The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 1 of 4
The transport vessel Omen was anchored on the clear waters of the Ffay Bay, rocking back and forth at the docks of the largest of all Nekryan sea ports, one that bore the same name.
The Captain, a fair-haired Nekryan named Aldhu, rested on the deck of his ship, one leg carelessly swung over its side and casually hanging in the air. He placed a short thin cigar in the corner of his mouth and smoked it slowly and with obvious pleasure. He was a good-looking man, though of shorter stature and perhaps a bit too plump; his face, tanned and half-hidden by long hair gently flowing in the soft breeze coming from the open sea, was rugged and handsome.
Honesty, courage, but also a large dose of audacity were written in it, the three most common characteristics of men who spent half their lives away from homes, away from land, on the treacherous waters of the ocean, men who never knew whether their next voyage would be their last. The Captain’s eyes, clear as the blue sky, focused on the busy streets of the city resting on the shores of the bay, a city that next to Arrosah was the largest and most populous in Nekrya.
Situated in the center of nearly all the major routes, Ffay served as a trading post for merchants and seamen of all countries and Kingdoms. Thousands of people moved about its streets and establishments day and night, while thousands of tons of goods and hundreds of thousands of gold pieces changed hands here.
Aldhu watched the smoke escape his mouth and disappear slowly in the hot summer air. The sun was high up in the sky already and scorched the earth beneath it with its sizzling rays. The Captain thanked the gods for the pleasant breeze blowing from the Azmattic Ocean.
He shifted his eyes from the city before him and for the next few moments he watched the long line of porters moving slowly back and forth between his ship and the docks, carrying large bundles of merchandise over the wobbly plank and into the hull beneath the ship’s deck. Beads of sweat pearled on their darkly tanned bodies and they breathed heavily as they walked, clearly weary from the hard labor. They would set their loads down with a sigh of relief and stretch their backs for a few moments before again joining the line and returning to the shore for another package.
Aldhu watched this with little sympathy; actually, with a great deal of distaste. The heavy, tightly packed bundles were filled with brand-new weapons: double and single-edged swords, rapiers, war axes, pikes, ring-amours, shields, and other such things.
Aldhu’s supervisor, a merchant and ship-owner, a partner in one of Ffay’s largest trading companies, had recently received urgent orders from the remote Estate of Lyons, where war had been brewing for several months now. The Captain and his crew had hardly any time to rest after returning from their last voyage; as soon as Omen had docked in the bay, new orders came in.
Aldhu had barely the time to greet his wife and children whom he had not seen in months and already he was forced to leave again, this time straight into a region engulfed in a vicious war. This trip would bring him great riches and rewards, but it was risky. Would he even come back?
Helping their sworn enemies... Aldhu’s face tightened at the thought of the Lyonese. He closed his eyes and sighed, thinking how odd that the hated Wolves were now the only people standing between Nekrya and the terrible, dark mass of horned folk flooding from the Far North.
“Hurry up, you lazy bastards!” Aldhu let his anger be known. Rising to his feet and placing the cigar in the very corner of his mouth, he moved toward the porters, eyeing them furiously for a few moments.
The men picked up the pace, sensing that the Captain was ready to have a fit and start using the whip. But Aldhu turned and made his way to the stern instead, where his first officer Hafdi, was busy inspecting the ship’s ropes, double- and triple-knotting them, making sure they would not fail during the trip.
“Leave this!” the Captain snapped at him. “Go and make sure the porters finish their job! We’re to leave at dusk, but it looks like they might not even be done loading till then, goddammit!”
Hafdi, a small Nekryan who had served under his Captain for several of the last years of his turbulent life, said nothing in response to the angry remark. Having long ago grown used to Aldhu’s frequent and often unprovoked fits of fury, he quietly put the ropes down, rose to his feet and headed to the front of the boat where the porters worked.
Before he reached it, though, Hafdi stopped at the sight of a tall young man who made his way up the unsteady plank, through the line of men carrying their bundles, and gracefully sprang onto the deck of the ship.
A sheathed sword carelessly hung over his one shoulder and a dusty, patched-up travel bag over another. The stranger looked around the ship with seeming indifference, barely even resting his eyes on the two sailors standing before him.
A thick mane of hair as black as the blackest tar covered his head; hair of such superb black shade that could only be found among people born far, far away, under the dark mountains of the Far North. It concealed half of his face so that of all his features only his eyes, his striking eyes of ice-like quality were visible. Like two pale torches they shone dangerously through the black hair cascading over them, piercing anything they rested on and causing fear to rise even in the hearts of those brave ones who dared to lock their gaze with them.
The rest of the man’s appearance was just as menacing: his dark body was covered with interlocking networks of powerful muscles and veins, indicating great strength and a savage, primitive force waiting to be unleashed on anyone or anything that dared threaten it.
The young man’s dress was that of a soldier, but not of any one Kingdom or Realm; all the pieces were assembled at different times and in different places; some were likely bought, others stolen or taken off dead bodies left lying on remote battlefields.
A sword crafted from the finest of all Surathian steels, a worn-out ring-armor that had already seen its greatest days but was without a doubt carefully put together, ring by ring, by the soft and swift hands of the best Nekryan armorers, perhaps even ages ago; a heavy war-axe bearing ancient Burrodhian signs; leather boots fashioned out of a sea-bearing alligator that only the men of Estrata knew how to hunt down and kill deep in its underwater caves.
The light travel bag either purchased or stolen off some Bandikoyan (as it had a depiction of the Kingdom’s Capital, the City of Oyan, skillfully sewn into its side), completed the stranger’s outfit.
All this Hafdi noticed in only one quick glance; he had trained his eyes to look for such details in all his long travels. Everything he saw cautioned him against this foreigner and told him that this was a man not wishing to be bothered.
If it had been up to him,Hafdi would have approached the man politely and ask him what his business was. But it was not his ship and not his place to do such things. He simply stopped and turned back to look at his Captain, waiting for him to say something to this young and uninvited guest that had so rudely boarded their ship.
Aldhu had spotted the man just as soon as he stepped onto the deck. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, soldier?” he shouted, approaching from behind Hafdi and standing before the foreigner. “Go back the way you came from, young man. This is a merchant ship and we’re not taking any passengers here.”
The man dropped his travel bag to the deck and placed the sheathed sword into his right hand without saying a word. Then he slowly bent his massive, bulging neck and looked down at the Nekryan standing in front of him.
Aldhu, though a man of fair size and strength, appeared awkwardly small and clumsy when placed opposite this young foreigner, this soldier, a merciless and well-oiled killing machine or, better yet, a wild and relentless animal perhaps. Every move this man made was thoroughly calculated, each step he took was well measured, each word he spoke was carefully weighed, each detail of the environment surrounding him was quickly registered, and each movement noticed before it even happened. The stranger had the appearance of a predator and prey at the same time, of hunter and a hunted animal as well.
“I’m looking for the merchant Aldhu, the Captain of this ship,” the young man spoke slowly with a barely distinguishable Northern accent, resting his eyes on the Nekryan and his hand on the handle of the sword.
“Then you have found him,” Aldhu, although clearly intimidated by the young foreigner, was no coward and was not about to step back. “I am the Captain of this ship, and it is my right to demand answers from you. Who are you and what do you want of me?”
Hafdi watched the unfolding scene uneasily, standing behind his Captain. He could see the stranger grip the sword tighter after Aldhu spoke and a faint sign of distaste and anger that flashed across the man’s face at the same time did not escape his eyes either. For a moment Hafdi feared that the stranger would pull his weapon out.
“Word is you’re heading into Lyons,” the foreigner said.
“That’s right,” Aldhu grew more confident with each word he spoke. “I’m leaving tonight, but as I already told you, this is a merchant ship and I’m not taking any passengers, especially not the likes of you!”
As soon as he said the last words, he regretted them. The stranger said nothing and only smiled gently, but his eyes spoke volumes when he fixed them on the Nekryan before him, looking right through his soul and driving terrible fear into it. There was no kindness in them, only grim darkness that was sometimes illuminated by the threatening signs of lightening and the great burning fires of a tremendous will, hidden deep beneath the inscrutable, treacherous ice-cold clearness.
Aldhu was suddenly overwhelmed by the same feeling that he had when sailing and suddenly the friendly blue waters before him turned violent and threatening, right before a vicious storm would envelope his ship. The Captain swallowed hard.
The sheath dropped to the deck beside the travel-bag and the naked weapon glimmered in the afternoon sun. Aldhu turned pale when the sharp blade flashed before his eyes. The young stranger watched his fear with indifference.
“The likes of me?” he asked slowly.
Aldhu wetted his lips and blinked hard, but said nothing. The man smiled.
“Now you listen to me,” he said, leaning the glimmering blade against Aldhu’s chin. “This ship is going to Lyons, right?”
The Nekryan blinked several times in response, afraid that if he nodded his head, the sharp weapon would bite into his face.
“And it will get there as scheduled,” the foreigner continued, locking his eyes with Aldhu’s and smiling softly. “Whether it will get there with or without you is totally up to you. Do you understand? If need be, I will kill you and your whole crew, and then sail this ship into Lyons all by myself.”
The tip of the blade slid down the Nekryan’s chin and now pressed against his throat. Aldhu trembled in terror, finding himself completely helpless against this ruthless man. Everyone stopped what they did and looked on, vexed; the porters, Hafdi and the rest of the Nekryan crew held their breath and watched in silence. Nobody dared to even as much as move, in fear of causing the stranger’s hand to slip.
Quite suddenly, the young man eased and the blade left the Captain’s exposed throat. Aldhu sighed heavily and instinctively touched himself to make sure everything was still intact. Everyone breathed easier.
“I don’t want to kill you or your crew,” the foreigner said watching the Nekryan carefully. “I want to give you a choice.”
Reaching behind the belt holding his short linen pants on his hips, he drew a small sack and threw it down to the deck in front of the Captain. The contents of the bag spilled and everyone held their breath again, but this time in awe. The sack not only contained gold and silver pieces; it was also filled with large nuggets, pure gold glistening marvelously in the sun that flooded the deck.
Such pieces could only be found far, far down in the Southern lands, uninhabited by any civilized peoples, lands where wild animals and savage black men roamed the steppes and jungles. The Great Chenschung Forest was said to be littered with such riches, but no white man dared to venture that far, for fear of encountering the vicious Chenschungs or their even more barbaric allies.
“It’s either this or my blade,” the young stranger said calmly. “Choose now.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala