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This is chapter four in the story Fires from the Dark.

Chapter

Athens, Greece, 268 A.D.


The echo of hooves drummed like distant thunder. Hundreds upon hundreds of clattering hooves rang on the outskirts of the settlement.


Shouts from scattering crowds alerted soldiers in the area to send a distress signal to the main of the castle. Fires were lit, catching the eyes of peoples in the towers of the colossal structure.


Knights royal to the king and to the empire set out, horseback, to meet the mass of soldiers encircling the village.


Coming together with a thunderous clash so fierce that one would believe that it was a bellow from God himself, the battle began.


Horses tumbled. Men fell to the unforgiving hooves of both Athenian and Roman battle horses. Spears, arrows and swords met, denting armor or gashing flesh, leaving the victims in agonizing pain on the ground, only to be trampled to death moments later.


The villagers, in a large mass, fled towards the bright, white-bricked safety of the castle.


* *


“My lord, my lord!” the shouts drifted throughout the halls, through the high doors to the royal chamber. “My lord!” The troubled man jogged past the long banquet table, past the knights, plated in shining silver mesh, up a small set of stone stairs to kneel before a robed man seated in a throne.


“Rise. What news do you have for me, squire?” the king spoke in a rustic accent.


“The Romans- they’re lines have broken through! They have burned the village to cinders.” The squire announced, standing up and starting to pace.


The king was silent for a moment, then asked, “What means of offense do they bare?”


“They have at least thirty dozen lines of men, horseback, armed with spears and swords. Behind them, a small group of archers are positioned. They have tightened the circle they have created. They pushed our lines of defense back and burned out the village. The villagers themselves are moving toward the castle gates. The enemy is not far behind.”


“Hmmm…Almiro…come hither to me.”


The nerve-wracked man stepped before his king.


“Yes, lord Moretti?”


The king, pouring his elegance and might into the embodiment of a single stare, into the eyes on his young squire, said, “You are a brave, young man. You may not survive this catastrophe. I myself may not.” He lifted his gaze to look out over the chamber, examining the worn, white walls. “The future looks bleak indeed, however, -“ he settled back down into Almiro’s eyes “-you will have died a courageous and loyal man. You have served me for over twenty years, like your father, like your father’s father served mine. Mind you, you saved me from that assassination raid on the trip to western Italy, did you not? Nearly decapitated yourself, you did.”


Almiro swallowed.


“And did you not take drink from a cup of wine laced with poison during the festive banquet of some four seasons ago, suspicious that it was, indeed, poisoned?”


The squire could take no more of this.


“Yes my lord. I did so. I swore to do so. And I will until I meet my demise doing so, until God claim me and I embark to the heavens.” He bowed and turned to leave. King Moretti gave him a dismissing nod.


Before he set out, back to observe the forthcoming doom, he stopped, and turned his head.


“And this day may as well be my end. If so, I will face it with no fear- I will have repaid my debt to you.” He continued out of the room.


* *


Outside the castle walls, the last remnants of the burned-out village fell to the ground. Any remaining Athenian forces where retreating- had they the chance. And those who were caught in the midst of the raid were slaughtered mercilessly, without any second thoughts.


Those that had escaped from death’s doorstep, for the time being, had run for the cover of the mighty castle. There, they would be under protection from their own squadrons.


Up the curving, cobbled path, through the woodland, over the series of man-made creeks that worked as irrigation systems during the summer months. Up through the final bends and curvatures in the earthen road.


A small group of unfortunates were either pierced with arrowheads or hacked apart by heavy, blunt swords of the Roman invaders.


Up the last turn, over the wooden bridge marking the border between the Royal lands and the rest of the kingdom. The glimmering tips of the towers were visible over the horizon with the setting sun.


Coming out of the forest. More bodies dropped.


Further, further. Crossing the bridge now. The bulk of the castle could be seen.


More blood-curdling shouts.


Up, out of the forest, the castle ahead. They were upon the safe haven…


…Only to find the drawbridge being withdrawn.


Shock set in as the villagers’ hearts sank, down to their feet. For some, the stomach acid was finding a new way to make them sick.


Shouts. Hooves. Spears. Arrows. Pools of blood soaking into the ground. Silence.


* *


Almiro watched from a high wall on the castle with fear, disgust, and awe as the remnants of the peasants, the people of the kingdom of Athens, where cut down. Murdered, so violently, so maliciously, and without the slightest drop of remorse.


Fearing their might; disgusted at how brutal, how cutthroat the murders were committed and at the mutilations; awed by how speedily the highest of the knights in the kingdom were cut through, smashed, and swept aside, as if it were the great god of death, Hades, doing this himself.


“Savages! Filthy barbarians!” a shout came from behind Almiro.


As he turned he saw a woman, appointed in a robe of silk, symbols of the Athenian kingdom sewn onto it, approach him. Though she was heading towards him, her sights were fixated on the ongoing slaughter below them. She stepped beside Almiro, and, leaning over the balustrade-like stone wall, shouted once more.


“Romana…why are you exposing yourself to this madness?” Almiro questioned her.


The woman was quite.


“My wife, please, I beg you…you mustn’t come outside the castle walls. Please, return to your quarters.” Almiro begged.


His wife turned on her heels to face him. She stared into his blue eyes, partially hidden under the shag of hair hanging from his scalp. It had been this way ever since the raids on Athens had begun, although it had become worse since word of the Roman army setting forth to attack the state had first reached these lands. Almiro was under more stress, perhaps, than his uncle, the king, was at the moment.


The long-drawn shouts from below came to an abrupt halt. Almiro and Romana turned to look out over the granite balustrade once more. What they saw made their hearts sink to the pits of their stomachs.


All resistance had been crushed - no Athenian warriors, no peoples of the commons, only a collection of wounded – but willed – Roman battle horses and men.


That which had ceased the tremendous howls was the sounding of a horn. The entire battalion, or what was left of it, turned on heels and hooves to see another group of their own approaching the castle grounds- their offensive: a flaming battering-ram.


Almiro knew immediately what the outcome of a few heaves into the drawbridge with such a mighty weapon would do.


He seized his wife by her forearm and fled back into the castle interior.


Rounding corners of the glorious halls, decorated with prizes from previous battles and models of the gods, Romana wondered, for a brief, vulnerable moment, that she, her husband, the king, and all of this wonderful décor in this haven would perish all together.


As they hastened around another corner, down another lengthy hall, they passed by a crowd of Athenian soldiers. She exclaimed, “Hurry! You must take haste! The Romans are attempting the breach the castle doors! Organize an assemblage at the main gates! Hurry, now…” her voice faded off as she and her husband quickened down into another corridor.


The knights exchanged glances of concern and shock. Following an almost incoherent bark from their squadron leader, they bustled down a dark hallway, hollering, collecting soldiers here and there along the way to the main entrance.

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