Father Lamech felt as if his heart would burst from his chest when he finally came to a stop. The veins at his temples pounded, his breathing was erratic, and his hands shook. So much fear and exhaustion at once. He'd been running since the city and was well into the forests in the foothills by now.
“Coward!” rumbled a voice from under the ground. Father Lamech jumped at the sound and fell over as the ground shook. The ground ripped open right in front of Father Lamech and crystal dust, like powdered glass, flew up from the tear. As the shimmering dust gathered together into a human shape before Father Lamech's eyes, the voice rang out like thunder, “Sinner! You have succumbed to fear and fled! Did I not assure you that you would be victorious?”
“We were losing! We were dying!” Father Lamech shouted as the wind swirled around him. “If I had not run they would have slain me!”
“And do you not think your loyal followers would have avenged you?” The voice said as Sandalphon appeared from the dust. “That was all they needed, to turn their fear into anger. You could have given your life and they would have lived. Instead you ran like a coward. You showed them that even you thought victory was impossible, and so they surrendered. Those who were not killed are now sent to be slaves in the west!” Sandalphon seized Lamech by the throat. His fingers were cold against Lamech's skin, and the wrinkles in his hand created tiny cuts on Lamech's throat. As he lifted Lamech off of the ground Lamech kicked, flailed, and screamed. “Judgment! Justice! You lived and let your people die!”
“There shall be a new Grand Inquisitor soon enough, someone bound to do better than you.” Sandalphon tightened his grip, first choking Father Lamech, but then decapitating him entirely as Sandalphon's his fingers cut and crushed their way through.
. . .
Perhaps the Legate would have been better off had he simply given up on his faith than tried to understand why the goddess of mercy and the god of justice had dealt him such a merciless injustice. But Atius pushed the memories back. He had a job to do, one which would tear down old life so that new life, perhaps better life, would spring up in its place. He was an agent of resurrection, a faithful follower who would spread the Father's will so that the Mother could experience joy. The Mother's endless flower garden was to be watered with blood.
Atius looked up as the messenger returned to camp. “Well? Will they send reinforcements like I requested?” Atius asked.
The messenger bowed. “His Imperial Majesty would not grant additional soldiers at this time. He said they are needed to protect the home-front from rebellions and retaliation. Even now his legions march from city to city, fighting rebel forces. He did, however, send this.” Two of Atius' legionaries approached with a chest that jingled with coin. They dropped it at Atius' feet and opened it. The inside was filled with gold coins, a queen's dowry.
Atius knew in an instant what it meant. “He means for us to pay for mercenaries,” he said. “Go and speak with the scouts. Tell them to keep an eye out for any of the following mercenary companies: The Blind Falcons, The Lead Fists, The Evil Bastards, The Black Coats, or Bryce's Troop. The Dunn Banner Mercenary Company is no more, and the Savages have been wiped out by now for sure. When you find them tell them that we will hire their men and pay them to fight, but any women in their troop may not fight beside us.”
This was why Atius was the best at what he did, he always made sure to know as much about the land he was invading as possible. He'd learned about the local mercenary companies, but also of the blasphemy that the people of Arx committed against the Mother and Father. It was a woman's purpose to create, and bring into the world new life. It was a man's purpose to destroy and to kill. The fact that the Arxians allowed women soldiers in their ranks was appalling, a great sin against the highest. Once the land of Arx was conquered the people could be re-educated, taught the difference between right and wrong.
The fact that Emperor Cyril had sent Atius gold instead of reinforcements confirmed what Atius already knew. Hiring mercenaries was always risky, they weren't fighting for the cause, they were fighting for money. They had no real loyalty. As such they could be bribed, and were more likely to retreat if the battle even began to seem hopeless. Finding someone who would fight to the death for you simply because you paid them to was a rarity. Emperor Cyril intended for things to go wrong for Atius eventually, he always was good at pitting his enemies against each other. Nonetheless, this was the only way Atius would have enough men to attack Caelum. Perhaps the fame that would come with successfully besieging such a landmark would be enough to keep the mercenaries' loyalty.
. . .
“It falls to thee to rebuild the glory that was Arx now that the greed and prejudice of fools has torn it down,” said Erelah.
Aryn knew this was a daunting task. For all of Arx's history kings and queens were anointed by a Council made up of three individuals; the Grand Duke, the Arch-Bishop, and the Chancellor. The Chancellor was someone elected by the people, holding a new election wouldn't be that difficult. The Arch-Bishop was usually appointed by the previous Arch-Bishop based on the secret prophecies in the Book of Shields, which only a select few clerics even knew existed. This was a problem because the previous Arch-Bishop, Livanna, had been murdered before choosing a successor. The Grand Duke was an inherited position, a relative of the royal family, whether by blood or adoption, was to swear off all rights to the crown and would be made the Grand Duke, head of the military. The current Grand Duke was an enemy of the crown, Sahar, and he was on the run.
What made things worse was that even though the various noble houses of Arx had risen to Aryn's aid when she took the throne, she was certain that many of them still preferred Mahla as their queen. With Mahla still alive these lords and ladies would still be a threat.
“Invite each noble family to send close relatives to stay in the capital as thy court,” said Erelah.
Aryn gave the prophet a confused look. “What? Are you...reading my mind?”
“No. I just know what to say. I actually have no idea what is on thy mind,” said the small girl.
Sarahi chimed in, “She's got a good idea there. Invite the noble houses to send relatives here to act as your court, your advisers. Those who support you, as well as those who aren't sure, will be honored. And since one of the things Mahla is accusing you of is a prejudice against the nobility you'd be putting those fears to rest.”
“What about those families who are secretly plotting against me?” Aryn asked. “You want me to invite them to send someone to my home?”
“Yes, because if they are plotting against you they will realize you have a member of their family hostage,” said Tamas. “I know, you're not the type to take hostages, or to punish the innocent for the crimes of their family members, but your enemies don't know that. All they'll see is that it would be suspicious of them to refuse your offer, so they will send family members to serve as your court. Then they wouldn't dare attack, for fear that you would do something to those they love.”
“An empty threat,” said Aryn.
“A bluff they will most assuredly fall for,” said Tamas.
“Good point,” said Aryn. “And perhaps from among them I may find someone fit to serve as the new Grand Duke.”
“Mhmm, and then all you have to worry about is replacing the Arch-Bishop,” said Tamas.
“No one will ever replace Livanna,” said Aryn.
Tamas scratched his head and shifted uncomfortably. “True, true. I'm sorry, poor phrasing. Fill her shoes? Wear that hat? Do the job?”
Erelah placed a hand over Tamas' mouth to silence him. A long reach for her, given their size difference. “I already have someone in mind for that.”
“You read from the...” Aryn stopped short and looked at Tamas, Shamira, and her mother and father, all of whom had never heard of the books of prophecy.
“I know because I wrote it,” said Erelah. “The next Arch-Bishop is to be a woman called Galia.”
“Wonderful news!” said Aryn. “Where does she live? I'll send a messenger right away.”
“She is in Nihilus at the moment, under the care of Lady Farrah, one of the rebel generals.”
There was a long silence as everyone in the room processed the implications of Erelah's words. This wouldn't be as easy as they'd hoped.
“So...you got a plan?” asked Milo.
“Indeed,” Erelah said. “Shamira, thou shalt accompany me. Best to keep our group small so that we may travel quickly and quietly.”
“I'm the queen's bodyguard!” Shamira protested.
“Thou art also a paladin, one sworn to do the will of thy God, and I speak for thy God,” said Erelah. “Thou shalt accompany me to Nihilus. Queen Aryn will have enough protection here.”
“Indeed she will,” said Milo.
“Not thee,” said Erelah.
“Thou shalt go out west to meet the legion from Diga. Drive those vicious, non-believers out.”
Milo stared at Erelah blankly for a moment. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but closed it again.
“Thou hast something to say,” said Erelah. “By all means say it.”
Milo furrowed his brow at the insolent child that stood before him. “A while ago you sent me out east to the March of Muri, away from my little girl while she was preparing to go to war. In the end, my presence there did little to help preparations. Sarahi and I could have just sent a messenger and things would have turned out the same way. All the while I wished I was with my daughter, watching over her, being a father to her.”
“YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!” Milo shouted as he got in Erelah's face. He towered over her, and any normal child would have been terrified. “You don't understand what it's like to be the Queen's father! You don't know what it's like to know that every day there are people who want to kill your little girl! You don't know what it's like to have to keep it a secret that she's even yours for sixteen years, to keep that a secret even from her! You cannot send me away!”
“Thy desire is to protect thy daughter, Milo? The greatest threat to her is out west!”
“I...Why can't you go out west and lead the fight against the invaders while I stay to protect her? You're the prophet!”
“Thou wilt understand, one day, the reasons why I did everything.”
“Damn you and your riddles!”
Erelah pressed a finger to Milo's chest. “Watch thyself! Hast thou not seen the success of my methods? Didst thou not see how quickly our army took the capital, and with so few casualties? Dost thou remember how long it took Mahla to take the capital two years ago with the largest army in Arx backing her? Dost thou doubt for a moment that it was because of what I instructed thee to do? Thou art a warrior, Milo, thou tellest me, what are the odds of taking a walled city so swiftly with no siege equipment? Thou mayest stay here and defend Aryn if thou so desire, but thou shalt defend her as the legion closes in. Go out west, fight the Digans long before they even get near Aius, and thou wilt ensure thy daughter's safety. This I promise thee.”
“Thou promisest me?” Milo asked.
“Verily, I promise she will be safe if thou dost as I say. What's more, thou wilt come to see the reason why I have done all I have done. For the good of Arx, nay, for the good of Erets thou must heed my words!”
Milo sighed. “Fine. I'll go out west.”
“Majesty, provide him with whatever soldiers thou canst spare.”
“Yes, ma'am,” said Aryn.
Erelah turned next to Sarahi. “Send out letters to the greatest geomancers in the land. They are to come to Aius and begin reconstructing both the Grand Cathedral and the Obelisk of the Law.”
“Reconstruct the Obelisk?” Sarahi repeated. “You're going to carve the Law onto it, then?”
“Yes. It's about time the people of Arx had their Law etched in stone again. Good that they have it written on their hearts, but hearts are fickle. Stone is everlasting.”
And so they all set out to accomplish the tasks assigned to them. Milo took an army with him and headed west to face the Digans. Erelah and Shamira left immediately for Nihilus to retrieve the next Arch-Bishop. Sarahi wrote to the most renowned geomancers in Arx, and Aryn wrote to the various noble houses.
. . .
After such a busy day and all that had happened, Aryn found that she couldn't sleep, and so she walked out to a secluded place on the battlements of the castle and enjoyed the soothing night air. She stood alone on the wall and stared out at the city sprawled out below her. Every house in the city was home to a family that was counting on her leadership. The city had been conquered twice in three years, and had nearly been destroyed before Aryn was even born. They'd seen so much fighting and violence that sometimes Aryn wondered why anyone other than warriors would want to live in such a city. Was there really so much money to be made from trade here? Or was it just that these people loved their home, no matter how dangerous it got?
“Mind if I join you?” said Tamas as he approached.
Aryn blushed and smiled at him. “I don't mind at all.”
Tamas stood as close to her as he could and leaned on the battlements, looking out at the city. He could tell he was making her nervous. Good. He allowed a long silence as the two of them just stood there. When he was certain she wasn't going to say anything he decided he would speak. “You know, I've been frustrated lately.”
“I've been trying to compose a new song,” said Tamas. “I'm never satisfied by the way it turns out, though. Every time I just think, 'It's nowhere near good enough. This song doesn't even begin to describe the way I feel about her.'” Tamas slid his hand over and held hers, gently.
Aryn's blush deepened. She tried to deflect her embarrassment with a joke. “You're trying to write a song about me but can't? Flatterer.”
“Make fun if you want, but I know you better than that.”
“You know me so well, do you?”
“It comes from watching,” said Tamas. “You're a strong woman, but you're also vulnerable. You give off an air of confidence, but you're always wondering if you're doing the right thing, always second-guessing yourself. You're stern when you need to be, but deep down you're as gentle as a lamb.”
“You think so?” Aryn tried to sound skeptical, but her tone came out far more flattered than she'd intended.
“Yes. You're a beautiful woman, Aryn, but beautiful women are everywhere. You are unique and virtuous.” Tamas placed his hands on either side of Aryn's face. His thumb caressed her lower lip and her mouth opened slightly at the touch. “That's why I love you.” Tamas gave her no time to respond before he brought his lips to hers. For a moment her lips were tense, but she soon softened and wrapped her arms around his waist. She moaned into his mouth as they kissed and pushed back into him, her tongue exploring his mouth. Tamas' strong, calloused fingers slipped through her hair, and even gave her locks the smallest of tugs.
With everything that had happened there was so much comfort, so much safety in this man's strong arms. The whole world was filled with conflicts, politics, and religious wars; all complicated and all unpleasant. In this moment, Aryn found herself overcome at the simple joy that came from the fact that she was a woman and this was a man who wanted her. Her nails clawed at his back through his shirt, and she could feel the strong sinew between his shoulders. Their kissing became more and more fierce as she ran her nails along his torso through the fabric. Tamas' lips left Aryn's and he brought his mouth close to her ear as if to whisper secrets to her. Indeed, he did whisper in her ear, but the words were gibberish. The words weren't what mattered, though, it was the feeling of Tamas' breath dancing along Aryn's ear and neck that sent tingles throughout her body. She moaned as he teased her with whispers, and taking his cue from her moans he leaned forward and bit her ear-lobe.
But suddenly, she pulled away. “No, someone might see us here,” she said.
“Right...” Tamas sighed. “I'm sorry, your majesty.”
“Don't be, I just mean we need to go somewhere private,” Aryn said. “You know where my room is. Meet me there.” Aryn hurried off to her bedroom, cursing how big the castle was because of how long it took to get there.
The last time Tamas had been even to the door of Aryn's bedroom she was married to another man. Well, boy, actually. A boy he was supposed to be protecting. He could remember all the nights he stood guard outside of that door, wishing he was the one inside alone with her. Now that he was finally there he almost couldn't believe it.
He glanced down both hallways to make sure no one would see him, then knocked on the door. “Come in, quickly,” responded Aryn's voice from the inside. Tamas obeyed, and shut the door behind him. There she was, clad in a white sleeping gown. Her soft black hair draped over her bare shoulders, and one lock of her hair trailed down between her breasts. She stood with her hips shifted over to one side and her smooth legs parted.
Tamas could feel his whole body getting hot just looking at her in anticipation. He could feel his desire building, with every step closer and closer to the woman he'd coveted for so long. His hands rested on her hips, and her arms wrapped around his neck. For a moment they merely stared into each other's eyes.
Tamas' eyes were deep black pools, always such a mystery to Aryn. Every time their eyes met she fell further and further into his enigma. As their lips met she knew she couldn't escape him now. She was captive to him, and the feeling thrilled her. His fingertips kneaded at the curve of her back, the soft material gliding against her skin and giving her shivers. His lips left her mouth and ravished the side of her neck. She arched her head back and moaned with pleasure. Along her collar-bone he gave kisses and nibbles, and she shook each time his teeth met her skin. His hands roamed up and down her smooth arms until his fingertips met the straps of her nightgown. With a single, gentle motion he pulled the straps down over both of her shoulders and let her nightgown hit the floor, leaving her clad in only her undergarments. He moved his lips to her ear again and commanded, “Take them off.” Aryn practically cooed. This time it wasn't just the feeling of his breath on her ear that drove her crazy, it was the idea of being commanded. She was the queen. She was always the one giving the demands. Now this impertinent man was daring to order her around? Everywhere else she was in charge, here he was the master. The idea thrilled her, and so she obeyed. The cool night air hit her naked body, and she passionately attacked his strong neck with her mouth.
Tamas could feel her bare, smooth skin now, from her shoulders down to the curves of her hips. He could also feel Aryn's fingers struggling with the buckle of his belt. Once she got it loose, she pulled his tunic up over his head and kissed his muscular chest and stomach. Tamas ran his fingers through Aryn's hair as she licked and bit his torso. He was mesmerized, almost paralyzed by the sensations, until Aryn yanked his trousers off, stood, and fell back onto the bed, pulling Tamas down on top of her. Tamas grabbed both of her hands and pinned them down on the pillow beside her head, again asserting himself as the master in her bed.
The two of them made love in Aryn's bed that night, and the sounds of their passion filled the room. Their silhouettes flickered in the candle-light. Aryn raked her fingernails down Tamas' back, spurring him on. Though Tamas had philandered once in a while in his younger days, he could honestly say this was the first time he'd truly made love. The difference seemed to be that afterward, if it was just sex one wanted to leave right away, but after love-making he discovered that he never wanted to leave that room. He felt he could spend the rest of his life, even the rest of forever, just holding her. There was something so wonderful even about watching her sleep, feeling her breath against his bare chest. Locks of hair fell over her sleeping face, and her fingers rested on Tamas' shoulders.
In the morning Tamas knew that they'd have to be careful not to be seen leaving the bedroom together. Aryn was the Queen of Arx, so it wasn't as if she'd truly be in trouble if they were caught, but passionate love affairs like this often created scandal.
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.