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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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