The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 5 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.
Having said that, Pablo left Iskald by himself to dwell over what he had just said, and walked over to the cage. He motioned for the beast-masters to lead the animals out in order to make room for the gladiators, but this did not turn out to be an easy task.
The excited and bloodthirsty beasts would not allow anyone to approach them and in the end, they had to be knocked out with steel-plated clubs and dragged outside senseless. The mob watched this spectacle with renewed interest, forgetting for the time being about Iskald. Pablo disappeared when all this was taking place and the young Wolf could not spot him anywhere.
The cage was cleaned of debris and left open. The mob closed in, surrounding the area tightly, gathering on the benches and barrels scattered around, shouting and yelling, urging for the show to get going.
They did not have to wait long. A large man appeared at the entrance of the tunnel that Iskald and Pablo used to enter, and as soon as the mob spotted him, a wild roar filled the low chamber. He was tall and muscular, dressed only in a sash tied around his waist and leather sandals that covered his feet.
His massive body was covered with thick hair, his long black beard touched his breast; he appeared a primitive beast. He could have been a mirror image of an ancient creature brought to life by the magics of a wicked priest.
In one of his huge hands, Liath held an unsheathed rapier, differing in shape from the straight double-edged sword used by Iskald, while his other hand tightly gripped a large battle-axe. As soon as he entered, the huge Surath found Iskald with his eyes and gave him a hard stare. Then he started to make his way through the mob, something that proved to be much easier for him, because the people eagerly made way for him and kept their distance.
Liath stepped up to Iskald and the two stood chest to chest and face-to-face. The people surrounding them fell quiet, expecting something terrible to happen. The unexpected silence gave Pablo, who had suddenly appeared beside the two men, an opportunity to climb the nearest bench and yell:
“Brothers, listen to me! You have before you two of the finest specimens of the warrior race! Our own undefeated champion, Liath the Maimer, and a stranger from the icy shores of the distant North, Iskald the Wolf! Place your bets, place your bets now! Only here, only tonight, only tonight! The fight of the year!”
His words broke the silence and the tension. Liath stepped down while the mob roared again as they all pushed and shoved one another in order to get to Pablo and his partners so that they could place their bets in time.
Iskald paid no heed to the commotion before him. The clatter of the crowd no longer annoyed and irritated him because now that he had his opponent in sights he could focus all of his attention on him.
Fixing his ice-cold eyes on Liath, he watched and studied him carefully. The Surathian warrior was taller than he and much more massive. Though Iskald himself was well-built and more powerful than average men, he knew that in terms of strength it was an unequal match. Liath would be able to crush him like a weakling if Iskald only gave him half the chance.
He was sure, however, that in terms of speed and agility he was much more superior to the Surathian gladiator, having been trained by the demanding General Aezubah and having refined his skills in the Nekryan army. Now he would have to use them all if he was to defeat Liath while avoiding being drawn into a contest of strength, one that he would surely lose.
Quick, rapid assaults, one after another, that was the path to victory; he needed to overwhelm his opponent with the sheer number of strikes, he needed to dazzle the crowd with his skill and speed.
“Now we fight?” Iskald asked Pablo who left his aides to look after the placing of the bets and walked over to where the young Wolf stood.
“Yeah, now you fight.”
“Three,” Pablo said. “No armor, use any weapons available, fight to death.”
“Ain’t that enough?”
Iskald took off his short, sleeveless ring-armor, tossed it to the ground, and proceeded to inspect the nicks and dents on his sword. The trusted weapon had been with him throughout his entire career as a Nekryan Captain and Royal Guard, but perhaps he could use a new one.
Iskald smiled. He thought to himself that if he lived through this experience, he would take the winnings und use some of them to buy himself a high-quality Surathian sword. They were some of the best in the world.
Pablo in the meantime walked over to Liath and talked with him for a while. Iskald could not hear what they spoke of over the roar of the crowd, but he was sure that it regarded him; he noticed Pablo stealing a couple of glances in his direction.
The young Northerner shrugged impatiently and then without any further hesitation, he entered the cage through the side door, bare sword in hand, dressed only in short leather pants, leaving even his boots outside in order to be able to move better on the sand that covered the floor of the cage.
He positioned himself on one end of the small enclosure and threw Liath and anticipating look. The Surathian gladiator placed his hand-axe behind his belt where he could easily reach it and then, sword in hand, he entered the cage after Iskald. Pablo had his helpers close the door after him and the two men found themselves trapped with each other. The only way to leave the cage now was to kill the other.
Pablo stopped the placement of bets and silenced the rowdy crowd with his hand. He climbed one of the benches again and yelled once more: “It’s time, brothers! It’s about to begin!” then he turned to the two men in the cage. “Good luck to both of you!”
Standing opposite one another, the two opponents presented an interesting contrast. Both appeared powerful and dangerous, but each in his own individual way. Liath was almost a head taller than Iskald and his entire body oozed a sense of primal, brute force that was ready to crush and overpower everything in its path. He had the appearance of a mythical creature, full of raw life and energy, ready to explode and unleash its force onto the world; his awesome strength was his greatest advantage.
Compared to him, Iskald appeared to be almost a divine being, with his clean-cut physique, his smooth and toned body, his powerful, well-defined muscles almost liquid in the dim light of the bonfires and torches surrounding the cage. It was almost as if they lived their own life when Iskald slowly circled his opponent, his eyes glued to him.
The mob gathered around them was starting to whistle and shout, encouraging the fighters to get on with it; they had been waiting all night to see the two men fight. The crazed crowd, drugged with opium and drunk on wine, was getting restless.
Iskald took his eyes off Liath for one moment after one of the spectators screamed his name right into his ear, and that was the exact moment when the Surathian gladiator leaned forward and attacked. Iskald managed to dodge the savage blow at the very last moment, and the shining blade only breezed over his forearm leaving behind a long, bloody mark. The young Northerner jumped back, cursing quietly and thinking that he had perhaps underestimated his opponent. Liath was just as quick as he was.
The mob was mad with pleasure, shouting and screaming, reaching inside the cage, touching the two men, pushing them forward, urging them to fight, drinking, smoking, and betting among themselves. The noise was becoming almost unbearable for Iskald who was not used to this sort of an environment, but seemed to do little to affect Liath. He must have fought hundreds of man-to-man battles in this cage and with the same people surrounding him.
He grinned at Iskald, baring his rotten green teeth, then faked a move to the left before attacking from the opposite side, striking time after time with his heavy rapier, pushing Iskald back to the steel wall of the cage, right into the hands of the crowd. The young Wolf cried in pain when someone punched him in the ribs and pushed him back towards Liath. He was barely able to block another series of wild blows from the Surathian champion, and to spring back again beyond the reach of his rapier.
Without much room to maneuver, Iskald was unable to utilize his great skill at handling the sword; for the time being he was forced to only block the tremendous blows that Liath showered him with. After each such check Iskald felt his arm dropping to the ground under the wicked force of Liath’s hand and each time he had to force himself to keep it up and to block another strike, to avoid another skilful thrust.
With the sheer power of his blows, Liath was able to once again push Iskald all the way to the walls of the cage, where the young man was again exposed to the punches and jabs that the crowd did not spare him.
Finally, though, Iskald was able to redirect one of the savage strikes, and to dash under Liath’s arms back to the center of the cage. A cry of pain indicated that the wild blow had hit a target. Liath’s rapier had run clean through one of the spectators. The gladiator pulled it out of the dying man with a fierce growl and turned back to Iskald just in time to check a series of well placed, skillfully directed thrusts, all of which completely surprised the Surathian champion.
The mob roared with delight at this unexpected turn of events and followed the two fighters with frantic eyes as they moved before them, back and forth across the whole area of the cage. Both men were tired now, but neither showed much sign of slowing down, though they were both covered with sweat and both were bleeding from several smaller, insignificant cuts.
Exchanging blows back and forth, their blades were tied together in a beautiful and savage dance of struggle and power. Caught within a circle of shimmering steel, the two gladiators continued to dazzle the crowd with their skill.
All of a sudden, amidst the noise and the glistening steel, with a trained eye of a killer Liath spotted a single moment during which Iskald left his bare chest exposed after checking one of his wilder blows. Quick as lighting, the Surath put his whole strength and skill into a thrust that would surely drive the blade right through the young man’s body, had it reached the target.
But Iskald spotted his error just as quickly and in an instant he turned the possibly lethal mistake into a trap and prepared to deliver the deadly blow to Liath, who continued forward, now sure of victory.
Liath was quick, but Iskald quicker still. He timed his move perfectly and avoided the blade by stepping back, allowing the tip of the rapier only to touch his bare breast, drawing forward a single drop of blood.
Carelessly, still convinced of his victory, Liath leaned in to extend the reach of his rapier and to pierce his opponent. The Surathian champion left himself open to a blow from underneath, and Iskald was not about to squander the opportunity. He dropped to one knee and just as Liath’s blade cut the air over his head, Iskald drove his sword into the champion’s body, driving it hard through his belly, his insides, and up, still up, through his lungs, and out his back. Liath groaned painfully and stopped dead in his tracks with a look of total surprise on his face.
The mob quieted down suddenly and clung to the cage, unable to speak or to breathe. Pablo jumped to his feet from the bench he was sitting on, not believing his own eyes.
Iskald, in the meantime, rose quickly to his feet and took a step back. Liath staggered forward with a terribly painful whimper and with both hands he clutched the handle of the sword piercing his body, trying to pull it out with the last bit of his strength. In the awful silence everyone could plainly hear his anguished grunts and horrific groans as he struggled in vain.
Then Iskald stirred. Reaching forward he snatched the battle-axe from behind Liath’s belt and after raising it high above his head with both hands, he delivered a terrible blow to the head of the Surathian champion. Blood, brain, and pieces of the crushed skull splattered everywhere, all over Iskald’s naked body, all over his face, all over the nearest spectators.
He stood in the middle of the cage with blood streaking his body, a battle-axe in hand, teeth bared in a wicked smile, nostrils flaring at the smell of death, watching the awesome Surathian champion sink slowly to the ground, lifeless and senseless, with his head split down the middle and his features almost unrecognizable.
In the silence that followed, Iskald bent over Liath, removed his battered sword from the corpse and cleaned its blade against the dead man’s sash. Then with a steady, though somewhat weary pace, he walked over to the door of the cage.
“Open it!” he told the man on the other side of it. The Surath looked over at Pablo but seeing no movement on his part, he decided that it was best to open the cage and let the stranger out before he would use his sword on him.
Blade in hand, Iskald walked outside, made his way through the tightly packed crowd and, still amidst the stunned silence, he dressed. Finally, he sheathed his sword and without paying any attention to the dangerously quiet mob of Suraths surrounding him, Iskald walked over to where Pablo still sat.
“My gold?” he asked.
Pablo looked at him and then looked at the crowd of people around them. The Suraths were already reaching for their weapons, nearing closer and closer.
“They want to kill you,” Pablo said.
“Tell them to stay in their place,” Iskald said with seeming indifference.
“What makes you think I can?”
“You run this show.”
“What makes you think I want to? You just killed my friend.”
“I thought you said he wasn’t your friend.”
Hard silence followed. No one moved while the two soldiers stared at each other.
“I won fair, you saw it,” Iskald said after a while. “So I’m not leaving without my winnings. A deal is a deal, we shook on it.”
“Yeah, we did,” Pablo rose to his feet slowly. “Come.”
He led Iskald through the angry, quiet mob, amidst hushed voices, silent threats, and hard stares. No one touched them, however, as they made their way to the tunnel, then back up to the half-ruined room in the old mill. They were greeted by the man with the torch, the only person moving in the quiet darkness of the night. He looked at Iskald with disbelief, then threw a questioning glance at Pablo.
“Leave us,” said the latter.
When the man disappeared, Pablo pulled out a heavy sack from behind his belt.
“I’m a man of my word,” he said as he placed the sack in Iskald’s hands. “I’m not sure how much gold we actually pulled in tonight, but here’s a thousand gold pieces. I suggest you take it.”
Iskald hid the sack without a word.
“You know what else?” Pablo said. “I suggest you go back to the tavern where we met, get on your horse, and ride like hell, because by morning half of this city will be after you. Many influential people had a lot riding on Liath.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Iskald said and turned to walk away. He disappeared in the darkness surrounding them.
“Iskald?” Pablo called out after him.
“Yeah?” the young Wolf stopped at the edge of the ruins.
“Ride like hell! I mean it!”
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala