipped about behind the first wall.
Moroke, all throughout Eishali's pregnancy, had wished for a boy child to make the daily chores easier. But nature does not bend to the wishes of mortals, and the baby was a girl. Eishali died in giving birth, and Moroke through his tears named the girl child Tasaali, as the couple had planned if the child were to be a girl after all, and raised her as any boy in the city was raised. Tasaali learned the art of the sword as well as how to keep her feelings to herself - to be strong, as a woman who (in her father's eyes) should have been a man ought to be. She was mocked incessantly by the neighborhood children when she practiced her swordswomanship skills on the street, but she never let it show that their words hurt in any way.
Moroke never told Tasaali of the horrible burning that forced them from their first home, but it is important that you be informed of it. After their house was burned down, Moroke took the only one-year-old Tasaali and found an abandoned house behind the second wall to live in, but many were not so lucky. Sauron, angered by the King's refusal, had sent his orcs to burn, pillage and kill, and vowed he would do worse if the King did not change his mind. The burning, however, had only taken place behind the first wall (from then on, the first-wall area was known as the Burnt District), and being a lofty man of power the King refused to back down.
Sauron kept his vow and over the next few years sent assassins to kill off each of the princes of Harad, until only one was left. The King would have no immediate heir if the last prince was killed off as well, and so he sent word to Sauron that his troops would fight for Mordor in the War of the Ring. The prince left over was forever after known as the Last Prince.
At first, the men were skeptical and rebellious, wondering why they were being forced into a war they did not even believe in. But then the battles began. Men were killed, tempers were riled up, revenge was sought, and tales of the tarks' great skill in battle inflated to campfire myths that they were evil sorcerers, capable of anything they wished. The men found a new fury in their hearts and a desire for battle, to get even with these sorcerers who had killed their friends and family. And so our story begins.
Chapter One - Inspiration and Decision
Tasaali tossed back her many long, black braids and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The relentless desert sun beat down on the city, and there was no wind to speak of. The city smelled of spices, sweat and animals, and if you looked far enough ahead, you would see waves in the air, as if you were underwater, the result of the scorching heat. Not that Saali noticed any of this - she went on dunking her dresses in the wash trough, her first chore of the day.
As she bent over to stir a dress around in the lukewarm water, a short-cropped lock of hair fell into her eyes. She brushed it away with hatred. The short lock marked her as a widow, and in Harad, widows were outcasts. The Fatespeakers believed that if a woman's husband died of anything but old age, the woman was cursed by Fate. Men could not speak directly to a widow, or the curse would spread, and widows could not remarry. She hated the lock almost as much as she hated her status. But that was life. Saali's father, realizing that she would be viewed as completely dishonorable if he didn't, had arranged a marriage for his daughter. She had been happy - for about a week. Then both her husband and her father had been called off to the war, and, as soldiers are wont to do, they had never come back.
Always seems to be hot, commented Tashkann sharply, when we do the washing. That was one thing that could be said for Saali's becoming a widow - it had gained her friends. Tashkann was a small woman with a big personality. Bitter, sarcastic and contrary, she had hardened herself to all aspects of a widow's life, and liked to pretend she needed no one. Saali knew better, but never said so. Tashkann's face was sharp and angular, with high cheekbones, thin eyebrows and squinty eyes; she wore her hair in one thick braid. She had dark chocolate skin, darker even than most of the Haradrim's, and always went barefoot.
Niera nodded vigorously. Do you not just love the heat? Tashkann's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Saali stifled a chuckle. Your hair is coming unbraided, Niera added bluntly. Niera was short and heavy, with skin of very light brown, a round face and slightly tilted eyes that gave her a look of perpetual comical amusement. She did and said what she wanted, to put it frankly. A few months ago, just before Saali was widowed, she had chopped her hair off to chin-length because she thought it was more comfortable than the traditional braided style.
Saali shook her head in amusement, then pulled her last plain brown dress out of the water. I am finished, she informed her friends. Tashkann and Niera gave nods of acknowledgment, and Saali turned to go back inside her little clay-walled house.
Suddenly, the great gong of the palace tolled three times. Saali looked up, brow furrowed in puzzlement. What does that mean? she wondered aloud. She knew that one toll meant an hour had passed, and two tolls that the King or one of the twenty-nine Princesses were touring the city, and ten that a member of the royal family had died - that one had been used very often throughout her childhood. But three was new.
Tashkann smirked. Something very important, I am certain, she said sarcastically, and turned back to the washing.
It was not very long before two confused-looking men in soldiers' uniform ambled over to the three women. One of them approached Tashkann. My lady, is your husband near here?
Tashkann smiled sweetly, eyes poisonous. She always tucked the widows' short lock into her braid, so it was invisible. She motioned for her friends with the visible locks to hide themselves. Saali turned halfway around, peering at the scene out of the corner of her eye.
He is unavailable at the moment, sir, Tashkann chirped. Why does such a handsome soldier as you wish to know?
The soldier blushed a bit and answered, We are refreshing the troops, my lady. We require every able-bodied man we can get to join the army. It is a new signal, the three tolls - the palace invented it just lately.
Tashkann summoned all her acting skills and gasped, seemingly in horror, a mockery of some of the women of the city when their husbands were called away. Saali flinched. She had gasped like that, she was sure. But sir! Surely you are not requesting that I give up my husband?
The man shifted uncomfortably, and the other soldier took over in impatience. We regret this deeply, lady, but we are. He didn't sound regretful.
But, sir, I cannot give him up! Tashkann exclaimed. Then a wicked smile came over her face, and she pulled her widow's lock out from where it mingled with the rest of the thick black hair. Especially since he is dead. This is the Widows' District. Do you know nothing?
The two gasped in shock, then looked at each other, then down at the ground. They acted as if there were no one there as they turned and walked away, not even shooting a backward glance at Tashkann.
Saali had thought she was used to this, she really had. But the wound was still open, and this was the salt that made it sting. She whirled about in anger, storming into her little one-room house. They would not talk - they would not even look - and they had been speaking to her quite normally - awful pigs - how dare they? She collapsed onto her little, lumpy hay-stuffed bed and stared at the dry clay ceiling. Life was just chores, day in and day out, just doing what needed to be done; nothing ever had any meaning; she was just doing what needed doing, just surviving. Just barely surviving.
She longed for something meaningful to accomplish, something that would affect someone other than her. Something to show the world she meant something. But she had nothing. She twirled a braid around her finger as she brooded. Nothing.
But suddenly, was replaced by . The fire of impulse coursed through her veins; she knew she was making one of those reckless decisions again, but she had to. She would lose her mind if she did not escape from her chore-prison.
Rising from her bed, Saali crossed the dirt floor to where a faded black leather chest rested against a wall. She opened it with trembling fingers. It contained Moroke's spare army uniform. She pulled everything out restlessly until she reached the bottom, where a jeweled hilt protruded from a soft leather sheath. It was her pride and joy, her most valued possession - her sword. She had given up practice when she married, but now she had use of it again. She drew it, watching with pleasure the beautiful steel shining in the light; she hefted it, drinking in the slight curve of the blade with thirsty eyes. She smiled.
Almost nervously, she began to swing the blade. Did she remember? The movements flowed from her brain to her arm automatically, and she went through the passes automatically. Yes, she remembered. She still had her skill.
Laying the sword aside with care, she picked up the uniform. Slipping quickly out of her dull brown dress, she pulled on the black breeches, the red undershirt. They were both enormous, hanging baggy on her bony frame. Oh well. She pulled on the gold-embroidered red tunic, then the beautiful gold mail vest, her second most valuable possession. Next came the black arm guards and sword belt, then the glossy black leather boots. Surprisingly, the boots fit. Her father had small feet, and hers were big.
Saali paused a minute to look in her large, cracked mirror. She had bought it cheap at Moki's Second-Hand (aka stolen) Goods. She wore the colors of Harad - black for the somber side of life, death and sadness, red for blood and life, and gold for the sacred, Fate and happiness. She was a tall, skinny young woman, with barely any feminine figure to speak of. Her glossy black hair was braided tightly, exposing a very high forehead. Her eyebrows were thick and sharp, like knives, her skin a medium brown, her nose long and thin, her lips likewise. She wore no expression at all, but her feelings were visible in her large, coal-black eyes. Right now, they were nervousness and determination.
Here came the important part. Her father had been issued a scarf to tie around his head and protect from the desert winds, and it was crucial to her costume. Saali tied it on securely, then placed his golden helm on her head (that was a bit large, too), and all that was visible were her eyes. She hastily tucked her widow's lock into the helm. No one could ever suspect that she was a woman, let alone a widow. Lovingly she buckled her sword onto the belt, and she was ready.
Bracing herself, she stepped out onto the street. The men had wanted soldiers. She had wanted a purpose. They were both going to get what they wanted.