One of the farmers who dwelt outside of Salem drove to the lines of the Eyes of Keter ringing the city. The farmer and three sturdy dirks in hyz employ removed a box from their wagon and bore it toward the city gate using two staves threaded through brass rings on the box.
One of the Eyes of Keter barked at the yeng carrying the box, ‘What yang of you are the loadmaster?’
The three dirks lowered the box to the ground and edged fearfully away from the oldest yang, who said in reply, ‘This shipment is mine, milord. I am Sibiel of Odargas.’
‘Do you pledge troth for whatsoever goods you bear in the box?’
‘I do, milord.’
‘Yet I would see within.’
Crestfallen, Sibiel ordered the dirks to open the box. The Ophan Lilith tumbled out, dazed by the sudden light. The three dirks feigned outrage at the sight of har.
The Eye of Keter said, ‘Stand apart from this Sibiel, if you value your lives! Contrary to the will of Keter hy bears aid to the fugitive daughter of King Melchiyahu to enter Salem.’
But Ophan Lilith was not cowed by the pretensions of this uncouth lackey of Lord Zadkiel.
Sha cried out in a loud voice, ‘May Chokhmah send down fire to slay you and your companions!’
At first the Eyes of Keter thought the princess was mocking their speech, but only a few heartbeats after sha spoke brilliant orange bolts of fire shot down from the clear sky.
So bright and hot was this fire that Sibiel and the three dirks thought their eyebrows had been burnt off. The immolation left only smoking grease spots where twelve Eyes of Keter stood an instant before. None remained to hinder Lilith from proceeding to the gates of Salem.
When Samael, the now living avatar of Keter, learned what happened hy knew the attack was direct interference from Chokhmah. It was the first such meddling that hyz daughter had dared to do in Heaven. Samael spoke to hyz prophet Zadkiel of two dilemmas now confronting hym.
‘The people must not come to believe this yang Michael is in union with an eloah. Otherwise my controversy with hym will lead angels to hold the eloah Chokhmah in contempt. That is the natural impulse of world-dwellers when dealing with enemies among your own order.
Also I have encouraged the people in their belief that yen are unwarlike, and to be treated as mere property. The Ophan Lilith and har so-called Fallen Angels, who are without peer in Heaven, contradict this tradition every day. This cannot be permitted to continue.
Yet when it comes down to it, who is really worthy to confront them?’
Zadkiel snorted in derision and said, ‘Surely my Lord makes a ridiculous joke.’
Samael continued to explain things to Zadkiel as though hyz prophet had not made hyz ill-informed interruption at all.
‘Lilith has exactly one weakness, and that is Michael hymself. So I am willing to tolerate the human incarnation of an eloah being caged like a beast, because I assure you that is the only thing staying the annihilation of your expeditionary force by the Fallen Angels.
When you put the city under siege you must keep Michael in full view of Ophan Lilith at all times, with pikeyeng ready to run hym through at the slightest provocation from har Fallen Angels or the forces of Cherub Melchiyahu. Your victory will hang upon that slender thread.’
At a beautiful cataract in the mountains east of Salem, the Ophan Lilith and a squad of har Fallen Angels refreshed themselves. Afterwards they resumed their usual mode of riding slowly on their horses while patrolling all of the land approaches to the city for intruders.
The waterfall completely blanked out the sound and vibration of onrushing hooves until it was nearly too late. Not even Lilith’s hypersensitive mare gave warning. Undetected, Adanite horseyeng raced up behind Lilith, har chief lieutenant Hashmal Imriel, and the other yen.
At the last instant Lilith’s sword was unlimbered only to crash against a mighty iron rod. There were sparks and Lilith was knocked clean off har horse. Still stunned, Lilith witnessed another horseyang decapitating Imriel with a single stroke and choked back har grief.
Har horse possessed the intelligence to linger with Lilith rather than follow her equine instinct, which was to bolt. Shaking har head clear, Lilith mounted up again. Poor Imriel was dead but four other Fallen Angels survived the assault and they rallied around har.
Lumbering after them at a full gallop, Lilith and har companions loosed many arrows and felled the one wielding the iron staff. Two other weaving horseyeng were slain blocking arrows fired at the one who killed Imriel. Hy had a swift horse and far too much of a head start.
Hy dove into the safety of a vast forest glade guarded by a large armed encampment. Contrary to har every wish Lilith reared back and brought har horse to a stop. The other Fallen Angels conformed to har movements as the soldier they had chased turned to face them.
Seeing at last the face of the yang who killed Imriel, the princess mouthed hyz name with all the bile sha could summon: ‘Zadkiel!’ Yet every indication Lilith had gathered from the path of burning villages told har Zadkiel was yet twelve to fifteen leagues to the west.
Sha guessed that Zadkiel must have dragged hyz army here by forced march overnight. But that led har to marvel how hy knew to come to just this place. ‘Keter,’ Lilith muttered, answering har own unspoken question. As though in answer, Demonstroke soared over the trees.
Lilith was shocked to see the first and now last dragon in Heaven had been brought to this fight, but he orbited far overhead and made no move to attack. Then sha understood Demonstroke was brandished only as insurance against any more interference from Chokhmah’s avatar.
Lilith signaled for the Fallen Angels to gather close around har. Sha said, ‘Zadkiel will pay for Imriel, life for life. You needn’t follow me.’ Sha gestured to the back of har head. ‘Chokhmah said my death will not be my death, but she has made no such promise to you.’
But the Fallen Angels were of a single mind. One of them answered for all and said, ‘Lead us, Your Royal Highness. For Imriel!’
So heedless of the danger Lilith turned har horse to face the enemy. Sha sped forward to attack Zadkiel directly, and not one yen held back.
Zadkiel ordered the canvas covering Michael’s cage to be removed, revealing hym just as Lilith entered the range of the enemy’s darts. Sha brought har horse to a halt once more. Zadkiel said, ‘You can kill me from where you stand, Lilith, but Michael would join me in death.’
Lilith stared at Zadkiel with narrowing eyes and rode a bit closer. Then moving in a well-practiced dance, Keter’s best pikeyeng, arranged in a ring around Michael’s cage, brought their forest of spikes to the horizontal, yet not toward Lilith, but inward, toward Michael.
‘Don’t sink to this, Zadkiel,’ sha called out in disgust. ‘I expect as much from Samael but it is not worthy of an unpossessed Gerash nobleyang.’ But har words were mere bluster. Lilith was shocked how efficiently the use of Michael as a living shield curtailed har actions.
Zadkiel seemed to read har thoughts. ‘Michael has become a noose around your neck, and the closer you try get to hym the tighter that noose will become. How easy it is to make you dance with a simple threat to Michael’s life!’
Michael shouted, ‘Lilith! Forget about me!’
Lilith’s eyes became moist as sha shook har head with a sad smile. Sha said, ‘Did you not know that is the only thing I could never do?’ And there was nothing more sha could do that day on the field. Spurring har horse, sha turned and led har Fallen Angels back to the city.
On the eve of the first battle of Salem Princess Lilith joined har father Cherub Melchiyahu to tally the campfires of the Adanite forces arrayed against them. When they were finished sha asked, ‘My father and king, how did you survive the countless battles you have fought?’
It is known that you never lead your forces from safe headquarters in the rear, but share the risk and the hardships of the front.’
Melchiyahu replied, ‘A cowardly commander puts a premium on hyz personal survival, Lilith. This endangers hyz army, and ultimately hymself.
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. This leaves my mind clear to concentrate on fighting well. Gaining the victory, I keep my life.
Gaining victory, furthermore, I preserve the city and save the life of the people.’
During the battle the King’s forces, which were a larger body than the Fallen Angels, took the role of the primary force. Lilith’s yen were the skirmishers, the saboteurs, and the assassins.
On a grander scale, it was King Melchiyahu and his ordinary force that gained the victory, but Zadkiel’s yeng remembered only the leather-clad yen who had somehow gotten behind their lines, throwing knives, cutting throats, driving off horses and setting fire to wagons.
And Keter, watching through the eyes of the dragon Demonstroke flying high over the field, witnessed the defeat of Zadkiel. He discounted his numerical losses and ordered more yeng to march west from Adan. They moved toward Salem like buckets of water in a fire brigade.
Before the second battle for Salem the Adanites massed on the Cherub’s left, north of the city, and Melchiyahu marched to meet them. There Ophan Lilith asked hym, ‘My father and liege-lord, why have you camped your army on this plain, and let Zadkiel occupy the high ground?’
‘My army is like water,’ hy answered. ‘Everyone discounts the importance of water until they need to seek it out in the low places it rests, in wells and rivers and even swamps. By our mere presence on this plain leading to the city, Zadkiel will begin to covet the plain.’
‘But father, we are ringed by hills on three sides. When Zadkiel attacks, we will not know from which direction hy will come!’
‘But I have the interior lines. I can reinforce at the point of contact in moments, while anywhere I choose to counterattack he will be weak.
And daughter, behold: the hills hy occupies are covered by trees. Hy cannot communicate with hyz own force with signal companies using flags, only with individual messengers that must run around the horseshoe. No, Lilith, our enemy is a fool and hyz defeat here is assured.’
Hyz boast would have held true against any other foe in Heaven, but Zadkiel spent the lives of yeng on the Plain of Galcha without remorse until the Adanite horde was on the utter brink of mutiny. Melchiyahu and Lilith withdrew closer to Salem but the enemy did not pursue.
After they reckoned their own losses Lilith asked, almost in despair, ‘Father, why do yeng love combat so much?’
‘Because while a dirk is growing hy is filling out hyz potential,’ said Cherub Melchiyahu. ‘As long as hy has not yet exceeded hyz limits, hy remains a child.’
‘For yen,’ replied Lilith, ‘maturity is attained in a very practical and natural way. Motherhood. Maturity means acknowledging your limits and returning to your root. And it is a yin’s nature, even those who bear no children, to make harself still and embrace har center.’
‘But yeng are always reaching out,’ said the King, ‘always extending until they find a breaking point. And while they are on this quest for a limit they can be enlisted in stupid vainglorious campaigns to defend the honor of other yeng who never found their own limit.’
Zadkiel came again against Salem with hyz dwindling army. The forces clashed in the ravine of Anixi and Melchiyahu was driven down the brook to Nolesh Wood. Then Lilith came with timely reinforcements to turn and drive the Adanite army to the very edge of the gorge of Armak.
The flags of truce were brought out, and with the King’s consent Lilith rode into the lines of the enemy to see if Zadkiel, with hyz back against an awesome precipice, had come to new wisdom. Hy had not even believed Keter concerning Lilith, but that was before this fight.
‘I find I want you working for me and not against me,’ Zadkiel told har as Michael watched from hyz cage only a few paces away. ‘You can defeat my army in this position, but I fear that Michael is close to the edge and something might happen to hym during the confusion.
To keep Michael safe you will dissolve your band of yen dressed as warriors, ride at the head of this army, and go where I command you in the East Lands and the West Lands and Salem, and every place where angels and men dare to hold the law of the god of heaven in contempt.’
‘Where is the honor here, Zadkiel? Where is the glory? Do you really want me to command your army while every decision is tainted by holding hostage a peaceful yang that I love? Keter would do better to shun pretense and send Demonstroke down to finish the Fallen Angels.’
Zadkiel was delighted to hear Lilith declare that sha loved the prisoner. ‘Then are the rumors true, Princess? Michael must not fall outside of the control of my army but hy need not be confined to a cage. Consider very carefully. You could go to hym this very night.’
‘At a word from my father every Salemite would flock into hyz army, Hashmal Zadkiel; yea, even the yen, the infirm, the dirks and the dolls. The war would grow so bloody that the whole face of the land would be covered with the dead, and no one would be left to bury them.
This,’ said sha, ‘must not be.’ Then sha turned on har heels and quit the parley. There had been no need to prod Lilith to do the right thing. Never was Michael more proud of har.
‘Sha knows, Chokhmah. The things you love are always used against you. Always! Sha knows!’
‘Sha does know,’ Michael replied, ‘but woe to those who turn love into a weapon and dare to use it against the ones who love. Beware, Zadkiel. Your doom lies before you. It takes no supernatural power of foresight to know the struggle for Salem will end badly for you.’
Many years before Zadkiel brought war to Salem, the Cherub Gordiel hitched a wagon to a nearby tree with a knot so elaborate no one has ever been able to fairly begin to unravel it. At that time an oracle said whoever untied the wagon would rule all the angels in Heaven.
Zadkiel had heard the prophecy, of course. When the Army of Keter drew near the city hy found the wagon and laid eyes on the Gordian Knot. For several days, while the army built camps in the surrounding fields, Zadkiel tried to undo the legendary knot, but to no avail.
This hy did in great secret, for the Eyes of Keter would look askance at any attempt to usurp the power of Samael by fulfilling the prophecy. Then, accepting at last the wagon was going nowhere, Zadkiel had hyz yeng lash Michael’s cage to the old wagon on the hilltop.
Sibiel, the farmer from Odargas who once smuggled Princess Lilith into Salem, was fingered by witnesses after the Eyes of Keter threatened torment. The Eyes elected not to kill Sibiel, for it seemed a waste of good yengpower. Lilith had made Zadkiel’s army short-handed.
Sibiel was issued army livery and pressed into service as a waterbearer in Zadkiel’s camp. Having little else to do for entertainment, often the Adanite soldiers tripped hym, laughing together with their fellows as Sibiel trudged back and forth to refill hyz waterskin.
One night when Sibiel wandered off toward the edge of the camp hy was attacked by a hooded shape and dragged into a ravine. When they were alone the attacker revealed harself to be Lilith and ordered hym to swap their clothes. As hy stripped Sibiel said hy wanted to help.
But after some stern words from the Ophan, tempered with ample thanks for what hy had already done for har, Sibiel faded off into the night under the black robe.
Lilith adjusted Sibiel’s second-hand armor and helmet, which was almost worse than no protection at all.
Sha padded out har ample curves and applied false facial hair to offset the soft yenish features that belied har status as commander of the most fierce army in heaven. Then Lilith drifted into camp fetching water for the yeng and taking abuse as though sha were Sibiel.
Lilith searched in the area where Sibiel told har Michael was being held captive. The wooden cage that had been hyz home for far too long had been taken off the wagon tied to a tree by the Gordian Knot and relocated to the center of the camp. It was guarded by only two yeng.
The cage was covered with a canvas to keep Michael from dying of exposure. It would not do, Zadkiel knew, to break the single thread keeping hymself and hyz whole army alive.
Lilith could swagger with the best of them. The guards permitted har to bring water to Michael.
Lilith appeared between the canvas and the cage with har ladle of rancid water. For light sha put on a green flexible band of intricate make, a gift from Michael. In the center it possessed a brilliant white light that allowed Lilith to move on the darkest nights.
There was none like it in Heaven. The canvas covering Michael’s cage was thick enough that no light escaped to betray the princess and whispers could not be heard outside. Michael was initially filled with joy when hy saw the face of hyz disciple but this quickly changed.
‘Hush! Take my headband.’
‘I gave that to you and I never ask for my gifts to be returned.’
‘You will have to make an exception.’
‘Do you want me to use it to escape?’
‘Please don’t do anything stupid, Michael. Better yet, don’t do anything at all!’
Michael immediately got the joke and smiled. Lilith offered the water sha brought, such as it was. Then sha said, ‘That headband is the only thing I have that says ‘Lilith was here’ without mistake. Zadkiel will come here later to gloat over you like they always do.’
‘At that time I want you to let hym see that you have my headband. That’s my message to hym, and it is a very simple one: that I can come or go at will.’
‘It will rattle hym good.’
‘It will rattle him to the point of pulling many yeng off the front lines to guard you.’
‘It is a sound plan,’ whispered Michael. ‘I never doubted that you had a scheme to get me away from Zadkiel.’
Their last moment together that evening was spent in a passionate kiss that was made necessarily short because the guards were already getting suspicious.
At dawn Lilith and har father beheld the enemy, now very close to the city, from a small rise. Michael’s cage was visible in the center of the field, protected by a sizeable fraction of Zadkiel’s available yeng, perhaps up to a third. Lilith marveled how easy it had been.
‘Do you see what I have done, father?’ said sha. ‘Things have been neatly reversed. Michael has become Zadkiel’s greatest weakness instead, a precious jewel tying down a third of hyz force just as our attack begins.’
And Melchiyahu did not hesitate to let the attack begin.
The armies slammed together. With the new disparity in numbers the battle inexorably began to tip against Zadkiel. Lilith fought har way to the top of the hill behind Zadkiel’s army where the wagon was tied up, standing all by itself and forgotten. Zadkiel spotted har.
Zadkiel nudged hyz horse up the hill to cut har off. A sudden fear gripped hym that Lilith could accomplish what no others had achieved, solve the Gordian Knot, and inherit the promise of the oracle to rule Heaven.
Alone on the summit they both dismounted and squared off.
After a flurry of clashing swords just the tip of Zadkiel’s blade slashed Lilith’s bare midsection and hy attained first blood. Sha feigned shock at the injury and slowed har dance.
Zadkiel saw that and let his guard wither for just a few heartbeats, but it was enough.
Seeing har slim opening, Lilith let fly a ferocious kick of one booted foot to hyz face and Zadkiel was laid out cold. Hyz sword separated from hyz unconscious hand. Lilith tossed it far away, then returned to har helpless prey with a strong urge to make an end of hym.
Before sha met Michael, Lilith would have done precisely that, to avenge Imriel. No, far better to let the Hashmal live and explain hyz defeat to hyz god. Sha suppressed har rage and glanced at the forgotten wagon fastened to a tree on the hilltop. Lilith ran to it instead.
Sha attempted to untie the knot that her mad grandfather old King Gordiel had made to secure the wagon to a mighty tree, but like so many that came before har sha made no headway. Sha looked down and saw Adanite skirmishers ascending to come to the aid of their commander.
Finally, with no time to lose, Lilith just hacked at the knot with har sword. The wagon was free, but sha was certain Gordiel didn’t have that solution in mind when hy created the knot. The wagon began to roll downhill and Lilith jumped inside, hanging on for har very life.
Lilith’s war cry caught the attention of the troops guarding Michael but the wagon gripped it. They gaped at the horror rushing down upon them faster than any horse could drive it. All of the yeng fled as har desperate gamble played out. Sha ducked inside and braced harself.
Michael saw what sha was doing also, and flattened hymself against the side of the cage that hy guessed would avoid a direct impact. The wagon collided with enough speed to shatter both the cage and the wagon to splinters. Lilith was unceremoniously dumped on har ass.
Somehow they both survived the collision. Lilith was more bruised and beaten than sha had ever been in har life but Michael was free. Melchiyahu and the Fallen Angels under Lilith’s lieutenants pursued the defeated and scattered forces of Zadkiel’s army into the forest.
But King Melchiyahu knew this defeated army was a fraction of the strength that Samael could bring to bear on hym and its modest size was itself a gesture of contempt on the part of Samael for the power of Salem to defend itself. Hy knew they would return with greater force.
When Lord Zadkiel awoke hy drank in the scope of hyz humiliation from hyz vantage on the hilltop. Cursing, hy fled the field alone on hyz horse. For the rest of hyz life, which endured little longer than hyz long ride back to Adan, hy contemplated how to explain it to Keter.
‘No more adventures for a while,’ Lilith told Michael while hy made certain sha was not seriously hurt. ‘I’ve cracked a rib, for starters. But you know this battle would have been unnecessary if you had just let me carry out my plan at Adan.
‘You would have been killed.’
Lilith touched the back of har head. ‘But now you have changed me, and unleashed a warrior yin in Heaven who does not blanch at the consequence of death.’
‘I would unleash an army of them. But tell me, why did you throw away everything you’ve worked for since you met me?’
‘I don’t understand what you just said.’
Michael held up one end of the wagon’s rope. ‘I’m talking about the Gordian Knot. I’ll admit, cutting it was probably not what the oracle intended, but now you are destined to rule Heaven. Fate! The unreformed Lilith must return.’
‘Must sha? You say Keter was behind all this, but do you think he will have his way forever? What if the oracle really meant the spirit of the new Lilith will take over Heaven? The one who changed –‘ Har eyes brimmed with moisture and har voice broke, but sha went on.
‘The one who changed on that unforgettable day when sha first heard you speak.’ The last word was a sob.
Michael ran hyz had over Lilith’s side, and somehow hy took the underlying pain away. Lilith didn’t have to use har new talent to shunt the agony away to breathe deeply.
‘It may take many centuries to play out, my beloved, both here and in the other world. But I really believe you turned a corner here today. If every person in every age grows willing to do for each other what you did for me today, then love won. Once and for all, love won!’