The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
Chapter IV: Empty Heaven
part 2 of 5
Iskald, son of a powerful duke of a Northern Realm, is mentored by an aging General Aezubah. The duke is murdered, and Aezubah cannot rescue the boy from the clutches of the Tha-kian slave traders. Years pass before a princess, Laela, saves him from his masters’ whips.
Iskald is then torn between love for his home and the passions stirred by the princess. On the deserts of the Southern Realms he seeks to bury his life as a slave and soothe his tormented soul. In the process, he becomes a warrior.
Two powerful Viking Kingdoms vie to conquer Iskald’s homeland. His people, led by Aezubah, have mounted an impossible resistance. Iskald’s life is henceforth shaped by the swirling challenges of love and duty.
There was only one escape, Iskald thought, and it was death.
Long, long ago, when he was still happy, ages ago it seemed now, the very thought of death frightened him. He knew then that death signified the end of everything that was good and joyful in his life, and so he feared it instinctively.
Today, though, everything was different; everything changed. He already lost all that enabled him to love his life; it was all taken away from him. Today the idea of death appealed to him and he smiled at the thought of it. And death grinned back at him and bade him welcome.
In his situation there was only one certain way of dying, but the very thought of it was so frightening that convincing himself of its absolute necessity took Iskald several days. After the convincing, he still needed to accept his decision, and here he hesitated once more. Every creature, no matter how lowly, fears death and all the uncertainties that it brings.
Finally, though, there came a day when he realized he truly could not continue. He made the decision and he was determined to carry it through. The horrific journey was surely coming to an end soon so he had to act quickly if he was to escape the terrible future that awaited him in the Realm of the Tha-ka.
Those forced to deal with suffering mature at a quicker pace than others, and Iskald suffered. He refused to deceive himself any longer with the still lingering hope of a rescue from the nightmare. On that day when he made his decision and finally chose to carry it through, he was no longer a boy. He was a man who realized the inevitability of his fate and took destiny into his own hands. He was a man reclaiming his life from the hands of his oppressors.
He decided to die, he chose the means to do it and, fearing that he may be too weak to see it through, he swore on his mother’s grave that the decision was final. And indeed, from that day on he refused to eat, waiting eagerly for starvation to claim his body. He spat the food back into the pot or to the floor or into the face of the fat Tha-ka and he watched with wild satisfaction as the furious man wiped the slop from his face. No matter how much he was threatened or how severely he was beaten, the stubborn boy stood by his oath. Death approached slowly; he felt it coming surely, closer and closer. And it was not long before he could feel its cold breath on the back of his neck.
On that day, for the first time since he made his decision, Iskald felt fear.
When he first decided to die, he was thrilled. In the beginning he refused the food with great joy and pleasure, but later on, when his stomach started to turn and twist in pain, as he lay curled up on the floor, unable to sleep because of the horrible gnawing, Iskald began to regret his decision. He longed for food, he felt his insides being torn and ripped apart, he moaned like a little boy when he stared into the darkness surrounding him during the sleepless nights, he watched with furious envy as others ate.
But even though he was afraid, he would not abandon his oath.
The boy’s persistence and resolve enraged the Tha-kians and not a day went by without at least one of them coming down to beat him ruthlessly in hope of breaking his spirit. Within several short and agonizing days Iskald was weakened both by these cruel beatings and by the hunger. He realized that the torment could end quickly and easily; all he had to do was accept the food and the pain would stop and the beatings would stop and the agony would end.
Driven to despair by the nightmare he lived, Iskald slowly neared the point where he was about to give up, especially since he knew that the anguish would only increase as the days went by. He began to lose strength and his spirit was shattered by the continuous abuse. Over and over again he was forced to think back to the oath he took, the oath that he made in the name of his mother. Over and over again he was brought to the breaking point, but he persevered.
Then there came a time at last when he could not move at all, when all he could do was lie on the hard wooden floor in his own filth and debris and did not even have enough strength to shield his already maimed body from the Tha-kian whips. Inner darkness obscured his sight. His eyes, motionless and empty, stared blankly into the floor and watched with indifference as the insects paraded before his face. They climbed all over him, but Iskald had no energy to shake them off.
Xunnax helped him talked to him sometimes, but even he could not convince his strange friend to stop the senseless torture. Iskald could not hear him very well, anyway; the young Izmattian’s voice came from a distance, from behind a veil of anguish and misery.
Sometimes he felt himself dreaming. He felt himself leaving his body and hovering above it, light and free. And he would see himself in the filth below, surrounded by hundreds of other slaves, and rats and insects and filth. And he would see the Tha-kians kicking him as they walked by; sometimes they stopped to flog him.
He felt nothing, because he was dreaming and none of it was really happening to him. In his condition, Iskald was never really asleep nor was he ever fully awake. There was only the dream, that nightmare that he was finally leaving. Though it was slow to come, death was on its way. Iskald knew it, he felt it and he longed for it.
Shira, who was convinced at first that the boy would never find enough strength or spirit to willingly see himself through such a horrifying undertaking, finally realized that this was no longer a game. After days of starvation and cruel beatings, Iskald was coming to the brink of death and Shira decided to intervene and to stop the foolishness, as he described it.
Though the boy’s solid resolve and the insulting indifference with which he treated his keepers infuriated Shira, he quietly admired Iskald for his unbroken spirit Over and over again he thought that he knew few men who possessed the determination necessary to make the decision this boy had and to carry it through despite the horrendous anguish it brought.
Iskald would not be allowed to die, Shira considered. Not because he deserved to live, but because the slaves belonged to him, their lives were his, and he was the only one to decide whether they lived or died. And if they were to die, he was to choose when and how. They, the slaves, they had no say about it; Iskald would live until he, Shira, wanted him to die.
With that thought in mind, the bestial guard forced the boy’s mouth open, filled it with food, closed it forcefully and kept his hands clasped over his mouth and nostrils until Iskald swallowed the slop as he gasped for air. After he fed him, the guard beat him again until the boy lost consciousness and only then walked away satisfied.
In the several days to come he fed Iskald himself and he beat him too, until Iskald realized how useless all of his efforts were. “You’re mine, you little maggot,” Shira whispered into his ear and beat him again. “You die when I tell you to die,” he said as he whipped him again and again and again.
With tears in his eyes, Iskald begged for death, but Shira would not have it. He beat him over and over again, to the point where the boy felt death approaching, but then Shira stopped and allowed Xunnax to nurse his friend, and the cold shadow disappeared into the darkness again. Iskald realized finally that death would not come. It took him a while to accept that fact, the fact that even this fundamental right, the right to die, was also taken away from him.
At last he abandoned the idea of death and once again ate out of his own free will to avoid further beatings. Shira breathed a sigh of relief. The ruthless Tha-kian had won the battle with the young slave.
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala