The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
Chapter II: A Line Undone
part 4 of 5
Aezubah glanced at the group of warriors gathered before him. There were about twenty of them, all very tall and sturdy, all skilled in the art of war, having already lived through hundreds of wars, battles and hand-to-hand combats. Their harsh and stern faces only emphasised the fact that these men were men of action, men who were quick to temper and quicker still to reach for their swords.
Despite their uninviting appearance, Aezubah knew that these men were true warriors, men who were daring and courageous, honorable and incapable of treachery. They were the chosen warriors of the entire Lyonese army, true soldiers who were born and raised on battlefields and tasted nothing in life save the hardships and dangers of war. They were fearless in combat, true to their friends and ferocious towards their enemies. They were the best of the Order of the Northern Wolves, friends of Vahan, the most trusted companions and best guards that the Duke could ever imagine.
They were Wolves indeed, Aezubah thought as he looked at them; bred in the North, among the towering mountains and bottomless gorges, brought up in harsh highland conditions, thrown into war at an early age, they had still lived to tell the tale. A band of silent, hungry predators on the trail of prey, already smelling its fear and tasting its blood, Aezubah thought. The General found himself feeling strangely at home around these ruthless men.
“Has anyone except Youssef left the Jewel this morning?” Aezubah broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Only Youssef,” replied one of the men. He was a powerful highlander who called himself Jasper, a man of great strength, full of audacity and absolutely brutal in combat.
A double-edged axe hung loosely from his belt. He used it with deadly precision and was feared even by the Vikings for his viciousness. They had caught him alone and surrounded him at Knoss, his back leaning against a rock, with a slashed breast and three arrows wedged in his body. Jasper killed thirteen foes with the savage blows of his axe before other Wolves managed to fight their way through the enemy and bring him to safety.
As soon as the enemy was out of sight, he collapsed and did not open his eyes for seven days before finally coming to and nurturing his wounds. All Wolves held him in the highest regard, and he was their undisputed leader, one who answered only to Vahan. Aezubah was a good friend of his, but they had never fought side by side, and despite the high regard in which the Duke held the old man or his worldly reputation, Jasper was not eager to let him assume authority over the Wolves in any situation. He was a proud highlander who trusted no one except himself and now he looked questioningly at Aezubah.
“What’s going on, old man?” he asked. “To tell you the truth I can’t make heads and tails out of any of this. Why’d you make me send a party of Wolves to fetch the Duke and Iskald off the road? Where did them two go, anyway? And why do you ask about Youssef, what’s he got to do with any of this?”
The old veteran looked at him hesitantly. He knew that Jasper and Youssef were drinking companions, they were often seen together in the pubs of Hvoxx; he wondered how close their friendship really was.
“Vahan and Iskald are on their way to Uaal,” he said slowly. “They took two Wolves and left early, planning to be back before dusk.”
“So?” Jasper shrugged. “They go there all the time. Why turn them around?”
“I fear they’re in danger.”
“What sort of danger?” Jasper’s face remained motionless, but his attention grew.
“We received a message this morning that the Tha-kians may be sneaking around our coast, looking for easy prey.”
“How many ships?” someone asked.
“Is that a certain message?” someone else added.
“We don’t know anything for sure, we can only speculate.” Aezubah shook his head. “Vahan didn’t want to take any chances, so he ordered me to look after the Jewel and warn the coastal villages and towns. I’ve already dispatched several couriers, just to be sure, but right now I think that the Tha-kians are not simply looking for slaves. I fear they have their eyes set on Uaal, the Duke and Iskald.”
There was silence. The Wolves looked at the old man in disbelief.
“Are you out of your mind, Aezubah?” someone asked.
“Yeah, how would they know that Vahan happens to be in Uaal?”
Aezubah kept quiet and didn’t answer. He fixed his eyes on Jasper, who looked him keenly in the eye. The highlander was quickly beginning to understand what the old man was saying.
“He’s trying to tell us someone tipped them off!” he said slowly and turned towards his companions. “He’s saying there’s a traitor among us!”
There was dead silence. The already grim faces of the Wolves grew even more solemn. They quieted down.
“That’s a dangerous thing to say around here, no matter who you are,” Jasper hissed. “Did you know that, old man?”
He slowly approached Aezubah until his massive chest touched his and looked him in the eye. The aged warrior did not move at all.
“Yeah, I know that.”
“You know what I think, old man? I think old age has left you feeble, stupid and blind, that’s what I think.”
“You’re the one that’s blind if you don’t see the treachery in all this,” Aezubah did not lose his cool nor did he back down. Instead, he let his eyes run through the highlander.
“Really?” Jasper’s let his hand fall to the handle of his axe. The Wolves behind him unanimously unsheathed their swords. Sharp blades gleamed dangerously in the mid-day sun. “And who do you suggest is the traitor among us?”
“You figure it out,” Aezubah nonchalantly twisted the belt on his waist and then let his hands hang loose by his sides. He could now reach his sword with one swift move.
Jasper noticed and drew back a few steps. He had heard enough stories about the General to know that in case of trouble the old man would not hesitate to use his blade, and Jasper would be the first one to feel its sharp edges hammering into his skull.
“No one knew about Vahan’s outing until this morning, and only one person left this place since then.”
“Youssef,” someone said quietly.
“These are only your speculations!”
“Yeah, we all know you never liked Youssef!”
“What proof do you have that Tha-kians are even around here?”
Aezubah did not like the look on Jasper’s face. He stopped paying attention to the other Wolves and focused his eyes on the highlander’s. Slowly the others realized that something was going to happen between those two and they quieted down. But their swords remained unsheathed and they glimmered in the sun.
“I’m gonna kill you, old man,” Jasper said softly and drew his axe.
“Listen to me, Jasper,” Aezubah remained motionless. “Before you do anything stupid, just hear me out.”
“It’s true that I never liked Youssef, but that’s exactly why I always kept an eye out for him. Think about it, Jasper: he’s a hired soldier, which means that he’s someone who has no obligations towards the Duke. He may just as well be serving our enemies so long as they give him more gold.
“He also comes from Biyack and that just speaks for itself. It’s in the best interest of his King to see Vahan dead, and Biyack could easily have paid him off.
“Finally, he’s gotten into trouble as of late and had a row with the Duke, who told him to clean up his act or he’d send him packing. While you were busy drinking with him, Jasper, I was watching the scoundrel and let me tell you something: he is the only one in the Jewel with reasons to hate Vahan.
“Now think about it: this very person is the only one to get his arse up early in the morning, something that’s a bit odd for a drunk like him, and leave the fortress before the sun’s even up, on a day when the Tha-kians are sighted near our coast and a day that the Duke and his son intend to spend in an unprotected little town. You do the math.”
Some of the Wolves lowered their swords and looked questioningly at one another, but Jasper’s eyes were continually fixed on Aezubah. He showed no emotion when he said quietly, “You’re wrong, old man, and I’m gonna kill you now.”
Aezubah shrugged and said no more. He saw how useless it was and drew his sword. Two fearless warriors glared at each other and heavy silence befell the square. No one dared to move a muscle, no one even breathed, when suddenly the guard atop the Southern tower hit the bell once and twice and then three times. Everybody turned quickly in his direction except Aezubah and Jasper who would not let each other out of sight and continued to hold fast to their weapons.
“A ship!” the guard cried. “A ship out on the horizon! I see the black and white banner of Tha-ka from here!”
“Are they coming this way?” Aezubah gazed sternly into Jasper’s eyes.
“No, they’re sailing along the shore!”
“Northwest?” the veteran wanted to make sure.
“They’re going towards Uaal!” Aezubah said to the highlander, who lowered his axe now, unpleasantly surprised.
“Hold on!” the guard cried again. “I see a boat! A small dinghy is leaving the ship and coming our way! It’s headed to Triahnnem!”
“Youssef!” growled Aezubah and looked at Jasper. The highlander’s face remained grim. “If it’s really him, I’ll snap his neck like a goddamned twig!” he snarled.
“Now you’re talking!” Aezubah’s pushed his sword back into the sheath and extended his arm toward the highlander, who took hold of it with great might. The two men shook hands.
“All right, we got work to do!” the aging soldier suddenly came to life. “Sound the alarm bells, standard preparations for an attack! Send a courier to Hvoxx and make sure the 7th is on guard just in case! One of you make haste and ride to Triahnnem and ready three ships to follow the filthy buggers!
“They’ll be long gone before our ships leave the shore!”
“Get them ready and wait for me to send word! Get going, dammit!”
The square emptied out in a few moments and the bells sounded clearly all over the Jewel and in Hvoxx. The bells in Triahnnem caught the note and were quick to follow.
A few of the Wolves jumped on their horses and raced outside the gate lifting clouds of dust and debris behind them.
Aezubah looked on for an instant, and then turned to Jasper, who stayed by his side. “We’re going to Triahnnem, too! I’m sure it was Youssef who guided the lone dinghy, and I don’t intend to let his treachery go unpunished!”
“What about the Duke?”
“We’ve done all we can do for now,” Aezubah shook his head. “The party we dispatched earlier should have him and Iskald back on their way! We’ll ride out to meet them later! We’re going after Youssef now!”
“Let’s go then!” Jasper sprang towards the horses brought to their sides by the stable boys when they heard the alarm bells.
It was not more than a few leagues to Triahnnem, but they were barely halfway when they spotted someone riding fast in their direction. “Youssef!” Jasper said under his breath.
“Let me talk to him!” Aezubah looked at him.
“Let me kill him!”
“We’ll see what he knows first!”
The riders met up in the middle of the road, pulled violently on the reins and halted beside each other. The horses neighed in protest and refused to obey for a while, and it took the warriors a few moments to settle them down and for the dust to clear.
“Aezubah! Jasper!” the commander of the guards greeted them almost joyfully. “I’m glad to see you! The bells are sounding, I hear the Tha-kians are near?”
“You heard right,” Aezubah slid off the horse and Youssef did the same.
“Goddammit, quiet down!” he shouted at his steed, who would not stand still..
Jasper remained on top of his horse. He bit his lip and glared at Youssef with stone-cold eyes. The old man gave him a quick look, as if urging him to keep calm then turned toward the Biyackian commander.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“I was in Triahnnem this morning.”
“Oh, yeah? How’s everything there?”
“Just fine,” Youssef eyed him nervously. “Shouldn’t we get going? I mean, if the Tha-kians are prowling our coast...”
“It’s all taken care of, relax,” the old man took a step toward him. “Are you sure everything is fine in Triahnnem?”
“Nothing, it’s just that I saw you out in a dinghy a while back and was wondering what the hell you were doing out there? I mean, you’re no fisherman, right?”
“You saw me out there?” Youssef repeated, shifting his gaze from Aezubah to Jasper. He didn’t like the look on the highlander’s face. “See, I just bought a new ferry and went out to see how she holds out against the tides.”
“Is that what you were doing?” Jasper growled.
“You’re lucky the Tha-kians didn’t spot you!” Aezubah interrupted quickly before the highlander could say another word. “You have to watch out these days, these aren’t safe waters.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m lucky,” Youssef’s face grew grim. He was beginning to sense that something was wrong.
“I mean, they’d skin you alive if they caught you!”
The three men were now all eyeing one another. All of them now felt something terrible hanging in the air. The moment of silence that followed was heavy.
“Yeah,” Jasper remarked finally, his eyes shooting lightning bolts. “You know, I don’t think you have that much to fear from them. After all, you’re on pretty good terms with those skinny little bastards!”
Youssef’s eyes were now glued to the highlander’s face. “What’re you trying to say?”
“Just that you’re a goddamned traitor and we’re here to break you in two!” Aezubah remarked matter-of-factly.
“Let me at him!” Jasper hissed. The commander drew back in fear and turned to run, but the old man stepped in front of him. Quick as a snake, Jasper slid off the saddle and reached for Youssef, murder in his eyes.
Suddenly though, the Biyackian drew a knife and drove the curved blade at the highlander’s chest with great force. Jasper stepped aside instinctively and the sharp edge missed him by a hair. He seized Youssef above his elbow with one hand, by his wrist with the other and violently pulled him down to his knees. The man cried in pain, his broken arm dropping limp and the knife slipping from between his fingers and into the dirt.
Jasper quickly stepped behind him, grabbed his head and with one swift and vicious motion he twisted it to the side. Aezubah heard the revolting sound of the neck snapping at the base of Youssef’s skull and then saw the limp body slowly sinking to the ground. The traitor’s face was twisted in pain and his empty eyes rolled up towards the sky.
The old man looked at Jasper with astonishment. “You’re pure evil!” he laughed.
Jasper spat on the corpse, looked up at Aezubah and grinned for the first time. “I told you I’d break his neck!” He stepped over the body. “I’ll tell you something else, too: the next time I’ll sit down to drink, I’ll be sure to toast all the fiends of Hell so that they skin this peckerwood alive and roast him over slow fire because we didn’t have time to do that!”
“When all this is over, we’ll go drinking together, I promise you that!”
They climbed their horses. Aezubah took hold of Youssef’s steed and they rode off speedily towards the Jewel, leaving the corpse behind them as charity for the road scavengers that were already lurking around.
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Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala