The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 3 of 4
Though already a little over sixty years of age, Aezubah was still in great shape and showed little, if none, signs of weakness. Though not particularly tall, slim and slender at the same time, he was undoubtedly a powerful man.
Standing proud and tall, Aezubah appeared the very definition of a warrior. Strength and confidence emanated from him and everyone who saw him, almost unconsciously bowed their heads before his authority. He changed little during the last years; only his gray hair was cut short now and his face showed more signs of weariness than ever before. One could easily tell that the General spent many sleepless nights.
But his eyes looked on as sharp as ever, and his lips seemed to be locked even tighter now, a trait revealing Aezubah’s cruelty, that same ruthlessness he had been prone to forty years ago, twenty years ago, four years before. Aezubah had not changed much. He had grown a bit older, but this was mostly due to the worries that hardly ever now left his mind. More wrinkles appeared on his face and a dark cloud cast a shadow over his eyes, a shadow that never now left his forehead.
Ever since Iskald’s disappearance Aezubah had not found a moment of peace and had not been able to sleep calmly through even one night. To this day the old man could not forgive himself for allowing the Tha-kians to take the boy away, for not finding him, for not doing more than he had done to bring back Vahan’s son, a boy whom he loved as his own. Now Iskald was dead without a doubt, having died a terrible death, one surely not meant for a Duke and an heir to a throne.
Aezubah had come to terms with the loss, but he was still to come to terms with himself; he was still to forgive himself. He no longer believed that the boy would ever come back, that the boy could have saved himself from the horrible fate at the hand of the slave traders.
And though Aezubah realized deep in his heart that he had done everything that was humanly possible to find Iskald and to rescue him when he was abducted, somehow it just still did not seem enough. Perhaps he could have done more? The hatred and loathing he felt towards himself consumed him like a disease and he could sometimes barely go on living. Oh, how he hated himself on some days, how he hated himself for not being there for Iskald when the boy most needed him, for having failed him so miserably, for having failed the trust that Vahan had placed in him, for having failed the memory of Dynah, for having broken the promise he had given her when he stood over her grave years ago.
And perhaps what pained him the most was that he would never be able to look into Iskald’s eyes and ask his forgiveness for that one time he had failed, that he would never be able to ask the young boy he failed to shield from the brutality and horror of life, to forgive him for not being there to protect him on that fateful day.
And it pained him that he would never see Iskald grow into a man and a warrior, and into a great leader and King, such as both he and Vahan had envisioned the boy to become one day.
Then one day, a day seemingly like any other, he came face to face with him. And it did not happen far away on distant lands that he thought he would never travel again, no. It happened on a normal day, right at home, right where he had seen him last. Right away he recognized him, right away he knew it was him, his young boy, the son of his beloved friend and Duke, Vahan of Lyons.
In the grim eyes of the young man before him, Aezubah easily found the joyful and carefree gaze of a boy, the boy he believed dead for years. In the stranger’s cold and ruthless face, a face that was so visibly marked with anguish and suffering, Aezubah could easily see Dynah’s soft features, just as he could easily spot Vahan’s courage and pride. And he knew it was the boy who had become his son, replacing those the General had lost so many years ago, he knew it was him right away, as soon as their eyes met.
And the aged warrior, on whose shoulders rested the lives of thousands of people, the rock that all of Lyons leaned on for so long, a man whose daring exploits were celebrated in stories and songs all over the world and whose cruelty and brutality was feared, the man who had been banished from most Realms for crimes against humanity, the man with seemingly no weakness and no frailty, that very man suddenly swayed on his feet, staggered back and nearly collapsed before everybody in the main square.
Jasper and the others looked on in quiet shock as Aezubah leaned against the wall, his eyes fixed on the young stranger standing before him, tears streaking his seasoned face. They were even more surprised upon seeing tears in the grim eyes of the young stranger whose gaze had wholly softened when he lay eyes on their leader, and whose silent manner was that of a son who had found his father after years of separation.
The Lyonese, all those who witnessed the scene, could not understand what was happening as the two men staggered forward and embraced each other, each sobbing quietly on the shoulder of the other. The taller Iskald put his arms around his aged mentor and wept like a baby, his heart pounding an uneven beat.
Finally, after years of slavery, after years of traveling through foreign lands, he had finally found a heart that was dear to him, a heart that was close to his own, a heart that had longed to see him as much as he longed to come back. He was sure now, for the first time in his turbulent life, that everything he had been through had happened for a reason.
Perhaps it had all happened so that he would finally understand what it meant to be Lyonese, something that he had perhaps never appreciated before, something that he had taken for granted because of his position in Lyons, because of who he was to become in Lyons, and because of who his father was.
Now he understood, for the first time he understood fully what it really meant to be Lyonese, what it meant to belong somewhere, what it meant to have people to lean on, to be surrounded by people whom he held so close to his heart. For many years to be Lyonese had meant almost nothing to him; it was an empty term, a term with no substance to it, a name without a face.
Now, in the midst of Aezubah’s heartfelt embrace, Iskald finally came to realize whom he really was: the son of Vahan of Lyons, heir to the throne of Lyons, the future King of a beautiful Northern Kingdom, the land that birthed and raised him, the land he loved so much, the land that had always stayed with him during the time he was away, even if it was only in his dreams. It stayed with him throughout, though he had tried so long to leave it and push it away.
Everyone in the main square stopped what they were doing and watched the scene with utter surprise. Jasper, Yyta, Elkiey and Teliko, the most trusted of Aezubah’s men, gazed at him questioningly, just as shocked and stunned as those around them. They had never before saw their leader express any emotion whatsoever, and now he was sobbing quietly as he embraced the stranger.
When Aezubah finally released Iskald from his powerful grip, he took a step back and had a good look at him, though he could not see much through the tears still gathering in his eyes. The old man had only cried once prior to this day.
“Iskald!” his voice was breaking. It was a voice of an aged man who had seen too much and lived too long, a voice of an old and weary man who had had his share of pain in life and wished no more. But through the weariness and the hurt that Aezubah’s voice was soaked with, Iskald could hear a happy note, a merry tune, and a joyful song.
Breaking the shackles that grief placed on his heart, Aezubah finally let go of the guilt; he let go of the pain; he let it all go, and all he felt now was joy. The aged warrior knew now that he could finally die in peace, even if death came on that very day, at that moment.
He did not know how Iskald had come back to Lyons, he did not know yet where he had spent the last four years and what had happened to him in all that time; but it did not matter. Only one thought mattered now: Iskald was alive and he had come back, come back to ease his pain and to make the guilt go away.
Iskald was alive and he had come back to sit on the throne of Lyons and to rule justly and proudly for years to come, as his father had for so long. Suddenly, the future of Lyons seemed to be no longer in jeopardy because now, Aezubah realized, there was a purpose behind it all. The Vikings had to be stopped, they had to be defeated. Not so much for Lyons, not so much for the Wolves and for the people, not so much because of the threat they posed to the world.
It had to be done for Iskald.
And not only for Iskald, but also for Vahan and for Dynah, so that they could finally rest in peace, knowing that their son was following the path set for him by his ancestors, that he was reclaiming his heritage.
Defeating the Vikings took on an entirely new meaning to Aezubah now; it was no longer just a duty, but it was now something sacred, something that had to be done if the world was to be right. Lyons finally had her King, and so she now had to be freed from the shackles the Vikings had put her in. The heavy boot of the Northern invader had to be lifted.
Taken by a sudden wave of fervor and a surge of passionate enthusiasm brought about by the emotion and the joy he felt in his heart, Aezubah put his arms around Iskald again and showing tremendous strength, he lifted him high up in the air.
“Know your King!” his voice was clear and strong and everyone on the main square heard him. “He has come back to lead Lyons and us all into such greatness that the world has never seen! People, know your King! Here he is: Iskald of Lyons!”
Jasper and the others sprang from their seats upon hearing the name uttered by Aezubah and looked at him with disbelief. The main square, where there was so much noise and clatter just moments ago, was overcome with dead silence now. All eyes turned towards the tall young man who stood again beside Aezubah, towering over him and everyone else around him.
His pale eyes, having lost their softness as soon as he turned away from the aged warrior, seemed to pierce through blood and flesh, penetrating everyone who dared meet them down to the bone. Yes, he was the son of Vahan, there could be no question about that. Though his eyes were much fairer than his father’s, almost as clear as the cold ice that capped the mountain peaks and glaciers of the Far North, the same fire burned in them, the same pride, and the same strength of will.
Iskald looked around and though his face appeared grim, all he could feel inside was joy. He still did not quite understand what was happening around him, it was all taking place so unexpectedly and so rapidly. But he felt no embarrassment and no awkwardness at all, though so many eyes were fixed on him.
His lips slowly formed into a soft smile, his eyes softened once more and the heavy weight that for years had burdened his heart, suddenly dissolved and released waves and waves of happiness that surged through his body. Because even though in all the eyes he looked into he saw shock and surprise, he saw no distrust and no doubt.
And Iskald felt deep down inside that these people believed him instantly. He saw it in their faces, many of which were suddenly overcome with joy and hope, hope and belief in the fact that Lyons was to have a future; that Lyons was not to die.
And Iskald felt that everything was just as it should be. These were his people and he was their King. All the hesitation and uncertainty that he might have had before disappeared forever, to cast no more shadow of doubt on his forehead. He was no longer unsure of whether or not he had made the right choice by coming back. This was his home; these were his people.
His solemn duty was to spill the last drop of blood if necessary for these people; to give his life even, if need be. And not just for the people gathered before him, but for thousands more who lived in fear outside the impregnable walls of the Jewel and for the thousands more who were giving their lives, right at that very moment perhaps, for the survival of Lyons, fighting against the vicious invader.
Iskald suddenly realized that only here, as ruler of these tough and fearless people, could he ever find true happiness and joy. So he looked at them all honestly, comfortably meeting their stares, looking at their true and honest faces with no false pride. His gaze was that of a shepherd looking over his sheep and there was great strength in his voice when he said, “I am Iskald of Lyons.”
Then Aezubah took him by his arm and led him into the palace.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala