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Chapter XVIII

Mahla had not been slain in the battle, but merely wounded. Aryn was hoping that Mahla would have fallen in the battle and save her the trouble of putting Mahla on trial. A trial was a chance for Mahla to make her case, perhaps persuade more people to her line of thinking. Furthermore, it was a chance for her to be rescued.

“You do realize there's nothing legal about any of this,” said Mahla on the stand. A murmur spread through the audience.

“Why do you say that?” Aryn asked.

“You are not Hadar's daughter, as you claimed for so many years. He was a lover of men and had no children, you're a bastard born of a commoner. I am King Amasi's daughter, I have royal blood in my veins. I was the rightful heir to the throne, and I took the throne that rightfully belonged to me.”

“Our system of government is not so barbaric as it is in Nihilus,” said Aryn. She almost used Shadia as the example, but Haldis, the Shadian Queen, was in the courtroom. “The throne is not given purely on the merit of blood, but by the choice of the Council. The Grand Duke, the Arch-Bishop, and the Chancellor crown kings and queens in Arx, for they represent the army, the Church, and the people.”

“Their choice is only a legal one if the one they choose is of royal blood.”

“After your coup you murdered two-thirds of the Council.” Aryn was doing her best to make this a moral rather than legal argument. In the rooms beneath the Grand Cathedral the late Arch-Bishop Livanna had revealed to Aryn through an ancient book of prophecy that she was, in fact, a member of the royal bloodline of Melech. However, these books of prophecy were secret, for fear of them falling into the wrong hands. Aryn could not cite the Book of Crowns to justify her rule. “And you've been trying to stamp out the Church ever since. You tore down our cathedrals, you burned our monasteries. You ruled by the sword and only the sword. You were no true queen!”

“When a kingdom is at war a queen must rule by the sword,” said Mahla. “It was out of loyalty to you, the false queen, that the people continuously rose up against me. They forced me to put them to the sword. You brought civil war to Arx, not me.” Mahla turned her head so that she was also addressing the many noble families who'd come to attend the trial. “Are we saying that the Church and the commoners can decide whenever they want who they wish to lead them? Is there no regard for the sacredness of bloodline? Why, then any of these lords and ladies here could spend a lifetime building up a grand inheritance for their children, only for the people to take that inheritance away and give it to someone who will act as their puppet.”

Mahla was doing it again, stirring up doubt amongst the noble houses. If she made this whole matter about birthright she could make Aryn's reign an unpleasant one, possibly even continue the civil war. Aryn needed to counter her somehow. “If the lords and ladies present here strive to take care of their people, strive to do what's right rather than serving themselves, then the people will want them to stay in power. If you build your riches by bleeding the people dry, then of course they want their money back. If you build your riches while taking care of the commoners they will want your children to inherit, in hopes that your children will do the same.”

“Don't pretend the commoners will be content with their place after having seen a common girl become queen, Aryn. Once the people have had a taste of power, even if vicariously, you think they're going to give that up? Commoners all over Arx will decide they deserve to be lords. There will be uprisings without end!”

“As opposed to how peaceful the kingdom was under your rule?” Aryn countered. The whole assembly roared into laughter, followed by applause.

Mahla's face burned red. Rage built up inside of her. She wanted so badly to blame Aryn for all of the uprisings and everything she'd had to do to keep her power, but she couldn't think of a counter-argument to make that point. The whole crowd had turned against her now. Some of them were even nobles who had previously supported her in her coup. Were they really so unsatisfied in her rule? Or were they just going along with Aryn because she had the upper hand? Traitors, all of them, in any case.

And Aryn continued. “You can speculate all you want about what the common people might do under my reign, but we already know what they will do, what they have done under yours. We can argue all day about who had the throne legally, but I think it's pretty clear that this kingdom cannot survive with you as its queen. There is only the matter of sentencing, Mahla. I have to decide what to do with you now that you're no longer our queen. I will hear your pleas for mercy.”

“You will hear my pleas? I refuse to beg you! You are no queen!” Mahla hissed out her venom. She was the monarch of all of Arx for two years, she would not be bullied by this pretender.

“If you refuse to ask for mercy then I shall have to come up with the sentence myself, without hearing your pleas.” Aryn began to rise from her seat and those whom she'd agreed to let advise her headed towards the back door.

Mahla could tell where this was headed. They were about to enter into deliberations about what to do with her. Mahla could see those whom Aryn had chosen as her advisers. Sarahi, Nerissa, Erelah, and Haldis. The queen of the Shadians was amongst Aryn's council. Mahla could tell by looking at them how their advice would go. Every one of them had more than enough reason to want Mahla dead. “Wait!” Mahla called out.

“Last chance,” said Aryn.

“With the exception of your foreign allies we are all Arxians here, and so we have a common enemy. In western Arx the Digan Empire has encroached on our lands. They are already fighting the Inquisition in Kolob. Why did you think there were so few Inquisition forces here in the city? This invasion force must be stopped before it gets too far.”

“I'll have to look into the truth of your claims,” said Aryn, “But what are you proposing?”

“Maybe I'm not a great queen, but I am an excellent military commander. I've built a reputation for myself, winning battles when it seemed impossible. Send me to the west to face this legion. Let me take what's left of the Dunn Banner Mercenary Company. That won't be enough for me to defeat the invaders, but it may be enough for me to give them quite a fight before they kill me. See, you'll still be sentencing me to death, you'll just put my death to some use.”

Aryn nodded to Mahla. “We shall consider it.” Aryn and her council left the court room through the backdoor.

Nerissa spoke first, once the door was closed behind them. “If we truly are being invaded we'll need to address that. What better way then to send Mahla to her death against the invaders?”

“She will ally with them,” said Erelah. “I know this for certain. The information she has about Arx is valuable. She would sell to the Digans. She was a mercenary before her coup, she wouldd join their army without a second thought. How many times must Arx put faith in mercenaries and be betrayed before its leaders will no longer trust them?”

The story of the Savages in the Grand Duke's castle eighteen years ago flooded back to everyone's minds. Well, everyone except Haldis.

Haldis turned to Aryn. “You promised me revenge! That was the whole point of our alliance!” Sarahi's fists clenched hearing someone talk to her daughter that way. Nerissa, knowing how her sister must feel, gave Sarahi a cautioning look. “That slut seduced my son and then murdered him! She didn't even have the honor to kill him in battle!”

“Your son was raiding along the northern border of Arx, if I'm not mistaken,” said Sarahi. Nerissa shook her head at Sarahi, trying to warn her that this wasn't helpful.

“Yes, and he deserved to die for what he did,” said Haldis. “But he deserved a warrior's death, not cold-blooded murder.”

Erelah chimed in. “Thou didst fail to keep hold of his reins. Thou hast a hand in his death as much as does Mahla.”

“You little schyte!” Haldis screamed and seized Erelah by the neck.

In an instant Nerissa, Aryn, and Sarahi all had weapons out and pointed at Haldis' head and throat. Erelah shook her head at them. “Peace, my friends. Haldis, if thou squeezest even a little thine heart will turn to stone, and thou wilt surely die. I do not bluff.”

“How dare you?”

“Thou feelest it is true. That's why thou art so angered at my words,” Erelah said. “Thou feelest guilty for what happened to thy son. By blaming Mahla thou lessen thine own guilt, lighten the burden. Vengeance is thy way of making amends for failing him the way thou didst. Dost thou truly believe it will make things better? Truly I tell thee, it will not. Vengeance shall leave thee hollow.” Haldis hesitantly released Erelah's neck. “Why dost thou feel the need to make amends? Dost thou think this will earn thee his forgiveness? I tell thee, thy son has already forgiven thee, Haldis. He forgavest thee long before thou didst agree to fight in this war. Now it has come time for thee to let go. Forgive thyself, and forgive Mahla.”

Haldis couldn't speak, for fear that her voice would waver and she would release the tears she fought to hold back. How did this strange little girl know so much about her? Truly, Erelah knew more about Haldis than she knew about herself.

“What, then?” Aryn asked. “Are you saying that we need to let Mahla live?”

“No. Thou canst not,” said Erelah. “As long as she lives she is a threat to Arx. She will never stop trying to seize power, especially now that she has tasted it. Thou must have her executed.”

Aryn threw her hands up in exasperation. “Then what was the point of all that talk about forgiving her?”

“She must not be killed out of anger,” Erelah said. “If we succumb to vengeance we risk becoming just as wicked as she is. This is not about paying her back for what she's done. The matter is not even about justice or what she deserves. The matter is about protecting the people. The matter is about removing sin from the land.”

“What about the nobility?” Nerissa asked. “There's no telling how many of them actually took Mahla's words to heart about Aryn's rule being a threat to their way of life. They might sympathize with Mahla if she's killed for taking her birthright.”

“I already have other plans to deal with them,” said Erelah. “But that discussion is for another time. Aryn, thou must do what is necessary. Protect thy people and uphold the Law. This is thy purpose.”

Aryn nodded to Erelah. “Thank you. And thank you all for your advice. This is a hard decision.”

Mahla cringed as she heard the door creak open again. She knew they would never show her mercy, not after her coup two years ago. She just couldn't get over the horrible injustice of it all. She'd been born the lovechild of a common woman and the crown prince of Arx. Her house had burned down, and her mother died in the blaze. All this when she was only four. It wasn't until she was fully grown that she found out that she was in line for the throne and that a usurper had taken her place. She fought for her throne, and even fought to defend the people of Arx against raiders from Shadia. Now that same usurper had taken the throne from Mahla again after only two years, and with the help of those barbarians from the North. For only two years Mahla sat on the throne she should have had her entire life, and that whole time the ungrateful rabble rebelled against her. She cursed her fate, and she cursed the God responsible for all of this.

Aryn spoke, and Mahla felt all of her hate boiling over in her own tears. “Mahla, in the interest of protecting the people of Arx from your violent ambition, I hereby sentence you to die by stoning. Guards, take Mahla out to the city square.”

Four guards came to take Mahla. For a moment she hung her head in defeat, but just as the guards grabbed her arms she lashed out at them. She bit down hard on the hand of one of the guards until the bones in his thumb broke and she tore the thumb off with her teeth. As that guard recoiled and screamed in pain, Mahla threw her head forward into the face of another guard and struck his nose. The third guard tried to grab hold of her, but she broke his knee with one strong kick. Her hands weren't free, but anyone who thought her helpless would have been a fool.

The fourth guard knew in his gut they'd never take this one alive. He drew his sword and prepared to push it between her ribs.

“I'm pregnant!” Mahla cried out. “I'm with child! I carry my husband's baby in my womb!”

Aryn stood and shouted, “Stop! Don't kill her!” By now several guards had gathered around, all with weapons drawn. Mahla may have been a war criminal, but if she was telling the truth and she was, indeed, pregnant then the child was innocent.

Mahla raised her hands in surrender now that she knew she wasn't going to be executed. “Sahar and I were married, and we consummated the marriage. Since then...I'm certain I'm pregnant.”

“Very well,” said Aryn. “I will not hold your child responsible for your crimes. For the time being you will be locked up until we determine the truth of the matter. If you are truly pregnant you will be allowed to live long enough to give birth, but then you must face justice for your crimes.”

“Your majesty is truly gracious,” said Mahla, her voice dripping with malice.

Aryn cringed. Whether it was true or not, Mahla was taking advantage of the situation. Her child, if there was one, was the human shield she was holding up in her defense so that she didn't have to pay the price for her crimes.

Mahla cooperated as the guards surrounded her again and put her in manacles. She smiled contently to herself as she was walked off to the dungeon. She'd bought time, time enough for her luck to turn around again. Whatever power in this world favored her so much as to grant her victory at every battle before all of this was sure to see her in danger and step in to save her. She would be queen again, she was sure of it.

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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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