The Great Sea of the West Lands is divided in twain by the peninsula of Magodon, as large as Florida and anchored to the mainland 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 cannot be scaled by any army. At the foot of these bluffs all around the peninsula lie impassible swamps that would swallow horses and trap the wheels of chariots.
Also none can pass by land around the Sea to the north or the south. There roaring waves run nigh to the very Ice, and oft vast slabs of unstable ice melt and slide into the sea with a great thunder. No permanent road can be carved, no tunnel bored, to permit passage east or west. Thus King Arman had thought Lord Israel to be a big fat liar for suggesting House Antero was preparing to invade Magodon from across the water. For only at the uttermost eastern tip of the peninsula of Magodon can armies pass, but this is guarded by the Nine Mile Wall and also by several small islands bristling with fortified settlements, including the chief city of Rumbek.
So the Bellon capital has long been the main 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 the east of Haaretz, blocking any further travel east.
So believing there was still much time, most of the nobles who had attended Queen Aurra Sala’s council, including the queen harself, lingered in Rumbek after the Council abruptly ended with Lord Israel and Joy departing on the back of the dragon Demonstroke.
In the immediate aftermath Haziel whisks King Brogan by her avatar to Jelaket, where he begins to organize 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. Che does not know how long it will take for hem to return with hez forces, yet Princess Khondiel deems this is the only hope that Rumbek would survive the impending onslaught of House Gerash despite the existence of the Nine Mile Wall.
As for Haziel and Khondiel themselves, they return to their home on Sealiah Island to ensure the Fallen Angels are fully prepared to aid the Brown Beards in the coming war. The general feeling is that of a calm before a storm.
Five days after that a well-orchestrated ballet of Gerash sailing craft, guided by lights on the shore of Sealiah Island, concentrates 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, are taken by Eye of Thaumiel commandos and after that many of the new Gerash ships traverse the narrow strait.
Five battalions of Gerash troops go ashore unopposed, led by Eye of Thaumiel officers. The boats must be driven well up on the beach to avoid the omnipresent man-eating flora in the waters of the Eastern Sea. High Lord Patriarch Kirodiel’s ships then turn southwest down the Tala Strait toward Rumbek. In this crucial time House Gerash accumulates their forces as quickly as possible so a credible penetration into Bellon territory can be attempted.
At daybreak the southernmost two battalions of the amphibious invasion force link together and march across Sealiah Island. They begin taking the island house-to-house. At first this is accomplished with little resistance and only scattered bow-shot. Likewise, the village of Surat in the north falls quickly to the endless troops pouring over the beachhead. Soon the residents of both towns regret surrendering so easily, for the Eyes of Thaumiel begin obeying Kirodiel’s orders to kill male Brown Beards on sight.
Meanwhile three other battalions erupt from the beach and cut southwest across the island to join up with the first two. But Khondiel’s Fallen Angels issue forth from the Castle Brys to hit them on their left flank. Princess Khondiel herself, however, remains in the castle to defend Haziel as har personal guard.
Finally all of Sealiah is awake and begins putting up the first real resistance of the new war. Movement grinds to a halt as a pitched battle develops along a front that creeps south down the Isle of Sealiah. But the army of House Gerash slowly gains the upper hand.
In the Tala Strait the defenders of Rumbek answer Lord Kirodiel’s incursions with a wall of ships. In this arena alone does the House of Bellon gain a clear victory. By the end of the first day no Gerash ships are left to threaten Rumbek, for all the surviving ships are pulled north to defend the beachhead.
On the second day of the war as the fighting draws near, the subjects protected in Castle Brys began leaving on foot. Khondiel and Haziel fall in with them, and King Arman assigns a squad to guard them led by the Hashmal Binyiel. But Haziel objects. “Hashmal, please return to the King, for I have Princess Khondiel with me, and the people of House Bellon need you and your yeng far more than we do.”
But Hashmal Binyiel says, “Even so, the King hymself charged me never to depart your side. And in har presence Binyiel produces 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 Haziel the Hashmal gives the King’s ring, and Haziel mourns, because sha knows this to be a token of the King’s premonition that hy would not survive the coming attack. But Haziel accepts the ring and also Hashmal Binyiel as a companion.
Even as they make their way down from the top of Sujelah Hill the road to Mandakar along the west shore of Sealiah falls to the Army of Thaumiel. They watch as a massive bridge is sunk by Bellon engineers with black powder as a final defensive measure. But also on this day the Bellon navy prevails in a large sea battle. They win through to demolish Lord Kirodiel’s pontoon bridge and they set fire to hyz remaining ships, thus cutting off the only Gerash line of supply to Sealiah.
“The whole north of Sealiah is occupied,” Hashmal Binyiel says to Haziel. “Even Kelang is under assault. Only here in the extreme south does Sealiah remain free.”
Over the shoulders of Mount Memalek to a seldom-seen natural bridge trudge Khondiel and Haziel, escorted by Hashmal Binyiel and two other officers. They move by secret paths in the steep wilderness terrain until they have come to the village of Olivus snuggled in the hills along the southern shore. Then Haziel says, “Khondiel, I am unwarlike, and a weakling yin, 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?” asks Khondiel.
In answer, Hashmal Binyiel approaches the nearest cottage and pounds on the door. “Open in the name of King Arman!”
The yang who answers the door doesn’t look happy. He barks, “What do you want?”
“Lodging for these two travelers. They go with the blessing of the King himself.”
The owner is irritated, and hy says, “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 produces the King’s ring, and the hospitality of that cottage improves markedly. Haziel and Khondiel are welcomed for the night while the soldiers stand guard outside.
As the night of the third day passes, King Arman Bellon stands hyz ground in the walled city of Mandakar as it comes under attack by cruel flaming catapult rounds from the surrounding lands of Sealiah Island that are already captured by Kirodiel. This is the beginning of a merciless siege by fire that would end only when the city loses the battle to put out the flames and succumbs three days later.
Meanwhile, at the city of Rumbek on the Isle of Liban, Count Zelus Bellon, who rules the city in the stead of the king, learns the enemy suffers a shortage of boats, so hy orders 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 are explained by their fanatical willingness to die for Thaumiel. However the resolve of their Bellon foes stiffens as the slaughter of King Arman’s innocent subjects continue. Faced with no alternative but to die the people make their final stand at Rumbek.
Princess Khondiel and Lady Haziel make it to the southwest tip of Sealiah, the last unconquered piece of the island. There Rumbek is taking refugees off Sealiah by boat. Khondiel and Haziel get in line with the rest of the crowd while their personal squad of soldiers join others to hold off the overland Gerash attackers in a desperate fight for enough time to allow the refugees to escape.
Hashmal Binyam says, “And now, Lady Haziel, 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.” Haziel is too emotional to say many words to him in reply, other than, “If Thaumiel is defeated, then I will make it up to you one day, Hashmal Binyam!” He bows and leaves her then.
Suddenly there is an orange flash, and the boat which is being loaded in front of Khondiel and Haziel catches fire. A catapult round of flaming tar has struck home. Many nephilim, screaming in agony from their burns, desperately dive into the water to quench the flames of the sticky tar that licked their clothes and skin. But they are immediately devoured by the hungry life native to Barlelo that lives beneath the waves, and it is a terrible sight to behold.
There are six catapults on Sealiah that lob rounds over the heads of the city’s defenders to reach the refugee boats, but in a single moment the six catapults themselves all catch on fire. A streak of rushing fire appears in the sky overhead, followed by two bursts of sound so loud it seems to Khondiel sha would be knocked to the ground. The fire streak, Khondiel can see, forms behind a small dark object that races across the sky almost too quickly to follow. Before sha can point it out to Haziel it is already many leagues away and curving back up higher into the purple skies.
When Khondiel has her heartbeat under control and can find the words, she asks, “Is that your avatar?”
Haziel answers, “Indeed it is, Khondiel, though I imagine Thaumiel is growing very tired of my interference by now.”
Suddenly room in another boat is found to be available for Haziel and Khondiel to step aboard, because many of the people aren’t certain all of the catapults are destroyed, but Khondiel knows Haziel is meticulous in what she sets out to do. The avatar of Chokhmah had already made its appearance at Salem years before, killing twelve Eyes of Thaumiel, yet Taumiel has long idled his own avatar to carry out the sham of having a dragon under the thumb of the Antero Princess, and all that time Thaumiel could do nothing to avenge the many affronts.
Haziel, for har part, suspects the dragon will make a belated appearance soon in the skies over Rumbek to level the odds, and sha knows that will be a terrible thing to behold, but sha says nothing of this to Khondiel.
In the heavily fortified city of Rumbek, after hours of confusion as the refugees are sorted out, Count Zelus learns that Haziel is bearing the King’s authentic ring. After sha surrenders the ring to hym, Zelus welcomes Khondiel and Haziel into hyz castle.
Haziel realizes the King intended this very thing all along, for the Count would know by this sign that the King wanted hym to rule in his stead. Guessing King Arman to be certainly dead, Haziel thanks the memory of the sovereign held in har heart.
Count Zelus bids 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,” says hy. “No army has ever breached the Nine Mile Wall.” The Count has turned the forces at the Nine Mile Wall inside out like a reversible jacket, such that they are defending the peninsula of Magodon in the event Rumbek falls 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 meet once more again to speak with Lady Haziel about har offer to whisk the noble ones home again in har avatar, even as many of them had been brought to Rumbek.
Baron Kerresh is to be 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 were slated to be taken home to the lands of the Gold Beards, and the queen thinks to take both of her serving girls as well, but Baron Bayard declares that he wills stay behind to aid Count Zelus, and he says, “I would ask that the servant wench Aliwe Halil stay with me.”
Luzea Cedarbranch howls in greatly dismay because she would be parted from her best friend and lover, possibly forever. Aliwe tries to assure her it would turn out well, which made Luzea feel a little better, but when she is pressed to give a reason for her confidence Aliwe can give none.
Queen Aurra narrows 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 sighs. “Say what you would have me do, Lady Haziel.”
“You see the problem, of course, Your Highness. People blindly 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 Thaumiel 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 with 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 yeng learn to harness them, as they must someday. When that time comes, only a 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 embark for Saharad after many tears of parting between Luzea and Aliwe. The avatar then whisks back to Rumbek with certain officers of House Sala possessing skills uniquely honed to fend off attacks such as the one presented now by Lord Kirodiel.
Of the Red Beards, Count Berek, hyz wife Losna, and Baron Priam remain in Rumbek to aid House Bellon, but at the Count’s request hyz wife Losna is taken by the avatar of Chokhmah to Gerazan. Raddai the Bold, Count of Belen, remains behind to help defend the city, and despite the extreme danger Lady Irus stays behind with hym. But the rest of the Black Beard contingent go home with King Garand in Chokhmah’s avatar.