The orange sky reflected on the frost of the mountaintops. A few clouds lingered over the horizon, spreading out a spectrum of pinks, reds, and yellows. The wind had just the slightest hint of a chill to it. The knights of Arx could see their breath, even through the masks of their helmets, as they looked down on the small garrison at the base of the mountains. The red and gold banner of the Digan Empire blew in the breeze, but those in that tiny garrison appeared to be unaware of the Damocles hanging over their heads.
Milo, Sarahi, Magdiel, and Kamal all sat on horseback overlooking the land spread out beneath them. It was as flat as Nihilus was, but nowhere near as desolate. Rivers spread out across those plains, and farmlands lined those rivers. There were fields checkered with irrigation lines. The orchards were lush and colorful, with apples of every color and oranges in their trees. From so high, the knights of Arx could even see the vineyards of Uvino, with its purple and green grapes.
Then there were the great cities themselves. Made of red and white stone, the cities were glorious, but almost an eyesore compared to the natural beauty surrounding them. The West seemed almost as fertile as Arx.
One didn't need to search long to spot the city of Diga. Diga was known as the Dammed City because it stood at the head of every major river in the West. For generations the ruler of that city had gained wealth and power by charging every other city for their water. If any city ever refused to pay, or simply could not pay, the city of Diga cut off their water supply, and without water they would surely die. This threat had made Emperor Cyril powerful, and even allowed him to conquer the West, but apparently it wasn't enough for him.
Sarahi pointed to Diga. “There it is. The seat of the Empire's power. If we take that city we have the key to the entire West.”
“I imagine we won't be the first to try,” said Magdiel. “Surely they'll be prepared.”
“That's why we'll send spies,” said Sarahi. “They will assess the city's weaknesses, if it has any. In the mean time we'll have the laborers work on building boats.”
“Boats, your highness?”
Sarahi nodded. “Look where the rivers are coming from. Every river that flows through Diga originates in the mountains of Arx or the highlands of Shadia. Our soldiers can ride the rivers down into the Dammed City and take it. If possible, I'd like to use as little siege equipment as possible. The city is more valuable to us in one piece, and if we break the dams we don't know what sort of disaster might result. As for this garrison directly below us, it's only a matter of time before we're spotted, so we need to deal with that garrison first.”
Milo nodded. “Shall I sound the order to charge?”
“No,” said Sarahi. “If we charge them they'll have enough time to send a rider to Diga and warn their emperor that we're coming. We need to handle them quietly. Magdiel, once twilight falls take a detachment of archers and scouts and capture the garrison. Not a single one of their riders is to escape.”
“Yes, your highness.”
A mere half-hour later the sun had set and the first stars were visible. Magdiel and his team crept down the side of the mountain in black shrouds with dark-grey patterns on them to help them blend in with the surroundings. They stuck to the bushes and trees the entire way down. It was a moonless night, so they had near perfect darkness to conceal them, and the lights shining through the windows of the garrison were like a beacon to help them find their goal.
As they drew close they could hear the sounds of songs and drunken revelry. It was a warm night down at the foothills, so each window was open just a crack to let in the breeze from outside. A crack was all the Arxian archers needed. They'd hit the soldiers inside completely by surprise.
Keeping his head low, Magdiel led part of his team around to the front door and kept his bow trained on it. If a rider did intend to escape to warn their emperor he'd have to flee out the front door to get to the stables across the cobblestone path, which would be plenty of time for Magdiel to take his shot.
Magdiel signaled to the other archers and then to the lanterns that they could see through the windows. The eyes of Magdiel's team had already adjusted to the darkness of the night, so they would have an advantage if the lanterns were out.
Magdiel's archers each gathered at a different window and awaited the signal. As soon as Magdiel gave the signal, the archers loosed their arrows through the open windows and hit the lamps around the room. When the lamps broke on the ground and smoke filled the air, the Arxian archers took advantage of their enemies' confusion and loosed more arrows into the main room. Soldiers inside dropped, some with arrows in their chests and others in order to avoid the arrows that flew in.
The main door burst open, and three men rushed out for their horses. Magdiel loosed his arrow, and the archers with him did the same. The arrows pelted the soldiers as they ran for their horses, piercing their backs or their legs. Two of them fell before they'd made it to their horses. But one soldier, with arrows sticking out of his back, mounted his horse and spurred it into a gallop.
“Damn it!” Magdiel loosed another arrow at the soldier. The arrow struck the soldier in the back, but he did not fall from his horse. “Stay here and take the garrison!” Magdiel ordered his team as he ran off and took another of the horses. In seconds the horse was in a full gallop in pursuit of the soldier who was getting away. Magdiel had made enough tactical mistakes for one lifetime. He was determined not to botch this entire operation.
Even in the darkness he could see that he was gaining on his enemy. The Digan soldier pulled his horse's reins and re-directed the horse into the nearest cluster of trees. It wasn't the most direct route to Diga, but it was one the soldier hoped would help him lose his pursuer.
Magdiel followed, and ducked and dodged as tree branches came at his face. He kept his head low, watching his prey's horse's hooves rather than watching the soldier himself. He gave his horse's reins a yank every time he saw the soldier's horse narrowly avoid a stone or protruding root. Occasionally Magdiel glanced up to see if the branches were getting any further up the trees, but even a quick look proved to be dangerous.
Hanging nearly sideways on his horse, Magdiel knocked an arrow to his bow. It seemed an impossible shot under the circumstances, but he had to try. He pulled back the bowstring, aimed the arrow at the soldier's horse, and loosed the arrow.
Just before Magdiel had let go, his own horse jumped to avoid tripping on a root, and Magdiel was jerked suddenly upwards. The arrow was loosed and hit a nearby tree. Magdiel cursed his rotten luck.
Only for a moment, though, because a mere second later the soldier's horse tripped over one of the roots in the forest and crashed to the ground. The soldier took flight from the horse's back and Magdiel heard the snaps of tree branches accompany his landing.
Magdiel pulled the reins on his horse. “Whoa! Whoa!” His horse stopped abruptly, and Magdiel dismounted, his bow still at the ready.
The stars barely illuminated those dark woods, and Magdiel crept along towards the place where he'd heard the soldier land. Every rustling of branches and every snapping twig seemed like it could be the Digan soldier creeping through the woods. More often it was simply the woodland creatures scurrying around. A snapping twig was actually a rabbit fleeing from Magdiel. A rustle of leaves was just a squirrel climbing a tree.
In that darkness a shadow threw itself at Magdiel and knocked him to the ground. He heard a blade cut through his breast-plate on the side. Thankfully, his armor was just thick enough so that the dagger didn't give him more than a superficial wound. In the blackness Magdiel wrestled and fought with the foe he could not even see. Both flailed with their fists. Both only rarely struck their target. Magdiel kicked his feet to try to get leverage off the ground and turn the two of them over. If he could get on top he'd have the advantage. The Digan soldier seemed to anticipate this and threw his weight downward each time Magdiel attempted to kick him off. Magdiel grabbed his enemy by the face and forced his head back. The enemy soldier groaned as Magdiel dug his fingers into the soldier's eyes and thumb just under his jaw. With his left hand Magdiel fumbled for his own dagger. He'd just touched the handle when the enemy soldier punched him square in the jaw. The instant Magdiel came out of a daze from the blow he swung out with his left fist and clocked the soldier in the side of the head. The soldier's helmet collapsed on that side and he was sent sprawling to one side.
Magdiel jumped to his feet and kicked the soldier in the chest while he was on the ground, which caused the soldier to curl into a fetal position. Unfortunately, the soldier curled around Magdiel's foot. The soldier grabbed Magdiel's leg and threw him to the ground once more. Magdiel got ready to wrestle with the soldier again, but to his surprise the soldier had gotten to his feet and was racing away. While Magdiel couldn't see, he knew exactly where the soldier was headed: for the horse.
Magdiel cursed his own foolishness for leaving the horse behind as he felt around for his bow. He could hear the horse's heavy breathing, and he could hear the soldier running. With every second the soldier drew closer and closer to the horse, and if he managed to ride away everything would be ruined. Magdiel would not have his own people's blood on his hands again. He couldn't bear it.
As if an answer to a prayer, Magdiel found the bow on the forest floor and raised it with an arrow knocked. At that same moment, though, the soldier appeared to have climbed onto the horse's back. Magdiel pulled back the bowstring and aimed as well as he could, only able to see the soldier's silhouette. Just when Magdiel heard the soldier's spurs hit the horse's side he loosed the arrow and prayed it would hit its target.
As the horse galloped past Magdiel without its rider Magdiel let out a sigh of relief. He searched the forest floor in hopes of finding the soldier, in order to make sure he wasn't going to get up and run for Diga.
When he heard the soldier's groan he moved closer and aimed an arrow at the shadow on the forest floor. “Don't move,” Magdiel said.
“Don't think I can,” said the soldier. Magdiel was startled at just how young the soldier's voice sounded.
“Where were you hit?” asked Magdiel.
“The gut,” the soldier groaned.
“It's going to take a long time for you to die,” said Magdiel. “Would you like me to make it quicker?”
“You're a paladin, right? Frankly, I'd like you to heal me.”
“If I heal you will you run to warn your emperor again?” asked Magdiel. The soldier met the question with silence. “That's what I thought. You know this means I can't heal you, right?”
“Would it help if I said I'm an Agalmite?”
“You're still an enemy soldier,” said Magdiel. “I'm sorry, but regardless of your faith I have to defend my people first.”
The soldier sighed. “This is what I get, I guess, joining up with the Digan Legion. All that talk about adventure, decent pay, getting to see the world, getting to make a difference. My Pa warned me that it was all just talk.”
“You have my sympathies. You really do. You were deceived into fighting for an unjust emperor, I get that. Nonetheless I cannot heal your wounds. Too many lives will be lost if I do that. What I can do is ease your passing.”
“One more favor?”
“You're going to Diga, right? There's a girl who lives in the city, her name is Annetta. After you've killed me take the ring from my pocket and give it to her if you see her. Tell her I would have given it to her myself.”
“What if I can't find her?”
“Then keep the ring,” said the soldier.
“Agreed,” said Magdiel. He drew his dagger and knelt down next to the wounded soldier. “Are you ready?”
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.