The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 2 of 4
Day slowly turned to night, but Iskald did not stop to rest. He heard the dogs behind him, closing with each passing moment; he could hear their low growls and their heavy breaths. His young powerful legs covered league after league, his lungs pumped oxygen throughout his awesome muscles, and he seemed to have unlimited reserves of energy stored inside his mighty body. No longer was he a scrawny shell of a human bullied by fellow mineworkers and the guards alike. He was a man now, a warrior; he had killed one of them!
He was free!
Even the dogs could not catch him, though he was slowed by the weight of the shattered irons still clinging to his wrists and ankles and despite the limp in his right foot, a reminder of the inhumane beating he had received from Tetoy on his first day in the mines.
The beasts were nearing, however, and finally even Iskald felt his own strength diminishing with the passing moments. Despite all his power and determination, he knew he could not continue to run much longer. He did not know how far the plain extended into the land, but he hoped to find cover in a forest soon.
The prairie seemed to stretch forever. The night was passing by, the moon was already high up on the sky, and the dogs were still there, still on his trail, still waiting for him to slow down, to trip, or to fall. Fatigue crept into his body and every savage beat of his heart seemed to strip him of the strength he still had left.
Iskald heard a low growl from a dangerously close proximity. He turned his head and in the dim light of the silver moon he finally spotted two large dogs drawing nearer with great speed. The beasts sprinted forward like two giant shadows, their slender, muscular bodies seemingly soaring over the short grass that covered the plain. Their bellies nearly touched the ground as they dashed forward, bloodshot and jaundiced eyes fixed on the man before them and glowing dangerously in the dark of night.
Iskald realized he would not escape them; the only way to survive now was to stand against the bloodthirsty beasts. When he heard the next hungry growl, this one coming from just behind his back, Iskald stopped abruptly and turned his whole body to face the approaching animals.
The first of the beasts couldn’t halt as suddenly and ran straight into Iskald’s powerful arms. Its attempt to scuttle away was in the next moment foiled by the young Duke who simply crushed the animal in his mighty embrace. For a short moment the night was filled with ferocious growling, the sound of bones breaking and finally, quiet and painful whimpers.
Iskald dropped the limp body of the animal to the ground, where it convulsed for a while longer. At the same time the second beast darted at the young slave’s throat and forced him to the ground under its sheer weight. In the last moment, just before the massive jaws closed over the delicate skin of his throat, Iskald managed to thrust his forearm beneath the dog’s foaming muzzle and to hold it a mere hair’s thickness above his face, clutching the fur on the back of its neck with his other hand. He wrapped his powerful legs around the animal like a giant vise and crushed its body, slowly forcing the life out of the struggling beast.
The animal jerked and slithered every which way possible in the powerful hold, but to no avail. Soon its bones gave in and its ribs caved. One must have punctured the heart because the beast shuddered, gave a final jerk and then lied dead beside its dying companion. The night was quiet again.
Iskald rested his back against the grass-covered earth and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. A passing thought went through his head that perhaps the Nekryans would not be able to find him as easily now, since they had no dogs to track him. They would have to return to the mines to fetch more animals, and before that would happen, the young Duke would be long gone.
A faint smile quietly brightened his usually so grim and ruthless features. He pulled himself back to his feet and looked to the west. Far away he noticed a dark line just below the horizon, distinctly darker from the plain and the starry sky. Realizing that he had crossed the entire grassland and that he finally reached the forest, Iskald smiled again. Leaving the shattered corpses of two dogs behind him, the young Duke gathered the remainder of his strength and sprinted towards the Great Chenschung Forest.
With the last bit of strength Iskald dashed through the skimpy thicket growing at the edge of the woods and finally found safety in the shelter and the shadows of the massive trees. They grew close together and reminded the young Duke of the jungle surrounding his own home in the Estate of Lyons. He had not seen a forest like this in years and found himself strangely comforted in a place where other men felt threatened and endangered.
For one brief moment Iskald felt as if he was back home. With a great sigh of relief, he collapsed to the ground exhausted. Rolling onto his back he tried to look up at the sky but he only saw the dark green roof formed from the tree-tops growing together in a soothing embrace. Iskald wetted his dry lips, closed his eyes, and continued to lie on the pleasantly cold ground motionless, listening to the wind playfully whispering sweet-nothings in between the leaves. His great chest moved up and down in heavy breath and it took Iskald a long time before he felt rested enough to be able to sit down and then to finally stand on his own two feet.
Fixing his eyes on the vast plain he had just gotten through, Iskald smiled again. The Nekryans would never be able to find him now. He would disappear in the forest and even if they had more dogs with them, his tracks would be lost among the hundred different scents left by the animals moving through the forest each day.
Gazing around again more carefully, Iskald suddenly startled and instinctively dropped back to the ground. Far, far off to the left, somewhere at the edge of the forest, he spotted a glare of light. It could only be fire. His first urge was to rise and continue his escape, but he quickly forced himself to stay put.
Where there was fire, there must be people as well. And there was nothing to suggest to him that they were Isla’s guards or mercenaries. Local hunters or peasants had probably made the fire after being caught by the falling night while away from their homesteads.
Iskald was tired, he was hungry, and he needed rest. Most importantly, though, he needed to find people who would listen to him, even if they were to be Nekryans. He had to expose Isla and his doings. He had to make sure that Isla was brought to justice for the travesties that he, Cisil, and the other guards had committed over the past years.
No one would realize who he really was, he reasoned. Years have passed since his capture, the world must have forgotten about him and all must have thought he was dead. He had nothing to fear from the Nekryans, Iskald convinced himself. Anyway, no one would even believe a story like his. It was too fantastic, too incredible, and most of all, too horrible. Iskald’s true identity was safe. He could just as easily tell people he had been taken from Biyack or one of the Viking Realms. No one ever had to know he was from the small Estate of Lyons or that he was its true ruler.
Having thought all this in a fraction of a moment, Iskald started making his way towards the fire, careful not to make any noise. Luckily for him, the forest itself had already come to life with the sounds of wind rustling through the trees, the predators growling, and other night creatures sounding their calls, many of them unfamiliar to Iskald’s ears. Fortunately, they drowned out the clatter he made as he hiked through the stubby bushes; his feet were now more used to walking over the rugged ground of the mines rather than the soft forest floor.
Once he was close enough to the fire to be able to distinguish voices from the sounds of the forest, Iskald hesitated and halted in a half-crouch. Then he dropped to his knees deciding to crawl the rest of the way. He used every trunk, every bit of bush and taller grass as cover and stole quietly forward, just another shadow in a dark forest.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala