The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 2 of 3
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.
The following night the young man spent on his feet, pacing the room, unable to sleep or even rest for a moment. A fierce battle was taking place in his soul between what his heart commanded him to do and what his logic dictated. Finally, when morning came and Iskald heard the chirping of the birds outside his windows, he reached the conclusion once again that he had nothing to go back to.
He stopped and rubbed his forehead, amazed at the relative ease with which this decision came about, the ease with which he was willing to accept it, the ease with which he was willing to give everything up. After all, he did not have to relinquish all hope straightaway. Could he not at least try, at least own up to his name and heritage? Did he not owe it to his people, to Vahan’s people, to the people that followed his father always and were always faithful and loyal to him, even when it meant death at the hands of Biyackian soldiers? Did he not owe it to the memory of his father and mother? Did he not owe it to Aezubah and the Wolves, who would perhaps gather around him when they heard he had returned? Finally, did he not owe it to himself to go and fight, and if needs be, to die for his Kingdom?
Something else held him back, and Iskald shuddered at the thought of how shallow and selfish he was. Having spent the entire night reasoning and rationalizing his decision, he realized that all he was doing was making excuses for himself, because what he really wanted to do was to stay in Nekrya. What he really wanted was not to go and die for his Kingdom, not to shed blood for his subjects, not to fight an impossible battle and die for an empty ideal.
What he really wanted to do was to stay in Nekrya where Laela was. In an inexplicable way, the Princess captivated him, fascinated him in a way he had never thought possible. Not only because she was a Princess coming from a long line of magnificent Kings and Queens, not because she was an heir to the throne of the most powerful Kingdom of the Southern post-Azmattic World, and not only because she was extremely beautiful. Not only because whenever he looked into her deep satin eyes, his heart melted and he felt a wave of strange feelings and sensations overtaking his body; not only because her presence gave him peace and her voice soothed his savage heart.
She was different, he thought, and that was the real reason behind his fascination, as strange as it was in its simplicity. Iskald had not yet a chance to meet many women in his life, less even to be intimate with, but he intuitively realized that Laela was different from other women. He saw the immense strength lurking behind the long eyelashes. He felt the compassion that she had for the world and the people living in it.
Laela was different: she was captivating and exhilarating, noble and good, strong, passionate and intense. Iskald looked at her and saw an angel, one that not only embodied the divinity that those creatures were bestowed with, but one that personified the awesome strength of all unearthly beings. She was an angel, yes, but one carrying a sword strapped to her back, willing to lead the troops into battle in order to defend her Heaven and the people she loved.
Her heart was good and compassionate, but wild as well, just waiting for a spark to ignite an awe-inspiring fire burning deep within it, one that could not be extinguished, not ever. Her spirit was unbreakable; how unbreakable indeed, only future would show.
Her destiny was to shine over the Southern Kingdoms, to rule over the lives of men, to be the Queen of the hearts and souls of all people, savage and civilized. It was all in her eyes and Iskald saw it all: the awesome strength, the unlimited goodness, the indestructible spirit, and the fire flowing through her veins.
Feeling himself tied to her by invisible threads of yet incomprehensible feelings and emotions, Iskald was convinced that if he would leave Nekrya now, he would not be able to live in peace. He would pine after her, yearn after her touch, the smell of her skin and hair, the comforting sound of her pleasing voice, he would long after it all. And this longing would not let go of his soul until he would come back and until he would be able to be near her again.
Iskald slowly realized that what he felt towards the beautiful Princess was something that ran much deeper than simple gratitude and admiration. Iskald understood suddenly the incredible sadness in his father’s voice when he talked of his wife; he was able to understand clearly now why Vahan’s face grew grim and why life was difficult for him. The very thought of being separated from Laela even right now, even at this early stage, sent a wave of pain through Iskald’s heart.
Through the entire night the battle raged on in his soul and when he finally accepted his decision as being final, he sat on the floor of his chamber and hid his face in his hands. A single tear trickled down his cheek, over the little scar left by Isla’s whip, and fell to the floor, where it soon disappeared.
Iskald spent the next few moments pleading with the spirits of his ancestors, of his mother and father, asking them to understand his decision and to forgive him the weakness. Perhaps sometime in the future, when he would become a man again, when he became worthy of them, worthy of his name and heritage, when he would become more than just a mere reflection of all that he had always aspired to be, maybe then he would return to Lyons. Maybe then he would have the strength to fight for their memories, to fight for his Motherland. Maybe then he would become worthy of calling himself one of them. For now though, he did not feel that strength flowing through his body; and he felt that his place was in Nekrya now.
His choice was final, and when Laela came to see him that day, Iskald told her as much. The Princess, completely oblivious to the battle that he had gone through to reach that decision, could not have been happier. She felt close to this young man whom she saved miraculously almost from the very clutches of death.
More than that, she felt strongly drawn to him as well; whether it was because of his ice-cold stare that seemed to easily penetrate her body or whether it was because of the nobility he exuded in spite of everything that had happened to him. She admired him tremendously, realizing quite justly that few others would not have survived the long years of such torment and pain.
Laela marveled at the strength of his spirit and the wildness of his heart. Her biggest fear thus far was that Iskald would simply rise and leave as soon as he was well enough, but now she needed not fear this. He would stay with them and he would stay near her.
Great was his astonishment when waking up one day, Iskald found a carefully selected set of garments folded neatly beside his bed. Remarkable in its simplicity, it was nevertheless stylish and tasteful, and fitted Iskald very well.
The clothing was accompanied by a double-edged sword hidden in a richly decorated sheath; it was crafted in the Surathian fires out of the finest steel available in the South, light and strong, easy to handle and deadly in combat. A hunting knife, a hurling axe, a short antler bow and a quiver of fine arrows were also there, all magnificent and all designed for a warrior.
While Iskald looked over the gifts with great wonder in his face, Laela strolled into his room, smiling cheerfully and asking whether or not the dress suited him and whether or not the weapons were to his liking.
“I told my father that you decided to stay with us, and he thought all this could become useful for someone like you,” she said.
It was only proper for the young man to accept the gifts and to thank the King, though he suspected Laela had much more to do with them than she admitted. Iskald set out to meet Diovinius, nevertheless, as soon as he was able to and well enough to walk. He dressed his new garments: a light satin shirt, a pair of soft leather pants, neatly tied sandals and a snakeskin belt, a common Nekryan feature.
Attaching the sword to his belt, for the first time in two years, Iskald felt like a man. He felt like a warrior and no longer a scrawny slave. Finally, he felt somewhat like he used to feel before he was abducted. His pride soared and for a moment he could picture himself standing among the ranks of Northern Wolves, one of them, their blood-brother.
A marvelous sight he was indeed and heads turned as he walked through the palace towards the King’s chambers. It was difficult for people to comprehend that this magnificent giant was the same man that was brought to the palace not too long ago by the Princess, beaten like a dog, in a agony almost, a shadow of a human being, a mere slave.
Iskald heard the awe-filled whispers, he noted the looks of admiration on the faces of girls and young women as he passed by them, and he could not help but to smile a little. Yes, he thought, he could definitely get used to this.
Upon entering the King’s chambers his confidence left him once again, however, and he did not quite know how to begin the conversation. Diovinius sat by his table, bent over a massive manuscript and was busy at the moment with filling the pages of the book with beautifully sketched hieroglyphs. From time to time he dipped the feather in ink and then proceeded once more, paying little attention to Iskald, who stood behind him.
The table, the chair he sat on and a simple bed, these were the only furnishings in the King’s chambers, and Iskald was astounded by the plainness of his apartments. He was a King, after all, the Lord of the most powerful Kingdom in the world almost; right now, though, Diovinius looked nothing more than a simple scribe.
Without turning his head or interrupting his task, the Nekryan Lion spoke:
“Writing is a splendid art, don’t you think? It allows us to immortalize our thoughts and feelings, and by doing so, to leave something of ourselves for future generations.” He stopped and then added with a little smile, “Hopefully, they will be able to learn from our mistakes.”
Iskald did not respond.
“Take as an example the legendary philosopher Avolub from Estrata. Do you think that we would be able to draw on his knowledge today, hundreds of years after his time, had he not written his thoughts down? He wouldn’t be known to us; no one would remember him anymore, and his wisdom would be lost.”
More silence followed. Diovinius seemed to be completely absorbed by his task and Iskald wondered whether the King was talking to him or simply thinking out loud. He did not dare interrupt.
“Did you know that Avolub wrote everything on stone tablets?” Diovinius continued slowly as he stroked the papyrus pages with the feather. “Do you realize how much time and dedication it took for him to do so? How big an effort it was? The legend says that even on his death bed he still chiseled stone, writing down the answers to life and death, writing down the key to understanding nature and ourselves.
“Seven thousand six hundred and eighty-three tablets, each containing hundreds of verses. His entire life he devoted to answering questions and solving problems. That’s why today he is the most respected and admired thinker of all time.
“Unfortunately, many of these tablets disappeared over the years. Who knows how much we have lost because of recklessness, how much wisdom and knowledge was lost because of envy. They had to be destroyed, they said; Avolub was a heretic, they said. It was all envy, I say.”
Diovinius stopped finally, leaned back in his chair and turned around. “Do you know how to write, young man?”
“Somewhat, my Lord.”
“You were taught?”
“I had a teacher a long time ago.”
“He was a wise man then, whoever he was. In our day and age it isn’t enough to have a strong arm and the ability to use weapons of destruction. To succeed in life you must be educated as well; then, and only then, will you be able to excel, to achieve more and to get further than you have ever dreamed of.”
“I agree, my Lord.”
Diovinius looked keenly at the young man. Then he smiled. “Laela tells me that you wish to stay in Nekrya.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Have you given any thought as to what you’d like to do here?”
“I want to enlist.”
“Into my army?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Only the best can enter my troops. You think you’re one of them?”
“I can hold my own.”
“We shall see.” Iskald’s seemingly unshaken confidence amused the King. “You’re a Northerner, then?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“I’m not fond of Northerners, really.”
“Why, my Lord?”
“Hatred runs deep,” the King looked away. “History is scarred and stained by the blood of the innocent. The Vikings and the Biyackian Empire have inflicted much damage to our lands. The Lyonese Wolves, too.”
“The Lyonese?” Iskald could not help wincing.
“Hah!” Diovinius scoffed. “My people hate the Lyonese and whatever the reason behind it, I am not willing to extinguish the hatred.”
“Why, my Lord?”
“The Duke of Lyons had secretly given shelter to a man I want dead”, the King clenched his fist and looked at Iskald, his eyes suddenly throwing lighting bolts. “A man named Aezubah, whose wicked hand struck down my wife years ago.”
Iskald swallowed hard and this time he looked away without saying anything.
“Have you ever fought up North? Before you were captured?” Diovinius changed the subject after a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“No, I was too young, my Lord.”
“But you trained?”
“You’re confident in your abilities?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Diovinius sat in silence for a long time, fixing his eyes on Iskald’s. The young man was not be easily intimidated and held the King’s stare. The old Monarch finally sighed and shook his head.
“You seek blood, I can see it in your eyes,” he said finally.
“Pardon, my Lord?” Iskald was puzzled.
“Your eyes give you away.” Diovinius was lost in thought. “They’re colder than anything I have ever seen, colder than the snow capping the mountains of the land you come from. They want to see blood; and you, you want to have vengeance.”
Iskald did not know what to say. Diovinius was able to read his deepest, most guarded thoughts and desires.
“If properly guided you will be a great asset to my troops; but if you stray, you can become a tremendous liability.”
“I don’t understand, my Lord.”
“It doesn’t matter. I fought many battles with Northerners like yourself, and I think that they are probably the finest warriors, though only somewhat civilized. It would be foolish on my part to reject your request and instead, to allow you to run free and unattended through my Kingdom.”
The King turned back to the manuscript he was working on. “Not too long from now we will be holding a contest during which all warriors will compete for the honor to be recognized. If you can demonstrate to me that you are worthy of your forefathers, I will gladly welcome you into my army.”
Iskald realized the conversation was over. He bowed his head and left the room, but the King barely even noticed that, so absorbed he was with his task.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala