The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
Chapter I: Troubled Tides
part 3 of 5
With Aezubah’s arrival, things had changed immediately. The aging General had opened his heart to Iskald and replaced the siblings the boy never had, the friends he lacked as a result of his noble birth and, at least partly, Aezubah also replaced his mother. It was of little surprise then that Iskald loved the aging, bitter warrior, while disregarding the fact that by many accounts, he was a ruthless man and a cold-blooded killer.
Another arrow sliced the morning air and this time it had lodged itself right in the centre. Seeing this, Aezubah said, “You’re making real progress. Shooting at targets is starting to get too easy for you. We’re gonna have to find you a new challenge.”
“What do you have in mind?” Iskald leaned against his man-sized bow and looked curiously at his mentor and friend.
But before Aezubah could answer, another man appeared on the square disrupting their morning training with his unexpected arrival. Aezubah and Iskald lowered their eyes to the ground as he approached them.
At about a head taller than Aezubah and at least twice his size, the newcomer had an imposing presence. A tightly knit network of interlocking muscles and veins, a massive bull-like torso, a bulging chest and broad shoulders, each was evidence of mammoth strength.
The man wore a simple white shirt, leather shorts held by a belt crafted out of snakeskin, and sandals on his feet. Because of the increasing heat, he wore his shirt open, emphasizing his impressive physique. His tanned skin was stamped with a multitude of old scars. A great mane of hair black as tar enclosed his motionless and ruthless face; one had the impression that the man rarely smiled. His eyes were the color of steel and as they gazed keenly, nothing escaped their attention.
He was a man under whose feet earth itself cried and bled, and whose mere appearance filled people with a divine fear. Those who knew him either adored him as the greatest warrior and leader or feared him as the worst enemy. He neglected to notice either, and focused on two things: raising his son to be a great warrior and keeping peace within the borders of Lyons. He was Vahan of Lyons, the man who held absolute power in the Estate and whose name was spoken with utmost respect.
At the sight of Iskald the face of this harsh man softened and a fleeing look of longing appeared in his eyes, for a moment replacing the usual grimness.
“I see Iskald is making real progress!” Vahan spoke as he pointed towards the target. “If he continues to improve at this pace soon he will be able to stand among the best of the Lyonese Wolves.”
“I already told you, my Lord, that this boy is magnificent!” Aezubah was quick to respond. “In mere years he learned what others cannot grasp in a lifetime.”
“I suppose congratulations are in order,” Vahan said. “The student should be rewarded for his hard work and the teacher for his patience and the results. I really don’t know how to thank you anymore, old man!”
The rascal blinked his eyes and they lit up with greed. “Being of any use to Your Highness is a reward itself. But just between us, a handful of gold would compensate me for all my sleepless nights, when I was tossing and turning, trying to figure out how to turn this boy into a man!”
Iskald, who stood nearby leaning against his bow, smiled after hearing this peculiar answer. When alone, Aezubah and Vahan were the best of friends; the aging General shed the mask of inferiority and the Duke treated him as an equal. In public, however, they would sometimes put on an act to satisfy the Court protocol and no one, save a few of the closer advisors and friends, realized how much fun they had with it. The elderly warrior could really do as he pleased in Lyons; he was the second most powerful man in the Estate.
“I fear that if I compensate you in such manner, you’ll spend the next few days in Hvoxx, wreaking havoc in all the pubs and inns,” Vahan was also amused by the old man’s witty reply and smiled.
“I’ll be drinking to your health, my Lord!”
“Don’t worry, old man, you’ll get your reward.”
“I know I will, because I have already come to experience your generosity. My only fear now is that my deeds will turn out to be greater than the reward!”
“All right, old man!” Vahan laughed. “You’ll get your gold, and you’ll get your wine and meat! You’ll never go hungry or thirsty again!”
“I’m nothing but a poor warrior,” Aezubah shook his head. “I don’t fear hunger as long as I have a blade by my side, but a meal is easier to buy than to hunt. I put myself at the mercy of Your Highness’ generosity.”
“You mean the beer is harder to brew than to buy!”
“If you accuse me of drunkenness, all I can say is that the more drunk I am, all the more I praise you, my Lord!”
“I’m warning you, old man: you’ll get so much gold that you won’t be able to drink all the beer you’ll buy with it!”
“In that case I’ll find a couple of good companions and we’ll be broke and sober by the end of the month!”
“Do whatever you want, just make sure you don’t cause any trouble,” Vahan suddenly grew serious again. “I know you, Aezubah, don’t forget that!”
“Hear, hear!” the old rascal sighed and quieted down.
“I’ll be leaving for Uaal sometime around noon,” the Duke turned towards Iskald. “I trust you’ll accompany me?”
“Of course, father,” the boy responded quickly. “I miss mother as much as you!”
A sad smile surfaced in the corner of Vahan’s mouth when he heard his son’s enthusiastic response. He quickly regained composure, however, and turned back to Aezubah:
“I received a message this morning that the Tha-kians may be planning an attack on our coast, looking for slaves and easy prey. Word is that they want to take advantage of good tides as long as they last. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. The boy who brought the message was a former slave who freed himself and jumped off their ship several leagues off shore. Fishermen fetched him out of the water; he said he overheard the Tha-kians talking.”
“I want to see him!” Aezubah face lost its gleeful expression and was replaced with a scowl as he listened to the unpleasant news.
“He’s dead. The sharks made a meal of him as he swam to the shore. It’s amazing he made it long enough to tell me the news.”
“You smell foul play?”
“I’m not sure. I’d rather be safe than sorry, so while I’m gone I want you to warn Hvoxx and the coastal towns and villages, send several couriers. You know what to do?”
“Of course,” Aezubah shrugged with a silent scoff.
“Good. I also want you to inspect the walls of the fortress and repair any of the places that the rains washed down. The 15th has the day off, they’re stationed in Triahnnem; get them to work, I’ll double their pay. Understand?”
“I don’t see why go through all the trouble.”
“I want to be sure that the Jewel will hold in case of an attack.”
“The Jewel will withstand the end of the world,” Aezubah reasoned with confidence. “Besides, I think the warning is a rumour spread by the Tha-kians to stir trouble.”
“Do what I told you!” Vahan raised his voice and looked sharply at Aezubah.
“I leave nothing to chance. That’s why I’m still alive and why I’m still in power!”
Aezubah simply shrugged again and said nothing more. He realized that whether or not the danger was real was not the issue. Vahan was worried about his home and his Realm, and that was reason enough to do what he asked for. He himself did not believe in any actual danger threatening Lyons. The Tha-kians were a barbarian nation from the South that Aezubah was very familiar with. These dark treacherous warriors supported their Kingdom chiefly through slave trade and it were the slaves they sought when they invaded other countries. Most of the time they organized small raids into the South’s interior or alternatively, they would sail the coast attacking villages and towns, capturing as many slaves as possible before fleeing home in haste, ahead of any legions dispatched against them.
The threat of these stealthy war parties was always there, but a full-scale invasion was something the Tha-kians would never undertake. They were ruthless killers and had no compassion for living beings, but they were not real warriors. They could never match the trained legions of Lyons on battlefield and especially not those of the Order of the Wolves.
No one could and no one would even dare to try, save the Vikings, who feared nothing and no one. Having spent years in the North, Aezubah claimed that the Vikings were the best warriors in the world because they had nothing to lose. They lived among icebergs, they dwelled in snow, they grew up in the cold North, they were tough and they were fearless, completely different from the soft-skinned invaders from the South who relied on heavy numbers to win wars.
The Tha-kians were no Vikings. A single Viking would charge an army and die with song on his lips as each limb was hacked from his body, while a Tha-kian would turn traitor, lead the enemy into his own home and cut his mother’s throat in order to save his skin.
Having made his dispositions clear, Vahan turned back to his son and said, before walking away, “We’re leaving at noon, so make sure you’re ready.”
Uaal, a tiny village laying several leagues Northwest of the Jewel on the coast of the Azmattic Ocean, was Dynah’s birthplace. When she married Vahan of Lyons, she often visited the little town and it was during one of such visits that she asked for a tomb to be built there, a tomb in which she found untimely rest.
Since her death Vahan frequently visited Uaal and spent long days praying to his departed wife. She became his goddess and divine companion, while the lonely tomb overlooking the ocean became the place where the hurting Duke sought solitude and peace from the politics and the noise of everyday life at Court.
After his father disappeared back in the residence, Iskald cast his bow and quiver aside. He rested beneath a large oak that grew in the shadows of the wall. Deep in thought, he brought his knees up to his chin and looked on.
Aezubah, with the image of the reward promised him by Vahan still lingering before his eyes, took a while to notice the change in Iskald’s behavior. As soon as he did, however, he approached the boy and rested beside him with a deep sigh. He looked into the boy’s face and drew back in surprise. Iskald’s eyes were full of tears.
“A warrior never cries, that’s something women do when they’re bored.” The General burrowed his brow in discontent.
Iskald wiped the tears off his cheeks, embarrassed.
“See, that’s a lot better now, isn’t it?” Aezubah grumbled.
“It’s just that whenever I think of mother tears come all by themselves.” The boy sighed quietly and shook his head. “I’ve never seen her, I don’t know what she looks like, but I love her so much, enough to kill myself if I could only be sure that it would bring her back!”
Once again tears rolled down the boy’s cheeks and fell down to the ground, mixing with the morning dew resting on the long grass.
Aezubah looked and sighed also. He loved the boy like his own son and wanting to cheer him up, he said with a soft smile, “I guess the gods needed more angels in heaven so they bade her to come without paying any heed to the pain it caused down here. Come on, wipe those tears. Your mother was a wonderful woman.”
“Did you know her?” Iskald asked.
“I only saw her once, but I will never forget her.”
“Because that day she saved my life,” Aezubah replied.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala