Demonstroke2

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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. 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.


Two divisions of the Army of Mastema had been left in the West Lands to carry out of the occupation of House Bellon. During the invasion of the East Lands, Lord Kirodiel sustained casualties at the hands of House Sala equivalent to a full division. So only a single division, reorganized from the survivors of the original two, remained available for action.

These men were put on every boat and ship that could be commandeered from the Gold Beards and drifted down the river Loenna to Thalury. Kirodiel himself embarked on the royal barge and took the lead position of the expedition, with Queen Aurra confined to a cubical wooden cage on the main deck in somewhat less comfort than she had come to expect. Yet Kirodiel was not interested in humiliating the queen beyond her basic captivity, and did not hold her in a state of undress as he had once forced Talishi to do.

And after the expedition reached the mouth of the river, the prevailing winds sufficed to take them halfway across Thalury, but over the whole land of Haaretz is a stagnant air mass created as the winds pile up against the barrier that is the Wall of God, and there the fleet was becalmed. So oars were broken out, and the army began to row day and night, and when they grew fatigued this was remedied by many whips.

At length the Gerash expedition rowed past the Isle of Avior and Murzi Bog to enter the wide mouth of the river Sabik, and the people of the city of Sadl thronged the bank to watch the parade of ships toil upstream. Then, after passing the place where the river Nanki entered from the south, they rowed through Canterwood, and Yeshua, who had been expecting them, waved from the beach together with many of his followers as the White Beard fleet continued on.

Victoria found Wazol, which was snuggled up against the Wall of God, to be extraordinarily beautiful during the night, and many of the people of Hamar called the city the Queen of Lights.

She could have flown by herself to the capital of Menkant in a relatively short time, but Talishi wanted to maximize the element of surprise, so she insisted everyone go together by land. Victoria had never ridden a horse before, so there was a brief period of familiarization before they could set out. Baron Bayard found it within himself to volunteer to hoist Victoria on the animal and in other ways make her ready. One hundred twenty folks began the journey, but only one hundred nineteen animals were embarked, because Bayard, who was concerned about Victoria's inexperience with handling horses, wanted them to ride pretty much glued to each other.

They rode north down the upper reaches of the Sabik, taking most of the day to cover forty miles, with many stops to rest the horses and rub their own sore asses. Talishi did not rush them at all. The dense forest began to thin out, and great vistas could be glimpsed through them at last. Talishi called a halt to that day's riding.

In the morning when Talishi's party resumed the ride the trail turned to the east away from the river a small distance and ascended a gently rising slope of grasslands where the trees disappeared altogether. In the distance ahead, as the sun climbed toward the zenith, they saw large herds of cattle grazing, and beyond them, as a dark line that slowly grew to encompass them, was the city of Menkant itself.

When Menkant was originally platted out the founders prided themselves on the fact that they retained the original belief of the House of Israel that their God, El Shaddai, was a mighty warrior king of a deity, one who didn't have a son as men had sons, and certainly one who didn't come as a woman. But belief was only important in the absence of the object of that faith, while on Barbelo the existence of the Elohim was a basic physical fact, like gravity or the weather.

Eventually even the Menkalites had to concede that Talishi really was their God, the same God who had spoken to Abraham, and that Yeshua really was her son. So when Talishi arrived in Menkant with Baron Bayard, Victoria, and over a hundred Fallen Angels, room was quickly found for all of them. Talishi, Victoria, Bayard, and Ambe Omphal, the senior officer of the surviving Fallen Angels, were invited to stay in the house of the king.

The king dwelt nigh to the bank of the river. Thus it was that Talishi and her inner group had a front row seat when the lead ship of the White Beard expeditionary force rowed smoothly into position and tied up nigh to the house of the king. Queen Aurra was in her cage on deck as Kirodiel intended, and as Kirodiel also intended, this was what her son focused upon to the exclusion of all else.

'Baron Bayard Sala,' bellowed Lord Kirodiel from the rail of the ship. 'Although it pains me to place your mother in such straits as you now behold, I find there is no avoiding it, for I wish to make a simple trade, the common criminal called Talishi for Queen Aurra. What say you, Gold Beard Baron?'

Bayard drew his blade and bellowed in reply, 'Such a cowardly proposal from one who styles himself the Patriarch of the oldest family on Barbelo! This woman for that one, as though bartering in serving wenches! I say, rather, that both women shall go captive, or both shall go free, and that the one man of us who remains alive, be it yourself, Lord Kirodiel, or me, shall be the one to give the order!'

Kirodiel drew his own blade and ordered his men, 'Let the Baron step aboard!' By making this order both he and all his men were held to the terms outlined by the Baron. By the same token, the freedom of Talishi was now conditioned on Bayard prevailing in the combat.

A plank of wood was thrown to bridge the gap between ship and land. The Baron fearlessly crossed over the rail and stood on the deck of the royal barge in full view of his mother and Lady Talishi and Ambe Omphal and (most important in the mind of Bayard) Victoria.

The Baron saluted the Gerash lord with a sharp military slash vertically downward, and Kirodiel returned his salute. Then they started in with fairly standard stuff, just simple thrust and parry from safe distances.

Suddenly, without a word, Kirodiel literally pounced upon his challenger, his blade slicing down with bewildering speed. But Bayard had studied well in his many practice bouts and especially upon the field of battle and didn't fall for this poly for an instant. He fended off Kirodiel's first attack with ease.

The patriarch attacked again. At each of his parries Bayard felt he was striking stone. There was simply no give. He backed out of range and they began the usual circling of each other, testing with probing thrusts.

Kirodiel paused and a sudden oxygen debt forced him to draw his breath in a sharp gasp. Bayard made his own first attack then, a clumsy but forceful pounding of blade-on-blade that started to wear the White Beard patriarch down.

The auxiliary noises of their fighting were the only sounds to be heard. A resonant back-slide of steel-on-steel and CLASH! Nick, slide, and CLASH! The Baron was moving Kirodiel back now but the Gerash lord's defenses proved more and more unyielding as Bayard swept him closer to the far rail of the ship.

Kirodiel unexpectedly counter-attacked with frightening violence. Bayard was a few moments gaining his original stance at the cost of a few feet of deck. Bayard tried to prevent Kirodiel from circling around him to force his own back to the far rail.

During the struggle the two combatants spoke no word one to the other. Both would have found such a thing too effete.

Bayard pressed an attack. Lord Kirodiel countered with a deft flip of his sword down along the back of his arm. It had become a shield allowing his arm to bear the brunt of the Baron's blows. Kirodiel was well beneath Bayard's high two-handed thrusts and the Baron realized, far too late, that he was dangerously vulnerable to a bloody touch from the Gerash lord in the form of an elbow jab with his blade's tip.

First blood to Kirodiel, who savagely pierced the spleen of Bayard. The Baron sank to the deck with the shock of his wound.

Victoria saw this and flew the short distance over the rail to stand between Lord Kirodiel and his prey with the shard of Dragonthorn that was little more than a knife, and would probably shatter against the steel of Kirodiel's blade anyway.

Joy in turn saw that and hove into view riding Demonstroke, hovering on great flaps of his wings. The hellish mouth of the beast was pointed directly at the cage of Queen Aurra.



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61 – DUAL DUEL

Baron Bayard was wounded and lay at Lord Kirodiel’s feet, but he was not unaware that sweet Victoria stood between him and certain death on the keen edge of Gerash steel. And he thought her to be insanely reckless, for she bore only the broken hilt-shard of the diamond blade known as Dragonthorn, and it would shatter once again should she attempt to block a single blow from the White Beard patriarch’s blade.

But both Victoria and Kirodiel, and everyone else for that matter, were gazing skyward at Joy, who had appeared in the sky above the queen’s barge riding on the shoulders of Demonstroke. Joy had caused the dragon’s deadly mouth to aim directly at Queen Aurra, who was confined to a wooden cage on the ship’s main deck.

Victoria rushed into the sky bearing the remnant of Dragonthorn and set her flight path to lead directly at Joy. For the first time Joy became aware that her niece had come to Barbelo to stop her. B’nei Eloah on B’nei Eloah violence, but that was not unprecedented. As Chayn, after all, Joy’s first death over Luna had come as the result of a Brushfire missile loosed by some other member of the B’nei Elohim. Perhaps it had even been Victoria did the deed.

Joy did not for a moment deceive herself that Yeshua would give her yet a third chance. To protect herself, Joy caused the mouth of the beast to drift away the queen and bear instead on Victoria. A burst of white fire from the belly of the orange sun over Barbelo roared out, and Victoria altered her course directly upward to evade it. Like an arrow that had missed, the flame struck the house of the king of Menkant and set part of it ablaze.

Then Joy caused the dragon to rise into the sky and follow her niece. When his flight path matched that of Victoria’s, he bent his snake-like head and neck under his belly and loosed a continuous blast of fire, and Joy was thrown back against his collarbone as the acceleration mounted like a rocket.

By a supreme effort of will Baron Bayard stood again and drew his blade, but he was an honorable man, and he would not strike at his foe in his distracted fascination at the drama unrolling far above the queen’s barge.

“Killing you wouldn’t be murder,”Bayard said, and Kirodiel turned his gaze from the sky to the baron once more. “It’d be atonement for allowing a monster to exist among us for too long.”

The two men saluted together once again in mock ceremony and the dance began anew. They circled, waiting for an opening.

Bayard lunged forward suddenly in a ferocious attack and forced his opponent to the defensive momentarily. Kirodiel’s counterattack focused the baron’s whole attention on the patriarch’s blade flashing forward in a blur. Forced to give ground, the baron kept speaking to attempt a distraction. “Frankly, I’m quite astonished that you’ve done so well, Gerash so-called Lord. More than once Lady Talishi regaled us with tales of how you held her captive much like you’re holding my mother, because you were afraid of what another woman, a Princess Khondiel, might do.”

Kirodiel rewarded him with a prickly scratch from shoulder to left breast. Bayard risked a glance down at the blood beading up there and in that moment Kirodiel was in the air leaping high and aiming a foot blow at the baron’s head.

Almost instinctively Bayard put both hands together as a single fist and sideswiped the offending boot. Lord Kirodiel sprawled badly and landed on his back. Both men recovered their stance but they had a renewed respect for each other.

Victoria could only fly so high. She wasn’t Hunky, after all, she couldn’t make her own oxygen for her body to use. So she stopped accelerating and topped out about four miles high, bending back toward Menkant in a broad arc. Joy saw this, of course. Demonstroke stopped his burn and brought his head forward to bear on Victoria again. Short bolts of fire raced out like tracers from World War II fighter airplanes.

Victoria dodged randomly as she fell to avoid being struck by the fire. When she had descended far enough to see individual men on the ships commandeered by Kirodiel, she deliberately flew toward them to draw the dragon’s fire, allowing Joy herself to set four of them ablaze. Then she flew through an open hatch on the deck of a fifth vessel which had been a cargo vessel, but now carried only troops.

The hatch clearly wasn’t big enough for Demonstroke. But Victoria wasn’t to escape that easily. Joy commanded the beast to burn his way through and make the hatch bigger. Then Victoria and Joy were briefly together inside the large hold of the ship as screaming men were crushed under the feet of the thrashing dragon.

“This is the part of the movie where you tell me why you did it, Aunt Chayn,” said Victoria, but Joy let Demonstroke open his mouth and answer for her.

Kirodiel and Bayard faced each other anew, focusing on probing each other’s defenses. Gaging the changes, at the same time seeking not to be changed. Bayard, slowed by his wound, fought with calculated risks but never rash ones. Kirodiel was rash, but attacked with supernatural speed. The blades would thrust just here, or there, bait or blow? The combinations were infinite. It became a game of looking for the opponent’s hesitancies through a net of deception and decision.

Bayard tried to ignore the pain of his wound, but the whole point of pain was that you cannot ignore it. Pain is a priority organizer. Yet one thought kept him going. Victoria had become his highest priority. Bayard longed to see how she was doing, but dared not tear his eyes away from the fight for an instant.

When Kirodiel said, “You lousy cunt,” Bayard merely continued the high tension ballet. However, when Kirodiel described the things he would do to Bayard’s mother the queen when he was finished here Bayard did an unexpected thing: He threw his blade away.

Astonished, Kirodiel tracked the errant blade with his eyes as his training required. In that split second Bayard blasted the White Beard lord with a kick squarely and solidly in the face.

Then they were rolling and thrashing on the ground. Faces were punched. Fingernails and teeth went for eyes and other soft spots. Kirodiel pulled the classic move of aggravating Bayard’s wound, which made the baron howl in agony.

Briefly, just briefly, stopping the pain became a higher priority to Bayard than Victoria was. And that made him fly into a rage. He literally saw red, and wasn’t entirely clear exactly what happened next. He found himself kicking Kirodiel’s head again and again until Kirodiel’s son Hovan and chief lieutenant Zadkiel crossed the deck to restrain him. Zadkiel said, “Baron, stand down. You got him.”

Young Hovan, leaning over his father, confirmed he was dead. Yet there was no anger. It had been an honorable death match, and the Baron had prevailed. But Hovan was fully confident the expedition would yet attain victory. The dragon Demonstroke remained the most powerful weapon of House Gerash.

The dragon set half of the ship’s hold ablaze, condemning a hundred soldiers of House Gerash to burn alive, yet Victoria escaped by rising through a second open hatch. Joy commanded the dragon to exit the ship through the same hole he had made. Yet Demonstroke was less agile than Victoria, and even as the dragon’s neck and Joy cleared the burning hulk, Victoria seated herself neatly behind her aunt, with the point of Dragonthorn resting on Joy’s back next to a kidney.

“If you choose to commit suicide, dear aunt Chayn, you are just seconds away from True Death. Or you can decide to live, and we can talk about what your deal is. So what will it be? I recommend you live, because if you die it’s really going to smart.”

For an answer, Joy tried to slam her right elbow back into Victoria’s face.

“Then I guess my daughter was right,” Victoria said, “and you really are Jill.” So with a shrug she pressed the jagged tip of Dragonthorn smoothly into Joy’s back and deep into that kidney.

Disabling pain. Joy’s scream of agony was inhuman. The only mercy she would receive would be her instantaneous death after she fell five hundred feet to thud like a sack of wet garbage on a cobblestone city street.

And Demonstroke, free at last of Joy’s overweening control of his movements, didn’t much like having Victoria crawl up his neck to get within striking distance of his head. He thrashed as violently as he could to shake her off, but she held on for dear life. Dragon fire couldn’t help him, he couldn’t very well aim his mouth at his own head. And his arms were too short to swat her off.

When Victoria had shimmied high enough to reach, she buried the fragment of the diamond blade in the dragon’s brain.

Demonstroke fell to the surface then, and if his brain had been working any better he would have thought to give Victoria a parting spray of fire on his way down, out of spite. Because that was the sort of dragon he was.


When the dragon Demonstick fell from the sky and in his death throes belly-flopped upon the river Sabik, and the last embers of hope for House Gerash had been thoroughly extinguished, Baron Bayard turned to Hovan the son of Kirodiel. And he said, “Now carry out the terms of the death combat and release my mother Queen Aurra from her captivity, and get your ships hence, for neither shall you bring Lady Talishi into a cage once again.”

Then Hovan nodded his head once, and bowed, and Lord Zadkiel cut the ropes that secured Queen Aurra in her confinement.

With as much dignity as she could retrieve, she emerged from the cage and moved to within a few paces of her son, but her gratitude and pride in Bayard could not be contained, and he saw that.

Then from the air Victoria alighted on the gopherwood deck of the queen’s barge and in the same movement swept into the arms of Baron Bayard Sala, overjoyed that he had prevailed in his contest with Lord Kirodiel. Gently, gently, the baron embraced Victoria, and though he winced with the pain of his wound as she squeezed him back, the fact that she did squeeze him back was a very encouraging sign. He asked her, “Victoria, is it possible for mere human beings to fall in love with one the B’nei Elohim?”

“I see no reason why not,” she replied. “As I’ve told you before, we B’nei Elohim are mere human beings ourselves, with a few fancy tricks up our sleeves grounded in what you would call alchemy and natural philosophy.”

“I am very relieved to be reminded of that,” he told her. “Thank you! For now I can say with utmost confidence that I have fallen irretrievably in love with the B’nei Eloah named Victoria.”

“Then there must remain only one more thing for you to say, Bayard, so let me hear it. Come on, you’re among friends. Lay it out there.”

“Victoria, will you consent to become my wife?”

“The thing seems to be written in the living stars,” she said with no trace of hesitation. “But let me ask a question of you, Bayard, and when I have your answer, then you will have mine.”

“Proceed with your question, Victoria, but beware, I cannot foresee any that would deter me from what my heart has already resolved to do.”

Victoria caught the eye of the queen. “Is it safe to say, Your Highness, that with the whole House of Sala now moving at your command from their cities to many thousands of scattered faith assemblies, that there is no longer, in a real sense, any kingdom for you to rule, or for Baron Bayard to inherit?”

“Alas, Victoria” answered the queen, “that is true, and were you to marry my son and had your heart set on the title of Baroness, I’m afraid it would be little more than a figment, just an empty title. Our society is being profoundly transformed even as we speak. The irony of the situation is not lost on me, of course. All his life I have sharply rebuked my son for his taste in commoner women. I was trying to steer him to wed one of the Highborn, and now at the very end I find that the very word Highborn is a sound without meaning.”

“Thank you, Queen Aurra,” said Victoria. “And for my part let me say that my ability to fly, which is the biggest thing that sets me apart from humanity as one of the B’nei Elohim, is not a power that can be sustained here on Barbelo. Soon I must lay this power down again, and if I stay in this world I will be little more than a commoner woman, something that might interest the Baron of course, but I had thought you might have an intractable objection to that.”

“Victoria, you are far too modest! You have killed the dragon called Demonstroke and brought an end to the world war on Barbelo. Such a deed, which will be memorialized in songs for ages to come, makes you entirely uncommon.”

“Thank you once again, Your Highness Queen Aurra. And so I am led to ask my question of the man who has asked me to become his wife. Bayard, would you be willing to quit this world forever, and dwell with me on Earth?”

“Victoria I would eagerly follow you right out of this world if you consent to marry me.”

“I do consent to marry you Bayard! I warn you that it will be absolutely bewildering to you at first, and you will find yourself to be what we frequently call a ‘fish out of water’. For we do not merely live on the surface of the Earth, but in the skies above and in the ground below.”

“I am full willing, Victoria, if the queen will give her blessing.” And he turned to face his mother, who rolled her eyes and nodded her head yes. Then the Baron, filled with happiness beyond his capacity to bear, fell to the deck of the queen’s barge in a dead faint.

“I have done everything I can,” Talishi said after she had tended to Bayard and restored him to consciousness. “He has lost very much blood and I marvel that he slew Kirodiel. Do not permit him to stand on his feet until we have taken him downriver to Yeshua, who can provide a temporary blood substitute.”

“Lady Talishi, there remains a slight problem with carrying out that order,” the Fallen Angel Ambe Omphal said, pointing to Hovan Gerash and Lord Zadkiel and many of their officers who remained standing on the deck of the barge all around them.

Queen Aurra stood forth to confront them. She said, “Your dragon is dead.” And the men muttered aye for the queen spoke a truth.

The queen caught the eye of Hovan just then. “You have killed my husband.” And Hovan’s eyes fell, and he nodded in assent and said aye.

She said, “You are in the middle of Haaretz with a greatly diminished force, and the long road home will be much longer if you must fight your way there.” Then she caught the gaze of Lord Zadkiel. “The war is over, do you not agree?”

“I agree, your Highness.”

“Then get yourself and your men to another one of my boats and depart this land!”

When evening fell and the queen’s barge had reached the place where the rivers Sabik and Arhena became one, Talishi climbed, somehow, to the top of the highest mast where few would dare to follow her, and there she meditated on many things. Victoria, returning to the ship from a night flight she had taken for the sheer pleasure of it, saw Talishi sitting in that precarious place and asked to join her.

“By all means, Victoria, please make yourself as comfortable as you can.”

Then Victoria, knowing that no one could overhear, said, “Aliwe told you, didn’t she? That you and Bat-El found a way to win.”

“Aliwe told me things that would have been perfectly safe for our companions to overhear on the way to the Catwalk,” Talishi replied. “But I got the detailed update directly from her in the way that you and the other B’nei Elohim already know so well. Yes, we found a way to beat Mastema, both my daughter and I.”

“Can you tell me about it?”

“It’s a very curious thing, Victoria. It is like I have a splinter of wood that bears a tiny flame, and I must walk that small flame to a great pile of wood and kindle it to keep my loved ones from freezing to death, yet it is windy, and I dare not do the slightest thing to let the flame go out.”

“I think I understand what you mean. Even after Aliwe assured me I would defeat Demonstroke, I did not relax my guard for a single instant. It still required the utmost effort.”

“That is precisely what I’m trying to convey to you.”

“Lady Talishi, will I meet my daughter Aliwe again?”

“You will, after that big bonfire really gets going. But if you and Bayard have a child, even a girl child, she will not be the same Aliwe. Not even if you name her that.”

“Aliwe already said as much.”

“I will go with you and Bayard to Earth,” Talishi revealed. “It’s very strange, you know. My real body is the sun that warms the Earth and drives all life and movement there, but in this body, as Talishi, I have never been there. But I must go that there may no longer be two separate locii for the El Shaddai identity.”

“And will you return to Barbelo someday?”

“Just once, as an important part of that successful way Aliwe spoke of. I must save the planet from a third deluge. As Talishi I will not survive it. But Aliwe tells me the other El Shaddai, the one I must soon merge with once more, is already making arrangements to land in another body.”

“Please don’t make that into a habit, Lady Talishi. “We have seen what serial possession has done to Mastema.”

“I will not, and Aliwe told me that I’m making arrangements to deal with that problem as well. But I knew long ago there would be no real joy in bringing Mastema to his doom. Imagine contriving the total defeat of your bitter lifelong enemy only to discover the man was in the advanced stages of dementia.”

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Strangers In Paradise