It was as if a thousand knives were firmly planted in her legs, with tips digging into the bone, and her head burned. She’d been in darkness and pain for eternity. Was this the Void? Had she died when she was thrown from the cliffs and was now suffering the consequences of her actions? This unending torment was surely an unfair punishment, she thought. Not that there was much she could do to escape it at this point.
She could hear voices nearby, muffled voices. Over and over she heard them carrying on their conversations. She could almost swear she’d heard her own name spoken a few times, too.
Then, light began to fade into her view. The pain in her legs intensified, but her vision was being restored to her. Her hearing too, for as the thatch ceiling came into view she could hear the voice of an old man singing.
“It is the Pillar of Life
To those who take hold.
Its ways are full of joy,
All its paths are peace.
Help us, God, to see
The truth of your Law.
Reign over us all,
And grant us better days.”
Lila tried to speak, but her voice came out as a grunt.
“My word!” the old man jumped at the sound of her grunt. “You’re awake!”
Soon Lila could see the old man standing over her. His head was mostly bald, with a silver ring of hair going around the back of his head from just in front of his ears. His face was emaciated, and somewhat sun-burnt, but his eyes were kind.
“Nghah…” Lila mumbled.
“Eloquently put.” The old man laughed. “But seriously, you’ve been out for a few days, don’t strain yourself.” He pushed his hand down on Lila’s shoulder as she tried to push herself up. “I said don’t strain yourself.”
The old man’s cold, bony fingers on Lila’s shoulder made her cringe, and she lay back down. She was slowly becoming more and more aware of herself and found that her shoulders were bare, and from her chest down she was bound in bandages. Both of her legs were especially tightly-bound, with wooden planks tied into the bandages as splints. She could feel some soreness lingering in her spine and her ribs, but it didn’t compare to the pain in her legs.
“Wr my?” she mumbled.
“A small village in the foothills,” said the old man. “That is what you asked, right? Where am i?”
“Good. Shiri found you and a young lady in armor at the bottom of the cliffs. The other young lady was dead, there was no way to save her, but Shiri knew if she got you to me in time I might be able to save you.”
“How? Well, I may not have the robes or a congregation, but I’m still a priest.”
A priest? How had Lila fallen to such misfortune as to end up in the care of an Agalmite priest? She thought the very fact she was alive was a stroke of luck at first, but here she was in the care of members of a clergy which her queen was trying to exterminate. If they were to find out who she was she might soon find herself wishing the fall had killed her.
“Who’s Shiri?” Lila said, finding that her voice was slowly returning to normal.
“My daughter,” said the old man. “She’ll want to know you’re awake now. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Once the priest had left the room Lila forced herself to sit upright so that she could have a look around. As far as she could tell, this was a small hovel and relatively new. In the air she could smell the stink of farm animals, and soon the smell was accompanied by the mooing of cows and braying of horses from outside. Hidden under the stink of the livestock and the wet hay bales Lila could also smell a hint of rabbit stew cooking, and she could barely make out the sound of crackling wood from the stove.
On the wall she could see an ornate idol of the Agalmite God. For how crude and base the rest of the hovel was, the glimmering, glass idol looked out of place.
“Iwannaseeher, Iwannaseeher, Iwannaseeher!” Lila heard, followed by the sound of someone running up. A girl of about eighteen years bounded up to the bed Lila was on and leaned over her. The girl’s long, black hair fell all around Lila, creating a visual tunnel between her and the girl’s surprisingly beautiful face. “Ohmygosh! You’re all better now? Howdoyoufeel? Whassyername? Youstillhurt? Youhungry? What’syourname? Howdidyoufall?” As the young lady prattled on with her questions, not giving Lila even a moment to respond, her hips wiggled side to side and her hands repeatedly clapped down on the edge of Lila’s cot. Wherever did this girl get so much energy.
“Shiri, please, give the young lady some room,” the old priest said.
“Oh, Pa! You did it!” Shiri said as she started bounding up and down with both of her fists balled up under her chin. “You’re the best healer ever! She was so close to dead and you saved her!”
“God saved her, child,” said the old priest.
“No, you did. God stopped giving a damn about any of us a long time ago, if he ever cared at all,” Shiri said. Lila could see that Shiri’s words stung the old priest, but he didn’t say anything. Clearly, this was not the first time she’d spoken such blasphemy. Furthermore, there was a hint of something in the old priest’s eyes, a sadness. Perhaps, did he believe, deep down, that his daughter might be right? “So, what’s your name? You didn’t answer my question. What is it? Tell me. Come on! Tell me! What is it? What’s your name?”
“Lila!” she finally interrupted. She’d been waiting for this girl to take a breath, but it didn’t seem like she was likely to any time soon.
“Lila? That’s a pretty sounding name. Pa, didn’t you say ‘Lila’ means ‘darkness’ in Ancient Speak?”
The old priest slipped in his answer quickly. He certainly knew he’d not get another chance to get a word in if he didn’t. “Night, actually.”
“Night. Your name means night. Fitting, that’s when I found you. At night, you know.” Shiri pressed the back of her hand against Lila’s forehead. “Your fever’s gone away. Good sign. Good sign. You like beef stew? That’s what we’re cooking. My recipe. Pa never uses enough salt. I’ll go see if it’s ready.”
As Shiri bounded off the old priest turned to Lila. “Sorry about that, child. My daughter is rather excitable.”
“I can see that,” Lila said. “I never got your name.”
“Levi,” said the old priest.
“Beef stew!” Shiri said as she came bounding back with a bowl in her hands. Much to Lila’s surprise, Shiri didn’t seem to spill a single drop. “You want me to feed you? Say ‘ah!’” Shiri scooped some of the steaming stew onto a spoon and extended the spoon to Lila’s mouth.
“I can feed myself,” Lila said, taking the spoon from Shiri’s hands. She felt indignant that she was being treated like such a child. That is, until she dropped the spoon on its way to her mouth and spilled the stew down the front of her chest.
“Trying to go straight to the belly? Silly! That’s not how it works! You gotta chew first!” Shiri said, laughing at Lila. She picked up the spoon from Lila’s chest. Lila blushed as the attractive young girl touched her, but she kept her face still as stone. “Now, you gonna be a big girl and eat all your stew?” Shiri said in a voice one uses when speaking to babies. She scooped more stew on the spoon and held it out to Lila’s closed mouth again. Out of the corner of her mouth she said, “Noble lady who rules this castle, we humbly request you raise the portcullis so that we may enter.”
Lila rolled her eyes and opened her mouth, allowing Shiri to spoon-feed her. She and Levi exchanged glances, and he silently apologized to her again before leaving the hut.
“Your father is a priest?” Lila asked.
“Yep, daddy’s a man of the cloth. Eat,” Shiri said as she shoveled more stew into Lila’s mouth.
“Yet…you don’t believe in God?” Lila said.
“Of course I believe in God! Without God where would all of the magic and angels come from?”
“But, what you said earlier…”
“Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I like the sleepy old bastard,” Shiri said. Lila was hardly the religious sort, but hearing that sort of talk still nearly caused her to spit out the stew.
“Sleepy?” Lila asked.
“Well, yeah. He’s asleep at the helm, derelict in his duties, abdicating his throne. How else do you explain what’s happening to his faithful?”
“What if the Inquisition’s right and God really is dead?” With all that Lila had seen over her years as a mercenary and an assassin she had always found this particular doctrine of the True Way to be compelling. Sure, angels existed, there was no denying that, and the mere fact that there was a world at all led her to believe that someone must have created it at some point, but whatever creator was responsible for making Erets seemed to be long gone. Over the past two years Lila had seen more members of the Agalmite clergy executed than she could count. Every time, the Agalmites prayed to their God, begging him to intervene. When those prayers were lost to silence they turned to prophesying, and told their executioners they would soon see God’s wrath. Two years of this. Not one Agalmite cleric was rescued from the stake, not once did God pour out his wrath on the Inquisition. Surely their God was long since dead.
“He’s just sleeping,” Shiri said. “If he was actually dead I think Erets would disappear.”
“How does that follow?” Lila asked.
“How does what follow?”
“That if God died everything would disappear.”
“Not everything, just Erets, our world. The Void would still exist. Silly Lila, he didn’t make the Void, and had nothing to do with all of the countless worlds elsewhere!”
Lila wanted to correct her, but had the feeling she wasn’t going to get a satisfying answer out of this flighty girl. “How long have you been hiding out in this village?”
“As soon as we heard that Mahla had tooken the capital city with the help of the Inquisition we knew we had to get as far from the capital as we could. During the reign of Queen Sarahi it became common knowledge that if the Inquisition had their way the Agalmite Church would be completely destroyed, along with all others who preach a faith other than the ‘True Way.’”
“Did you just…pick a village at random and run to it?” Lila asked.
“No, of course not! Haven’t you ever heard of the Order of Kanai?”
The name sounded familiar to Lila, but her eyes usually glazed over and eyes turned deaf whenever someone started speaking about the Church and religious politics. “Enlighten me.”
“The Kanai are the agents of the Church. They keep secrets, spy on enemies of the Church, and are always prepared to rescue clergy in danger. In the middle of the night they came into my Father’s temple and snuckus out in the cover of darkness.”
Assassins. The Kanai were Church assassins. Lila shuddered to think how many might even be still hiding in the capital city, just waiting for an opportunity to kill Queen Mahla and anyone who supported her. “What did they look like?” Lila asked.
“They were wearing masks, and they always travel in disguise. Showing their faces would kind of defeat the purpose of having an order of secret keepers, wouldn’t it?”
“Of course. Silly me,” said Lila with a forced laugh.
Support "Tales of Erets Book Three: Holding the Heavens"
- Colorado Springs, CO
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.