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Immediately after the death of Princess Khondiel and the destruction of the avatar of El Shaddai on the battle plain behind the Nine Mile Wall, High Lord Patriarch Kirodiel Gerash divided his forces in twain. Half of the army of Mastema was rushed back home to the Middle Land in the east, leaving the other half of his soldiery to complete the occupation of the lands of House Bellon and garrison the Magodon peninsula.

When the White Beard army reached the city of Salem once more, they were transferred completely across the Middle Land by relays of many horses, like a bucket fire brigade.

And it came to pass that as Lady Talishi was just arriving at the city of Jelaket, Lord Kirodiel assailed the ice bridge between the lands of the House of Gerash and the House of Sala with an exceedingly great force. But Duke Evandr Sala of Saharad, the Prince Consort and husband of Queen Aurra, rushed to the west to defend the border, where he was joined by Countess Ayani Sala.

On the eve of the battle Ayani asked Evandr, “How did you survive the countless battles you have fought, Sire? For it is well known that you never lead your forces from headquarters in the rear, but share the physical danger and hardships of the front.”

Evandr replied, “A cowardly general thinks only of his personal survival, Countess Ayani. Thus he endangers himself and his entire army, and indeed he puts the existence of his entire state in jeopardy. But when I advance on the battlefield I have already reconciled myself with death. I go into every battle, no matter how great or small, as though I were certainly doomed to die. And because the thought of dying has already been accepted in my mind, this frees me to focus only on fighting well. Thus I retain my life. Keeping my life, I gain the victory. Gaining victory, I preserve the state and save the life of the people.”

In the battle Evandr gave a good account of himself, and the aid of Ayani was vital, yet Lord Kirodiel, despite his numerical losses, simply continued to feed more troops into the battle until the Gold Beards began to yield.

The battle had taken place while Lady Talishi and her traveling party on the far side of Barbelo had reached the city of Vaska, the capital of House Antero.

Duke Evandr rallied his forces once more on the edge of the plain at the foot of the ice bridge, near the city of Galcha. There the Countess, asked, “Sire, why have you camped your army on this plain, and let Kirodiel attack from the high ground?”

“Because in this battle,” Evandr replied, “we are the like the guest, and Lord Kirodiel is like the host. Therefore I yield the hill of honor to him and accept this lower station.”

“But he can see our entire force, Sire,” Ayani objected, “while we cannot know what strength he has hidden in the ice!”

“Ah, but Ayani, that would only be important if we were the attacker. In that case we would tire ourselves fighting uphill and possibly be surprised by hidden forces waiting to ambush our men. Instead, my army is deployed like water, dwelling in the low places considered to be of negligible military value.”

“Why is that an advantage, Duke Evandr?”

“Is not water itself vital if people are to live?” he answered. “Do not people seek it out in wells and rivers and even swamps? By our mere continued presence on this plain Kirodiel will begin to covet this plain.”

“But Sire, we are ringed by ice on three sides, and he has taken all of that high ground. When he attacks, we will not know from which direction he will come!”

“Yes, Ayani, but his forces are, as you say, spread like a partial ring all around us while down here we have the interior lines of communication. Anywhere he attacks I can order reinforcements within minutes. And anywhere I counterattack he will be weak, while his own signals will be slow to propagate around this ring. Do you see, Countess, how we assure ourselves of victory merely by humbling ourselves and keeping to the lowland?”

And Evandr did gain the tactical victory in the battle of Galcha that day, yet Kirodiel had many more men to spend. By throwing their lives away with no absolutely no remorse, Kirodiel was able to grind out a strategic victory by forcing Evandr and Ayani to withdraw deeper into the lands of House Sala.

When Ayani and Evandr had assessed the battle of the previous day, Ayani said, almost in despair, “Duke Evandr, why do men love combat so much?”

“Because as long as a child is growing he is filling out his potential, Countess Ayani. As long as he has not yet reached his limits, he remains a child. His limits remain unknown unless they are met and perhaps even exceeded somewhat. Combat is the crisis by which men come to know their limits and obtain maturity.”

“For many women this maturity is attained in a very practical and natural way,” replied Ayani. “Motherhood. Maturity means acknowledging your limits and returning to your root. It is a woman’s nature to make herself still and embrace her center. So even without the experience of motherhood, women are naturally mature.”

“But young men are always reaching out, always moving, always extending, until they know their breaking point. And while they are on this personal quest to find their limits, they can be enlisted in stupid vainglorious campaigns to defend the honor of warlords and kings and patriarchs who themselves never attained adulthood. And many of these young men, of course, needlessly die.”

“That’s what makes a female warrior different from a male warrior,” Ayani said. “She is primarily interested in the survival of the people she protects.”

So Evandr and Ayani fought a noble fighting retreat for many days until the fighting drew nigh to the Gold Beard capital itself, the city of Saharad. At that moment Lady Talishi and her companions were in the city of Gerazan in the far west of the West Lands.

Queen Aurra joined her husband on the field. She said, ““Look at that, Evandr! Ten times ten thousand arrayed against us! Did you ever see such a host?”

“A large force does not assure the enemy a victory, Aurra. What are the stakes? Kirodiel is fighting to add yet another tax-paying province to his empire. But our people can barely make ends meet as it is. Paying the Gerash tribute would kill them. They are fighting to survive.”

“But leading them are the most famous generals and captains on Barbelo!”

“And how did they get so famous, Aurra? By their reckless aggression. If I present our shock troops to them as bait they will rush out to engage them, thinking how this will advance their reputation.”

“But behind them are the best fed and best trained troops in the world!”

“But they aren’t fighting for their wives or cities or farms in the Middle Land, they are fighting to prop up a bankrupt culture and a fragile economy of arms trading. When they see the carnage wrought by our extraordinary force, they will hesitate. And in that moment we will strike with our main force. The Sala army will prevail because it is humble. Our soldiers do not think of self-aggrandizement or the aggrandizement of their leader.”

Once more Evandr’s words rang true, and the captain of Ayani’s forces brought the White Beard patriarch into captivity, but Hovan the son of Kirodiel went into the camp of Ayani with a squad of Eyes of Mastema and released his father.

And Kirodiel came again after Ayani with his dwindling army. Their forces clashed in the ravine of Anixi, and Ayani was driven down the brook to the plains of Nolesh. Then Countess Ayani, aided by the timely arrival reinforcements commanded by Evandr turned and drove the Gerashi army to the brink of the gorge of Armak.

But for the first time since the invasion the strange woman Joy came to the aid of the Gerash forces with dragon fire. And in this battle Zadkiel the chief lieutenant of Kirodiel slew Evandr, but in his death throes Evandr sorely wounded Zadkiel in his thigh.

Following the death of Evandr, Queen Aurra, in her grief, sent a curse upon the land such that when any of the soldiers of the White Beards set objects down at night, in the morning they were found to have disappeared.

Lord Kirodiel said the missing goods were not a sign of the power of El Shaddai, but indicated only thieves, and on that point he was correct, only the thieves were a number B’nei Elohim tunneling unseen under the ground. Everyone started keeping their worldly goods and weapons on their own person, but the invaders were steadily impoverished even as they looted the land of the Gold Beards.

These events had transpired while Lady Talishi and her diminishing party were crossing the ice bridge to the city of Belen in the land of the Black Beards.

“Queen Aurra,” despaired Countess Ayani, “how can we, numbering in our thousands, hope to prevail against our enemies numbering in their tens of thousands?”

The Queen said, “A light commando force wreaking havoc behind enemy lines will tie down a much greater force hunting for it. A small army that is still and rested with have the better of a large army that is worn out marching double-time to meet it.”

“But there must be a limit to how small a unit can be before it is ineffective no matter how intelligently it is employed.”

“Too light, and we invite aggression. Too heavy, and our army becomes unwieldy. The excellent commander coordinates the small with the great, the strong with the weak, the eager with the reticent, balancing opposites to obtain the perfect middle way.”

And nothing would have pleased Queen Aurra more than to see her words of encouragement to the Countess hold true, and waylay the forces of Kirodiel in vengeance for her fallen mate, yet she could see there were not enough B’nei Elohim to aid her and the very tinders her army felled to form bulwarks against House Gerash were just so much kindling for the dragon.

Worst of all the queen judged that Kirodiel had assailed her land at a horribly inopportune time when her subjects were fleeing the cities at her command to spread themselves across the entirety of the lands held by House Sala, as suggested by Lady Talishi. The knew everything her people possessed they took with them on the road, and all these possessions were ripe for Kirodiel’s forces to plunder.

Yet Queen Aurra also knew that at a word from her the whole House of Sala would flock into her army; yea, even the women, the infirm, and the children. She foresaw the war would grow so bloody that the whole face of the land would be covered with dead bodies, but no one would even take the time to bury them because they would be too busy marching to make more dead bodies, and the land would exceedingly stink. This, she resolved, would not be.

So Queen Aurra rode across the plains of Nolesh and met Lord Kirodiel for a parley on the hill of Ronmok, and there the queen negotiated the surrender of her forces for the sake of the lives of her people. And the queen turned over to the forces of House Gerash every seaworthy vessel of the Gold Beards on the river Loenna.

Lord Kirodiel took the queen captive after the parley, putting her in a wooden cage identical to the one which had once held Talishi. Lord Kirodiel journeyed with all his remaining forces down the winding river Loenna to the great sea known as Thalury. This voyage took place even while Talishi was lodging in the castle of the Larund king in the city of Peshast.

Yet Queen Aurra, who still deeply mourned the death of her mate, and found the indignity of her captivity almost too much to bear, counted House Sala fortunate, since most of the people would now complete their emigration from the cities unmolested by the army of the White Beards. And she had appointed Countess Ayani to guide them to the new faith communities in her stead.

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