Through his spyglass Milo watched the shadowed figure approaching on horseback. Against the horizon the sun was behind him, but as he came down the road and over the hills Milo could begin to see that he wore a paladin's uniform. The scout he'd sent, he was sure of it.
“Whoa...” the scout pulled on his horse's reins as he drew close, taking his horse down from a gallop, to a canter, to a trot, and finally to a stop. A cloud of dust rolled past the scout and Milo.
“Report,” said Milo.
“The Digan legions are just past those hills, and they are accompanied by the Black Coats Mercenary Company.”
“The Black Coats. Wonderful,” said Milo. He'd heard of this mercenary company's ruthless reputation. In fact, they were one of the most well-known and well-spoken of mercenary companies in Arx. Unlike many other mercenary companies, who were known to do anything for the right amount of coin, the Black Coats had a reputation for being loyal to their employers, which meant that Milo wasn't going to be able to buy them off. “The sun is setting... Do they appear to be setting up camp?” asked Milo.
“Aye, they've pitched tents and started some campfires,” said the scout.
Milo turned to Magdiel. “You're the expert tactician, what do we do here? Do we attack them in their sleep?”
“Have you heard nothing about this General Atius who leads them? No, we don't attack with the cover of darkness, he's probably got an ambush just waiting for us if we try to enter the camp,” said Magdiel. “No, here's what we do: we send just a few riders, the fastest riders we've got, to ride in a large circle around the camp every two hours. As they ride by, they blast their trumpets and bang drums. And they carry with them lanterns and torches so they can actually see what they are doing, less likely to get caught in an ambush that way. Each time they change their pattern just a little so they can't be predicted.”
“What will this accomplish?” Milo asked.
Magdiel resisted the temptation to smack Milo in the forehead. “It means very few of the Digan soldiers will get a decent night's rest, and when we fight our first skirmish against them tomorrow morning we'll be at an advantage.”
“You're assuming not many of them are sound sleepers,” said Milo.
“You can't afford to be a sound sleeper in Atius' army,” said Magdiel. “They're used to underhanded tactics in the West, far more than we are. More city-states out there conquer their enemies with assassinations than with armies. No, they need to be ready to awake and defend themselves at the slightest noise.”
“Then it's a sound stategy. Make sure it's done,” said Milo. “But...what happens if the Digans pursue our riders?”
“I have something in mind for that too,” said Magdiel.
. . .
“By the Void! What was that sound?” shouted Devyn as he jerked awake. It had sounded somewhere between a lion's roar and rolling thunder, reverberating across the hills. Again he heard it, followed by loud drums. He grabbed his sword and scrambled out of his tent to see what was causing all of the noise.
Already Many of Atius' soldiers were not only awake, but also armed and partially-armored. Atius himself stood amongst them, with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
Devyn stumbled over to Atius. “What's going on here?”
Atius pointed to the top of the nearest hill. “Arxian horn-blowers. They have drummers too. I think they mean to attack us.”
“I'll wake the men,” said Devyn.
“You'd best hurry,” said Atius, “If their soldiers are marching to the beat of those drums they're almost at a full run.”
Devyn ran to the tents of his highest lieutenants and told them to spread the word that the Black Coats were to be ready to fight immediately. Within a short time the Black Coats stood beside Atius' soldiers, readying for the attack. Devyn resumed his place by Atius' side. “Do we form ranks? Or do you want me to send some of my boys to kill our musician friends up there?”
“No,” said Atius, “I already have some troops lying in wait in case the Arxians choose to attack. I'm just surprised they're announcing themselves.”
It was only then that it struck Devyn as odd that an attack in the middle of the night would be heralded by loud trumpet blasts. Usually a nightly attack was a surprise attack.
Atius stood and watched the circling trumpeters, along with the rest of his troops for several minutes, just waiting for them to ride into his trap. To his surprise, however, on the third circle the trumpeters and drummers rode back over the hills and away. The music stopped as they rode away. It didn't fade away as they left, it just stopped. Atius and his legions stared at the hills where the riders had been for almost an hour, just waiting for the enemy army they were so sure was coming next. Yet, after a full hour, nothing had happened. The only sounds heard throughout the camp were those of crackling campfires, chirping crickets, and the soldiers' own breathing and coughing. Soon the sound of murmuring was added.
Atius chuckled and shouted, “False alarm.” His soldiers returned to their tents and undressed out of their armor again.
Devyn asked Atius, “Why do you suppose they were just riding around making all that noise?”
Atius said, “It's a clever attack without shedding any blood. They plan to keep my troops awake all night.”
“Shouldn't we pursue the trumpeters, then? Put a stop to all that ruckus?”
“No, they probably planned for that and lie in wait to ambush us,” said Atius. “That's what I would do.”
“So what are we going to do about the trumpeters?”
“Just try to sleep through it,” said Atius. “I'll have my centurions pass around sleeping medicines.”
“What if they're planning on that?” asked Devyn, “And they sneak in during the night to attack your soldiers in their sleep?”
“As I said, I have men waiting in ambush in case the Arxians are foolish enough to try it.”
That answer didn't satisfy Devyn, but he knew he couldn't argue with General Atius. Devyn wasn't being paid for his strategic expertise, he was being paid to fight. Yet, as the thunderous roar of the trumpets woke he and his men every two hours he soon began to second-guess whether or not entering General Atius' employ was an advisable plan. When he felt the sun's warm light on his face, but realized that he was so tired that he could barely open his eyes he groaned in defeat. The Arxians had won the night, even if they hadn't shed any blood.
Clearly he wasn't the only one suffering, either. All of the Black Coats, and over half of Atius' legion, staggered to their feet that morning, some with the straps of their armor not properly secured. The bags under their eyes and the way their mouths hung open made them look like the walking dead. This wasn't going to be a good day, he was sure of that.
Atius gave the order to pack up camp and march, and before Devyn knew it they were on the road again, marching into the rising sun.
. . .
Milo could see the Digan legion marching towards his position. In all likelihood, it would still take the Digans a while to see the Arxian army hiding just behind the horizon, that was the advantage of being east of your enemy so early in the morning. A steady breeze rolling west further bolstered Milo's confidence, truly he felt that God was behind him, pushing him along. From the ridge off north Magdiel shined a mirror at Milo, the signal that he was in position.
When Milo saw the Digan legion forming new ranks and heard the legates' shouting in the distance he knew they'd been spotted, and the battle was to begin. Milo drew his sword and gave the signal for the cavalry charge. Those paladins on horseback drew their weapons as well, and charged after him, straight at the Digans. Behind them the infantry continued its march, now in double-time.
Milo heard the whistling of hundreds of arrows, and soon he saw a flurry of arrows fast-approaching his cavaliers. The advantage was Milo's, however, just as Magdiel said it would be. With the sun in their vision Atius' archers couldn't see well enough to aim, and the wind slowed their arrows just enough for the bulk of them to fall short from the advancing cavalry. Only a few arrows struck the advancing paladins, and most of them didn't penetrate the paladins' armor. A few zipped past Milo, but as he emerged from the volley unscathed it only bolstered his courage.
The next danger was dead ahead; the phalanx. Typically the best ways to overcome a phalanx was to go around it. What the Digans had undoubtedly failed to take into account, however, was that the paladins were wielding diamond weapons, and would cut through the Digans' tower shields. So long as they could get past their enemies' long spears.
Now, Milo had been in his fair share of cavalry charges. He'd studied every detail of this tactic before; from the speed you want to have your horse traveling at to leap over the first line of defense, to the exact length of the long spears usually employed in such a tactic. That being said, it's not hard to imagine his shock as the spears flew forward at him much sooner than he was expecting. For a moment he panicked, and he tumbled off of his horse in order to narrowly avoid a spear-head aimed at his face. He hit the ground hard. His head was ringing and his vision blurred as he staggered to his feet. Just as he was able to bring his eyes back in focus he noticed the simple, though brilliant, trap Atius had set.
Long-spears used in this formation were usually made only as long as a man could wield with one arm, because his other arm was holding the shield. However, Atius had cleverly hidden some of his soldiers behind the shield wall who were wielding a spear with both hands, one even longer than a typical long-spear. The trick worked, as the first few riders in the paladins' cavalry-charge were caught by surprise. The paladins were taken down off of their horses and thrown onto the ground. Whenever a spear would lodge itself into a paladin's chest the one holding the spear would simply let go, let the spear go with the Paladin, and then draw a sword.
The men holding the shield wall did not wait for the cavalry to actually reach them, after that, but rather charged forward, shields first, with short spears in their other hands.
Milo raised his sword with both hands and whispered, “God, grant your servant the strength to prevail,” before he charged at the advancing Digan soldiers. Spear-points bounced off of his armor as he rushed in, swinging his sword. The diamond edge sliced through shields, spears, and armor in its way, and Milo broke a hole through the Digan ranks. Paladins following Milo cheered and followed suit. Digan soldiers rushed in to avenge their fallen comrades, but as Milo continued to whirl around, letting the weight of the sword itself keep him spinning, what the soldiers would later describe as a “cyclone of gore” surrounded him. None of them wanted to get caught up in all of that.
Milo took heart when he saw the first Arxian riders break into the Digan ranks and begin cutting down Atius' legion. Soon following them was the infantry, with whom Milo ran further and further into the battlefield. Paladins rushed in with hammers, maces, flails, and swords, and tore through Atius' ranks. A calamitous roar ripped across the battlefield as their weapons smashed the Digans' armor. Atius' legionaries struck back with their swords and spears, but their ranks were broken, and they couldn't work together as well as they were used to.
The Black Coats were more used to this kind of undisciplined brawling, and rushed in to defend Atius' soldiers. Black Coats wove in between the paladins. They used the Digan soldiers as cover, and then sprung up and hit the paladins by surprise. One leaped at Milo, but Milo deflected the mercenary's blade with his own, seized the mercenary by the throat, and flung him at the nearest Digan solder.
As Milo fought them back he saw Herevel jump into the fray. Herevel slashed at the mercenaries with a sword that appeared to be made of obsidian. Unlike the paladins on the battlefield, Herevel stepped into the sword of every mercenary who approached him, and as the mercenaries gave a look of surprise as their blades only struck stone under his armor Herevel beheaded them.
Devyn, with a shield strapped to his left arm, charged in and plowed over one of the paladins. Just as the paladin hit the ground Devyn stabbed downward, using the weight of his own body to force the blade through the breast-plate.
Just behind the Arxian infantry, which was now fully committed to the battle, stood the geomancers from Caelum Academy. As they chanted, stones lifted off the ground and smashed the Digan legionaries and Black Coats. Tiny sand-storms rose up and obscured the Digan archers' vision. Geomancers in the front row waved their hands and a wall of stone, chest-high, rose up in front of them. Black Coats left the main battle and rushed the geomancers. Just as they drew close, however, spikes of stone shot upward from the ground and impaled the approaching Black Coats. The next wave of Black Coats was more wary of this tactic, however, and leaped to the side just as the spikes shot out of the ground. Stones smashed the Black Coat's heads, but many still made it to the wall, vaulted over it, and attacked the geomancers. At such a close range, these wizards of stone were at a disadvantage, and they scattered in every direction. Those who'd gotten far enough away launched stones at their pursuers, but some who were foolish enough to stop running too soon found an enemy's blade in their hearts.
As Milo trudged over the bodies of his fallen enemies he spotted something which he thought was peculiar, at first. There was a woman in a blue robe kneeling over one of the wounded Digan soldiers, waving her hands over his wounds. Milo moved in closer to see what this woman was doing. As he drew closer he could see the soldier's wounds closing up. For a split second he thought of cutting down this woman before she was done. However, as he looked at her he realized that she was unarmed, a non-combatant on the battlefield. As much as it would make sense to kill his enemies' healers, he couldn't bring himself to do it. As soon as the healer stepped away, though, he dove in and brought his sword down on the soldier's head before he could rise to his feet.
In more typical battles the sheer number of combatants who had been wounded by this point already would have been enough to make one side or the other, usually both, quit the field. However, the paladins of Caelum were healers, and whenever they found they had a safe moment they stopped to heal the wounded on the field, who immediately returned to the battle. Similarly, as Milo had just seen, Atius had Acolytes of the Mother sneaking around the field, who healed the wounded from his side.
Seeing all of this from his high vantage point, Atius came to the horrible realization that this battle could go on for days, and that if it did the Arxians would have the advantage.
First of all, there was the fact that a battle like this would be won purely with endurance, and the native Arxians were more used to the thin air at this altitude than Atius' soldiers were. Furthermore, Atius knew that his soldiers were fighting on little sleep. They'd exhaust themselves far sooner than the Arxians would. Then there was the fact that if both sides were to call for reinforcements the Arxians' reinforcements would arrive far sooner. At the same time, Atius knew that if he ordered a tactical retreat this would be awful for his soldiers' morale. He needed some way of tipping the odds in his favor.
Scanning the battlefield carefully with his spy-glass he could see that many of the paladins kept looking to one in particular, both for leadership and for courage. This paladin was a tall one with long, black hair and wielding a two-handed blade. Also, Atius could see his own people and the Black Coats alike cowering from an Arxian in a mask who wielded a black sword. As Atius watched, swords and spears pierced this Arxian's armor. Some with such force that they should have run him straight through. If he were human. Atius smirked at what a clever strategy this was. The Arxians had either an angel or a golem in their midst, but they'd chosen to keep this fact hidden so as not to reveal his advantage, and the only way he could be killed.
Atius turned to one of his Centurions, “Send Acolytes of the Father after that masked one there. No normal weapons will defeat him.”
Atius turned to another of his centurions. “You see that tall paladin there? My guess is that's Milo, the Arxian queen's father. Send some of our elite soldiers after him. Overwhelm him, wound him, but take him alive if you can.”
Devyn had fought the same paladin three times. Each time he gave the paladin a fatal or crippling wound. When he finally realized why this particular paladin kept coming back he couldn't have felt more foolish. It was well-known that paladins could heal their wounded, and some were likely doing that as the battle raged on. Devyn scanned the ground until he found a paladin lying there, bleeding out but still alive.
As he crept up, sword in hand, the paladin looked up at him with terror in his eyes. Devyn could see this young man's face. Apparently, he wasn't even old enough to shave. “Please...” the young paladin wheezed out. Devyn stuck his sword through the young paladin's throat and cleanly withdrew it.
Once he saw the young man's eyes roll back in his head Devyn got the attention of one of the other Black Coats. “Spread the word; kill the wounded. Do not leave them to die from their wounds.”
The hills shook as Magdiel's cavalry galloped onto the battlefield. The horses in front wore thick armor, and their riders held up tall shields. The shields rendered useless the flurry of arrows launched at Magdiel's cavalry. Just after the Digan archers' volley was done, the horses in the front moved aside to reveal that those protected, in the middle, all had bows at the ready. They loosed their own flurry of arrows, which rained down on Atius' legion. Fortunately for the Digans, their own shields blocked most of the arrows. Unfortunately for them, the shields blocked their fields of vision long enough for the main body of Magdiel's cavalry to slam into them. With that, Atius' ranks were broken on both sides. The Arxian army had flanked them.
The fury of battle in Milo's veins was starting to wear off. Every swing strained his shoulder, and his muscles felt like they would rip. Milo groaned each time he had to lift his arms, and more often than not found himself falling into his foes. As long as he made sure he fell sword-first, however, he could still defeat the Digan soldiers.
Herevel was not far off, and fighting just as hard as he had at the beginning. If anything, he was gaining momentum. Milo couldn't help but envy Herevel's endless stamina. As Herevel looked up from another Digan on whom he'd passed God's judgment, he saw three men in black robes riding towards him. They only appeared to be particularly threatening, though, when they stopped, stared at him, and began to chant, “Irae di Pater! Irae di Pater!” In an instant he knew what they were attempting. He'd already heard the stories of these cultists capable of killing angels. It seemed they needed eye contact, however, so he ducked behind some of the nearest Digan soldiers to break that contact. The Digans struck at him, but to no avail. He wasn't worried about the soldiers.
When Herevel felt a blade snap against his back he spun around to see a Black Coat standing behind him. Herevel beheaded the mercenary, and then took his coat and hat. Disguised as one of the Black Coats, Herevel crept through the battlefield, overlooked by the Digan soldiers, as well as by the Acolytes of the Father. In moments he was upon them, and there was a blur of darkness over them, followed by a blur of red. All three acolytes fell from their horses, and Herevel disappeared again into the enemy ranks.
Milo barely had time to react as a large dog pounced on him and threw him flat on his back. The dog snapped at his face, but Milo raised his left arm and caught the dog's teeth around his bracer. The dog had merely been a distraction, however, and five Digan soldiers, each wielding long spears and two-handed swords rushed in. Milo didn't have the strength left to fight back. Even if he did, at his best he never would have been able to throw off the dog, grab his sword, and jump to his feet in time to fight these men. The first spear pierced through a hole in Milo's armor and stabbed him in the gut. The second spear buried its head in his right shoulder. Milo cried out in pain and prayed for help, but soon he felt a sword-blade pierce his left leg. Then another sword pierced his right leg. Finally, a boot struck the side of his head, and Milo's shouts were silenced.
The five elites signaled to their centurion that they had Milo, and the centurion signaled the same to Atius. Atius grinned widely. Taking such a man prisoner would be a tremendous boon to them. Certainly, losing him would hurt enemy morale, though if he died he'd just end up a martyr.
Atius sounded the signal for his soldiers to fall back, and they retreated south, just over the hills. The five elites picked up Milo's body, and between all of them were able to carry him off.
Magdiel called for the paladins to allow the retreat. They needed to regroup anyway, see how many they'd lost in that skirmish.
As they all gathered, however, Magdiel found that he couldn't spot Milo anywhere amongst them. “Where's Milo?” he demanded. “Tell me! Does anyone know where he is?”
“We found this,” said one of the paladins. In his hand he held Milo's blood-soaked sword. “But we couldn't find his body...”
“Damn it!” Magdiel shouted. He fell to his knees and beat his fist on the ground. “Damn those fecking Digans! They took him! Damn them to the Void!”
“Sir, we also have some good news.”
“What news could possibly make this any better?”
Two paladins brought forth Devyn, who was bound at the wrists and around his ankles. “The leader of the Black Coats, as far as we can tell. I imagine he'll have some useful information for us.”
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.