Many years before war came to Salem, on a hill near the city, King Gordiel, the great-grandfather of Melchizedek, hitched a wagon to a tree with a knot so elaborate no one has ever been able to untie it. At that time an oracle said (or was commanded by Gordiel to say) that whoever unraveled this so-called Gordian Knot would rule the entire world of Barbelo.
Zadkiel had heard the prophecy, of course, so when the Army of Thaumiel draws near the city hy finds the wagon and lays hyz own eyes on the famous knot. For several days, while the army camps in the surrounding countryside, Zadkiel tries to undo the knot, but to no avail. This hy does in secret, for it could be construed by Kirodiel as an attempt to usurp hyz power by fulfilling the prophecy. Very well, since the wagon is not going anywhere soon, Zadkiel has hyz men lash Haziel’s cage to the wagon of King Gordius. For Haziel had been brought at last to the outskirts of the final holdout city of Salem to taunt har supporters there.
At a beautiful blue pool in the mountains ringing the city of Salem, Khondiel and a squad of har Fallen Angels refresh themselves, then assume their usual mode of riding slowly on their horses while they watch the greater perimeter of the city for intruders. Suchwise the Eyes of Thaumiel had also done before they were inexplicably withdrawn some weeks ago.
A nearby torrent of water is so loud that Khondiel finds it hard to hear har chief lieutenant, Imriel, speaking to har. Sha tells Imriel to repeat what sha had just said, but a bit louder.
We should be back to the ferry by nightfall. We nearly did a complete circle around the city.
The waterfall completely blanks out the sound and vibration of onrushing hooves until it is nearly too late. Not even Khondiel’s hypersensitive mare gives warning. Suddenly Gerash horseyeng race up behind Khondiel, Imriel, and the others. At the last second Khondiel’s sword is brought out, only to crash against a mighty iron rod. There are sparks and Khondiel is knocked clean off har horse.
Another horseyang decapitates Imriel in one smooth motion. Khondiel is stunned, and grieves for Imriel, but her horse has the intelligence to linger with Khondiel rather than follow her equine instinct, which is to bolt.
Shaking har head clear, Khondiel mounts up again. Imriel is dead but four of har Fallen Angels survived the assault and they rally around har. Lumbering after them, sha recognizes their battle standard and mouths the vile name of their general with all the contempt sha could muster
Khondiel chases the cavalrymen like the cold wind that presages the long Barbelo winter. Khondiel’s companions loose many arrows even from their full gallop, and one of them slays the iron staff wielder. Two others who blocked Zadkiel from harm also fall, so no one remains to run interference while Khondiel slowly closes in on her fleeing target.
But Zadkiel is too far ahead. Soon hy dives into the safety of a vast forest glade guarded by a large armed encampment. Contrary to har every wish Khondiel rears back and brings har horse to a stop, and the other Fallen Angels conform to har movements. Khondiel scans all the banners and standards of the army arrayed before har and recognizes this as the main bulk of the Army of Thaumiel.
But every indication sha had put together from the path of burning towns said Zadkiel was twelve or fifteen leagues to the west. He must have led hyz army here on a forced march all night. But how did hy know to come to precisely this place?
Thaumiel, Khondiel mutters, answering her own unspoken question.
Almost in answer, the black avatar of Thaumiel roars overhead, insurance against any more help from Chokhmah.
Zadkiel orders that the canvas covering Haziel’s cage be removed, and then Haziel is revealed to Khondiel. Zadkiel is strangely disappointed that Khondiel doesn’t brim over with emotion. Hy has no idea Khondiel has been in frequent contact with har.
You can kill me where you stand, Khondiel, but that wouldn’t be healthy for Haziel.
Khondiel stares at Zadkiel with first wide, then narrowing eyes. Sha rides a bit closer.
Don’t sink to this, Zadkiel. I expect as much from Kirodiel. It isn’t worthy of an unpossessed yang of the House of Gerash.
Now Khondiel is close enough that Zadkiel can speak in a more dignified tone.
Yet I find I want you working for me and not against me. Here are your only options, Khondiel. You can defeat my legions and possibly rescue poor little Haziel, but that outcome is not assured. To really keep Haziel safe you must ride at the head of my army and go where I command you in the East Lands and the West Lands, and in Salem, and every place where Thaumiel is held in contempt.
Khondiel is frustrated by her vulnerability. Sha wonders if all her enemies have learned Haziel is her one weakness.
Zadkiel seems to read har thoughts.
Haziel has become a noose around your neck, Khondiel, and the closer you get to har the tighter that noose becomes. How easy it is to make you dance with a few simple threats to Haziel’s life!
Where is the honor in this, Zadkiel? The glory? You want me to command your army, but do you really want my decisions for you tainted by holding a yin I care about hostage?
Not at all, but you have left me no choice.
Then Khondiel gets har horse up to full speed and charges toward the heart of the enemy encampment. Moving in a well-practiced dance, a century of Thaumiel’s best pikeyeng suddenly arrange themselves around Haziel’s cage, with their forest of spikes pointing directly at the approach of Khondiel.
So Zadkiel has put Haziel on display, tempting Khondiel, at the same time making it clear Haziel is completely beyond har grasp. Haziel shouts,
Khondiel! Forget about me!
Khondiel’s voice breaks as sha calls back tearfully.
Don’t you know by now that’s the one thing I can never do?
But sha could do nothing more here. Khondiel flashes Zadkiel with a glance of pure hatred and kicks her steed, turning away to flee the scene.
(to Haziel) Sha is a true warrior.
This earns hym a wad of spit in hyz face. Hy quietly wipes it away.
Sha knows. The things you love are always used against you. Always! Sha knows!
Sibiel, the farmer from Odargas who smuggled Khondiel to Salem, is fingered by the three farm hands hy hired when they are threatened with torture. The Eyes of Thaumiel elect not to kill Sibiel, for it would seem a waste of good muscle power. Zadkiel’s army is short-handed. Sibiel is issued army livery and pressed into service as a waterbearer in Zadkiel’s camp. Having little else to do for entertainment, often the Gerash soldiers trip hym, laughing together with their buddies as Sibiel trudges back again and again to refill hyz pot.
One night Sibiel wanders off to the edge of the camp where a hooded shape tackles hym and drags hym into a small ravine. It is Khondiel! Sha orders hym to switch their clothes. Hy wants to stay and help rescue Haziel, but after some stern words from Princess Khondiel, together with ample thanks for what he has already done for har, Sibiel fades off into the night under a black robe.
Khondiel adjusts Sibiel’s second-hand armor and helmet, which is almost worse than no protection at all. Sha pads out har ample curves and puts on false facial hair to offset the soft feminine features that belies har status as commander of the foremost army on Barbelo. Then sha drifts into the camp fetching water for the yeng and searching for Haziel in the area where Sibiel told har sha was being held captive.
Haziel is held within the wooden cage that has been her home for far too long now. The cage is moved off the wagon tied to a tree by the Gordian Knot and relocated to the center of the camp, guarded by two yeng. Tonight it is covered with a canvas to keep Zadkiel’s yeng from leering at the nude young Haziel instead of watching out for Khondiel as they were ordered to do.
Har Sibiel uniform works well. Khondiel can swagger with the best of them. The guards permit har to enter with a ladle of rancid water. Sha appears between the canvas and the cage. For light Khondiel wears a green flexible band of intricate make, a gift from Haziel. In the center it possesses a brilliant white light that allows Khondiel to move on the darkest nights, and there is none like it anywhere on Barbelo. The canvas covering Haziel’s cage is thick enough that no light escapes to betray the princess.
Haziel is filled with joy when sha sees the face of har disciple. Then sha seems to be filled with consternation.
Hush! Take my headband.
That was my gift to you, Khondiel, and I never ask for my gifts to be returned.
You will have to make an exception this time.
Sha passes it to Haziel between the interlaced bars.
Do you want me to use it to escape?
(with a smirk) Please don’t do anything stupid, Haziel. Better yet, don’t do anything at all!
Haziel immediately gets the joke and smiles.
Khondiel offers the water, such as it is.
This headband is the only thing I have that says ‘Khondiel was here’ without mistake. Zadkiel will come in here later and gloat over you like evil warlords always seem to do. At that time I want you to let hym see 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, which, as you well know by now, I can.
It will rattle hym good.
The more yeng hy has guarding you, the less yeng he’ll have on the field of battle tomorrow.
Haziel smiles at the princess. It is well planned.
I knew you had a scheme for getting me out of here, Khondiel.
And they share the most heartfelt kiss of their lives, knowing it could very well be the last one. Then Khondiel leaves, promising to return with an army to get Haziel free.
At sunrise Zadkiel sees that hyz plan has worked. Hy has flushed Khondiel out of the city. But Thaumiel has been proven absolutely right about Khondiel’s network of local favors, culminating in this Accompanying Khondiel and the Fallen Angels is King Melchizedek of Salem and all of hyz men under arms.
Haziel is visible in the center of the camp, held naked and shivering within the wooden cage with a heavy guard around har representing a fair fraction of Zadkiel’s available men.
(to King Melchizedek mounted on a horse next to har) And that is his own fatal flaw My ruse has worked perfectly. Haziel has now become Zadkiel’s greatest weakness, a precious jewel tying down a third of hyz yeng just as our attack begins.
So their armies began to clash fiercely, and with the disparity in numbers the battle gradually begins to go against Zadkiel. Princess Khondiel fights har way to the top of the hill behind Zadkiel’s army where the wagon is tied up all by itself now. Zadkiel spots what Khondiel is trying to do in the fog of battle and moves to cut har off, lest sha solve the Gordian Knot and become the beneficiary of the prophecy, destined to rule all Barbelo.
They both dismount and launch into an extended face-to-face sword duel. The tip of Zadkiel’s blade slashes Khondiel’s bare abdomen as hy attains first blood. Khondiel feigns shock at the pain and injury and pretends to slow down. Zadkiel, seeing that, let his guard down for just a fraction of a second, but it is enough. Seeing har slim opening, Khondiel lets loose a ferocious kick to his face and Zadkiel is laid out cold.
Khondiel is sorely tempted to finish hym off right there, but har eyes settle on the forgotten wagon on the hilltop and sha runs to it instead. Sha tries to untie the Gordian knot that secures the wagon to a mighty tree, but like many that came before har sha makes no headway. Meanwhile Thaumiel’s cavalry is rapidly closing in on har.
Finally, with no time to lose, Khondiel just cuts the knot with har sword. The wagon begins to roll downhill and sha jumps inside, hanging on for dear life. Har war cry grips the attention of the troops guarding Haziel, and they gape at the horror approaching them. All of the yeng flee as Khondiel’s desperate gamble plays out.
Khondiel ducks inside the wagon and braces harself as the wagon collides with the cage at breakneck speed, shattering both the cage and the wagon to splinters. Somehow both yen survive the collision. Khondiel is more bruised and beaten than sha has ever been before but Haziel is free.
King Melchizedek and the Fallen Angels continue the rout and pursue the scattered remnants of Thaumiel’s army into the forest. But the king knows this defeated army represents only a fraction of the strength that House Gerash can bring to bear on hym, and its relatively small size is itself a gesture of contempt on the part of Thaumiel for the abilities of Salem to defend itself. Melchizedek knows the next time there will be less contempt, and a far greater host. But for now hy shrugs. That is a worry for another day.
When Zadkiel regains consciousness hy takes in hyz utter humiliation from hyz vantage on the hilltop. Cursing, hy flees the field alone on hyz horse. For the rest of hyz life, which consists of little more than hyz long ride back to Thaumiel, hy contemplates how to explain the defeat to hyz lord.
No more adventures for a while, Haziel. I’ve cracked a rib, for starters.
Haziel accepts a blanket and throws it around har naked form. Being deprived of clothing for so long had caused har much suffering. Barbelo was largely an ice world after all.
HAZIEL Thank you, Khondiel! But why did you throw away everything you’ve worked for since you met me and first questioned who you were, just to save my life?
For har part Khondiel is almost at a loss for words.
What do you mean ‘why’? Didn’t you find that cage a little drafty?
Haziel holds up the end of the wagon’s rope.
I’m talking about the Gordian Knot. I’ll admit, cutting it was probably not what your forefather’s oracle had in mind, maybe, but now you are destined to rule all of Barbelo. Fate! The unreformed Khondiel must return now.
Must she? You say Thaumiel was behind all this, but do you think Thaumiel will have hyz way forever? What if the oracle really means the spirit of the new Khondiel will take over Barbelo?” Har eyes brim with moisture,and har voice breaks. “The Khondiel who changed on that unforgettable day when sha first met you.
Haziel is shocked at first, then sha smiles as understanding fully dawns.
The new Khondiel? If people everywhere became willing to do for each other what you did for me today, then love won today, Khondiel! It may take many more centuries to play out, on two worlds, but I really think you turned the corner here today. Once and for all . . . love won!