The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 2 of 4
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.
“A little late, aren’t you?” the young Wolf scoffed, feeling safe surrounded by his companions, all armed to their teeth. He spat with contempt, turned to them and said, “I can’t stand such blokes! When we really need them, they’re off doing their own thing, they got more important things on their minds then! But, when the dirty work’s all done, they show up and think we’ll greet them like returning heroes!”
Then he turned back to Iskald and barked, “Get in! General Jasper is out in the courtyard, go talk to him. Just don’t expect to be given a whole regiment right off the start! We know people like you, we’ve had a few of them. Acting all brave and all that, until you hear the sounds of battle. Then you throw your weapons and hide behind others! Get in!”
Someone standing behind the young Duke snickered. A group of people surrounded the two men, half-expecting a harsh reply. Iskald said nothing, but neither did he budge. Standing unmoved before the Wolf who had insulted him, he studied him with mysterious eyes, looking through the young soldier with a far-reaching gaze, seemingly reading his mind. “What are you still doing here?!” the guard’s face flushed with anger. “I told you to get inside, didn’t I? You’re blocking the goddamn way!”
A faint smile appeared on Iskald’s lips, but his eyes remained stern and hostile. There was sadness in them, too; this was not the welcome he had envisioned at the doorsteps of his home. He took a step back and looked at the whole group of Wolves. “How many are you?” he asked the young guard before him, without responding to the angry shout. “Ten? Fifteen? Having so many friends behind you makes it easy to insult others and accuse them of cowardice!”
Silence followed his hard comment. The face of the man before him reddened even more, he gripped the hilt of his sword and was about to say something, but Iskald stopped him. He stepped closer, until his chest touched the young Wolf’s and looked deep into his eyes. His lips twisted in a savage grin and his eyes burnt. The guard took a nervous step back and looked around at his companions. “You don’t really think they’d be able to stop me, do you?” Iskald’s eyes slowly revealed the storm brewing deep within his soul.
He stepped even closer. “I could rip your insides out and feed them back to you before you friends here could even reach for their swords!”
“Are you threatening me?!” the guard was still ready to pull his weapon out, though his cockiness had disappeared. But he had to keep face before the people and especially before the other Wolves, who watched this entire scene with a great deal of amusement, apparently in no rush to help their new young apprentice.
Iskald stepped back and shrugged. The fire in his eyes retreated and he gave the guard almost a friendly look. “I don’t threaten people,” he replied casually. “I warn them, if anything, and if the warning goes unheard, I reach for my sword and simply kill them.”
He waited another moment for the young Wolf to make a move, with his arms carelessly folded across his chest, but the guard did nothing. He simply lowered his eyes and said nothing more, obviously not willing to test the stranger’s words.
Iskald pushed him aside unceremoniously and walked through the gates, passing the remainder of the Wolves along the way, all of whom nodded to him with a quiet smile of approval. They were clearly impressed with the way Iskald had handled their arrogant young companion.
“It’s a good thing you taught him a lesson,” one of them said.
“He’s a good kid, “ another one added, “but he needs to cool off a bit.”
“No kidding,” Iskald sneered as he walked by.
Once inside the young Duke stopped and looked with hungry eyes, the eyes of a traveler who had not seen his home for a long time, trying to capture all at once, trying to observe everything around him all at the same time, as well as to note any changes that might have taken place during his absence.
Not much had changed. The small stone square he had walked into immediately after passing through the gates was still kept tidy and neat as was the vast garden beyond it. The grass was cut short, the flowers taken care of, the paths leading through it kept clean of debris.
The smell of exotic flowers, many of which had been brought from the Southern side of the ocean, was just as intoxicating and alluring as he had always remembered it. The stables that Iskald could see from where he stood seemed to be in a good shape as well. The palace itself, appearing before him in all of its glory, looked the same as it had the day he left the Jewel for the last time.
Everything was the same as he had remembered it, save for the noise and the racket. In time of peace, when Vahan ruled Lyons, few people had permission to enter the palace freely. Save for the most notable of the Lyonese Wolves, a handful of guards, servants and caretakers, a few of the most trusted aristocrats and politicians, no one could walk through the gate without the express permission from the Duke himself.
But now Vahan was gone and there was war. Many townsmen, merchants, peasants, people rich and poor, all fleeing Viking viciousness, dwelt within the palace walls, and many of them had been allocated rooms in the stronghold itself. Others set temporary shelters in the main courtyard. All of them sought a haven and Aezubah provided them with it at his own expense. Many people had fled to the safety of palace walls, and so, even now, with the sun already down, the noise and the racket did not cease.
Iskald started to slowly make his way towards the main square, located at the back of the palace, between the structure and the southern defense wall. He walked through the small courtyard that separated the gates from the front of the building, then made his way through the network of gravel paths of the garden, past the exotic flowerbeds, past the beautiful fountains, all of which were now illuminated by hundreds of torches fixed to the ground, past the statues representing his and Vahan’s forefathers. He followed a tiny trail around the corner of the palace and finally reached the edge of the main square.
Here he stopped, desperately trying to slow the savage beating of his heart, the vicious pounding of that miserable muscle that had gone through so much over the last several weeks that it threatened to explode through his chest and bleed all over the precious soil beneath his feet. Iskald leaned on the sheathed sword he had thus far carried in his hand and quietly watched everything that appeared before him.
The main square he remembered was gone. Gone was the silence, gone were the surrounding trees, gone was the peace and solitude he could always find here. Everywhere he looked he saw people, carelessly constructed shelters and shacks, merchants selling everything from bone and steel needles to armour and weaponry, barracks full of soldiers, carriages, horses, ox, cattle, dogs, all sorts of animals and beasts of burden.
A blacksmith now occupied the place where Iskald used to position the target during practice. Great fires roared inside his shop while the man and his apprentices, half-dressed and black from the fire, with sweat streaming down their bare backs, worked hard making blades to be placed in bone handles; arrow and spear tips; axe blades and other weapons.
The doors leading into the palace were wide open and people entered it constantly while others came out from time to time as well, all in a hurry, all rushing someplace. The entire scene that appeared before Iskald was foreign to him, though the place was familiarly pleasant. The rowdy, noisy crowd did not belong here; or perhaps it was he that did not belong here. He suddenly felt lonely and out of place.
A simple wooden table was set up near the door leading into the palace and four warriors now occupied it. Iskald recognized them because they were the highest of the ranking Lyonese Wolves, men who had been Vahan’s great friends, guards and loyal advisers throughout his time as a ruler of Lyons. They were the most feared, the most bold, honored and revered soldiers of the Lyonese army. They were the nation’s heroes, whose daring exploits were the subject of many songs and legends told through the Estate.
Iskald smiled at the sight of them. There was the tall and skinny Teliko who despite his fragile appearance, was in fact incredibly powerful and whom no amount of exertion could bring to his knees. Beside him rested the burly Elkiey, whose constant brooding was said to have set in ever since he had lost his eye in a sea battle with the Nekryans long ago. The third man at the table was the old Yyta, who had been a warrior and a Lyonese Wolf even when Vahan was still a child.
And between the three of them sat the highlander Jasper, known as General Jasper ever since Aezubah waged war on the Vikings and became the military ruler of Lyons. He was tall, muscular and powerful, traits that were characteristic of all men who served in the elite regiment of the Wolves. Long dark hair, with just a touch of gray, hung loose around his dry and lean face, of which the most striking feature was the burning, threatening eyes. He was a powerful presence and although well respected, even the people of Lyons feared Jasper.
The Vikings were well acquainted with him, as well, as they still remembered the site of Knoss where they thought they finally had him defeated and under their boot, but he still managed to slaughter a dozen or so of them, though severely wounded. The Lyonese would have all surely died that day, were it not for Aezubah and the highlanders who came down from the mountains like a hungry avalanche, crushing everything in their path and saving the lives of Vahan, Jasper, and many of the Lyonese along the way.
At the moment Jasper was explaining something to his comrades, but he was clearly not receiving the response he wished to hear, because he burrowed his brows every now and then when they in turn spoke.
Iskald slowly made his way through the noisy crowd, pushing several people aside and stopped before the table at which the warriors sat. He rested his sheathed weapon against it and looked into their faces. Jasper raised his arm to halt the conversation and turned his inquisitive dark eyes to look at the man who had interrupted them.
He did not recognize him. How could he know that the young giant standing before him, the man who towered over everyone around him, whose solemn face revealed no emotion and whose piercing eyes seemed to penetrate almost down to his very soul.
How could Jasper know that this man was the young babe he had carried in his arms long ago? How could he guess that before him stood the boy whose loss and death they all mourned so many years ago? So he stared at him without any emotion whatsoever, waiting for the stranger to say something.
“What do you want?” Jasper asked finally, his voice harsh and impatient.
Iskald did not answer immediately, fearing that the trembling voice would fail him, fearing that he would break down and cry as soon as he opened his mouth. Here it was, the moment of truth. Will they believe him to be the son of their beloved Duke, will they accept him, will they not send him away?
“What do you want?” old Yyta was growing irritated as well. “Talk fast, son, ’cause we don’t have all day here!”
The young Duke took a deep breath and held it like someone who was about to plunge into water, but before he said anything, another man walked quickly through the door leading into the palace. He stopped at the top of the steps. “Jasper!” his voice cut the air like a knife and at the sound of it, Iskald startled and looked up.
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala