THE FACE OF THE ENEMY
Disclaimer: The characters, the context and the main plot belong to Professor Tolkien, whom I greatly admire. I'm only trying to fill in the gaps he so graciously left for us, fanfic writers, to have some fun.
Rating: PG-13 for rather violent battle scenes
Dedication: for Nerwen Calaelen, who has a keen interest in Mannish cultures which are considered the "enemy". Happy belated birthday, Nerwen!
Author's notes (rather long ones):
This independent story is a side product to "Hope, Born in Darkness", even though there are no direct connections between the two tales. This one can also be considered as an addition to "Pawns and Symbols", a story co-written with Isabeau of Greenlea and posted within the frame of the Dúnadan Project (you can reach the DP through my Favourite Author's list).
Andrahar is an OC of Isabeau's, but she has graciously allowed me to use him. We have fleshed out part of the character's background together. If you want to know more about Andrahar, you should read Isabeau's stories and "Pawns and Symbols". All other unknown characters belong to me.
The individual realms and peoples of Harad were based on – and partially named after – the once really existing nomadic or semi-nomadic Asian realms of the early Middle Ages.
For visuals: Iskhandar could be imagined as Borias from Xena, played by the one and only Márton Csókás. Hey, he's a fellow Hungarian (all right, half-Hungarian), I have to support him. ;)
Beta read by Isabeau, thanks!
22 Esfand in the year 3019 of the Third Age
East-Osgiliath, nighttime hours
The siege of Minas Tirith, the White City of Gondor and the key to the last stronghold of the Men of Westernesse, was complete. Word had come that the Shadow Lord would break down the city's gates at the following sunset. The armies of the individual Haradric realms were preparing for the upcoming battle, calling to their gods for support. Every camp was brimming with life; singing, dancing and the mouth-watering scent of the sacrificial meals.
The camp of Bakshir was one of the largest, counting ten thousand armed and well-trained warriors alone, not to mention the families and servants of the chieftains – for the Hiung-nu never went to war without their usual comforts. At least not the heads of the Great Houses. For all the settled life they usually led back home, the fire of their nomadic ancestors still burned hot in their blood, and when rich bounty was to be expected, they were also willing to take great risks for it.
And this time the rewards looked promising indeed. The realm that would prove the most useful in conquering the White City could also expect to become the most influential one in Harad. The warlord of that realm was to become the Overlord of all Haradric realms, triumphant over the others, after thousands of years spent in embittered, fruitless struggle among each other.
So had the Shadow Lord promised, speaking for the Dark Power that dwelt in Mordor. And Iskhandar, the kha-kan of Bakshir's army, believed it.
He had little other choice but to believe it. Bakshir had suffered severe setbacks in its dealings with the brutal, upstart semi-nomadic realm of Zipangu, and the padisakh, the aging hereditary leader of its chief city, golden Bashidra, was too weak to protect the interests of the powerful Merchant Guild. A new ruler would be needed soon, for Bakshir was in grave peril of losing its leading position among the Haradric realms. The weaker but still powerful realms of Jarkend, Khuman, Khambaluk and Li-ao were waiting greedily for the two strongest ones to wear out each other out, so that one of them could then jump in and grab the overlordship.
Only the support of Mordor could secure the leading position of Bakshir. And only an overwhelmingly victorious battle, fought and won by Bakshir's army and their kha-kan could secure Mordor's support. Once the White City had fallen, Iskhandar could return to Bashidra, his carriages heaped with bounty and followed by long files of chained-together slaves. Those riches and the respect won in battle would open for him the way to the padisakh's seat. Weak old Tahamtan would be removed and Bakshir would flourish under Iskhandar's strong rule as it never had before.
Iskhandar rose from his bedding with the barely controlled strength of an untamed predator and looked around his huge, domed tent. He had left his first and ranking wife, Diláraj, behind in Bashidra, for someone needed to keep an eye on the house and on business issues. Theirs was the second of all the Great Houses of Bakshir, save that of the padisakh, and they had many enemies. His two younger wives – actually very valuable slaves from Jarkend and Zipangu – had followed him to the war and were currently sleeping, well-loved and worn out as was proper, under the watchful eye of Hégay, the chief eunuch of Iskhandar's parda.
The kha-kan turned to his chief guard, a short but incredibly powerful man named Thamuzaddad, who was also ranked first among his khans. The two were sworn shieldmates, brought up like brothers since their births, as Thamuzaddad's mother had been the wet nurse of Iskhandar, as was Hiung-nu custom.
"Is everything ready for the ceremony?" asked the kha-kan in a low, harsh voice.
Thamuzaddad nodded. "All is ready now, kardash mine. The servants of the fire are only waiting for the middle of the night. The Seer has prepared herself for the vision quest... and for you."
"Good," said Iskhandar slowly. "I shall need my strength to be renewed tonight. For tomorrow will decide all for us. My time to rise to power has finally come. The fruits of my long struggles are ripe now."
Iskhandar was not a young man anymore – he had seen sixty-eight summers already, which was considered the end of strength among the Hiung-nu. But his father had the blood of Westernesse in his veins, descending from the old rulers of Umbar, and though Iskhandar himself took more after his purely Hiung-nu mother, he knew he could expect a much longer life than most of his people. Unless he got killed in battle, he would be able to rule Bakshir – and the whole of Harad – for many years yet.
He did not truly worry about the battle though, as he was a proven warrior, and his short but powerful body a mighty tool of death and destruction. A shrewd and skilled merchant when in his father's noblehouse, he was still capable of killing the large, saber-toothed tiger that dwelt on Bakshir's savannahs with his bare hands. In fact, he had done it several times. In a battle rage, he once had torn out the tusk of a mûmak and killed the large beast with it during a local war against Khambaluk. Mere Men could do nothing to stop him in battle.
But Men were not the only ones who took part in this war, on either side. While the Dark Power of Mordor sent out the daiva – ugly, fanged and hairy demons that called themselves Orcs and were always ready to fall upon their own allies when overcome by their ravenous hunger for Man-flesh – the Men of Westernesse were allied to the pairiki. Or perí, as they were called in other Haradric languages. These were cold and distant, cruelly beautiful creatures who wielded magic as easily as they wielded a sword or a spear.
Fortunately, there were not many of them left, after the last great war fought a long time ago. But it was told in Umbar's taverns that some of them still dwelt in Perímahall, or Elf-Haven as the Gondorrim called it. There were terrifying tales about their padisakh, he of the golden hair and the cruel eyes of ice, as quick in battle as lightning and twice as deadly. The wildest corsairs of Umbar shook with fear when the small, fast ships of that pairiki – built in the shape of some white sea-bird – sailed along their borders. Zahhák they called him, after the great, golden dragon of the old tales, the evil beast that scorched the savannahs with its fire and held the waters captive until the raining season.
There was no way to know if the pairiki and his servants were to come to the White City's aid. But even if they had not, the Swan Lord from the southwestern shores already had. And it was a known thing that the blood of the pairiki flowed in his veins and in the veins of his whole House.
Thus Iskhandar felt it necessary to ward himself against this abomination. To have his body and his heart cleansed in the Hallowed Fire, into the service of which his forefathers had long entered – the service of Mordor, where the last mighty khan of the great Anhramain was now gathering all his dark powers to crush the northern and western lands under his iron boot. Iskhandar had seen the enormous strength of that power and was grateful for the choice of his ancestors. He knew not if there truly was aught after death, but he knew where strength and power ruled before it. And he preferred to use that strength to his own benefit, rather than getting crushed by it.
He left his tent and walked over to the wheeled temple of the Hallowed Fire – an enormous cart that was usually drawn by twenty-four oxen but now stood alone and seemingly abandoned in the middle of the camp. The Hiung-nu knew better than approach it without being called – the Fire could just as easily consume them as it did protect them, and its guardians were unpredictable in their protectiveness.
But Iskhandar was expected tonight, and his heart, as always, filled with awe as he gazed upon the cart. There might be other temples in the city of Bashidra, bigger ones, built of stone, but none of those was as holy as this one. The wandering sanctum that followed the people wherever they went. To battle and death, if the Fire God chose to turn His face away. To glory and conquest, if He looked at His children benignly.
Iskhandar hoped that the upcoming battle would please Him. After all, they were about to extinguish all His enemies in one last, glorious battle.
The cart truly looked like a mobile fortress, now resting upon its twelve solid wheels, safely chocked with huge rocks so that it could not roll away by accident. A terraced hall it was, built of bent metal and masterfully carved, scented wood and of the tough hides of more than six thousand white oxen. Six levels it had, each one a little smaller than the one beneath, adorned with gold-embroidered, heavy brocade curtains and bronze reliefs. Upon the sixth level a small chamber made of pure gold stood, glittering in overworldly beauty and breathing hot steam through its narrow shafts.
That was the most sacred place of the whole temple. That was where the Eternal Fire was kept.
Advishura, the eldest mage of the temple, was already waiting on the uppermost terrace, ready to perform his sacred duty in the Chamber of Fire. He wore the purple red ceremonial cloak, lined with golden quasts and small, golden bells, over the flawless white robe worn by all members of his holy caste and the golden circlet, set with fire-red gems, of his sacred office upon his brow. His black hair and beard was carefully ordered in the plaits and curls that was the custom of all mages since the foundation of their caste.
Next to him Haôma stood, the Seer, clad in white, her face hidden from all intruding looks by a thin veil that covered her head and reached to the floor. She was the keeper and feeder of the Fire, and no man was allowed to touch her or even to look at her naked face without the punishment of instant death. She was the voice of the Fire God who spoke through her in visions. She was instrumental for the well-being of her people – as long as her visions were proved true.
Iskhandar grabbed the railing for aid, for the winding bronze staircase that led around the temple and up to the sanctum was steep and narrow, and it swung slightly under his weight. He was breathless when he finally reached the golden chamber on the top, and as always in the rare times when he was allowed entrance, it surprised him just how big the sanctum in truth was. It provided enough room for the altar – a smooth, black slab of stone that had fallen from the skies thousands of years ago and had been guarded by the mages ever since – and as many as six persons who could stand comfortably around that stone. Upon the altar there was a cauldron of some strange black metal, and in that cauldron the Fire burned.
It was said that the Hallowed Fire had never perished, ever since the first mages had caught it when it floated into their temple in the shape of a dark, burning sphere. It had been divided among the many separate sanctums, but it was still the same. It was said that as long as the Fire still burned, the Hiung-nu would not perish, either.
Iskhandar bowed to the altar, barely daring to raise his eyes to something so horrible, ancient and holy. Nor would he dare to speak in the presence of the Fire. No-one but the virgin Seers were allowed to do so and live. But there was no need to do so. Both the mages and the Seer knew why he had come. They would provide what he needed – if the Fire God felt like speaking, that is.
Khaihusran and Raunghar, two lesser mages in the service of Ardvishura, entered the chamber, carrying bronze amphorae almost as big as themselves. The amphorae had long, narrow spouts that made it easier for them to pour the oil that fed the Fire into the cauldron. Tonight, they would feed the Fire until the heat lifted the Seer to the next level of existence, the world of visions, so that she could deliver the kha-kan the message of the Fire God.
Mayhap Iskhandar himself would be allowed to share the Sight. It was a rare thing, but it happened sometimes. Maybe he would be allowed to see the face of his enemy, so that he could find him on the battlefield.
Ardvishura gave his aides a small nod, then he sat down and began to curble the nyenyere, a small ceremonial instrument used only during such rituals. It gave a strange, almost growling sound that reminded very much of the crackling of fire and had an enchanting quality in it, lulling the participants into that particular mindset that opened their minds for the visions.
Khaihusran and Raunghar began pouring oil into the cauldron. The Fire breathed deeply, illuminating the chamber, colouring the golden walls with an angry read hue. The flame grew steadily and so did the heat.
Iskhandar felt sweat trickling down his chest and his back, under his clothes. It was difficult to breathe already, and the two mages kept pouring the oil ceaselessly. Ardvishura curbled his instrument frantically, the summing swell like a swarm of angry hornets. The young Seer stood still like a statue, the white gown plastered to the gentle curves of her body, the veil nearly suffocating her, outlining her face that had not been shown to anyone since her initiation at the age of six. She was beautiful, glowing from the inside with the power and heat of the Fire God, her whole body all but translucent.
The golden walls had become red-hot from the intensity of the Fire. The lungs of Iskhandar burned, and he could feel how all the burdens, all the sins and failures of his life had been cauterised from his very soul. For a fleeting moment he wondered if his flesh had been consumed by the cleansing flames as well.
His physical eyes were sightless, blinded by the sizzling heat and his own sweat. But his inner eyes had been opened, and as if from a great height – like a hilltop or the upper level of a tower – he could see the battlefield. The dark armies of the daiva and their foul allies, overflowing each rock and each green hill like rotten, black waters. The great, dread shape of the Shadow Lord, riding his winged beast. The troops of the various realms of Harad, each under its own kha-kan, ready to strike. All rolling together against the White City like a huge, black wave of death and destruction.
And at that drunken moment he heard the soft voice of Haôma above the dreadful noise of the ongoing battle.
"See the face of your enemy!"
He turned his inner eye to the White City, from where a blinding light seemed to sweep out, and saw the pehlevi of the Swan Lord riding out in closed lines of the Gate, their blank hauberks and breastplates glittering like mirrors. Tall and grim they were, dark-haired and grey-eyed, cold and cruel like the pairiki with whom they were said to mate.
They were abomination. They were the enemy. They had to perish. Every single one of them.
"If you are able to conquer your own blood, you shall be able to conquer the White city and to achieve overlordship over the whole of Harad," the strangely disembodied voice of Haôma floated around him.
Ere he had passed out from the incredible heat, he had just enough time to see the pehlevan next to the Swan Lord turn to him in grim determination to kill.
He could see that warrior's face for a mere moment.
To his absolute horror, the face he saw was his own.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(Most of the actual words were taken from the mythology of Ancient Iran, but I modified them a little. Other expressions, like kha-kan, are taken from Ancient Turkish. Nyenyere is a really existing music instrument, used in Hungarian folk music, but the actual sound is different than described in this story.
Hiung-nu – the name of a nomadic people (originally Attila's Huns)
padisakh – a nomadic king or emperor, ruler of an independent realm
kha-kan or kapgan – nomadic warlord, the leader of a whole army
khan – the equivalent of a captain, serving under said warlord
kardash – brother (both by blood or by oath)
daiva – evil demon (here: Orc)
parda – harem
perí or pairiki – malevolent fairy-like creatures (here: Elves)
perímahall – actually Elf-fortress (here: Edhellond)
pehlevan (pl. pehlevi) – the equivalent of a knight
mage – originally the priests of the Persians, here priest of the fire-cult
Haôma – originally a special drink that worked like a hallucinogen; I named the Seer after it because of this specific meaning.
Note to the date:
I assumed that the Haradrim use a solar calendar, similar to the one that has been in use in the pre-islamic Persia. According to this, a solar year had 365 days. Every year consisted of 12 months with 30 days each, and five additional days. These additional days were being inserted between the 8th and the 9th month.
I adapted this system for the Haradric calendar, fixing New Year (called Naw Ruz in medieval Persia) to the vernal equinox. Thus the year of the Hiung-nu would begin with 1 Farvardin, which would be 21 March in the Gregorian calendar. Counting back 8 days to reach 13 March, on which day – according to "The Return of the King" the events of this chapter happen, we will get 22 Esfand still assuming that each Haradric month has 30 days and ignoring the additional days for the sake of easier calculation. I know this is a little crude, but more maths are way beyond my limited abilities.