9MILE

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As the night of the third day passed, King Arman Bellon stood his ground in the walled city of Mandakar as it came under attack by cruel flaming catapult rounds from the surrounding lands of Sealiah Island captured by Kirodiel. This was the beginning of a merciless siege by fire that would end only when the city lost the battle to put out the flames and succumbed three days later.

Meanwhile, at the city of Rumbek on the Isle of Liban, Count Zelus Bellon, who ruled the city in the stead of the king, learned the enemy suffered a shortage of boats, so he ordered the bridge to Fanon island to be deliberately sunk.

The easy victories of the House of Gerash up to the middle of the fourth day were explained by their fanatical willingness to die for Mastema. However the resolve of their Bellon foes stiffened as the slaughter of King Arman’s innocent subjects continued. Faced with no alternative but to die the people made their final stand at Rumbek.

Princess Khondiel and Lady Talishi made it to the southwest tip of Sealiah, the last unconquered piece of the island. There Rumbek was taking refugees off Sealiah by boat. Khondiel and Talishi got in line with the rest of the crowd while their personal squad of soldiers joined others to hold off the overland Gerash attackers in a desperate fight for enough time to allow the refugees to escape.

Hashmal Binyam said, “And now, Lady Talishi, I must spend the remaining moments of my life in disobedience to the strict commandment of the King, and leave your side to win time for you to escape, but I deem it the greater good.” Talishi was too emotional to say any words to him in reply. He left her then, and Talishi never saw him again.

Suddenly there was an orange flash, and the boat which was being loaded in front of Khondiel and Talishi caught fire, for a catapult round of flaming tar had struck home. Many people, screaming in agony from their burns, desperately dove into the water to quench the flames of the sticky tar that licked their clothes and skin. But they were immediately devoured by the hungry life native to Barlelo that lived beneath the waves, and it was a terrible sight to behold.

There were six catapults on Sealiah that lobbed rounds over the heads of the city’s defenders to reach the refugee boats, but in a single moment the six catapults themselves all caught on fire. A streak of rushing fire appeared in the sky overhead, followed by two bursts of sound so loud it seemed to Khondiel she would be knocked to the ground. The fire streak, Khondiel could see, formed behind a small dark object that raced across the sky almost too quickly to follow. Before she could point it out to Talishi it was already many leagues away and curving back up higher into the purple skies.

When Khondiel had her heartbeat under control and could find the words, she asked, “Was that your avatar?”

Talishi answered, “Indeed it was, Khondiel, though I imagine Mastema is growing very tired of my interference by now.”

Suddenly room in another boat was found to be available for Talishi and Khondiel to step aboard, because many of the people weren’t certain all of the catapults were destroyed, but Khondiel knew Talishi was meticulous in what she set out to do. The avatar of El Shaddai had already made its appearance at Salem two years before, killing twelve Eyes of Mastema, yet Mastema had long idled his own avatar to carry out the sham of having a dragon under the thumb of the Antero Princess, and Mastema could do nothing to avenge the affront.

Talishi suspected that the dragon would make a belated appearance soon in the skies over Rumbek to level the odds, and that would be a terrible thing to behold, but she said nothing of this to Khondiel.

In the heavily fortified city of Rumbek, after hours of confusion as the refugees were sorted out, Count Zelus learned that Talishi was bearing the King’s authentic ring. After she surrendered the ring to him, Zelus welcomed Khondiel and Talishi into his castle.

Talishi realized the King intended this very thing, for the count would know by this sign that the King wanted him to rule in his stead. Guessing King Arman to be certainly dead, Talishi thanked the sovereign in her heart.

Count Zelus bade them to stay with him for a few days to see which way the war would turn. “For Rumbek is as secure as any place in the West Lands are these days, said he. “And no army has ever breached the Nine Mile Wall.” And indeed the count had turned the forces at the Nine Mile Wall inside out like a reversible jacket, such that they were defending the peninsula of Magodon in the event Rumbek fell to Kirodiel’s attack from the east, rather than defending Rumbek from Antero attacks from the west.

In the very chamber where Queen Aurra had convened the Council, the surviving royals met once more again to speak with Talishi about her offer to whisk the noble ones home again in her avatar, even as many of them had been brought to Rumbek.

Baron Kerresh was taken west to meet up with the Antero army and take command of the Bellon forces which marched with them.

Queen Aurra Sala, her Consort, and Countess Ayani wereto be taken home to the lands of the Gold Beards, and the queen thought to take both of her serving girls as well, but Baron Bayard declared that he would stay behind to aid Count Zelus, and he said, “The servant wench Aliwe Halil must stay with me.”

Luzea Cedarbranch howled in greatly dismay because she would be parted from her best friend and lover, possibly forever. Aliwe tried to assure her it would turn out well, which made Luzea feel a little better, but when she was pressed to give a reason for her confidence Aliwe could give none.

Queen Aurra narrowed har eyes. “Am I to believe my son cannot set aside his . . . hobby . . . for the duration of one battle for the life of the Brown Beard capital?”

“I know what it looks like, my mother and queen, but the girl has luck bordering on the supernatural. One might even suspect Aliwe is more than human.”

The queen sighed. “Say what you would have me do, Lady Talishi.”

“You see the problem, of course, Your Highness. People naturally gather themselves into large settlements, driven by simple economics. After that, they attempt to protect their cities with walls, but walls are no defense against the avatar of Mastema and stone dwellings are no protection from his dragon. The solution is as obvious as it is simple, but it will require a mighty hand and much time to overcome thousands of years of tradition. Instead of a few large cities and towns dotting the land, the people of House Sala must live in many small settlements of no more than fifty souls, spread evenly across the land as well as hidden under the land, with leagues upon leagues between each one.”

“Such a drastic change! Is there no alternative?”

“None for House Sala, since only a single ice bridge stands between your land and the invading armies of House Gerash. And there are forces that can overthrow an entire city of stone in a single moment when men learn to harness them, as they inevitably will someday. When that time comes, only a radically decentralized House Sala will be able to withstand them. At that time attacking you will be like trying to dig a hole in a lake of water.”

And so the queen and her entourage embarked for Saharad after many tears of parting between Luzea and Aliwe. The avatar then whisked back to Rumbek with certain officers of House Sala possessing skills uniquely honed to fend off attacks such as the one presented by Lord Kirodiel.

Of the Red Beards, Count Berek, his wife Losna, and Baron Priam remained in Rumbek to aid House Bellon, but at the count’s request his wife Losna was taken by the avatar of El Shaddai to Gerazan.

Raddai the Bold, Count of Belen, remained behind to help defend the city, and despite the extreme danger Lady Irus stayed behind with him. But the rest of the Black Beard contingent went home with King Garand in Talishi’s avatar.

For a number of days Lord Kirodiel completely bypassed the hard target of Rumbek. He destroyed the villages of Teal and Olivus, then fanned out through all the hills. By the end of the third day Mandakar lay in smoking ruins, and all Sealiah Island belonged to family Gerash.

At Mandakar the Gerash forces brought up a prefabricated bridge and swung it out on a pivot to connect Fanon Island to Sealiah once again. Supported by many small boats the bridge was swung across during a lull in the naval engagement when the forces of Rumbek had pulled back many ships to reduce the alarming losses from suicide commando swimming parties. The bridges from Fanon Island to Krone Island, and also to the main city on Liban Island were sunk by Count Zelus to limit their losses.

This new intensity was a set piece put on for Lord Kirodiel, who was now physically present on the battlefront rather than leading from behind as was his custom.

Princess Khondiel stood long on the ramparts of the city Rumbek, and to her martial mind it was apparent that Gerash was steadily gaining the advantage against Bellon by sheer dint of numbers, and the hate by which the Gerash warriors flung themselves into battle. So Khondiel bade Talishi to immediately journey west beyond the Nine Mile Wall while the route was still clear. She said, “I perceive the siege of Rumbek will soon grow strait, and the Brown Beard navy will be tasked to defend the city itself, letting the invincible Nine Mile Wall, undefeated in war, defend the rest of Magodon. But should Rumbek fall and Lord Kirodiel besiege the wall, none will find their way through it, be they friend or foe.”

Talishi agreed with Khondiel asked leave of Count Zelus Bellon, which he granted, and she left with these words: “King Arman is surely dead, or captured, as you have surely guessed, and that is a grievous loss, my Lord, and if we had time I would mourn with you and the people as is fitting. Yet King Arman’s sacrifice was not wholly in vain, I deem. The house of Bellon does not stand against Gerash alone, and the king may have won for you the time you needed for the house of Antero to march to your aid.”

And Zelus said, “I thank you for the spirit in which you intended to say those words to me, Lady Talishi, but if Rumbek is destined for a dark and bloody fate, I consider it my duty to share in that fate full-willing, and false words of hope are worse than none at all, I deem.”

Talishi said, “Count Zelus, it was the furthest thing from my mind to throw you a line of hope and fail to tie off my end. Little do you know of my labors to bring aid of the house of Bellon. If Rumbek can hold out for yet a little while, then Lord Kirodiel may find he has stepped into a trap. Then all who crave peace might win through to the day when King Arman is laid to rest in honor, and you are crowned king. Farewell!”

Princess Khondiel had judged well the time of their departure, for mere hours after she and Talishi departed Rumbek and took the bridge to the strip of land foot of the Nine Mile Wall, the Bellon navy rallied all their ships around the Isle Liban. This left Lord Kirodiel free to pull all his troops off Sealiah except those directly involved in the Rumbek siege, and those troops were ferried across the channel to the narrow bench of land that lay below the Wall.

The beautiful dwellings and public buildings of Krone Island, isolated now from Liban, were burned to the ground in a blaze kindled by Lord Kirodiel himself. And after the fire had consumed everything and the flame was abated, in the sight of the defenders of Rumbek across the strait Kirodiel scattered the embers and sprinkled the ground with salt. “For even so shall Rumbek be wasted utterly,” he cried in a loud voice. And the hearts of the Rumbek folk fell.

The peninsula of Magodon was ringed on three sides by cliffs of sandstone which rose from the sea four hundred feet, but at the Nine Mile Wall men had erected masonry that made that tall cliff purely vertical, slotted in many places with holes for observation and to shoot arrows or pour boiling liquids. The wall was erected much higher than the face of the cliff, so that it could face west as well as east, as the need might be.

Between the face of the wall and the face of the natural cliff that it enclosed were many platforms and stairs and catacombs filled with weapons for the bane of besieging armies, and stores to supply defenders for many days.

When Princess Khondiel and Lady Talishi were admitted through the Wall they climbed many steps and ramps until they arrived on the plateau of Magodon at the top, where they beheld the banners and ranks of countless troops from the House of Antero and Talishi knew her long labors had born fruit. For she had kept her avatar at a remove, lest Mastema force the tangle with his dragon too early, and so Talishi had not known of the presence of the Red Beards until she saw the host with her own eyes.

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