The Three Kings
by Slawomir Rapala
part 2 of 9
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.
“So what now?” Aezubah questioned, seating himself across from Iskald and reaching for the jug of wine before him. “The Vikings are still here, and we don’t have too many options. Spring is nearing with each day. We have to do something before the ice breaks and their fleet is good to sail again.”
“We have to win the war before spring comes then,” Iskald replied calmly.
“How do we do that?”
“I don’t know just yet,” the young King admitted and scratched his head. “I mean, I have an idea, but I need to do some more thinking before I’ll let you know about it.”
“It had better be good,” Aezubah said. “I’ve been thinking about how to get out of this mess for almost two months now, and I don’t see it. I don’t tell this to the others, but I’ll be honest with you: I don’t believe in victory anymore. Their numbers are growing and we can’t break through. They’ll hold us down here till spring and then they’ll bring down their ships and crush us.”
“That’s the pessimist in you talking.” Iskald smiled.
“No, that’s a strategist talking. Remember, I led armies and won wars long before you were born. You don’t win battles purely on hope and will. War is a beast that needs taming and you need men to do that, men that Vikings have many more of than we do.”
“You’re giving up then?”
“I am not giving up,” Aezubah grumbled quietly. “But I’ve been assessing the situation for months and I don’t see a way out, that’s what I’m telling you. I can assure you, however, that although may claim victory, it will cost them dearly. If we’re to lose Lyons, we won’t make it easy for them at all; we’ll fight every step of the way. So much blood will be spilled as the world had not yet seen.”
“That’s the General talking now.”
Aezubah sipped his wine and leaned back in his chair. Iskald watched him for a moment, rattling his fingers on the wooden table and contemplating quietly, reflecting on what that the aged warrior said.
“I know the situation looks bad,” he said finally.
“Bad?” Aezubah chuckled. “The situation is hopeless, that’s what it is, and you better grow used to it, because it’s not going to change any time soon.”
“You’re the best warrior I know, perhaps the best the world has ever seen.” Iskald sighed. “If you don’t have any more hope left in you, then it really can’t be good. But I didn’t come back here only to lose my Kingdom, the Kingdom that my father and forefathers built, only to lose it to a horde of sword-wielding, horned imbeciles! I left a woman behind to come here. I cast her aside to come and aid in the fight. I came here to reclaim my Kingdom, and believe me, nothing will stand in my way!”
Iskald’s eyes burned brighter than ever by the time he finished; an inspired flame illuminated his gaze. The aged warrior looked at him keenly from where he sat, but said nothing and continued to quietly sip on his wine. The young King in the meantime fell quiet as he sat opposite of Aezubah, contemplating the pending fate of Lyons.
“How much time till spring?” he asked after some time.
“Winter’s coming fast and strong,” Aezubah replied. “The mountains are already covered with snow, and in a short time the shores will be locked in ice as well. It’s going to be at least three months before the snow melts down here and up to three more before the ice breaks up North. They may get a head start, though, if they have enough manpower up there to break through the ice once it thins out.”
“So we have up to six months before the Vikings will be able to free their ships?”
“Best case scenario.”
“And the worst?”
“It could happen in three months if the winter turns mild.”
“Can we win the war in three months?”
“If we can do it at all, it’s going to have to happen quick.”
“Surprise them and defeat them in a few battles?”
“It’s our only chance,” Aezubah nodded. “But how? Even if they let us march out onto a battlefield, they’ll crush us with their sheer numbers. Irvinn’s coming with thousands more, and he’ll be here soon.”
“The highlanders tell me it’s a matter of days now.”
“We must strike in their weakest point then and we must do it fast.”
“How do we find it?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Iskald rose from his chair and slowly paced his chambers. Deep in thoughts, he stopped before the young Lyonese girl who quietly played her harp in the corner of the room. The girl blushed under his hard gaze, but even though her delicate fingers trembled, she did not cease playing, nor did she skip a note.
“You know, old man,” the young King turned to Aezubah. “You told me once that one man defending his home is worth more than a regiment of hired soldiers.”
“Even so, they still outnumber us at least ten to one.”
“That they do,” Iskald said. “But their numbers are their only strength. So if we could only separate them, if we could somehow break their army up, we might have a chance. Divide and conquer, a victor once said, right?”
“It depends.” Aezubah shrugged his shoulders. “Besides, it’s impossible in our situation. How do we divide them? They have us surrounded, they outnumber our troops, and they watch our every move.”
“And we’re watching theirs. The highlanders support us.”
“So we know as much about them as they know about us; more even. We know about their positioning, about their numbers, about their movements.”
“What do we know? We know that their numbers will be close to two hundred thousand when Irvinn gets here, we know they’re all over Lyons and we know they’re not moving anywhere. That’s what we know.”
“How long before Irvinn makes his way down?”
“Few days, I told you.”
“The highlanders are withdrawing and they sent word. They are seven days away as the crow flies.”
“So we have to move fast.”
“I don’t understand. Do you have a plan?’
“I’m not sure yet,” Iskald said again. “I need some time to think.”
The young King continued to pace the apartments for a few more moments before finally making up his mind. He stopped before Aezubah.
“Get everybody in here tomorrow morning and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking of. Then you can decide whether or not it will work.”
“You want to let me in on it?”
“I’ll tell you all tomorrow. For now, just bring me all the maps of Lyons you have handy. I’ll need to have a look at them.”
Aezubah shrugged and left. He was back soon carrying a bundle of large maps under his arm. Decades ago, Vahan’s father had ordered the entire Estate measured and surveyed and hired the best charters in the world to draw dozens of maps of different scales and thus, to verify and document the very existence of Lyons.
Since then many copies had been made, and now Aezubah was able to bring Iskald just about every available map of Lyons. He cleared the table by pushing all the cups, jugs and fruit off to the side with his arm, and put them all down before the young King.
“You want to be alone?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Iskald nodded. “I need time to think.”
Aezubah left the room leaving the young King alone to his thoughts. But Iskald did not immediately reach for the stack of maps before him. Instead, he sank into a chair with a heavy sigh and poured some wine into a cup. He raised it to his lips. Sipping the sweet nectar he closed his eyes and listened to the quiet melody coming from the corner of the room where the young Lyonese girl continued to play her instrument.
Iskald opened his eyes and turned the chair to face her. The girl blushed again when she met his gaze.
“What’s your name, child?” he asked softly.
“Rosalia,” she whispered. The music stopped.
Iskald looked at her with more interest. She was very young, she could not have had more than fifteen or sixteen years of age, but her pretty face was already marked with the unmistakable signs of quiet suffering. These marks, once chiseled in one’s feature, never left, no matter how much time passed and how well the wounds healed. Iskald knew this well himself.
“How did you end up here?” he asked, his voice softer than a quiet breeze.
“Our Lord, General Aezubah, heard me play in the main square of Hvoxx and took me with him to play for him.”
“Did you want to come here?”
The girl looked around uneasily, eyeing the door leading outside of the chambers.
“Tell me the truth,” Iskald smiled.
Rosalia looked at him and said simply: “No, I didn’t.”
“Then why did you?”
“My father died in the woods two years ago. He was a woodcutter and one day when he went into the forest to work, a tree crushed his leg. He tried to crawl back, but he was far off and didn’t make it before dark. Wolves killed him. No one heard his cries. We found his body the next morning.”
Her face saddened.
“I was left alone with my mother. She can’t see, and I have to work to feed us both. It used to be hard for us because people wouldn’t pay much to hear me play. Now Lord Aezubah gives me ten pieces of gold each month and my mother has everything she can possibly need.”
“But...?” Iskald anticipated her next words.
“But I miss her because I don’t get to see her very much. She lives in Hvoxx and I can hardly ever leave the palace.”
Her eyes filled with tears. Iskald smiled softly and placed the palm of his hand against her rosy cheek. Her skin felt nice and soft against his rough and rugged hand.
“Misery is an unjust mistress,” he said quietly. “Some of us get the lion’s share, while others have too little to do with her.”
Iskald looked into her eyes again. “Don’t worry, little one,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, as soon as you get up, go to Hvoxx and bring your mother here. You’ll live here in the palace and you’ll both have everything you need.”
The girl gazed at him with disbelief. Tears flooded her eyes again, but these were tears of joy and there was no shame in letting them fall. Suddenly she let go of the harp. It fell to the ground and rolled through the room while the girl sank to her knees before Iskald. She kissed his hands and it was only after a while that the young King was finally able to pick her up and to seat her back in the chair.
“Would you like me to play for you, my Lord?” her eyes shone and there was joy in them. “Aezubah often couldn’t sleep at night so he would have me play for him.”
“No, no, love,” Iskald patted her soft cheek again. “Go to bed already and get some rest. I won’t sleep tonight.”
And when the girl left his chambers, the young King smiled to himself, pleased with his deed. For a moment he stared into the far corner of the chamber, only mildly illuminated by several dozen candles, and he mused over how much good he could do when he was King.
Finally, he turned back to the table, unfolded the maps that Aezubah left with him and began studying them carefully, contemplating over how to force the Vikings out of his Kingdom and how to preserve peace for his people.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Slawomir Rapala