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The Face of the Enemy
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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3
Part Three

For disclaimer, rating, dedication, etc. see Part 1.

Author’s notes:
Now that the relation between Andrahar and Iskhandar has been revealed and Faramir has fallen according to canon, we can go on with the battle. Some descriptions, as before, are quoted from “The Return of the King”, with subtle alterations.


~~~

PART 3

23 Esfand in the year 3019 of the Third Age
The Pelennor Fields, the middle of the day – late night


The armies of the Shadow Lord had been moving during the whole morning. The plain of Pelennor was dark with the marching companies of the daiva; the foul creatures sprouted from the mirk like some rotting fungus-growth. The tumens of the Haradrim moved closer to the beleaguered city as well, building up their great camps of tents and jurts in all the grim colours of death and blood and darkness.

Closest of all, of course, stood the wain-jurts of the Hiung-nu, as they could be moved the easiest. Even the seven-levelled sanctum of the Hallowed Fire had been moved in and stood now barely out of bowshot from the closed Gate. The remains of Thamuzaddad’s pyre were still smouldering in the middle of the camp.

Iskhandar sat in his tent, grieving. He had given his blood-brother to the fire. It was a sacrilege, besmirching the pureness of living flame with dead flesh as the barbaric Mahol did, yet it was still better than leaving him among the corpses of the daiva or the enemy. The Fire God would be merciful – or so the kha-kan hoped.

Had the battle been closer to their homes, he would have taken Thamuzaddad to one of the dahmi, the stone towers outside Bashidra, on the verge of the deadliest desert. He would have placed his brother in the high chamber and leave his empty shell to the carrion birds, as it had been done with corpses for hundreds of years among the Hiung-nu, instead of sullying with them the soil, the water or the fire. But they were in the land of the enemy now, and all he could do was to keep Thamuzaddad’s body from desecration – and hope that the Fire God would approve.

At home he would cut his face with the very knife that had freed Thamuzaddad’s soul from the burden of his broken body, thus mixing their blood in the ritual mourning. But he had no time to mourn now, nor could he risk wounding himself. He would need all his strength to fulfil the grim task of destruction that lay before him. Now that he no longer had the support of Thamuzaddad and the skills of the mute assassin, he needed it more than ever.

He had to conquer the White City and free the earth of the abomination. And he had to tear that bastard, who had sullied the blood of his House and murdered his blood brother, to shreds.

After that, he would mourn.

He rose, tossing his frightened young wives aside (how could their feeble attempts to comfort help him?) and stepped before his tent to see how far the daiva had come with their labours. What he saw filled his heart with grim satisfaction.

The foul beasts had been busier than ants, it seemed, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot from the walls. And as the trenches were made, each was filled with fire. Iskhandar could feel a certain creeping evil and foulness emanating from that fire, as if it were a different element than the one he and his people worshipped. Nonetheless, the dance of dark flames gave him some comfort.

He watched the great wains approaching as each length of trench was completed. He saw more companies of the daiva and the other Southron realms setting up swiftly – each behind the cover of a trench – great engines for the casting of missiles. He recognized the limber, bronze-skinned warriors of Khambaluk, the people best with war engines in the whole of Harad, climbing onto the wains and directing the process. He calculated the distance and understood that there were no similar machines upon the City wall large enough to reach so far or to stay the work.

“Do you believe the machines will be able to breach the walls?” asked Basthvaray, standing dutifully at his side. “The main wall of the City is very high and marvellously thick. ‘Tis said it was built ere the power and craft of the Men of Westernesse waned in the exile. Look at its outward face – ‘tis hard and dark and smooth. They say the old fortresses of Westernesse are unconquerable by steel or fire, unbreakable except by some convulsion that would rend the very earth upon which they stand.”

Iskhandar shot his new khan a disgusted look. Basthvaraj had served him for more than thirty summers by now, yet he still could not shed his foolish habits and thinking. One could see that he had been raised in Umbar, where people, despite their hatred towards the Men of Westernesse, were still full of envious admiration for them.

“You are a fool, Basthvaray,” the kha-kan replied, irritated. “Do you think ‘tis some drugh or daiva-chieftain who leads this assault? Nay, ‘tis the Shadow Lord himself, and I deem the means he has in mind are more those of malice and foul wizardry than those of mere strength. He will breach those walls wide. And then we will move in and take the City. Now be quiet and watch!”

And indeed, the engines did not waste any shots upon the indomitable walls. There were other means to cause great damage, means that the Shadow Lord knew all too well, and the secrets of which he guarded jealously. Iskhandar watched with awe as the daiva set the great catapults, yelling at each other while pulling on the thick ropes, and soon the missiles began to fly, marvellously high, so that they would pass above the battlement and fell with loud thuds within the first circle of the City. And once they hit the soil – or some even before that, still high in the air – thy broke apart, bursting into the dark fire of Udûn’s flame.

Iskhandar had only witnessed these missiles once before, long ago, back in his youth, but he remembered them well and knew that the first circle would be burning in no time. Also, he could see that the daiva, as was their foul custom, had begun to fling into the City all the heads of those who had fallen defending the ruined western city, or the passage of the Great River, or even the walls or the fields. He felt repulsed. True, this was the enemy and they had to perish, yet the desecration of their corpses was an evil deed nonetheless.

The Hiung-nu made no war on those who were dead already. That could enrage the wandering souls of the dead and cause great havoc. Yet Iskhandar knew that he would never voice his repulsion before the daiva or the wraiths. For good or bad, he and his people were bound to the Dark Power of Mordor. Honour, once all-important to the peoples of Harad, had no significance in this war any longer. Only victory mattered.

And victory loomed upon the dark horizon, and he felt it closer than ever. For the wraiths had returned, their dreadful voices swelling with the growing strength of the Dark Power. They circled just beyond eyesight above the City upon their winged beasts. Only their long, piercing cries revealed their presence. That and the horror that went before them. But that was more than enough. Iskhandar had fought under their lead before and had thought that he had become used to their shrieks by now, but the evil voices filled even his heart with terror. He looked at Basthvaray and saw the big, strong man trembe.

Then he looked up to the City walls with narrowed eyes, for he could see the glittering of helmets and hauberks up there. It seemed that the abomination and his pehlevi were walking among the frightened defenders, trying to rekindle the valour in their hearts.

It mattered not. They would not last long. Today, they would die. All of them.

The forces and gear of war poured across the hastily-raised bridge all day long. The great catapults kept shooting the burning missiles over the outer wall. As the dim day finally passed into the darkness of what was going to be the final night for the White City, the first circle was burning already, the garrison upon the outer wall cut off from retreat in many places and most of the defenders had fled beyond the second gate.

Now the time had come and at last – in the middle of the night – the assault was loosed. Iskhandar, careful as was his wont, allowed the vanguard of the daiva to pass through the trenches of fire by the many cleverly-laid paths between them. Let the foul beasts lunge forth, he thought, let them horde within the range of bowmen on the wall! The daiva were driven by hatred for the Men of Westernesse as much as by the horror of their own Lord and cared not for their losses. Thus they served as an excellent screen for the Hiung-nu dshigits who were pressing up right behind them.

Amazingly enough – though the light of the fires showed many a mark for archers of such skill as the White City once had been famous for – few arrows had actually come to hit the easy targets. Iskhandar sat on his impatiently snorting mount, puzzled. Why would they not shoot the daiva? The beasts were practically begging to be shot!

Then he suddenly understood. The valour of the City was already beaten down. The road was open for them, unguarded.

That must have been the plan of the Shadow Lord all along. For at this very moment, the great siege-towers built in the ruined city began to roll forward through the dark. Far away, behind all the armies, the deep sound of the large war-drums started rolling like thunder. Company upon company pressed to the walls to the north and to the south, and Iskhandar, having achieved a southern position with his tumens, now pressed towards the main road.

He saw the mûmakil of Khambaluk dragging the huge towers and engines trough the lanes amid the fires. The large beasts were like moving houses, their tusks dripping with black blood already – with the blood of careless daiva who forgot to get out of the beasts’ way in their battle madness. For some reason, the mûmakil could not stand the daiva (mayhap it was that hideous stench) and took every chance to trample them down or pierce them with their tusks.

“Stay out of their way,” Iskhandar said to Basthvaray, “They will catch the attention of the defenders and keep them busy in many places. Yet our way lies in the middle, towards the Gate. That is where the Shadow Lord will throw his heaviest weight. Once the Gate is broken, we need to be right there. We shall be the first ones to enter the City. No other realm of the South must come before us.”

“How could the Gate be broken?” asked Basthvaray in doubt. “’Tis very strong, wrought of steel and iron and guarded with towers and bastions of indomitable stone.”

The cursed fool was still full of admiration for the work of long-gone Westernesse. Iskhandar gritted his teeth. He was not used to idly prattling with his khans, to have to explain every small detail to them. Thamuzaddad had read his thoughts from the mere glint of his eye, he barely needed to speak in battle at all.

Yet Thamuzaddad was no more, had gone to the Fire, and Iskhandar had to focus on the more pressing matters at hand.

“Strong it might be,” he said with forced patience, regarding the Gate, “yet it is the key. The weakest point in all that high and impenetrable wall. And I believe the Shadow Lord has just brought forth the very weapon that will break it.”

The drums rolled again, this time louder, like the roar of some huge, angry beasts. The fires leapt up again, without being fed. More great engines crawled across the field, but these were different from the mere catapults or siege towers. A huge ram they were carrying in their midst; a ram that was at least a hundred feet in length and swinging on mighty chains. Great beasts drew it, daiva surrounded it, and drughs of the Ash Mountains walked behind to wield it.

“What is that?” asked Basthvaray in terrified awe. “Surely something that has long been forging in the dark smithies of Mordor…”

“’Tis a ram,” replied Iskhandar impatiently, getting bored by his new khan’s constant prattle, “what else? A ram that will break the gate.”

Basthvaray shivered when looking at the hideous head of the ram, founded of black steel and shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf. Unlike Thamuzaddad, he was not so devoted to his kha-kan that he would forget the peril threatening his own life.

“More than the strength of steel lies in it, I deem,” he murmured. “For I see ancient spells of ruin on it – spells of a strength and evil the likes of which I have not seen since I left the dark temples of my birthplace.”

Iskhandar knew little about the dark rituals still celebrated in Umbar and cared even less. He was enthralled by that huge instrument of destruction, could not turn his eyes of it.

“’Tis named Grond, I heard,” he said softly, remembering the whispers of the daiva chieftains he had overheard during the last war council, “in memory of the deadly mace of the great Anhramain, the Dark Lord of old. It will break the doors.”

Basthvaray dared not to say aught else, for the kha-kan had been in a perilously foul mood since the death of his blood-brother, and it was better not to raise his ire. Still the new khan was worried, for he could see that about the Gate resistance was still stout. The pehlevi of the Swan Lord were there, and the green-clad hunters that had recently been driven out of the deserted lands, many good archers among them. Arrows fell like the spring rain, many of them burning, for they had been dipped into tar, and the siege towers crashed under the missiles of the catapults or blazed suddenly like torches. All before the walls on either side of the Gate the ground was choked with wreck and with corpses of the daiva slain; yet driven by the fear from their dark Master and by their own hatred, more and more still came up.

Iskhandar, for his part, had no doubts. He watched with burning eyes as the huge ram crawled on. No fire would catch upon its housing, as it was made of black iron, thrice-wrought, and the catapults of the City were not strong enough to harm it. Now and again, one of the mûmakil that hauled it would go mad from the stench of blood and break free, trampling dozens of the daiva that guarded it to bloody mush. But every time the huge, scaled drughs lunged forward, forced the beast back under restraint, and other daiva took the place of those trampled to death.

On the great ram crawled. The war-drums roared in a thunderous sound like rockfall in the mountains during a violent storm. And finally, over the hills of slain, the Shadow Lord made his appearance.

He came in the hideous shape of a huge black horseman, the hood of his long, black cloak clouding his face – if he had one at all. Iskhandar knew not. The only man who could have known the answer had been Erusha, and he was dead. Mayhap he had seen what was hidden under the Shadow Lord’s hood, and that was what had lamed his tongue forever.

Forth the Shadow Lord rode, slowly, trampling the fallen, not caring whose they had been. He knew no mercy, not for his enemies, nor for his servants. A long, pale sword was in his hand, as if an extension of his iron gauntlet; he raised it, and as he did so defenders and attackers alike froze in utter, mind-numbing fear, lowering their weapons helplessly. For a moment all was still, only the drums rolled and rattled.

Then the drughs grabbed the ram with their huge, scaled paws. With a vast rush, they hurled it forward, straight against the Gate, with a great swing. A deep boom sounded through the City like thunder running in the clouds, and Iskhandar’s heart trembled with joyful vengeance. Now, the time for Harad had finally come.

To his enraged astonishment, though, the doors of iron and posts of steel withstood the stroke. What foul, forgotten wizardry of Westernesse guarded that cursed Gate?

Yet the Shadow Lord was not one to be beaten by wizardry. He wielded it himself, stronger than anyone who had ever walked upon the earth. Undismayed, he rose in his stirrups, and cried out in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue a horrible spell of power and terror to rend both heart and stone. Iskhandar felt himself sway in the saddle, barely able to remain mounted, and from the corner of his eye he could see Basthvaray’s face turn ashen.

Thrice the Shadow Lord cried. Thrice the great ram thundered against the iron doors. And at the third stroke, the last Gate of Westernesse broke – not under the weight of the ram, but under the blasting spell written upon its ugly head and spoken by him who once had been the sorcerer-king of the North. There was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors burst asunder, tumbling in riven fragments to the ground.

That broke the spell of fear on Iskhandar’s heart, too. He signalled the herald to call his tumens but did not wait for them to follow. He saw the Shadow Lord ride into the City and followed that great black shape, riding under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, leaving his own guard far behind. Why should he wait for them? What could harm him when he rode with the Shadow Lord himself? Even as they rode in, the defenders fled before them in horror.

One alone held his ground, waiting for them, silent and still like stone in the space before the Gate, sitting upon his great silver horse. An old man, clad in flawless white like the mages of the Hallowed Fire, his long beard floating all over his chest like a silver cloud. A gnarled staff he held in one hand and a long sword that gleamed in blue fire in the other one. And though Iskhandar recognized him as the same old man who had frightened the wraiths away on the previous day, he now also recognized him as the Ancient One, whose true name must never be spoken out loud. The one who could not only guard the Hallowed Fire but also hide it in his own body.

The legends reported that only one mage who had ever trod the earth possessed such might. Iskhandar, well-versed in the traditions of his own people, suddenly understood who this old man was and why he had the strength to face even the Shadow Lord.

Incánus he was called in the secret lore of the fire mages, though this was not his true name. He was the one who had helped the first mages to capture the Hallowed Fire when it floated into their first temple. The one whom the Order of Mages finally drove out of Harad for he strongly opposed their siding with the Dark Power of Mordor. It could be no-one else.

He had not been seen in the South for hundreds, nay, thousands of years. His return on the side of their enemies was the worst omen that Iskhandar could have ever imagined.

“You cannot enter here,” Incánus said, and through his voice was quiet, the huge shadow halted. “Go back to the abyss that has been ready for you for two Ages. Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”

There was so much hidden strength in that quiet voice that for a moment the dread feeling of inevitable defeat clutched Iskhandar’s heart. Incánus was said to be as ancient as the very hills, after all. He was said to have been able to hold the Hallowed Fire in his bare hands. Who could ever resist him?

But now the Shadow Lord flung back his hood, and Iskhandar could see with renewed dread that he had a kingly crown, yet upon no head visible was it set. Only twin red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark where his eyes should have been. And though no mouth could be seen either, there came a dreadful laughter from it, deep and cold and full of malice.

“Old fool!” that hollow voice said. “Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!”

With that, he lifted that long and pale sword of his, ready to strike. Flames ran down the blade, as if controlled by his evil will.

To Iskhandar’s amazement, Incánus did not move. It seemed as if he waited for something. As if he knew more than even the Shadow Lord might expect. The silence under the archway of the White City grew to new, deafening depths, as both terrible and powerful creatures held their ground, pondering their respective choices.

Then all of a sudden, somewhere back in the City, a cock crowed, shrill and clear, and Iskhandar realized that the night was over and, invisibly above the dim shadows of Mordor, the day had come. He cursed inwardly, knowing that even without real sunshine, the daiva would be weakened by the coming of day.

They were still going to win, of course. They vastly outnumbered the wearied defenders. The Shadow Lord had finally broken the Gate, and not even Incánus would be able to stop him. Mage or not, even he was but one man, and it had yet to be seen if his wizardry was any match for that of the Shadow lord.

Iskhandar looked back and saw his tumens approaching. He smiled ferally. No matter what, today the White City would be theirs. Who cared if the cost would be higher than expected? He gave the hand sign to his herald to blow the signal horn for the attack.

But another horn signal came before the herald could obey – the sound of great Northern horns, echoing dimly from the dark sides of the White Mountains. Iskhandar had never been further than where he was right now, but even he knew what the sounding of those horns meant.

The yellow-haired horse-lords of the Riddermark had come to the White City’s aid.

TBC

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Translations:

dahma (pl: dahmi) – burial place, akin to the Towers of the Death in the old Persian religion

drugh – here: troll, from the name of the ancient Persian god of lies, Drug

Incánus – the name given to Gandalf in the South. No, seriously. He said it himself to Faramir once. “Many are my names in many countries. Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the South I go not.” (The Two Towers, p. 347 in my 1981 Unwin Paperbacks edition)

Of course, there are no canon facts that would support my theory of Gandalf having any part in the foundation of this particular Haradric religion which I created out of thin air, based on ancient Persian beliefs. I do not even say he did lead the first mages into this direction. My only idea is that he had helped them to contain some dangerous, wandering fire phenomenon – the legends did the rest. ;)

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