RETREAT

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Talishi stumbled west with the defeated forces of House Antero, Bellon and a regiment of Fallen Angels for days before she shook off her own self-pity over the loss of her precious Khondiel and realized there were injured people around her who needed the knowledge and skills of a healer. So she began to carry her own freight long before reaching the first major Antero city of Jelaket. As Talishi walked without the benefit of riding in her avatar or even on horseback she learned directly in the muscles of her legs and in the soles of her feet what a large planet Barbelo truly was.

Baron Bayard Sala told his serving wench Aliwe Halil to walk close to Lady Talishi and that her smallest whims were to be taken as direct commands. The two women seemed to quickly develop a language of their own and spoke of many things that were incomprehensible to the Baron when he happened to catch a word or two, tales of swarms and moons, of things called micros and other things called macros. And after Aliwe’s first words with her the Baron and soon everyone else noticed that Talishi had begun to smile again and seemed to shed all vestiges of her grief at last.

The forces of House Antero had horses, yet they used them only as beasts of burden to carry supplies, and walked beside their horses that they might stay and protect Talishi. Baron Priam Antero had fallen in battle, but King Brogan and Count Berek yet lived.

None of the House of Larund walked with them save Lady Irus, for her husband Count Raddai had also fallen at Nine Mile Wall, yet Lady Irus never showed the level of grief that had afflicted Talishi with the loss of Khondiel. For Irus and her husband had freely come to aid the Brown Beards, and when she saw Raddai consumed by the fire of the dragon her heart was salved against the pain of losing him with the pride of knowing he fell after a most valiant stand.

At Jelaket the ranks of the stragglers began to thin, but the rest pressed on across the heart of the West Lands to the Antero capital of Vaska. As they drew near the subjects of King Brogan sent trains of supplies to aid their march, including many horses, for Jelaket had none, having sent nearly off of them with the forces that had come to aid Rumbek.

In Vaska when King Brogan and Count Berek had been welcomed home by the people of the city, Talishi was bid by the king to stay and rest for as long as she would like. But Brogan lamented the faithlessness of his daughter Keri, which had brought all of this grief.

“Or so Mastema would have you believe, Your Highness,” said Talishi. “Mastema takes pleasure in turning the things we love against us, King Brogan. In time the shame you feel over your daughter will be transformed into anger against Mastema. And after that, perhaps your anger will be transformed once more, but into pity. For Mastema is well embarked on a path toward his own dissolution and is indeed to be pitied. Great has been his fall heretofore, and greater still the depths he has yet to fall. Mastema might succeed in gaining direct control of all of Barbelo one day, but the one who controls the world, whatever it is, will not be of the Elohim or anything like us.”

“Then what do you council for House Antero?” the King asked.

“House Antero is unfortunately in a most precarious position, for there exists no natural barrier except distance between your city of Jelaket and fallen Elketz in Magodon. Next year Lord Kirodiel will arrive demanding tribute. He will begin to build garrisons throughout your land and Demonstroke will darken your skies to protect them. Behind him will be the combined might of House Gerash and House Bellon in a newly-doubled army of Mastema. You have no hope of succeeding if you offer resistance. So I council that you do not resist. Pay the tribute. Aid Kirodiel in building his garrisons, as he will demand.”

“And the honor of the Red Beards will never be retrieved again.”

“Yes, King Brogan, that is true. But in return, you will preserve the lives of your people and the lives of House Larund beyond yours. You will find that the Law of Mastema has prepared the White Beards to assail any resistance until it breaks, but after it breaks this law flounders, and when presented by no resistance at all, the death culture it fosters slips into the inactivity of confusion, which is why I was not pursued after the war. You see, the one thing Mastema cannot teach the people to do is to simply live. So lay down your self-respect, King Brogan, and live, that you may know a deeper victory over your foe.”

“It will be made so. And yet, Lady Talishi, there remain tokens of the shame of House Antero I can no longer bear to have in my keeping.” The King unrolled a rich black cloth on his table so Talishi could behold the glittering broken shards of Dragonthorn. “Take these far away from my kingdom, I beg you.”

“It will be as you say, King Brogan.” And Talishi committed the relics to the keeping of Aliwe.

After a month in the house of the king, Talishi and her dwindling group rode to Gerazan to winter over. Then together with Aliwe, Lady Irus, Baron Bayard, and a brigade of Fallen Angels, Talishi crossed the ice bridge that led from the far west of the West Lands to the far east of the East Lands. They were almost precisely on the other side of Barbelo from Mastema’s capital city in the center of the Middle Lands. For all their journey they were never assailed by Demonstroke as Talishi often feared they would be. Mastema had essentially forgotten all about Talishi.

Bereft once more of horses, the party spent the entire (albeit short) planting season on the move, so Talishi knew nothing but bitter white cold for the better part of a year. But harvest time was unusually warm, almost hot, and she was in good spirits as they came down off from the ice to the outskirts of Belen. Here was the very source of the River Bandar, emerging from the face of a melting glacier. Every hour or so, a portion of the ice melted, releasing a boulder, sometimes the size of a house, into the vale below. But the stream was too wild to survive in a raft. The journey, by necessity, remained by foot, parallel to the river.

At length, Talishi’s group arrived in the city of Locotin in the center of the Black Beard lands. They had come to the end of their walking travels. Lady Irus commissioned a barge and floated with Talishi down the River Bandar to the capital city of Peshast, where the people marveled to see the wife of Count Raddai returning from a battle beyond the end of the world.

The Black Beard commitment to the war had been relatively meager, so King Garand bore no resentment to Talishi. And Talishi said to the King, “Of the three houses that remain opposed to Mastema, House Larund has the best disposition. You have flown in the avatar of El Shaddai, King Garand, so you know Barbelo is in the shape of a ball, and the lands of House Larund are furthest from the Middle Lands. On the west you are protected by a great natural wall. On the east are two ice bridges and a friendly House. I do not think you will be subject to invasion, but for a time, I believe you might face raids from the dragon controlled by Joy. Therefore I council that you convert all the dwellings in the land of the Black Beards into houses of stone.”

“Certainly Demonstroke will be able to flatten even these,” the King objected.

Talishi replied, “What you say is true, King Garand, nothing can withstand a direct assault from the dragon, not even the fabled Nine Mile Wall was proof against it. Yet your cities as they are presently constructed are little more than so much stacked dry timber to be kindled by Demonstroke in a single strike. Why make it easy for Joy?”

“Your council is good, Lady Talishi. You have traveled far. I offer a wing of the castle to be a home for yourself and your Fallen Angels, if you would abide here in Peshast. Many of our people have assigned their loyalties to El Shaddai rather than Mastema, and here you would have much to teach and do. Your reputation as a healer is well-known.”

“I thank you deeply for your offer, King Garand, and indeed I will avail myself of it for a little while. Peshast will not be my final home. I have summoned a B’nei Elohim named Victoria to come to our aid, and I must wait here until she arrives.”

Baron Bayard was bid to stay in Peshast as well. This had been his home when his mother Queen Aurra had exiled him in punishment for his taste in women of low station. And the baron’s servant girl Aliwe was fully occupied, but more often than not her task was simply trying to keep Bayard’s hands away from her slender body.

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