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Chapter III

The melting snow formed fragile icicles that hung from the needles of the evergreen trees. The ground was soft and cold, and wet. The sunlight made the remaining snow on the mountains almost blinding to look at. The only sounds that could be heard were the chirping of the few birds that had arrived just early enough for spring to begin, and the sound of the streams flowing down the cliffs.

“Are you sure this alliance is wise?” asked Shamira, breaking the silence.

Aryn turned to her bodyguard. “Erelah advised it. I’d say a prophet’s opinion is worth trusting.”

“Your Majesty, Erelah may have performed a few seeming miracles, but how can we be sure she’s not just some sort of sorceress?” Shamira asked.

Aryn patted Shamira’s armored shoulder. “You’re a paladin, Shamira. Did you see any of the tell-tale signs of a witch or demon about her?”

“There’s more evil in this world than simply demons and witches, your Grace.”

“We don’t have many options. The commoners of Arx want me on the throne but, as you saw two years ago, they’re simply no match for Mahla’s army. The noble houses are just too strong for mere peasants to stand against them.”

“But, your Majesty, allying yourself with Queen Haldis? She’s a barbari-“

“Shhh!” Aryn cut her off when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Climbing the mountain pass was anything but easy with how much the ground gave with each step; thus Aryn could hear the groans and heavy breathing of the approaching Shadians.

A woman in her mid-fifties and clad in a tunic and cloak made of animal pelts climbed the mountain pass, along with two young men dressed the same way. The woman wore a single, simple, silver circlet around her forehead, which almost blended in with her white hair.

“You’re so cruel, Aryn,” the silver-haired woman said, “Making a frail old lady climb all this way.” Her voice was deep and throaty, slightly unsettling to the ear.

“Aye, making a frail old woman climb these mountains would be cruel,” said Aryn. “But, in your case, Haldis, we both know better than that.”

Haldis chuckled and snorted at Aryn’s comment, clearly flattered. “In Shadia if you live to be older than forty there’s a damn good reason for that. Especially if you’re royalty. Now, you wanted to discuss the possibility of an alliance?”

“I did,” Aryn said. “We have a common enemy, you and I. It was Mahla who murdered your son, just as she hired an assassin to murder my husband. She now sits on the throne of Arx. I hardly think such cold-blooded murder should be rewarded.”

“And you want my help reclaiming your throne, is that right?” Haldis asked. “My armies of savage ‘barbarians,’” Haldis glared at Shamira, “Backing your civilized knights and holy paladins?”

“For all of the differences between our people we have this in common,” Aryn said, “We love our children, our husbands, our friends, and when they are wronged we feel the need to bring those who hurt them to justice.”

Haldis spat. “Winter take your silly notions of justice, I want vengeance!”

“Call it what you will, we both agree that cold-blooded murderers should not get away with their crimes. Since Mahla has wronged us both, I suggest we work together to punish her.”

Haldis’ expression softened a bit. “A worthy proposal. My warriors could use a good fight, too. Very well, Aryn, we will join your fight. Let us shed our enemies’ blood side by side.” Haldis and Aryn clasped hands tightly.

“In order for this to work you need to wait for my word to move,” said Aryn. She handed Haldis a rolled piece of paper. “On this map I have marked a series of tunnels leading into Arx from Shadia. Typically, these would be more dangerous than traveling above ground, but seeing as Mahla probably has the usual passes guarded…”

“Much easier way in,” Haldis said. “Good.”

Haldis and Aryn parted ways, with their bodyguards following close behind.

Once they were far away from the Queen of Shadia, Shamira cleared her throat and said, “Permission to speak freely, your Majesty?”

“Denied,” said Aryn.

“Pardon?” Shamira’s jaw fell. Even asking for permission to speak freely around Queen Aryn was usually little more than a formality. Aryn had told Shamira time and again she wanted her to speak her mind.

“I don’t want to hear it,” said Aryn. “I am the rightful Queen of Arx, and my people are suffering under the rule of a murderer. I will do whatever it takes to save them.”

“Even allying with those barbarians? Even telling them of the secret passages into Arx?”

“Once I have control of the kingdom again I can have those tunnels sealed off if I believe the Shadians to be a threat. Now, did I give you permission to scold me?”

“Your Majesty…I only wish to offer my council…”

“I heeded your counsel when I had Countess Yael executed for her perceived crimes and started a war. In my attempt to protect the people I turned all of the noble houses to Mahla’s side and put that tyrant on the throne.”

“Regardless of the result it was the right thing to do.”

“No, Shamira, it was the righteous thing to do. The right thing and righteous thing are often very different, it seems.”

For the rest of the day Shamira remained quiet. Aryn and Shamira traversed the mountain passes in total silence. From where they were they could see most of the kingdom. The sprawling green hills and fields spread out in the enormous valley that was Arx. There were meadows of flowers stretched out before them, and tiny towns that looked so peaceful and quiet. From the mountains Arx looked like it had no problems, it was easy to forget the turmoil within. After hours of arduous hiking, just as the sun was setting, they stopped. Shamira built a campfire and pitched two tents.

For several minutes they sat in front of the fire, mesmerized by the dancing flames that licked at the winds. Shamira had almost fallen asleep watching the fire when Aryn’s sob broke the silence. When Shamira looked up, Aryn was covering her mouth and squeezing her eyes closed tightly in an unsuccessful attempt to hold back tears.

“Your Grace?” Shamira said as she stood and walked over to Queen Aryn.

Between sobs Aryn managed to say, “ I’m sorry…I’m sorry, Shamira.”

“Your Grace, what have you to be sorry about?” Shamira asked as she wrapped an arm around Aryn’s shoulder.

“I don’t really blame you. I’m sorry for what I said.”

“It was fair, your grace. I’m your bodyguard, not your adviser I’ve overstepped my boundaries too often.”

“You’re my friend, Shamira. I never should have said those things.” Aryn sniffled and wiped the tears from her face. “I don’t blame you for what happened…for the war. Really, I’m to blame.”

“No, your Grace, that’s not true.”

“It is!” Aryn said. “I did plenty to make the noble houses angry, long before Yael’s trial, and long after. I wasn’t even queen for a full year before…”

Shamira pulled Aryn into a tighter hug. “We’ll set things right, your Majesty. Have a little faith. How many prophets do you need to speak to before you believe everything will be alright?”

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About the author

Nicholas S. Casale

Bio: Nicholas S. Casale, or "Nico" as his friends call him, was born on Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. When he was eleven years old, he moved to Colorado with his family for his father's new job.

He went to Lewis-Palmer Middle School, where teacher Mrs. Susan Doyle got him interested in history by expressing to him that it was not about facts to memorize, but about stories to be told. During this time, English teacher Mr. Todd Mucci also taught him how to write, and he began work on his first piece of historical fiction.

Though his family was fairly secular, he attended a youth group at the Little Log Church in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

In college, he majored in history, and studied various mythologies and religions throughout the world. After college, he became certified as a paralegal and worked at Wal-Mart for the next three years while he tried to find a job with a law firm.

After landing his first paralegal job, he still felt something was missing in his life, and struggled with bouts of depression and loneliness. That was, until he started attending a Messianic Jewish Synagogue in Colorado Springs, where he met the Hebrew class teacher who would one day become his wife.

He is now happily married to Jenifer E. Casale, who wrote "The Whispered War" with him and is currently working on a feminine counterpart to the famous "Hero's Journey" theory devised by Joseph Campbell.

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