The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 3 of 3
The day of the contest came and then it was over, and then several more months passed. Iskald was almost nineteen years of age now; and, having distinguished himself remarkably during this time, he was now one of the King’s most trusted guards.
Following the competition, Diovinius who was greatly impressed by the young man’s skill, strength and keen intellect, asked him to join his group of finest warriors, his own private Company. It was a great honor for anyone to be drafted into their ranks, and Iskald readily agreed.
Through hard work and thanks to his own natural abilities, he soon set himself apart from others to such an extent, that the King named him the new Captain of the Royal Guard Company. The road to a new life, the road to success and privilege, stood wide open before Iskald.
As Captain of the Company, Iskald had under his command five hundred of the finest Nekryan warriors, the best of the best, the most distinguished and the most respected. Their duty was to protect the King and the Princess always, wherever they were, and to defend them to the last drop of blood.
The young man fulfilled his responsibilities extremely well and as a result, he soon became the object of envy in the King’s Court. The quick ascension of a former slave of questionable origin, a Northerner, up the ranks of the Company was unheard of. It soon became obvious that the King valued his judgment and often lent his ear to Iskald.
Elites surrounding Diovinius watched it with growing resentment and anger. They could not remain oblivious to the shift of power that had taken place in the Royal Court since this Northerner had appeared. The military and the commoners were now Diovinius’ priority, and the needs of aristocracy were being neglected. And it was all the doing of this young stranger, who had so suddenly become one of the most influential figures in the Nekryan Kingdom.
Even those who resented Iskald, however, were soon forced to admit that Diovinius’ decision to make him Captain of the Company was an exceptionally good one. Iskald was not only a warrior highly skilled in combat, but also a brilliant leader. His soldiers could not resist his charisma and were drawn to him by his intensity and audacity in battle. They were swept by the strong currents of his passion and pulled in by the magnetic energy he exuded.
Several times Iskald demonstrated heroic courage while defending the King and disrupting the plots of would-be assassins and murderers. Beating their chests, the Nekryan warriors vowed to one another that they would follow this daring Northerner into the very pits of Hell.
Diovinius was greatly impressed with Iskald’s accomplishments as well and spared him nothing, still wondering sometimes where this young man had learned all that he seemed to know instinctively. The aging King would have shuddered if he had known that his young Captain was a student of the legendary General, a man Diovinius hated and had banished long ago from Nekrya, a man whom the King never wished to see again except in a hangman’s noose.
Because of his rank, Iskald had his apartments in the Royal palace alongside other Nekryan officers, advisors and aristocrats. He received a payment of several hundred gold pieces a month that he, along with his companions, spent relentlessly in the inns of Arrosah. And though not once and not twice did Iskald return to his chambers swaying on his feet and smelling of wine, he never neglected his duties and no one could have any objections about his service.
Iskald was happy, and this feeling was new to him. He spent his time among people that he loved and respected, and was loved and respected by them in return. Long gone were the days of pain and misery; they were nothing but a bad dream right now, long gone and almost forgotten. He was a respected warrior holding a high rank in the army, he was a good friend of the King himself, and could always count on having his advice taken into regard, and his orders to be followed.
Most importantly though, he was continuously near Laela, and this delighted him even more. He was everywhere where she was, often serving as a guard to her as opposed to the King, whom he left under the watchful eyes of his comrades. He was near her when she went about her day, fulfilling her duties, assisting her father, learning, riding, walking, training... everything. What could have made him happier?
Long gone was the lingering thought that maybe he had made the wrong choice and that perhaps he should have returned home. Even if he wanted to do so right now, which he did not, there were too many things tying him to the Kingdom of Nekrya. He was responsible for lives and for maintaining peace, and he could not simply abandon those who counted on him, those that were under his protection.
Nothing called him to Lyons anymore, all ties were severed. What would he go back for? For the riches? Here had had more than he himself needed. For the uncertain throne? He was a warrior, not a Duke. Perhaps he was born and raised as an aristocrat once, long time ago, but he was a Duke no longer. He did not wish the problems, the quarrels, the troubles, and the headaches. Nekrya was his home now, not Lyons, and it was here that he planned to spend his life.
The only problem was that he was still making excuses.
Several more months passed and Iskald was now nineteen. The same day he reached that age, a stranger came to Arrosah seeking an audience with the King. Upon being told of the Monarch’s unscheduled appearance, Iskald called for a dozen guards and quickly made his way to the main hall of the palace, where such meetings usually took place. He left the guards before the great entrance door and entered alone. Bowing his head to the King and the Princess, Iskald made his way through the large room and took his usual post, behind the thrones but not too far away.
From this place he had a good view of the entire chamber and resting his hand on the handle of his sword he was ready to protect the King. Having been to countless and countless such meetings, he was used to the routine and allowed his mind to drift a little while waiting for the stranger to arrive.
Finally the guards opened the large door and let the man in. Iskald looked at him indifferently at first, but then he startled and froze, fixing his eyes on the man’s raw and primitive features. Iskald’s face paled, his breath quickened, his heart started racing, and the palms of his hands sweated. With his eyes fixated on the stranger, he tightly gripped his weapon and bit his lower lip. He blinked several times, but the haunting image refused to disappear, it still stood before him with its crooked smile and the burning eyes.
The recurring image in his dreams, the face from the distant past that he tried so hard to forget. Bits and pieces from the earliest months of his capture and enslavement came back, rushing into his mind like a vicious wave, memories vividly alive, still living deep, deep in his soul. It all came back: the pain, the torture, the torment, the misery, all of it. Turning into one overpowering feeling of hatred directed at the man standing before him, they overwhelmed him and Iskald staggered back.
It was Shira.
He had not changed much over the years. Only his face was older than Iskald remembered it, and if it was even possible, it exuded even more cruelty now than it did then. The rest was the same: the same massive posture, the same large hands that had punished Iskald so often, the same whip hanging by his belt. Everything was the same except that Iskald was now grown. And he was free.
Had the Tha-kian looked away from the aging King and had he turned his attention towards the young man standing behind the throne, he would be terrified by a menacing pair of pale eyes fixed on him with such intensity, piercing him through with so much hatred and so much fury. Like everyone else in the room, however, Shira was paying no heed to Iskald. How could he possibly guess that the giant serving as the King’s sentry was one of the thousands of boys he had tortured years ago?
In the meantime, only one thought made its way through the chaos of everything else raging in Iskald’s head: avenge his misery, avenge the pain of others. Avenge all those children that Shira had killed by himself or driven to death by inhumane treatment, or sold into slavery, something that was much worse than death.
He hardly noticed when the audience ended and the Tha-kian was dismissed; Iskald only realized that Shira was readying to leave. Without saying a word to anyone, the young man followed him out of the main fall. Laela was too busy talking with her father to notice that something strange was going on with Iskald.
He ordered the guards to stay in their place with one simple gesture and strolled out after the Tha-kian, staying some distance behind him. They walked through the palace and outside into the main square. Shira mounted the horse waiting for him and rode off, soon disappearing in the complex network of streets and roads of Arrosah.
Iskald was not to be left behind though. As soon as he walked outside, a young boy approached him with a horse. Iskald climbed the saddle and followed Shira, who was not yet riding fast enough to vanish from his sight. The young man thought the Tha-kian would stop by one of the inns where he had hired a room for the night, but no, Shira made his way through the busy streets of the Capital and rode outside of the city walls, onto the open prairie. Here, he urged his horse into a trot and soon the walls of Arrosah were left far behind.
Deep in thoughts, Shira barely noticed the changing surroundings and allowed his horse to find its own way back to camp where his men waited. He did not even realize that the prairie soon ended and that he had entered a thick forest.
His thoughts were suddenly broken when he heard a rider approaching quickly. The Tha-kian pulled on the reins and halted. Not expecting any danger this close to the Capital of Nekrya, Shira turned his head to look at the advancing man. All that he saw, however, was a great flash of light, while at the same time he felt excruciating pain splitting his skull in two. He was driven out of the saddle by the powerful blow and fell heavily to the ground with a wild groan.
He tried to scramble back to his feet, blindly searching for the handle of his sword and trying with blood-shot eyes to see his foe. Blood ran down his face and obstructed his vision and he could not see anything at all. Then he heard a familiar sound, one that filled his black heart with dread. It was the distinct musical hum of a blade cutting the air and approaching closer and closer.
Then a terrible, deafening sound of steel cutting into the bone filled his mind, he saw another horrific flash of light, his thoughts were drowned in pain and that was all that was left, the pain. The red-hot steel plowed into his mind, cut through all his sensations and severed the thread of life. He was surrounded by complete darkness, superb blackness, and then collapsed lifeless to the ground.
With a sadistic grin lingering on his face, Iskald pulled the sword out of Shira’ head and wiped it clean against the dead man’s clothes. For a while longer he stood over the corpse and looked with indifference at the man’s motionless, painfully twisted face.
Then he searched his pockets, taking all the gold he found. Picking up the Tha-kian’s weapons Iskald mounted the horse quickly and left without giving the dead man another look. Before going back to Arrosah, Iskald rode by Kyla and dumped all of Shira’ things into her speeding waters.
Iskald told no one of what had transpired at the edge of the forest and everyone at Court was convinced that the audacious Tha-kian had left the area. The rumor was that the stranger asked for an audience with Diovinius in order to propose a devilish scheme: he had asked the Nekryan Monarch to permit him to plunder his Eastern borders for slaves. In return Diovinius would receive an annual payment in slaves and gold. It was to be, the Tha-kian argued, a mutually beneficial agreement.
People said that the King dismissed him coolly, telling the stranger to feel lucky that he is being allowed to leave with his head intact. Diovinius warned him then that if he was ever found on Nekryan ground hunting slaves, he would be killed immediately.
Shira’s corpse was discovered that same day by his Tha-kian companions who organized a frantic search when his horse came back to camp without its master. As luck would have it, Shira was killed only a hundred paces or so away from his camp, yet no one had heard or seen anything.
The enraged Tha-kians rode into Arrosah with the body of their comrade, demanding that the King find and punish his killers. Diovinius only shrugged his shoulders, saying that there was little he could do, and that petty thieves and robbers probably committed the murder. After all, all the valuables were taken, as were the weapons. This was common behavior of thieves, who either sold the weapons on the black market or used them themselves.
The Tha-kians soon left after realizing that the King would do nothing, cursing and shouting obscenities all the way through the streets of Arrosah.
After they left, however, the King decided to hunt down all the thieves in the area and asked Iskald to be in charge of this operation. The young warrior completed the task with astonishing results, rounding up large bands of robbers in a very short period of time.
All of them swore that they had not touched any Tha-kian and that they were blamed for something they had nothing to do with. Diovinius remained unconvinced, however, and had them all executed even if only to have peace of mind. By doing so, he rid the entire area of the thieves and robbers who had terrorized travelers with greater than usual intensity lately, and he made the roads safe to pass through once again.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala