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The Three Kings

by Slawomir Rapala

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Chapter VII. Darkness Before Dawn

part 2 of 3

He released some of his frustration by beating Iskald until the young slave blacked out. Isla was not satisfied, however, and ordered his two keepers to throw Iskald into the middle of the village square and dump a pail of cold water on his head.

When the young slave came to, the Nekryan beat him again, still feeling the wine he drunk the night before rushing through his veins. It was clouding his judgment and fueling the blind hatred he felt towards his slave.

Irritated by Iskald’s lack of response, Isla decided to finally finish him off. He retreated to where the two guards were breaking camp and came back carrying a heavy club in his hand. His face twisted in a menacing grin as he approached Iskald and without any warning delivered a vicious blow, breaking his nose and cheekbones and sending a gush blood running down his face. He swung again and the next blow broke not only Iskald’s ribs but the club as well.

Isla then snatched a whip from one of his guards and lashed out on the youth, who was closer to death now than ever before. His eyes glazed over. They were fixed on the bright sky above him and his dry and broken lips moved slowly in a silent prayer. Tears trickled down his bloodied face as he said farewell to the unkind world he had already lost years ago, but one that he had always hoped to see again. Isla was killing that hope along with what remained of his body and Iskald already felt a cool breeze advancing, the breeze and stench of death.

Perhaps it was for the best, a thought occurred to him amidst the pain and the anguish. Perhaps it was for the best that he would die now. Maybe he should let go of the hope for the last time. It had kept him alive for a long time, but what for? He was not wanted in this world. Iskald could finally stop fighting now and he could rest.

A large crowd had gathered and watched the despicable spectacle in silence. Even if they did not approve of Isla’s treatment of Iskald, they were hesitant to stop him. The slaves were his property and no one had the right to tell him how to act towards them. If he wanted to beat his slave to death, so be it. So, no one was about to come to the help of Iskald, who was dying alone among a crowd of people, dying a terrible, agonizing death.

No, there was someone after all. Blinded by hatred and fury, Isla failed to notice a young woman pushing through the people, her eyes throwing lightning bolts. With a menacing look in her beautiful dark eyes, the girl seized Isla’s hand in mid-air and pulled it down with strength no one would have suspected her of having. Everyone paused and held their breath.

Iskald spotted the girl through a thick cloud of pain and hurt. She could not have been more than seventeen or eighteen years of age. Her golden hair curled about her pretty little face, covered her shoulders and then streamed down her back, wave after wave of glistening locks, falling all the way down to her hips. She stood tall and slender, clad in skin-tight leather hunting outfit that drew attention to her young and shapely body. Her pretty face had a brownish complexion, a characteristic common to all Southern beauties; at the moment it expressed utmost anger and resentment, all directed at the sadistic man holding the whip.

Isla also could not take his eyes of the girl who dared interrupt him when he was just about to finally rid himself of the problem that had for a long time now prevented him from sleeping soundly at night. Infuriated beyond reason, Isla failed to notice a splendidly decorated horse-drawn coach, escorted by a dozen or so armed men entering the main square of Ayoove. The Nekryan peered into the girl’s face with bloodshot eyes.

“You bitch!” he hissed and took a step backwards, readying to swing the heavy whip in her direction.

Iskald, who was eyeing the scene from the ground, managed to scramble to his feet and spring forward at the same moment as Isla lashed out on the girl. Stepping between her and the Nekryan, Iskald felt the whip sting his cheek just before he collapsed back to the ground.

At the same time several tall and grim-looking warriors slid off their horses, broke through the anxious crowd, sending the people screaming and scurrying for shelter, and in a few quick leaps they reached Isla. Before anyone was able to stop them or even utter a word, the sadistic Nekryan fell to the ground, cut down by half a dozen swords and spears through his chest.

He lay gasping for a moment longer, but then one of the warriors swung his axe and severed Isla’s head from his body. The ground around the corpse quickly turned crimson red. The soldier picked up the severed head and presented it to the people around, bearing his white teeth in a savage smile at the same time. At this terrible sight, whatever remained of the crowd quickly dispersed amidst cries and shouts.

Among all the commotion the girl knelt beside Iskald and gathered the hair away from his sweaty, bloodied face. Her eyes looked softly.

“Get him into the coach!” her voice had musical overtones. She turned back to her entourage. “Then free the rest of these wretches! I want to clear out of here as soon as possible!”

That was all that Iskald heard. He had succumbed to pain and fatigue, and was then pulled into a vicious whirlpool of sounds and noises that overwhelmed him until he saw nothing, heard nothing and felt nothing.

* * *

Slowly the darkness receded and Iskald’s surroundings appeared before him, as if magically drawn out of absolute nothingness. At first he noticed single trees, then an entire forest appeared before him, then the ocean behind it, and he could soon hear the froth-capped waves clashing hard against the rocks on the shore, lashing out in all their fury.

He saw himself soaring high up in the sky, high up above the ocean and the waves, the forest and the trees. Free as a bird and soaring higher and higher still until he left everything behind him, light as a feather, happy as a newborn. Wishing he could stay like this forever, Iskald closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.

Something was wrong, though.

A strong force, stronger than he, tugged on his leg and slowly pulled him down. He wanted to resist it but could not regardless of how much he tried. Soon he tumbled down like a bird shot through with an arrow and soon he saw the forest again, approaching closer and closer, readying to meet him with great speed.

The trees lost their shape, they spun around and around and around, embraced each other, reached for each others’ outstretched boughs and trunks, pulled at one another, spun around and around in a savage dance, greener with each passing moment, until the terrible greenness spilled all around and covered the entire spinning world, as far as his eyes could see.

Iskald tried to scream, but his throat was caught in a vise, he was choking, he could not say anything, his voice disappeared, wedged somewhere deep in his throat, far beyond his reach. For a brief moment the young Duke thought he heard a pleasing melodic voice telling him to calm down and to go back to sleep.

As if looking through a thick piece of porcelain, he saw the distorted features of a beautiful girl hovering over him. The fleeing image left him peaceful and his breath slowed. He tried to smile, but everything was sucked back into the darkness again.

When it left him after a moment, he heard noises. He heard the distant sounds of battle raging. Hideous war-cries were clearly distinguishable as were the screams of the murdered and the painful moans of the dying. A thick cloud of scarlet mist surrounded him and then just as suddenly it left him and Iskald found himself in the middle of Uaal. The Tha-kians had raided the village and were butchering the unarmed peasants.

Among them, the young Duke spotted the distinct figure of the brutish Shira. He saw Cisil, too, who’s face was ashen and swollen; a noose hung loosely around his neck. Behind him stood Tetoy gripping the wooden knife handle that emerged from his throat, disturbed by the sight of waves upon waves of blood gushing down his chest; he was soaked in it.

Cisil saw Iskald and his repulsive face changed as he attempted a smile. He slowly started towards the young Duke, but then Iskald noticed that it was not Cisil at all, but Isla... Just before the Nekryan reached him, a tall man stepped between them. It was his father. With one sure swing of his long sword Vahan cut Isla’s head off and then vanished just as quickly as he had appeared, without even looking at his son.

Isla’s severed head rolled to Iskald’s feet and there it stopped and looked up into his eyes. Then it laughed hysterically, showing off its green, rotten teeth. Iskald wanted to scream but could not; he wanted to run but his legs were made of lead. A scarlet cloud overwhelmed him once more and everything disappeared. He felt himself closing his eyes and opening them again, but only after a while did the darkness that followed the scarlet begin to retreat.

It was a while longer before he felt the rest of his body. He heard a noise beside him, as if someone stirred. Trying to open his eyes again was a mammoth effort all on its own, though he thought he was doing it with ease just a moment ago. His eyelids were heavy, so heavy in fact that when he finally succeeded in raising them after a long while, they immediately fell back down to close onto the world once more. It was then that he heard that melodious voice again, the one he thought he heard before. The voice was pleasant and reassuring.

“You’re coming around finally!” the voice said. “I thought that you would never open your eyes again...”

Whatever words followed were drowned in a wave of fatigue and once again Iskald withdrew into the abyss. This time, however, he did not have any delusions or even dreams that plagued him before. It was the sleep of the just, the sleep that brought about peace and fought the fever and illness, bringing life back into the tortured body.

When he woke again, Iskald could now easily open his eyes. He found himself in an oval room built from large and loosely fitted blocks of white limestone. Walls were covered with richly decorated, colorful tapestries that hung from the tall ceiling all the way down to the stone floor, which was in turn fitted with an equally decorated soft rugs.

Daylight entered the chamber through two oval windows chiseled in the wall before him. Curtains covered them, but it was of no consequence because they were sewn from a transparent fabric. The massive bed frame on top of which Iskald rested was made of solid oak; he lay on dozens of pillows and his naked body was covered with several layers of hides.

He also noticed a pair of colossal double-doors off to his right. After registering all this in a blink of an eye, the young Duke fixed his eyes on the person sitting quietly in a chair near the windows. Iskald recognized her immediately as the girl from his dreams, and earlier even, the girl who had stopped Isla from beating him to death.

She was a Nekryan beauty and a breath of fresh air. Her brown complexion and shimmering gold hair were characteristic of her race, so there could be no mistake as to the place of her birth. If Iskald was to hesitate a guess, he would say the girl was about his age, eighteen or so. Thick golden locks that curled naturally and cascaded softly down her slim body bound her lovely face.

Her dark, satin eyes were difficult to turn away from, half-covered by long eyelashes; so long in fact that Iskald could see their faint shadow falling on the girl’s face. Even the great masters of Antiquity would be unable to find anything wrong or out of place with the stunning features of her face. The tall forehead and chiseled nose, the faintly colored cheeks, and the soft chin; a combination of these features produced an absolute beauty.

She was dressed in a delicate white gown that fell to the floor and was held in place on her hips by a simple belt made out of snake-kin. Playing with a large white cat, her small head buried deep in its fluffy fur as she whispered into its ear, the girl looked so beautiful that Iskald found himself completely unsure of himself. He simply stared at her and she failed to notice this for a while longer as she played with the animal. She smiled often and when she did, Iskald saw a set of pearl-white teeth glimmering between her full, luscious, red lips. He wished he could stay like this forever.

Finally, though, the magical moment came to an end. The girl raised her head and met Iskald’s relentless stare, unbroken by anything, not even by the blinking of his pale eyes. Quite suddenly she let go of the cat, rose quickly from the chair and approached the bed.

The cat quietly left the room, obviously displeased that someone had interrupted the very enjoyable moment he himself was having with the mysterious beauty. The girl’s eyes were full of joy when she locked them with Iskald’s and her voice was full of compassion when she spoke. “You’re finally here!”

Iskald could easily detect the Nekryan accent in her use of Azmattic. He found it not only interesting, but irresistible, sexy almost, and he listened to her with pleasure.

“Do you know how long you remained unconscious?” the girl continued. “You were completely motionless, and for a while I thought you had died! I kept calling the medic over and over again to look after you, and finally he stopped coming, saying that it wasn’t necessary at all because you were strong like a mammoth and you would pull through it all, and you did, you did!”

The girl jumped up and down and clapped her hands like a small child who was just given a new toy to play with. Iskald smiled faintly and tried to say something, but his throat was still far too pained to allow for any sounds. He was still too ill.

The girl was happy just to see a smile on his face and she said that yes, he was still weak and it would take a few more days, but the worst was over, the fever broke and he would be getting better from now on, and that he must be hungry. She pulled a cord hanging above the bed and Iskald thought he heard a bell sounding somewhere far, far away in a distant part of the household.

A few moments later an older woman entered the chamber carrying a large serving dish. The mysterious girl took the dish away from the servant and bid her to leave. Then she settled herself on the bed beside Iskald and after choosing some sort of soup from among the dishes, she proceeded to feed him like a small child. Iskald was too weak to even feel embarrassed and ate promptly. The young girl stopped talking now and only smiled from time to time.

After he swallowed the last bit of stew and the girl put the dish away, Iskald tried to speak one more time. It was a much better effort than before and despite the weakness and the pain, he managed to ask of his whereabouts. Though the question was nothing more than a faint sigh, the girl understood.

“You’re in my father’s palace, of course,” she smiled. “It’s been five days since we brought you here, you barely opened your eyes and, like I already told you, we feared you might die. But you pulled through. It’s a miracle almost, considering everything, and it’s proof of the great strength of your body and spirit. The things that you must have been through would have probably killed a lesser man.”

Her voice trembled slightly when she spoke and it was obvious that the girl thought back to the events surrounding the first time she saw this dark-haired, handsome stranger with such beautiful eyes, pale as ice and just as cold. She was captivated by them.

Iskald failed to notice the emotion in her voice, however, because he was still musing over her answer to his question. “Who’s your father?” he whispered after a great deal of effort. He raised himself up on his elbows to speak, but collapsed back on the pillows as soon as he did.

“You don’t know?” she laughed. Her childish giggle filled the entire chamber and for a moment Iskald did not understand what was so funny.

“King Diovinius is my father,” she said simply after she stopped laughing. “I’m Princess Laela.”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala

Open Challenge 293...

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