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The Face of the Enemy
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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4
Part Four

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

Author’s notes:
The battle still rages on, and Iskhandar has to witness the unbelievable… Some descriptions, as before, are quoted from “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King”, with subtle alterations.

For visuals: Rávanashwar looks like Ra did in the original "Stargate" movie.


~~~

PART 4

24 Esfand in the year 3019 of the Third Age
The Pelennor Fields, the early hours of the day


With a renewed feeling of dread, Iskhandar saw the Shadow Lord leave the Gate and vanish, only the dark Anhramain knew where to. The Northmen had overflooded well nigh all the northern half of the battlefield by now and were now less than a mile away from the City walls. Their vanguard had come even closer already, and for the first time of his life, Iskhandar could see them well.

Very tall they were and long-limbed, looking like the giants of Mázendheran upon their great steeds. Their hair, flaxen-pale, flowed under their light helms, and streamed in long braids behind them, braided in the same fashion as the manes of their proud horses. Their faces were pale too, and stern, and their fiery blue eyes cruel. In their hands were tall spears, painted shields were fastened on their shield-arms, long swords were at their belts, their burnished mail-shirts long enough to cover their knees and glistened like the grey coats of their mounts.

They thundered over the battlefield like a silver-crested wave, for the darkness was breaking and the pale light of the early morning glittered upon their armour; and Iskhandar felt victory slipping from his grasp, just as he stretched out his hand to seize it. The vanguard of the Northmen had nearly reached the walls already, attacking the siege-engines, hewing, slaying, driving the daiva to the fire pits. The miserable creatures fled towards the River, like herds before the hunters.

But the hosts of the Southron realms were no mindless beasts, and on the further half of the plain were many armies still unfought. Gathering his tumens close, Iskhandar decided to hold the Gate until the return of the Shadow Lord and leave the fight against the Northmen to the other hosts.

Southward beyond the road he saw the main force of Khambaluk; their horsemen were gathered about the standard of their radsha. The young, bronze-skinned Rávanashwar, limber and quick like the serpent that was the symbol of his caste, clad in scarlet and gold, rode before his men, glimmering upon his magnificent black steed in his scale armour like the golden statue of some heathen god. His golden helm was shaped in the likeness of a serpent’s head and had an upper part that looked like the temple-towers of the Serpent God, tapering to a long, four-edged golden needle. Only his large eyes could be seen through the slit of that helmet, glittering like black pieces of obsidian.

There were legends all over the South about the ruling caste of the Naahajaran of Khambaluk; legends that stated that their radshi were neither male nor female, yet possessed great strength, despite their deceivingly fragile appearance; and that they mated with giant serpent demons and were born from the serpents’ eggs and never aged during their unnaturally long lives. Their own people lived in deadly fear of them, and that very fear was which gave Khambaluk such a high position among the Southron realms. It was the largest of all Haradric lands, and – right after Bakshir – the most respected. Though Iskhandar did have the uncomfortable feeling that Rávanashwar could have easily beaten him in the struggle for the overlordship, had the young radsha wished so. To Iskhandar’s luck, he did not. Unlike his predecessor, he was more interested in Far-Harad.

Yet he was one of the strongest vassals of the Dark Power of Morgoth, providing the much-needed strength of the mûmakil that could be found in Khambaluk only, and now his endless rows of horsemen were pressing towards where the green banner of the Northmen’s King was flattering in the wind. Finding little resistance before the Gate (as Incánus had vanished right after the Shadow Lord) but unable to ride any further as the defenders had thrown piles of broken rock and stone into the archway to block it from the horses, Iskhandar left it to his guard to keep the enemy at bay and watched with great interest the fight further away.

As he looked out, he saw the banner of the Northern king, the white stallion in a green field, flattering in the wind, but he also saw that the old man – for indeed, the long, white beard of the Northman covered his knees – was far ahead of the battle with few of his men about him. It seemed that the battle rage the straw-haired Northern warriors were known for had carried him away.

Rávanashwar, shrewd as he was, had noticed the unprotected state of the enemy leader as well. Rising in his stirrups, the young radsha let out a shrill cry, not unlike the screams of the Wraiths, and his standard, black serpent upon scarlet, was brought to him; his warriors came pressing up against the white horse of the Northern King with their drawn scimitars glittering like the stars. Rávanashwar snatched the razor-sharp crescent knife that could cut through the tough hide of a mûmak from his belt and sent it towards the white-haired King with outstretched arm and a barely visible jerk of his slender wrist.

Yet the old man seemed aware of him and his plan and did not falter for a heartbeat. He ducked from the flying crescent with surprising ease, then, crying to his great white stead in a strange, rolling tongue, the King of Northmen charged headlong to greet Rávanashwar; apparently, his high age had not weakened the sinews of his sword-arm. And already more warriors of his cavalry came thundering up to his aid. Their numbers were not great, and yet they clove through the lines of the Naahajaran like a fire-bolt in the savannahs.

Right through their press drove the old King, with a ferocity that belied his age, a long spear in his hand. With a quick jerk of his shield-arm he shoved aside Rávanashwar’s scimitar and rammed his long spear into the slim body of the radsha, with such strength that the spearhead cut through the golden armour and threw Rávanashwar off his horse. The momentum carried the white steed of the Northman away and it overrun the radsha’s black horse that fell over and was trampled to the ground.

The Naahajaran warriors’ charge halted in utter shock, seeing the slender, gold-adorned limbs of their radsha under the hooves. This was beyond belief. This was beyond their worst fear. The radsha was supposed to be invictible. The radsha was considered the personification of their Serpent God.

Ere they could awake from their shock, the Northern King turned around. Out his long sword swept, and he spurred to the standard bearer, standing in frozen horror above the broken body of his radsha. The old man charged again, hewing down both staff and bearer. The Black Serpent foundered. A long, keening wail ran through the battered rows of the remaining Naahajaran, and they turned and fled.

For a moment Iskhandar was completely stunned. That the battle fury could burn hot enough in an old man of the North to slay the demon spawn of the Black Serpent he would never have believed, had he not seen it with his very eyes. Basthvaray, becoming reckless in his fear (for touching the kha-kan without his consent was a crime that was punishable by instant death by beheading), tugged Iskhandar’s sleeve urgently.

“We need to withdraw, o kha-kan! Or else the strawheads will cut us off from the other hosts.”

“Nay,” Iskhandar replied coldly, “’tis naught but a minor setback. They cannot beat us. Not today.”

“They are already doing so, o kha-kan!”

“Nay,” repeated Iskhandar with a dark smile. “They might have caught us unawares, but the advantage of surprise is wearing off already. We shall remain here. Keep our position before the Gate and be ready to enter the City.”

Basthvaray tried to protest, but the kha-kan silenced him with a deadly glare. Thus they remained before the Gate, all four tumens of them, for they had not fought much in this battle yet and had not lost but a few men. 'Twas unfortunate that among those few had to be Thamuzaddad and Erusha, who had been worth a tumen each, but that could not be changed. Never had victory been this close, and Iskhandar was determined to embrace it, no matter the costs. He would mourn for his blood brother later.

He sat in the saddle, in the customary, slumped way of Hiung-nu warriors – a stance that made charging at once much easier, ready to strike when his moment was to come, and watched the other Southron hosts fight the Northmen.

For the moment, things looked less than promising. The Naahajaran, having lost their semi-godlike leader, were scattered across the battlefield, their mûmakil running amok headlessly and trampling down everything and everyone in their way. The strawheads were hot on their heels, the old King before all.

But at this very moment a great shadow was cast over the battlefield. The golden shield of the Northern King was dimmed, the new morning blotted from the sky. Horses screamed and reared. Foe and ally alike fell from their saddles, groveling on the ground, trying to burrow into the blood-stained soil in horror.

The Shadow Lord had finally returned to change the luck of the battle forever.

He descended on his winged beast like a falling cloud, and Iskhandar, who had never seen the foul creature from this close before, gazed at it with dreadful fascination. It looked a little like some mocking, twisted kindred of Símurgh, the great Fire-Bird from the legends of old, that hatched the Hallowed Fire from her egg at the dawn of every new eon – a creature between bird and beast, bearing the ugliest traits of both. And it had a stench that even the daiva would find hideous.

Amazingly enough, the old King seemed unafraid. He called out to his men in that strange tongue of his, urging them forward to face any darkness that might come up against them. But his horse could not bear the dread coming from the Shadow Lord. The poor beast reared in terror – then, hit by a black dart, fell upon his side, crushing his rider beneath him.

Sitting upon the beast the Shadow Lord had discarded any attempt to hide his unearthly nature. His steel crown seemed to float in empty air, save for the deadly gleam of his eyes. This time he wielded a great black mace, heavy enough to crush the skull of a mûmak.

Iskhandar could see that the old King was still alive, though badly wounded. The warriors who had protected him earlier lay slain about him, or else were borne far away by their steeds, maddened by fear. One alone was still standing protectively above him – a very young man, by the slimness of his frame and the smoothness of his hairless face – thrown from his mount yet unshattered in courage. And a strange little figure, mayhap a page, was crawling on all fours behind him.

The young warrior called out fearlessly to the Shadow Lord in his own tongue, and the icy cold voice of the wraith answered in the same. Iskhandar felt his own heart freeze at the sound of that deadly voice, yet the Northman did not move away from his fallen King but drew his sword against the wraith instead. And then – Iskhandar barely trusted his ears – that young fool laughed, in a clear voice that was like the ring of steel, throwing an answer at the Shadow Lord that Iskhandar could not understand. But it was undoubtedly a challenge. The boy had to be insane.

There was a great silence, for no-one dared to speak, and even the fighting ceased for a moment. The young warrior shook his head defiantly, and his helm fell from it, revealing long hair as bright as pale gold, flowing down his back to the hem of his mail shirt.

His mail shirt? Iskhandar took another good, hard look – nay, he had been mistaken. This was no young man of the North, smaller and more slender than the others. This was a woman, and one who knew how to wield a weapon.

One of the wild, berserk shield-maidens of the strawheads, who sought death in battle as the greatest form of honour. Now, if that was what she sought, she would get her wish soon enough, the kha-kan thought grimly.

The winged beast now leaped into the air, shrieking, with outstretched beak and claw, ready to snatch the shield-maiden up like a rabbit. Yet she did not blench, nor did she try to avoid the strike – there was no need for her to do thusly, for she was faster than the winged monster. With a swift stroke of her sword she clove asunder the long, snake-like neck; the huge head fell with a heavy thud, like a stone. And the creature fell itself, its vast wings outspread, crumpled and helpless, to the earth.

The shield-maiden, her shield still raised against the eyes of the Shadow Lord, sprang backward, so that the falling corpse of the dead beast would not crush her to death. Iskhandar could not help but admire her, though he knew that she was doomed to die, no matter what. Amazingly brave as it might be to challenge the wraith, yet it was also utterly hopeless.

For lo! the Shadow Lord rose from the dead body of his winged beast, towering above her like a thundercloud. Out he cried with a venom that could pierce the heart of any living creature, and he let his mace fall down like a boulder loosed from storm-drenched mountains. It shattered her shield like an eggshell, and with the shield also the bones of her shield-arm. Strong and brave she might be, but she was still no match for the Shadow Lord. That one stroke had been strong enough to force her to her knees.

The wraith’s eyes glittered like cold fire. Once again, he raised his mace, bending over his prey to deal her the death blow. And yet his stroke went wide, and now the cry he released was filled with pain and wrath; and he stumbled forward. Behind him, the small page stood, his hand still on the hilt of a dagger that had pierced the black mantle of the wraith, his round face strangely surprised, as if he had done something unexpected.

Now the shield-maiden struggled to her feet again, and with a last, desperate effort she dove her sword between crown and mantle, straight into those glowing eyes. The sword splittered into shards, but the steel crown fell and hit some stone below with a hollow clang. Hollow and empty too were the hauberk and mantle of the Shadow Lord, now laying shapeless upon the ground, and while a shrill wail died away in the shuddering air, the shield-maiden too fell upon the torn and tumbled clothes and moved no more.

Yet the unexpected fall of the Shadow Lord stopped the battle but for a moment. Iskhandar saw new forces of Khambaluk and Zipangu hastening up the road from the River; and from under the walls came legions of daiva from Minas Morgul; and from the southward fields came footmen of Li-ao, small but doughty warriors with round-bladed double axes; and behind them rose the huge backs of the mûmakil with war-towers upon them. The Naahajaran, it seemed, were not all shattered by the death of their radsha – or they had simply not heard of it yet. Iskhandar saw with grim satisfaction that they would unite their forces with the hosts already on the battlefield – and then the City would fall.

But ‘til then they still had a tough fight before them. For northward a great front of the strawheads was gathering again, led by a particularly tall, young warrior who wore a white crest upon his helm; and out of the City came all the strength of men that was still in it, to drive the enemy from the Gate. This battle – and mayhap the whole war – would be decided here and now.

Seeing the silver swan upon blue banner of Dol Amroth borne in the van, Iskhandar knew that his time too had come.

“Be ready,” he said to Basthvaray. “We shall go against the abomination with everything we have. And this time we shall free the earth from his foulness.”

TBC

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

Translations:

radsha – the supreme leader of Khambaluk

Naahajaran – the people of Khambaluk

Mázendheran – mythical land of giants in ancient Persian mythology

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