30 – DRAGONTHORN
“I begin to wonder for what reason I was really summoned to this Council,” Lord Kirodiel Gerash moaned in a parody of lament when a chastened Kari obeyed her father the King and stowed the diamond blade. “To receive threats, and weapons brandished in my face, it seems.”
“My daughter’s action was rash, but there was some truth to her words,” King Brogan warned. “The meaning of the creation of our Union of Kingdoms is that we shall never fight among ourselves again. But that must not be construed to mean we shall never fight again. And there are some mighty ones here who are worth many times their number in Gerash soldiery.”
Queen Aurra Sala also said to Kirodiel, “We could have made this a secret Council, and let your people be caught off-guard by a sudden and inexplicable loss of their livelihood. I invited you here for one purpose, Lord Kirodiel. The people of the Middle Land must till their earth again, and make things once more that serve life rather than end it. They will need a huge head start to begin to make the necessary changes before starvation sets in. So you witnessed the creation of the Union of Kingdoms to bring that news to your people in your so-called republic and give them that head start.”
Kirodiel had been holding back his mounting anger for the entire duration of the Council. Now his wrath was taken off the leash, and he launched into a long-winded screed against the monarchies of the Land that held nothing back. As he ranted, he skirted dangerously near to revealing Kari Antero’s awesome secret, yet without actually crossing the line.
As Kirodiel anticipated, the Princess rose from her seat and approached him with Dragonthorn drawn once more, in defiance of her father the king. It was pointed directly at his heart. So unusual was this sight the other royals were struck dumb at the spectacle, even Brogan Antero.
When Kari Stronghammer was near enough to threaten Kirodiel, she said, “The High Lord Patriarch must give account for the loved ones each one of us have lost thanks to his lies!” And she raised Dragonthorn to strike. Aliwe Halil froze in the act of filling Lord Kirodiel’s flagon with wine.
King Arman was furious and found his tongue first. “Hold! I gave my word to grant Lord Kirodiel safe passage to Rumbek for the purpose of attending this Council, and my word holds firm. Stand down, daughter! Put away your blade. Lord Kirodiel shall be sped to the border with all haste, and I promise that no harm shall come to him.”
“Noble ones of the Council,” said Kirodiel, “I believe I know precisely what it is that is really disturbing the Princess.” But before he could continue to speak, Kari assailed the unarmed man with Dragonthorn, the legendary blade that, it was said, could not be turned by mail nor even the hardest stone.
Instinctively, Aliwe Halil brought up the silver platter she was using to carry the wine as a pathetic shield to protect Lord Kirodiel, knowing it would just be demolished by the awesome blade, but her impulse was to act in such a way that would carry out the stated will of the King. And to everyone’s surprise the Dragonthorn shattered against Aliwe’s makeshift silver barrier, and glittering broken diamond shards of the ancient blade fell to the ground at Kari’s feet.
Everyone in the chamber (except Lord Kirodiel, naturally) was horrified, Princess Keri not the least of them. Baron Bayard marveled that this Aliwe girl seemed to always be exactly where she needed to be, exactly when she needed to be there.
Only Lord Kirodiel found his voice. He said, “You have been remiss in your education as well as in your duties, Antero Princess. It seems they did not tell you that when the spell is broken with the loss of your virtue, Dragonthorn becomes nothing more than a diamond in the shape of a blade. Beautiful, yes, harder than anything known, but as brittle as glass! My own body mail would have done as much as that servant’s silver plate.”
More astonishing to Kari than the destruction of Dragonthorn was Kirodiel Gerash breaking her spell commanding him to be silent about her seduction of him, and Kirodiel correctly interpreted the shock of this development on her face. “Foolish girl, you never had the power to persuade anyone to do your least bidding, and if King Brogan thought to make you believe so that your life might be a little more pleasant as you waxed in your spinsterhood, then more fool he, for it was the undoing of you both!”
For none could withstand the pure white fire of Demonstroke and live. Keri was rapidly consumed where she stood as the dragon hovered outside the chamber on great strokes of his wings, harnessed by the sorceress will of the mysterious woman named Joy who rode upon his shoulders.
It would have been a simple thing for Kirodiel to command Joy to reduce the chief Peers of the Land to ashes, not the least his chief foe Talishi, yet Kirodiel had determined that Kari alone should die at that time. By this act he showed contempt for King Brogan’s earlier claim that some of the nobles assembled there were worth many Republic soldiers. But he deemed it more important to leave them alive, that their minds might encompass the fullness of his triumph and fall into despair.
Later some of the royals thought Lord Kirodiel had done this thing out of a greater kindness, that Princess Keri would not suffer the eternal penalty of her abomination, and certainly that peculiar tradition of the monarchies filled even Mastema with disgust.
With Demonstroke’s smoking open mouth menacing the royals none could stop the hysterically laughing Kirodiel Gerash from joining his lover Joy on the back of the dragon and making good his escape by air.
31 – ACADEMY
Canterwood Academy in Haaretz provided the best primary education in the universe to lifeforms based on chemistry. There El Shaddai and Yeshua Bat-El mixed the chemicals together to see what they would get, hopefully without dropping the test tubes. The children knew their classmates came from a wide variety of geographical regions across three worlds.
The only knowledge that was withheld from the children was how they were also selected from a variety of epochs in time. The only children who knew this were of the B’nei Elohim, but they had strong inhibitions built into them against speaking anything of it.
This year from House Sala, young Prince Nelchael and hyz sister Princess Bikol from the royal household were permitted by Talishi to attend the Academy. They were brought east by steamship over Thalury and up the River Sabik directly to Canterwood, in what was perhaps the most comfortable journey for any of the children.
Abdiel Larund, heir to the Black Beard throne, was enrolled as well, together with a young Larund commoner named Muran. They had been flown west by aircraft, which involved a heart-stopping drop over the four mile Wall of God, buffetted by much turbulence.
From House Antero, Talishi selected Telan, son of Count Nerio, and also a commoner from among the Red Beards named Inanna, and they too had been flown in. But none of the children of the Brown Beards, or of House Gerash who occupied them, were invited to attend.
From the land of Haaretz at the foot of the Wall of God Yeshua chose a girl named Dafla Firegem from Nath and the tribes that had remained loyal to El Shaddai alone. And he chose a boy named Kishar Stronghammer from Hamar, from among those tribes that had embraced Bat-El as the offspring of El Shaddai. And these children were brought to Canterwood Academy by horseless carriage, but this was over difficult unpaved roads.
Yeshua Bat-El also chose two humans from Earth who had made their way to Haaretz quite by accident, having chosen to swim in the Earth end of the Sacred Pool. One of these visitors was named Shy Bear, a member of what he knew only as “The People”. This boy found the pond in the Green River Gorge and dove in on a whim, trying to find the bottom. What he found instead was Yeshua, who used sign language and much food to entice Shy Bear into staying for a while. Yeshua and his priestesses set about trying to teach him English, but the kid was already eight before he was ready to start school.
The second visitor, and the youngest, was a white girl named Inge Lange, who was part of a wagon train passing by soon after the American Civil War. Like Shy Bear, Inge came to the Land via the Sacred Pool, but unlike the boy, Inge’s family saw her enter the pond, and immediately grew concerned when she did not rise again.
Yeshua had to close the wormhole tunnel for a time, lest the rest of her family followed her through one-by-one. He knew they would be grieved for a time, but it would be very short. He planned to return Inge after only a few hours of her family’s elapsed time later, but several years of Inge’s time later. And Shy Bear would experience the same thing. Yeshua knew that if he returned the children immediately, in absolute time, it would dilute the miracle.
Inge was three years old when she slipped into the water, and she began to attend the Academy at the age of five.
From among the B’nei Elohim another two children were chosen. The first was a very gifted boy named Edgar Shybear, who actually was a distant descendant of the boy with the name Shy Bear, although the similarity in names was shrugged off by his teachers as a coincidence. Edgar was the pinnacle of El Shaddai’s long labors, a brilliant dagger pointed directly at the heart of Mastema. It only remained for that blade to be sharpened.
The second child was Hope Felton, the daughter of a very famous man named Mark Felton who had invented the Micro and created the Swarm. Hope was not an extraordinary thinker like Edgar, but her “power” (for each of the B’nei Elohim had a unique and remarkable power) seemed to be the ability to produce any sound, like a human parakeet perhaps. This was considered to be a relatively weak power, but Hope admitted she was just a half-breed. Her father was not B’nei Elohim. Her mother Victoria, however, could fly even without strap-on wings, something that Hope revealed with obvious pride.
The last two children, Murmi and Asael, didn’t come from anywhere on Earth or Barbelo at all. They spoke of a world with many moons, and how they had often traveled between them floating inside ships that plied the darkness rather than the sea. Edgar and Hope already knew of such things, but the human children were filled with wonder at the stories of Murmi and Asael. Yet they did not become good friends with the two, for the children of the moons were very thin and too weak to run and play with the others.
Early in the first semester Yeshua, Talishi, and a number of Fallen Angels delivered a wide variety of musical instruments for the children to play, looking for talent in pretty much the same manner as throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what stuck.
Telan Antero liked the physicality of the drum kit. Shy Bear eventually settled on the electric guitar, which was very strange to him. Kishar found he could play a keyboard rather well with almost no instruction. Bikol Sala discovered that she liked the electric bass. Everyone else tried the other instruments and learned they had no talent for playing them at all, including Hope, but Hope soon demonstrated that her real talent lay in her own voice. She could mimic any singer that she heard, and indeed any sound at all, which the others found to be surpassingly strange.
So Hope became the lead singer for a band that formed more-or-less spontaneously. Talishi asked them to think of a name. They eventually settled on Bite the Wax Tadpole.
In the place where Edgar Shybear and Hope Felton came from, everyone used Micros to swap music for free through the Swarm, and so music as a business had collapsed into ruins, leaving only those enthusiasts willing to perform for free. On Barbelo and in the moons spoken of by Asael and Murmi, however, people bought analog recordings on spools of thread made from a plant native to Barbelo called deathsilk, which was as thin as the silk from a spider but somehow as strong as steel. It could cut anything except other strands of deathsilk, which must be cut with a very hot flame. Deathsilk was also used in blades, which resembled violin bows. These swords were used only for slashing, not piercing.
The music of Barbelo, however, occupied a very narrow range between solemn hymns to Mastema to operatic post-battle lamentations. No one, in the entire history of Gorpai and its off-world colonies, had ever made music just for the sheer joy of it. Such a thing would be subversive in a way Mastema would be ill-equipped to counter. So Yeshua laid a challenge before the twelve children of Canterwood Academy: Introduce the people of Barbelo and the Jovian system to fun music.
Of the fourteen children, only Edgar and Hope had heard the kind of “fun” music Yeshua was looking for, and fun it was indeed. There were melodies running around in Edgar’s head but to get the other children to play them he had to invent a system of notation entirely from scratch. And that was precisely what the academy was for, not only to teach existing facts, but to teach the children how to think.
Seven of the children weren’t performers in Bite the Wax Tadpole, but Nelchael was a budding poet and stepped in with song lyrics to go with Edgar’s melodies. The lyrics ranged from nursery rhymes to the brainless fun of Larund hill country bumpkins to the sweaty energy of Talishite revival music.
But the thing that really brought the band together was a “field trip” to Earth, escorted by Hope’s parents Victoria and Mark Felton. After emerging from the pond (the very same one found by Inge and Shy Bear) everyone went to a mountain lodge at Stampede Pass about a half hour east of the Green River Gorge area. Some of the more adventurous children put on skis and hit the slopes, while Asael, Murmi, and most of the girls contented themselves with riding on inner tubes.
All of them had a memorably great time, but the outing inspired Kishar to write a song titled “Skiin’ USA” which would serve as a template for a flood of other songs.
With Telan keeping time and Bikol stitching the song together harmonically on bass, Shy Bear carried the main melody line on guitar and Kishar kept the whole thing chugging along with improvised chords on his piano. Hope sang Nelchael’s lyrics with a voice that was girlish but with rich undertones that belied her age. Other children made costumes or painted cover art. Abdiel learned to operate a micro to record and edit their songs. So they all worked to meet Talishi’s challenge.
Drivin’ all night on the leg from Amarillo Hubby at home is he dreamin’ on his pillow? Musta kilt me a half-dozen Armadillos Racin’ home to find him in bed with a fellow
So begins Far Country on the first spool by Bite the Wax Tadpole titled Stampede after the place where the children went skiing, a title which described the wild proceedings to a T.
The spool was recorded live at a concert at Canterwood Academy, attended by Yeshua, Talishi, the Sala queen, most of the B’nei Elohim, and perhaps five hundred others were all there to see a child of about seven singing in a grown-up girl’s voice about grown-up girl things.
The Whole Town’s a Rollin’ was the second song, and it was the best one. After the silliness of the first song the band wanted to hook the listener and show them right up front they were getting some serious energy and fun, which was focused mostly on Kishar tickling the ivory. Abdiel ran the soundboard while Nelchael, Abdiel, Muran, and Inge stood off to the side and supplied backup vocals.
Snow Bunny was a naughty ditty about a girl with loose morals hanging around the lodge that would have earned a quick ban on Barbelo had not Hope snarled some of the words to the song unintelligibly to deliberately mislead censors.
In the middle of the set the band played the first song they ever recorded, Skiin’ USA, which featured Bikol’s bass pushed way forward in the mix plus a sixteen bar call-and-response “duet” between Kishar on piano and Malekwa on guitar. Like most of their songs, it was an AABA pattern.
To balance the dumb but fun songs like Far Country there were smart, important songs like Responsibility Boundaries:
Can a dream bleed until it dies Drained of all hope through skeptic floors? Shall the living cut their losses? Bow to merchants with empty stores? How artistic is our healing To grow hard crusts on shameful sores?
For the instrumental title Seven Humps Telan’s drumming was as organic and improvisational as usual, but swooshed up and down in pitch as he hit the skins near the rim and moved to the center. Hope was idled, but she stood there dancing in place and swung her microphone in a circle.
Before the final song, which was a slow ballad, Victoria approached Hope very closely so she could be heard over the noise. “Honey, you know you’re adopted, right?”
Hope nodded her head. Adopted, as all children inwardly suspect.
“It was because Robyn has the very heavy responsibility of leading the B’nei Elohim now that Lilith is gone. There she is in the third row. That’s your mother. That’s Robyn. The beautiful blonde woman in the yellow dress. Do you see her?”
Hope did see her, but it was time to sing the last song, Mom-Shaped Hole, which was supposed to be about Hope’s longing for Victoria while she was in school, but now it took on a much deeper resonance for her.
I hope you can hear me Nobody else can take your role How can I go on now? All I have is a mom shaped hole
Hope sang the entire song with her eyes locked on Robyn, but she saw that Robyn never once looked directly back at her. Robyn seemed to be having a good time, but she only seemed to look at the other children, or the people in the seats around her. And after the concert when the audience started to filter out of the amphitheater Hope drifted off the stage trying to catch up to her, but too many people got in the way, and Robyn was gone.
32 – INVASION
The Great Sea of the West Lands is divided in twain lobes by the peninsula of Magodon, as large as Florida and anchored to the mainlaind on the west. But sheer cliffs rising as much as four hundred feet guard every approach to Magodon by sea. This natural wall is made of soft sandstone and could not be scaled by any army. At the feet of these bluffs all around the peninsula lay impassible swamps that would swallow horses and trap the wheels of chariots.
Also none could pass by land around the Sea to the north or the south. There roaring waves ran nigh to the very Ice, and often vast slabs of ice would melt and slide into the sea with great thunder. No permanent road could be carved, no tunnel bored, to permit passage east or west.
And that was why King Arman had thought Lord Kirodiel to be a big fat liar for suggesting House Antero was preparing to invade Magodon from across the water. For only at the uttermost pointy eastern tip of the peninsula of Magodon could armies pass, but this was guarded by the Nine Mile Wall and also several small islands bristling with fortified settlements, whose chief city was Rumbek.
So it was that the Bellon capital at Rumbek had long been the chief bulwark against any Gerash incursion, protecting not only the Brown Beard’s lands in Magodon and beyond, but also the lands of family Antero and Larund far in the west. As for the other invasion route, assuming House Gerash could subdue House Sala, their army would be stopped by the Wall of God in Haaretz blocking any further travel east.
The day after the Council abruptly ended with Kirodiel and Joy departing on Demonstroke, Talishi whisked King Brogan by her avatar to Jelaket, where he organized the immediate deployment of the greater part of the forces of House Antero to ride with all haste to the east to come to the aid of House Bellon. The mobilization would take a number of days yet Princess Khondiel deemed this was the only hope that Rumbek would survive the impending onslaught of House Gerash.
The following day the onslaught arrived. A well-orchestrated ballet of Gerash sailing craft, guided by lights on the shore of Sealiah Island, concentrated at nightfall in the three mile-wide gap between the tip of the Isle of Sealiah and the village of Gurtus on the mainland. The tiny settlement of Surat at Sealiah’s tip, including the ferry landing, were taken by Eye of Mastema commandos and then many of the new Gerash ships traversed the narrow strait.
Five battalions of Gerash troops went ashore unopposed, led by Eye of Mastema officers. The boats had to be driven well up on the beach to avoid the omnipresent man-eating flora in the waters of the Eastern Sea, which also afflicted the Western Sea nigh to Salem in the Middle Lands.
Lord Kirodiel’s ships then turned southwest down the Tala Strait toward Rumbek. In this crucial time Kirodiel accumulated his forces as quickly as possible so a credible penetration into Bellon territory could be attempted.
At daybreak the southern-most two battalions of the amphibious invasion force linked together and marched across Sealiah Island. They began taking it house-to-house. This was accomplished with little resistance and only scattered bow-shot. Likewise, the village of Surat in the north fell quickly to the endless troops pouring over the beachhead. Soon the residents of both towns regretted surrendering so easily, for the Eyes of Mastema began obeying Kirodiel’s orders to kill male Brown Beards on sight.
Meanwhile three other battalions erupted from the beach and cut southwest across the island to join up with the first two. But Khondiel’s Amazons issued forth from Castle Brys to hit them on their left flank. Princess Khondiel herself, however remained in the castle to defend Talishi.
Finally all of Sealiah was awake and began putting up the first real resistance of the new war. Movement ground to a halt as a pitched battle developed along a front that crept south down the Isle of Sealiah. But the army of Mastema slowly gained the upper hand.
In the Tala Strait the defenders of Rumbek answered Kirodiel’s incursions with a wall of ships. In this arena alone did the House of Bellon gain a clear victory. By the end of the first day no Gerash ships were left to threaten Rumbek, for all the surviving ships were pulled north to defend the beachhead.
On the second day of the war as the fighting drew near the subjects protected in Castle Brys began leaving on foot. Khondiel and Talishi fell in with them, and King Arman assigned a squad to guard them led by one Hashmal Binyiel. But Talishi objected, saying, “Hashmal, please return to the King, for I have Khondiel with me, and the people of House Bellon need you and your men far more than we do.”
But Hashmal Binyiel said, “Even so, the King himself charged me never to depart your side. And in her presence he produced the King’s own ring, embossed with the seal of the House of Bellon, which the King used to imprint documents sealed with wax to assure their authenticity. Now to Talishi the Hashmal gave the King’s ring, and Talishi mourned, because she knew this as a token of the King’s premonition that he would not survive the coming attack. But Talishi accepted the ring and also Hashmal Binyiel as a companion.
Even as they made their way down from the top of Sujelah Hill the road to Mandakar along the west shore of Sealiah fell to the Army of Mastema. They watched a massive bridge sunk by Bellon engineers with black powder as a final defensive measure.
But on this day the Bellon navy prevailed in a large sea battle. They won through to demolish Kirodiel’s pontoon bridge and set fire to his remaining ships, thus cutting off the only Gerash line of supply to Sealiah.
“The whole north of Sealiah is occupied,” Hashmal Binyiel said to Talishi. “Even Kelang is under assault. Only here in the extreme south does Sealiah remain free.”
Over the shoulders of Mount Memalek and to a seldom-seen natural bridge trudged Khondiel and Talishi, escorted by Hashmal Binyiel and two other officers. They moved by secret paths in the steep wilderness terrain until they were come to the village of Olivus snuggled in the hills along the southern shore. Then Talishi said, “Khondiel, I am unwarlike, and a weakling woman, and I am about to swoon from this march. Perhaps I could rest for a while in that cottage hard by.”
“What do you say to that, Hashmal?” asked Khondiel.
In answer, Hashmal Binyiel approached the nearest cottage and pounded on the door. “Open in the name of King Arman!”
The man who answered the door didn’t look happy. He barked, “What do you want?”
“Lodging for these two travelers. They go with the blessing of the King himself.”
The owner was irritated, and said, “How much did they pay you to say that, soldier? Do you think in this confusion the ‘blessing of the King’ are the pass words to help yourself to the bounty of any subject of the realm?”
So Binyiel produced the King’s ring, and the hospitality of that cottage improved markedly. Talishi and Khondiel were welcomed for the night, while the soldiers stood guard outside.
33 – CONSEQUENCES
Canterwood was famed for its trees, the Academy for its tree house. The children learned their final lesson in this tree house, though none of the Elohim or adult B’nei Elohim were present as teachers. It was a lesson that had been taught and learned by countless children since the dawn of time. It was called “Doctor” or “I’ll Show You Mine & You Show Me Yours.”
Seven year old Inge had straight hair so blonde it was almost white. The eyebrows over her baby blues were nearly white as well, giving the appearance at first glance of having no eyebrows at all, yet her face was peppered with brown freckles for spice. By lot, she was the first one who had to strip. Everyone had the same shirt, jacket, and tie, but the bottom half of their uniform depended on gender. Inge dropped her pleated skirt and panties, and everyone could see the freckles extended over her whole body. They saw the fat lips of her labia, which was news to some of the boys. Nelchael said, “She has two butts!”
Abdiel Larund was the next name pulled out of the hat. He dropped his trousers and undershorts without a shred of body modesty and then the girls learned what boys had.
Dafla Firegem was a budding bodybuilder but when she doffed her uniform, going completely nude, her muscles were not so bulky that they overrode the feminine layer of fat on her skin, which was also darker than any of the other kids, even Shy Bear. Her body was beautiful, but Dafla would always be what cruel kids called a Butterface. That is, a great body, “but her face…”
Shy Bear was a few years older than the rest of the children. He was old enough that some tentative hairs were beginning to grow around his genitals, and this “lesson” in the tree house had excited him to the point that his dick was standing straight up at attention. So the children learned yet another new thing.
Hope Felton never needed to go to the bathroom, so she had never seen what the other kids did in there. Seeing the variety of genitalia on display in the tree house was a completely novel experience for her. Now it was her turn, and it dawned on her, too late, that perhaps she had made a mistake by agreeing to participate in this impromptu lesson.
The other children sensed her reluctance to strip and poured the pressure on. At length, Hope did remove her skirt, and what everyone saw was a girl as anatomically incorrect as a Barbie doll. But maybe everything was hiding. The other kids ordered Hope to drop to the floor and put her legs in the air, which she did, but no help there. Hope was a zero holer. “How do you pee? How do you poop?” they asked.
“I don’t,” was the honest reply, and what followed was an even bigger mistake than Hope agreeing to attend the session. The children could have kept it all quiet and just forget about it. Instead they shunned Hope as though she was a monster and evacuated the tree house like it was on fire.
Their frantic questions filtered up the chain of adults and in short order Victoria and Mark Felton in Taurus City knew their careful plans to keep Hope convinced that she was a real human girl were in complete disarray.
After Robyn let the air out of his vacsuit with her blade, John Glenn knew he was finished. He saw black dancing dots, his face and fingers went numb, and he sank to the ground in a faint. As deaths go it wasn’t the worst. He saw the lunar sky change from black to white, then there was cold water that leaked through the gash in his suit.
He floated to the surface of the water and when he rolled back his faceplate he heard a small child crying. Glenn had expected to be wearing a robe in heaven. Instead he found himself still wearing his ripped spacesuit. A pair of attractive women of indeterminate origin helped him twist his helmet off. Yeshua was kneeling beside him, smiling to put him at ease.
“Who do you say that I am, John Glenn?” Yeshua asked.
The question jostled Glenn’s memory of the scriptures from his Presbyterian background. “You are the Christ,” he said, and now John feared that he might be exactly right.
“You are not a spirit, John, there is no such thing. Just a mind, and you also need a brain to have one of those. But you were not using that brain when you committed suicide by Robyn. She can see the future. You could be locked in a room with her unarmed and you with a shotgun and you’d never get a clear shot.”
Glenn saw that the two women who helped him get his helmet off were now loading a white scroll into a watertight backpack and securing it to the shoulders of the crying girl, and he was disturbed. “Why is she so sad, Lord?”
“That little girl is Inge Lange. Her time here has been joyous, but now it has been cut short. She is being returned home and she will never see most of her friends again. And Inge is crying also because she believes she must leave on account of something that she did a short time ago.”
When Yeshua mentioned that the girl was going back Glenn felt a glimmer of hope. “So people do return from the dead. Aside from you, of course, Lord.”
“This isn’t the afterlife, John. Little Inge actually came here without dying. So did you, in fact. You’re here in the same old body you had, there’s no other body dying on the moon.”
“Why did you do that, Lord? Am I to be punished?”
“No. Traditionally at this point I heal the subject of whatever injury or infirmity led to their death, because as you might have read I’m a very good doctor. But you are in remarkably good health for your age. There’s an entirely real timeline, John, the one where Apollo 17 was the final American moon shot, the one where you lived to be about a hundred. You even went into space once more on something they called a space shuttle and were given a ticker-tape parade. That John Glenn finished out his life and it was a wonderful story. This John Glenn right here is not quite so amazing. You made a bad turn somewhere, but I think there’s a chance to show you what you did wrong. And it’s not really for your benefit that we discover the pivot point. I really want to know. This is really an experiment for the education of myself.”
“So I suppose the Roman Catholic Church had it nailed down all along,” Glenn mused. “There really is a purgatory and Presbyterians come here.”
“Close enough, John. If there is to be a punishment, you already suspect what it is. You’ll begin to miss your wife Annie very much, and you will know she will soon be grieving for you but there is nothing you can do to comfort her. And all I can say is that you should have thought about it before you joined Asmodeus on his suicide run.”
They watched as young Inge was lowered into the Sacred Pool. She gave a final sob, went head down, kicked her way under, and did not rise again.
“Don’t entertain the idea that you can go home that way, John. It won’t work for you.”
As with Inge, school days were over for Shy Bear, yet he did not leave Haaretz until years afterward, and his education did continue, but in a far less academic vein. During that time he was attached to a company of Fallen Angels who roamed the border between Hamar and Kurgan and kept Black Beard bad’uns out of Canterwood. Along the way they lived off the land and the Fallen Angels taught young Shy Bear how to hunt his own game. And when his body had changed sufficiently that he could appreciate it, they taught him an entirely different kind of hunt.
After that he was returned to Earth. To help the boy survive, a B’nei Elohim woman named Del gave him the weapon called the Golden Gift, a dark blade that transformed anything it touched into dark matter, from the head of an elk to the arrows of other men. Armed this way, such protection as he could offer became the coin to buy his way.
One-by-one he assembled stragglers like himself into a group too small and unrelated to be considered a tribe. Despite his youth, Shy Bear became chief of another group he called the People. The group he had been born and raised in, which had also called themselves the People, had probably migrated far away over the years, or more likely had been killed or assimilated by the Northern Raiders.
Shy Bear’s People possessed almost nothing except their horses, and even those were liable to be taken by the Northern Raiders from time to time. They survived by burning extensive swaths of the riparian forest in the Green River valley to create grazing ground which would attract large game animals. One autumn when the entire gorge of the Green River was shrouded in smoke, hunting parties from among the People stood upon a high hill and marveled. They called the large hill, in their tongue, the Island in the Sky.
White trappers called the hill End Dome, for it was the final high prominence along the westward course of the Green River.
North of the hill the Green River dropped its load of silt in a cluster of islands anchored by tall grass, which offered the easiest ford between the steep gorge and the steep Cascade front just to the east of End Dome. Herds of antelope and elk came to the water exactly there and passed through to the other side, and the People would take them for meat.
When Shy Bear found the largest bull of the regrouping elk he pointed the Golden Gift at its head. A hissing black line briefly connected his arm to the animal’s head, and there was no more head. The dead animal immediately dropped to the ground and his brother elk scattered once more.
The other hunters helped Shy Bear field-dress the carcass down to easily transportable slabs of meat and hide, to be dragged behind their horses on wooden skids. Most of the elk meat was set aside to become smoked jerky for lean times, but the remainder was enough for a great feast.
Below the hill to the west in a large bend of the river was the small pond that Shy Bear knew was a portal to Canterwood in Hamar, but he told no one. Sometimes at dawn the People would find footprints leading directly into or away from the water, but never circling it. On even more rare occasions they caught a nighttime glimpse of creatures that walked upright like men, with coats of white fur. They called these creatures Sasquatch.
Shy Bear said the creatures were messengers of the Sun God and not to be feared, and he was actually correct, the Sasquatch were simply Fallen Angels, Issacharites, and other servants on errands for Bat-El or El Shaddai. They tried not to alarm the People as they went about their errands and returned to Haaretz, but the People were expert hunters and trackers, and the intruders could not remain undetected for long. Others among the People said the Sasquatch were evil spirits in animal form, or the shades of ancestors who were not at rest.
Despite baskets of strange fruit from Barbelo frequently left by the so-called Sasquatch, which supplemented the diet of the People, Chief Shy Bear could not make them believe the Sasquatch were harmless. It was too easy to blame them for every misfortune. So at Shy Bear’s direction the People constructed an earth berm, or mound, to enclose the little pond in a perfect circle. There was one opening in the mound that pointed away from the lodge of the People, and after that the large footprints were found to be routed through this opening, leading far away from their hunting grounds.
Seconds before her ship was destroyed Chayn found herself standing before Yeshua beside the Sacred Pool. “So you find yourself playing the Judas role today,” he said to her.
With trepidation Chayn asked, “What shall become of me now, Lord?”
“You are free to go, actually. Happy Birthday. You’re B’nei Elohim, so you get a second chance. But you’re a very unusual case, Chayn. We know that Jill dominates your will. What is Chayn’s culpability now? What would be the point of a reward and punishment system applied against one who is possessed?”
“When you say punishment, Lord, are you talking about hell?”
“Not even Mastema is twisted enough to decree eternal torture as just retribution for a finite set of sins committed over a human lifetime. Even that thing about burying the Antero princess alive is so much bluster. No, dear, hell is a purely human invention. I won’t hold you to account for what Jill did to you against your will.”
And so Chayn bowed to Yeshua with genuine respect and departed on foot into Canterwood, time-frame unknown. Soon she found she had no more power to control beasts, which meant she had to make other arrangements to deal with the food situation. To remain incognito from the other B’nei Elohim, Chayn radically altered her appearance and began giving her name as Joy.
34 – NINE MILE WALL
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.