Victoria soars directly into the sky along the face of the wall to return to the Catwalk. Everyone sits around looking sad, except for Baron Bayard, who looks guilty. Victoria tells them only that Aliwe is in a better place. Considering the nature of the Catwalk, that is absolutely true. Besides, it would keep Bayard from trying to hit on her at least until they got down off the face of the Wall of God.
A day later Haziel’s party has nearly completed the descent of the Wall of God on the Catwalk. Only about a thousand feet of vertical distance remain. But no one lets their guard down just yet. That thousand feet is still perfectly fatal. On that final afternoon they arrive at a section of the Catwalk that Bayard calls “problematic”. It has been damaged somehow, perhaps in a quake, and for nearly a mile it was no wider than a toehold. But there are steel pitons already pounded into the rock ready for them to snap brass carabiners and sling ropes. By some quirk of fate or baronic contrivance Victoria is next in line after the Bayard.
Haziel calls you one of the b’nei elohim, yet I know almost nothing about them. Can you tell me more, or is it some sort of divine secret?
There are some things about us we may never reveal, but what I can tell you I will. The most important thing is that we are a family, one big unruly but mostly loving family with the usual family squabbles.
Then are you noble born?
Not in the way you are royalty, Baron, as the son of Queen Aurra. In a real sense we would be considered nothing more than common folk here.
Victoria does not know that was precisely what she needed to say to raise Bayard’s interest level in her to eleven. Still, Bayard wants to test that. BAYARD And yet you can fly. Some say you are demigods, which would make you far greater than royalty.
I can fly, that is true, but it’s not on account of something innate to me, to my body. For all practical purposes, its nothing more than a trick that relies on Binah’s ability to move wormhole endpoints around.
Applause and cheering break out on the line ahead of them on the Catwalk. Lady Haziel successfully traversed the broken portion to safety on the other side.
And our foe, this woman Joy, is she also b’nei elohim?
She is one of us, and that is what I alluded to when I mentioned family squabbles. Some of us have removed themselves to the camp of the enemy.
And the way she controls the dragon, is that another magic trick?
More trick than magic. Neither we nor the elohim that we serve hold the supernatural realm to be real. So call it a holy deception.”
The House of Sala has also dabbled in the same sort of thing. When the Blackbeard’s first cut the Catwalk and began to settle in the land below us, we Gold Beards feared that many of them would sail west across Thalury and make their homes in our ancestral lands. We sought to discourage that, so we spread a tale among them that the world was constructed like a stair, and the Wall of God was but the second of many such awesome barriers. We told them another wall existed to the west, and Thalury tumbled over this step in a bottomless cataract. We went on to tell them that from the beginning of days sailors heeded the divine injunctions of all the elohim never to sail out of sight of land, lest they meet the edge and fall over it. We made the claim that so rigidly was this law observed that if any sea captain, drunk or otherwise, steered hyz ship such that the land faded from view, it was cause for the crew to mutiny and throw the captain overboard. No such crew returning to port ever faced punishment. And the story contained a warning that went something like this:
In the fullness of time King Ravenmaster was put to death. It was the days of the revolution in the ancient kingdom of Kurgan, when the union of loosely-united city-states known as the Saiph League was born, and many of the laws established by the elohim were overthrown. Reason reigned supreme, and when time was ripe seayeng were found to crew two ships, sailors who were willing to disregard the divine warning never to sail out of the sight of land. Such was the rebellious mindset of the yeng of the Saiph League that it never occurred to them the gods issued their commandment for the safety of mariners. Instead, there were rumors of yet another land far in the west, a choice land the elohim created for their own enjoyment, a beautiful realm filled with gold, rich in abundant fruit, and the divine prohibition was to keep this land from being despoiled by mere mortals. The two ships commissioned by the revolutionaries were Will O The Whisp and Fire of the Covenant. They drifted in the current with sails unfurled. After two days, only the Wall of God could still be seen in the east, and some of the sailors shuddered, for the tradition was deeply embedded within them. And their fears proved more than superstition, for one night after about a week underway the lookout in the highest mast of Fire of the Covenant screamed that the horizon ahead was closing in on them. There was a sharp edge to the sea! Captain Dogtrapper signaled with lamps to Will O The Whisp that hy was raising his sails and turning back. Captain Skulldagger aboard the Will didn’t follow suit until it was too late. With billowing sails Fire of the Covenant barely escaped, but the current became too strong for her sister ship. In short order she was seen to tip over the edge and was never seen again.
By coincidence Baron Bayard slipped off the Catwalk just then and screamed. Victoria pushed her nose into the wall of the Sacred Cliff, resisting the urge to fly after him, since it would be as useless as her attempt to save Aliwe. But Bayard’s fall was arrested by the ropes, as they were intended to do. When he had been hauled back up, and had recovered enough that his voice had steadied, Victoria begged him to continue his story again. Or his meta-story, his story about a story that had been told to the Larund colonists in Haaretz to keep them from sailing to the lands of the House of Sala.
Will ‘O The Whisp had indeed fallen over the edge of the world. For not far away from Haaretz the sea poured over a great cataract, an infinite waterfall. For days the ship fell partially submerged within these waters, which had become a vertical sheet. The crew found they had no weight, they floated freely, and some floated far away from the ship. Winds eventually broke the sheet into globes of water, ranging in size from a mans head to the size of a barn. Fish were seen swimming in some of these spheres of water, and when the food aboard ship ran out these fish provided the only source of food. There was no thirst, for Thalury was a freshwater sea, always replenished every few thousand years by comet-fall. As the crew continued to fall, the black underside of the world became visible overhead and the doomed crew could see that the warnings were true, the world was indeed a vast stair. The eternal winds blew the globes of water further and further apart, and the heat of the day caused them to slowly evaporate. One day none of the water globes which remained near the ship contained any fish, and the yeng began to starve. Thoughts of killing each other for meat crossed their mind, but by the time they were desperate enough to act, they were too weak to successfully attack each other or do anything more than moan pitifully. Then came the final week, when they passed away one by one, according to their remaining strength. But the story we told them didn’t end there. We said that when nephilim die in the land below they find they are resurrected on a bench in the face of the Wall of God, no wider than the Catwalk, but with no means of escape. The dead nephilim on the wall can hear voices upon the winds through a trick of reflecting sound. Ever they pace the cramped space of this bench, hoping to hear their loved ones. When they do hear their name it is bittersweet, for they find their friends and loved ones have soon forgotten them and moved on. The more famed a nephil was in their life, the more fragments they hear, so they linger a while more. The humble accept the truth sooner. Its really all about letting go. When they accept this, they dissolve away. But to this very day the shade of the captain is still standing on the face of Wall of God waiting for hyz name to be heard once more as the story of his voyage was retold, just as I have told it once more to you. Within a human lifetime all the members of Captain Skulldagger’s ill-fated crew dissolved into air, or leaped from the rim to a more permanent death, but the captain alone remained. For hy had attained a form of immortality through infamy, and never a day passed but that hyz name is spoken aloud by someone far below with a shudder as the story of the Will ‘O The Whisp is told to yet another generation. The sound of hyz name is carried aloft to the rim, and hy savors it.
When Baron Bayard finishes telling hyz story, Victoria begins to see a glimmer of how she can see the way through to loving this yang. Hy is strong and kind, and more important than that, hy is interesting.
After everyone survives the rope traverse the Catwalk becomes much wider and safer, but their journey is slowed by the presence of many blown-down trees which have been knocked over recently in a storm and lie directly across the trail. Sometimes the travelers roll over them, but other times they must crawl under them, which is exhausting work, and they could not avoid getting their clothing soiled.
The fearsome cliff under the Catwalk comes to an end, and forms a normal slope. The company enters a small stand of fat virgin trees that drape the slope down to the bottom, and here the character of the journey changes dramatically. Victoria thinks it to be a magic place that has escaped the ax in the first, second, and third waves of cutting from Wazol, as though by an oversight. After that they reach a large outcropping of stone that Bayard calls Picture Buttress. It offers a marvelous view to a forest glade below. Victoria thinks it is beautiful but still dangerous. The trail actually wraps around the parapet here, and a thoughtful person, probably Bayard on his journey long ago, has provided a rope for each of them to hold on to. Then they pass a large duckpond so serene that it reflects the sky and the branches of the trees above the water like a mirror. The trail skirts the edge of this pond with a small but calm diversion before resuming its course.
It’s going to be a little rough going here.
He starts plowing through prickly foliage and bidding Victoria to trust him. The route is flagged with orange and black ribbons.
Not many people know about this trail. Those of us who do know of it use it and we maintain it but we don’t fully connect it anywhere.
And finally the Catwalk ends ignomiously in some poor old Black Beard’s backyard in the village of Wazol. Hy is tending his garden and shrug as one hundred forty people tramped through his property and go out the side gate to the front of his house to reach a street.
Where do we go next?
Haziel’s smile reveals her awareness that Vic has spoken to a living Aliwe.
Menkant. Then Joy and her dragon will come to us.
Immediately after the death of Princess Khondiel and the destruction of the avatar of Chokhmah on the battle plain west of the Nine Mile Wall, High Lord Patriarch Kirodiel Gerash divides hyz forces in twain. Half of the Army of Thaumiel is rushed back home to the Middle Land in the east, leaving the other half of hyz soldiery to complete the occupation of the lands of House Bellon and to garrison the Magodon peninsula.
When the White Beard army reaches the city of Salem once more they are transferred completely across the Middle Land by relays of many horses like a bucket fire brigade. And it comes to pass that even as Lady Haziel is just arriving at the city of Jelaket on the other side of the world, Lord Kirodiel assails 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, rushes to defend the border, where hy is joined by Countess Ayani Sala.
On the eve of the battle Ayani approaches Evandr.
How did you survive the countless battles you have fought, Sire? For it is well known that you never lead your forces from the rear, but share the physical danger and hardships of the front.
A cowardly general thinks only of his personal survival, Countess Ayani. Thus hy endangers hymself and hyz entire army, and indeed hy puts the existence of hyz 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 gives a good account of hymself, and the aid of Ayani is vital, yet Lord Kirodiel, despite hyz numerical losses, simply continues to feed more troops into the battle until the Gold Beards begin to yield. The battle takes place while Lady Talishi and her traveling party on the far side of Barbelo reach the city of Vaska, the capital of House Antero.
Duke Evandr rallies hyz forces once more on the edge of the plain at the foot of the ice bridge, near the city of Galcha.
Sire, why have you camped your army on this plain, letting Kirodiel attack from the high ground?
Because in this battle we are the guest, and Lord Kirodiel is the host. Therefore I yield the hill of honor to hym and accept this lower station.
But hy can see our entire force, Sire, 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 yeng. 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? 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 hy has taken all of that high ground. When hy attacks, we will not know from which direction hy will come!
Yes, Ayani, but hyz forces are, as you say, spread like a ring around us while down here we have the interior lines of communication. Anywhere hy attacks I can order reinforcements within minutes. And anywhere I counterattack hy will be weak, while hyz 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 does gain the tactical victory in the battle of Galcha that day, yet Kirodiel has many more yeng to spend. By throwing their lives away with no absolutely no remorse Kirodiel is able to grind out a strategic victory by forcing Evandr and Ayani to withdraw deeper into the lands of House Sala.
Ayani and Evandr assess the battle of the previous day.
AYANI (almost in despair)
Duke Evandr, why do yeng love combat so much?
As long as a child is growing hy is filling out his potential, Countess Ayani. As long as hy has not reached hyz limits, hy remains a child. Hyz limits remain unknown unless they are met and even exceeded somewhat. Combat is the crisis by which yeng come to know their limits and obtain maturity.
For many yin this maturity is attained in a very natural way,” replies Ayani. “Motherhood. Maturity means acknowledging your limits and returning to your root. It is a yin’s nature to make harself still and embrace har center. So even without the experience of motherhood, yin are naturally mature.
But young yeng 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 yeng, of course, needlessly die.
That’s what makes a female warrior different from a male warrior. Sha is primarily interested in the survival of the people sha protects.
So Evandr and Ayani fight a noble fighting retreat for many days until the fighting draws nigh to the Gold Beard capital itself, the city of Saharad. At that moment Lady Haziel and har companions are in the city of Gerazan in the far west of the West Lands.
Queen Aurra joins her husband on the field.
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 hyz 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 ring true, and the captain of Ayani’s forces bring the White Beard patriarch into captivity, but Hovan the son of Kirodiel goes into the camp of Ayani with a squad of Eyes of Thaumiel and releases his father.
And Kirodiel comes once again after Ayani with hyz dwindling army. Their forces clash in the ravine of Anixi, and Ayani is driven down the brook to the plains of Nolesh. Then Countess Ayani, aided by the timely arrival reinforcements commanded by Evandr turns and drives the Gerashi army to the brink of the gorge of Armak.
But for the first time since the invasion the strange Earthwoman Joy comes to the aid of the Gerash forces with dragon fire. And in this battle the chief lieutenant of Kirodiel slays Evandr, but in hyz death throes Evandr sorely wounds this lieutenant in his thigh.
Following the death of Evandr, Queen Aurra, in har grief, sends 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 are found to have disappeared.
Lord Kirodiel says the missing goods are not a sign of the power of Chokhmah, but indicate only thieves, and on that point hy is correct. The thieves are a number b’nei elohim tunneling unseen under the ground. Everyone starts keeping their worldly goods and weapons on their own person, but the invaders are steadily impoverished even as they loot the land of the Gold Beards.
These events transpire while Lady Haziel and har diminishing party are crossing the ice bridge to the city of Belen in the land of the Black Beards.
Queen Aurra, how can we, numbering only in our thousands, hope to prevail against our enemies numbering in their tens of thousands?
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.
AURRA (with a nod)
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 har words of encouragement to the Countess hold true, and House Sala waylay the forces of Kirodiel in vengeance for har fallen mate, yet sha can also see there are not enough b’nei elohim to aid har. The very tinders har army cuts to form bulwarks against House Gerash are just so much kindling for the dragon.
Worst of all the queen judges that Kirodiel has assailed har land at a horribly inopportune time when har subjects are fleeing the cities at har earlier command to spread themselves across the entirety of the lands held by House Sala, as was suggested by Lady Haziel. The enemy knows everything har people possesses they have taken with them on the road, and all these possessions are ripe for Kirodiel’s forces to plunder.
Yet Queen Aurra also knows that at a word from har the whole House of Sala would flock into har army; yea, even the yen, the infirm, and the children. Sha foresees 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, sha resolves, would not be.
So Queen Aurra rides across the plains of Nolesh and meet Lord Kirodiel for a parley on the hill of Ronmok, and there the queen negotiates the surrender of har forces for the sake of the lives of har people. And as part of the deal the queen turns over to the forces of House Gerash every seaworthy vessel of the Gold Beards on the river Loenna.
Lord Kirodiel takes the queen captive after the parley, putting har in a wooden cage identical to the one which had once held Haziel. Lord Kirodiel journeys with all hyz remaining forces down the winding river Loenna to the great sea known as Thalury. This voyage takes place even while Haziel is lodging in the castle of the Larund king in the city of Peshast.
Yet Queen Aurra, who still deeply mourns the death of har mate, and finds the indignity of har captivity almost too much to bear, counts House Sala fortunate, since most of the people will now complete their emigration from the cities unmolested by the army of the White Beards. And sha has appointed Countess Ayani to guide them to the new faith communities in har stead.
Two divisions of the Army of Mastema are left in the West Lands to carry out of the occupation of House Bellon. During the invasion of the East Lands, Lord Kirodiel sustains 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, remain available for action.
These yeng are put on every boat and ship that can be commandeered from the Gold Beards and they drift down the river Loenna to the great sea named Thalury. Kirodiel hymself embarks on the royal barge and takes the lead position of the expedition, with Queen Aurra confined to a cubical wooden cage on the main deck in somewhat less comfort than sha has come to expect. Yet Kirodiel is not interested in humiliating the queen beyond har basic captivity, and hy does not hold har in a state of undress as hy had once forced Haziel to do.
After the expedition reaches the mouth of the river the prevailing winds suffice to take them halfway across Thalury, but over the whole land at the foot of the Wall of God is a stagnant air mass created as the winds pile up against the rock barrier, and there the fleet is becalmed. So oars are broken out and distributed to the yeng, and the army begins to row day and night. When they grow fatigued this is remedied by whips.
At length the Gerash expedition rows past the Isle of Avior and Murzi Bog to enter the wide mouth of the river Sabik, and nephilim throng the bank to watch the parade of ships toil upstream. Then, after passing the place where the river Nanki enters from the south, they row through Canterwood, and Yeshua, who has been expecting them, even waves from the beach together with many of hez followers as the White Beard fleet continues on.
Victoria finds the village of Wazol, which is snuggled up against the Wall of God, to be extraordinarily beautiful during the night, and many of the nephilim call their settlement the Queen of Lights. The Wazolites know Yeshua well, and Yeshua has told them to take Haziel’s every vague whim to be their most succinct command. Haziel’s whim at this time is a supply of horses.
Victoria could have flown by herself to the town of Menkant in a relatively short time, but Haziel wants to maximize the element of surprise, so sha insists everyone go together by land. Victoria has never ridden a horse before, so there is a brief but necessary period of familiarization before they can set out. Baron Bayard finds it within himself to volunteer to hoist Victoria on the animal and in other ways make her ready. One hundred twenty folks begin the journey, but only one hundred nineteen animals are embarked, because Bayard, who is sincerely concerned about Victoria’s inexperience with handling horses, wants them to ride pretty much glued together.
They ride north down the upper reaches of the Sabik, taking most of the day to cover some forty miles, with many stops to rest the horses and rub their own sore asses. Haziel does not rush them at all. The dense forest begins to thin out, and great vistas can be glimpsed through them at last. Haziel calls a halt to that day’s riding.