/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: The chronicles of Gan

The Thorn

Daron Fraley


The Thorn

Daron Fraley

GLOSSARY

PLACES “Definition” Location

Ain “Fountain” Southwestern borders of lands of Daniel

Bethara “House of Gathering” Lands of Gideon

Bezek “Lightning” Lands of Gideon

Gan “Garden” The world or planet upon which the three tribes live

Geber “Hill” or “Mount” or “Strong” Between Saron and Ain

Gilad “Hill of Testimony” Lands of Gideon, southeast of Ain

Hara “Hill” or “Showing Forth” Mountains north of Saron, surrounding Ramathaim

Hasor “Enclosed Village In the hills south of Ramathaim

Karmel “Vineyard” In the plains north of the Hara Mountains

Maharai “Hasting” or “From a Hill” Lands of Gideon

Ramathaim “Place of Hills” or “Mountains” Nestled in the Hara Mountain borders

Saron “Plain” In the plains west of Hasor, north of Ain

TRIBES

DANIEL “A judge (is) God” Mark: A red snake in white circle, generally on a purple background (chosen because of its relationship with the Savior). Representative colors: Purple and white.

GIDEON “Warrior” Mark: A black raven with sprig of berries in its beak (chosen because a raven once fed Gideon when starving, after his prayer). Representative colors: Green and white.

UZZAH “Strength” Mark: A strong ox (chosen because of its symbol for hard work, and as a symbol of sacrifice). Representative colors: Blue and white.

PEOPLE “Definition”

Tribe

Occupation/Notes

Abigail “Her Father is Joyful”

Gideon

Wife of Jasher

Abram “High Father”

Uzzah

Uzzahite Warrior

Amon “Faithful” or “True”

Gideon

Gideonite Captain

Asah “Physician”

Daniel-Uzzah

Uzziel’s Steward

Azmaveth “Strength in Death”

Gideon

Gideonite Captain

Benjamin “Son of the Right Hand”

Daniel-Uzzah

Danielite Soldier

Boaz “In Strength”

Daniel-Uzzah

Temple Priest

Daniel “Judgment of God” or “God is my Judge”

Daniel

Father of the Tribe

Daniel “Judgment of God” or “God is my Judge”

Uzzah

Boy Soldier

Deborah “Word, thing” or “A Bee”

Uzzah

Sister of Miriam

Dinah “Judgment”

Gideon

Mother of Jasher

Eder “A Flock, or Herd”

Gideon

Goat Herder

Eli “My God” or “Lifted Up” or “Offering”

Uzzah

Temple Priest, Warrior

Esther “Secret, hidden”

Uzzah

Wife of Abram

Ezra “Help, court”

Daniel

Danielite Captain

Gad “A Band, Troop”

Gideon

Gideonite Captain

Gideon “He that Bruises” or “Destroyer, Warrior”

Gideon

Father of the Tribe

Ilan “Tree”

Gideon

Gideonite Soldier

Izri “Fasting” or “Tribulation”

Gideon

Gideonite Soldier

Jael “He that Ascends” or “A Kid”

Gideon-Uzzah

Gideonite Captain

Jasher “Righteous” or “Upright”

Gideon

Gideonite General

Jeremy “God will Uplift” or “Loosen Bonds”

Uzzah

Uzzahite Warrior/Captain

Jonathan “Given of God” or “Jehovah has Given”

Daniel

Heir of Daniel

Josiah “Fire of the Lord”

Uzzah

Uzzahite Warrior

Kalev “Heart, Brave”

Gideon

Gideonite Soldier

Levi “Associated/Joined” or “My Heart”

Daniel

Inventor, Counselor

Manasseh “To Forget” or “He that is Forgotten”

Gideon

Gideonite Emperor

Mehida “A Riddle” or “Sharpness of Wit”

Gideon

Gideonite Captain

Miriam “Rebellion” or “Sea of Bitterness/Sorrow”

Uzzah

Wife of Uzziel

Noah “Rest, Quiet, Peace”

Father of Tribes

First Man of Gan

Pekah “One Whose Eyes are Opened”

Gideon

Gideonite Soldier

Rachel “Ewe, Lamb, Sheep”

Uzzah

Daughter of Uzziel

Rachel “Ewe, lamb, sheep”

Daniel

Late wife of Samuel

Rezon “Prince” or “Lean, Small” or “Secret”

Gideon-Daniel

Gideonite General

Sachar “Price” or “Reward” or “Recompense”

Gideon

Gideonite Captain

Samuel “Heard of God” or “Asked of God”

Daniel

Danielite Judge/King

Sarah “Lady or Princess of the Multitude”

Mother of Tribes

Wife of Noah

Sarah “Lady or Princess of the Multitude”

Daniel-Uzzah

Wife of Tavor

Saul “Demanded” or “Asked for”

Daniel

Danielite

Serug “Branch, Layer”

Gideon

Gideonite Physician

Simeon “That Hears” or “Obeys, That Obeys”

Daniel

Danielite Soldier

Sodi “My Secret”

Gideon

Gideonite Soldier

Tavor “Break, Fracture, Misfortune” or “Choice”

Uzzah

Uzzahite Warrior

Uzzah “Strength”

Uzzah

Father of the Tribe

Uzzah “Strength”

Uzzah

Lost son of Uzziel

Uzziel “Strength of God”

Uzzah

Uzzahite High Priest

Zev “Wolf”

Gideon

Gideonite Soldier

THE THORN

“ Again, I did prophesy to my sons, saying: And in that day when the three brothers make war with one another, and a great evil arises in the land which threatens to destroy all peoples, the Holy One shall be born upon the footstool of his creations, and the sign of his coming shall be given in the heavens. But upon Gan, he shall not be born, for upon the footstool of his creations he shall perform his great work to save all his peoples, and then shall he visit his kingdoms, which are many, each one in its hour, and in its time, and in its season, beginning at the first and so on unto the last, until every servant beholds the joy of the King’s countenance. And when he comes, a rod shall be his scepter, and light shall be his sword. And the King shall rule in righteousness.”

– Writings of Noah, First Man of Gan, Father of Nations

“I have searched the writings of my fathers. I am now convinced. Even though it appears that the span of our time has been much shorter, at least three thousand years less, this I still know: Gan was created first. And Gan was a garden, long before it was peopled. Noah wrote it.

“We do not know the name of the world where the Holy One will be born, but his world is not far away. Or at least it does not feel far away. Perhaps mine eyes have even seen the place where it rolls upon its wings in the heavens. But no matter where it lies among the stars, I am amazed at both the similarities and the differences between our two worlds. I have seen his time. He stands under a single yellow sun which is close to his world, hot and bright. And yet that sun does not overshadow him. He shines brighter than all creation. I have seen his face. I yearn for the day when I can look upon his countenance. Here, upon Gan. As he rules as my King.”

- Journal of Samuel, Chief Judge and King of Daniel

*****

Chapter 1

Clamor

Another rumble of thunder, this one closer than the last, caused the final bird near the garden fountain to take flight. Without rustling a single leaf, the bird skimmed past a pruned olive tree and glided across the wheatfield to disappear in the direction of the forest beyond. The warm afternoon rain fell more steadily. Each head of wheat, laden with moisture, drooped closer to the ground. A gentle and constant breeze made the stalks sway back and forth. From the olive garden, the grain had the appearance of misty, swirling water. Other than the sound of rain and the damp rustle of wheat, the field was very still.

A Danielite soldier watched from atop the southwest garden tower. He noticed the birds leaving and sensed the unnatural quiet that settled around him. With one hand on the pommel of his sword, he scanned the field for any sign of movement. He reached up to brush a trickle of sweat from his brow.

Where did all the birds go?

He opened the brown leather case of his spyglass and placed the sight to his eye. Seeing nothing in the field, he trained his eye on the edge of the trees. With intense scrutiny, he searched the wooded border, running his sight from right to left and left to right. He waited for even a single branch to be disturbed.

Must be the thunder. He collapsed the spyglass. The flap on the leather case snapped when he shut it. In his peripheral vision, he noticed a bush straighten.

Did that branch just move? He again yanked the spyglass from its case and zoomed in on the suspicious vegetation. A sharp, fast whistle from the direction of the bush was all the guard heard. Clutching an arrow in his chest, he fell across the tower bench with a thud.

From the far side of the garden, another guard noticed that the southwestern tower was unmanned. Startled, he scanned the fields beyond the garden, where he saw a line of fifty archers step out from the edge of the trees and onto the dirt path which led to the walled village. With shaking hands, the guard clutched a mallet and struck the tower bell as hard as he could. The bell rang out loud and uneven as it quivered from the force of the blow. Even above the sound of the nearby bell, the guard could hear the advancing army in the wheatfield respond to the alarm with a deafening war cry. He turned to see them joined by more than three hundred men armed with swords. Each wore a breastplate emblazoned with a black raven.

“Gideonites!” he breathed, almost as if it were a curse.

A standard-bearer whipped a flag back and forth in the air. It bore an image of the twin blue suns Aqua and Azure. This signal drew another large group of soldiers from the trees, carrying a massive, capped pole, fitted with rope handles.

The guard jerked around. Below him in the village courtyard, he witnessed the panic of women who grabbed children and raced for the nearest protected doorway. Almost falling in his haste, he slid down a ladder to join other men who poured out of every conceivable location. Together they rallied at the fortified garden gate and broke open a weapons stash. As reaching hands clamored for a blade to defend the fair village of Hasor, the tower guard helped the other soldiers provide every man with a weapon. Troop captains nearby yelled for more support.

The Danielite guard shuddered when the heavy, crushing sound of a ram against the tall wooden gate echoed through the village streets. In dismay, he cast his eyes in the direction of the Council Hall.

Chapter 2

Murder

Jonathan, you must leave now,” the old judge pleaded. “If you don’t, the Gideonites may suspect The Thorn is here!”

“Father, how can I go?” Jonathan retorted as he rested a tense hand on the pommel of his sword. “You and I both know they’re not here just for the scepter. My absence will only prolong this conflict.”

Samuel took a long breath. “Jonathan, I understand, but The Thorn must be kept safe. If found, the Gideonites will use it to demand the allegiance of all Three Brothers. Then they will replace the judgment seat with a throne, whereon will sit their wicked, self-proclaimed emperor. Manasseh wants to hold the scepter in his own fat hand. Ruling in Gideon does not satisfy the man. Like a drunk offered only water, he will never be satisfied. He wants to rule Gideon, Daniel, and Uzzah.”

Jonathan looked away, irritated by talk about the scepter and Manasseh’s lust for it. Only a fool would think the scepter could somehow bestow the right to rule all three tribes. The scepter is just a symbol.

He turned back and studied his father’s face. Lines of stress ran deep across Samuel’s brow. Jonathan knew the real reason for Samuel’s unspoken concern. Even though the Gideonites wanted to get their hands on The Thorn, they really wanted Jonathan.

“Father, they will find me eventually.”

“You must leave!” Samuel implored, ignoring Jonathan’s declaration.

Jonathan sighed. Still undecided, he pulled at his beard as he stared at his own dusty and worn boots. Should he run, or should he stay and fight? If he left, would lives be saved? Potential peril lay ahead with either choice.

Samuel exhaled heavily and stepped forward to place his hands on his son’s shoulders. “Please go. All will be well. The One Who Would Suffer will be with us.”

“My place is with you, Father.”

The old judge pointed to the back of the hall. “My most loyal guards wait at the door to protect me. I want you to be safe.”

Guilt filled Jonathan from head to toe. How can I leave? Am I a coward? He watched for reassurance in his father’s face. Samuel’s eyes were moist. Jonathan reached for his father, and Samuel pulled Jonathan into a firm embrace. They clung to each other for a moment. When Samuel released him, Jonathan noticed how his father studied him, as if they wouldn’t see each other for a very long time. Jonathan’s gaze fell to the ground as the old judge’s mouth began to quiver with emotion.

In a stern, yet gentle tone, Samuel again urged his son to leave. “Jonathan, I do not want them to find you.”

His father’s love pierced him to the very center. He looked up from his boots and saw the kindly face of the old judge through his own tear-blurred blue eyes. Then, in his heart, he felt a strong impression. It was that familiar inner voice he had heard so many times before, and it told him he should go quickly. Jonathan didn’t hesitate to follow the prompting. With nothing more than a tender, tear-filled smile to the old man and a squeeze of his hand, Jonathan grabbed his hooded cloak from the table and ran out the back door.

***

After closing the door to the palace hallway, three guards entered the room to take their places around the judge, steel blades exposed and ready. The clamor outside the Council Hall intensified.

Samuel attempted a calming smile for his protectors, but sat down on the judgment seat with a deep sigh. He unconsciously tapped the stone armrest as his eyes followed the line of windows high in the east wall. On account of the cloud cover, the afternoon light only cast dim shadows on the vaulted ceiling. The projected mood caused Samuel to wonder if it would be better if he also fled. He mumbled to himself, but his guards remained at attention. I must stay. I must try to convince the Gideonites.

The front doors burst open with such force that dust fell from the plastered timbers above him. He watched with horror as a contingent of kneeling archers on the porch killed his armed guards with a single volley. Five other soldiers wearing the Mark of the Raven stomped into the room, dragging between them a beaten and bloody palace guard. One of them slammed the doors shut while the rest of the soldiers dropped their captive to the floor in front of Samuel. The Danielite soldier appeared to be dead. Samuel realized the battle was now lost, and his left hand trembled.

The judge suppressed his anxiety by gripping the armrests of the judgment seat so hard, his knuckles hurt. He glared at one of the Gideonite soldiers, who seemed to be the troop captain. The tall, strong man wore polished leather armor and a large leather cap. Both the raven-emblazoned leather breastplate and the cap were lined at the edges with lamb’s wool, dyed red. Samuel’s face contorted in disgust. The wool had been purposely colored, not with dye, but with blood.

“Where is it?” the Gideonite leader barked while slapping the blade of his drawn sword against his thigh.

“You’re too late. The Thorn left with a caravan to the north countries five days ago.” Not very practiced at lying, Samuel sensed from the Gideonite’s facial expression that his ruse had not been convincing.

With upper lip curled, the captain leered at the judge, contempt seething from him. He yelled again, “ Where is your son?”

“I told you. You are too late.”

Samuel sat stiff and upright in the seat, not daring to move his feet for fear the Gideonite might sense his nervousness. The soldier who had been dragged into the room groaned, and Samuel felt relief that he was still alive. He glanced down to see who the injured man was, but the guard faced away from him, and he couldn’t tell. Samuel looked back up at the enemy.

The captain’s eyes were devoid of any emotion, and his cold stare spooked the judge. Pulling back into the seat, Samuel tried to put some distance between them, even if it was only a hand’s breadth of space. Without warning, the captain kicked the fallen palace guard in the face with tremendous force, causing the man to cry out in agony. The sound of his jaw snapping echoed in the room. Samuel felt faint.

A sneer bubbled up to the surface of the Gideonite captain’s face, and a single, low-pitched laugh fell from his lips. Samuel exerted all the self-control he could muster to show he wasn’t afraid. He glowered back at the man, who took a small step forward. The fact that Samuel wasn’t cowering in terror appeared to anger the Gideonite.

Within an instant, the captain’s countenance changed for the worse. In a fit of rage, he reached for his belt dagger with his free hand. Now in immediate danger, the judge twisted from his seat, desperate to make his way to the back door. He was two paces from freedom when the Gideonite threw his weapon, striking the old judge squarely in the back. With a groan, Samuel sank to his knees and then fell to the floor, still.

One of the young soldiers said to the captain in some dismay, “This was not in our orders! We were to detain and deliver the judge so the emperor could question him. You’ve killed him!”

“Orders can be changed! General Rezon commands this troop, not the emperor.” One of the captain’s eyebrows drooped as the corner of his mouth twitched. He studied the young soldier. Feigned happiness replaced his disgust. “Besides,” he continued in a sickly sweet tone, “we do not need the old man anymore. Even if we don’t know the identity or location of his son, there is still a possibility The Thorn may be here, and I intend to deliver it to General Rezon.”

The young soldier retreated a few steps.

The back door opened. Another soldier wearing the Mark of the Raven entered. “Sir, all the guards have surrendered.”

“Good,” the captain replied. “Did you find the judge’s son among them?”

“We do not think so, sir. The men of the palace guard insist he left five days ago. He doesn’t seem to be among any of those who surrendered, although we cannot be sure.”

“Question them again! He may be hiding among them, and I want him, dead or alive!”

“Yes, sir!”

As the messenger left, the Gideonite captain began to systematically search the shelves lining the room. With the exception of the young dissenting soldier, the other men joined in, ruffling through the books. Two of the men tore out some of the hand-inked pages, threw them to the floor, and then added the broken tomes themselves to the pile. All but the youngest soldier commenced to ransack the room. They broke, tossed, opened, cleared, and swept every item from every corner of the hall. Each inspected object was hurled into varied heaps on the floor.

After twenty minutes of desperate searching, the soldiers stopped, bored of the relentless vandalism. The troop captain finally noticed that one of his men had not participated in the destruction. He grunted his disapproval.

The young soldier came to attention, but said nothing.

“It’s not here,” one of the other soldiers announced.

“We must get back to the company and report,” said another.

Angrily kicking items from their path, the group hoisted the beaten palace guard from the floor and made their way to the back door. Other soldiers were motioned in to remove the bodies of the guards. The captain pointed to the judge’s body.

“Leave this one,” he ordered. “I want him to stink. Maybe the smell of him will freshen up the place.” Stooping to twist his dagger from the dead judge’s back, he wiped the sticky blade on the judge’s robes before returning it to its gilded sheath.

He cursed as he pushed a large candelabra onto the stone floor, further dimming the available light in the hall as the fallen candles were snuffed. Turning to leave, he grumbled, “I swear, before the sister moons rise tonight, the Danielite captain who told us the judge’s son was here will pay dearly for his lies.”

Chapter 3

Sorrow

Jonathan winced as he stood up in the barn loft where a palace guard had covered him in straw, helping him to hide from the marauding troops. Four hours of squatting under the loose pile had caused his calves to cramp. He wondered if he would be able to walk once he crawled down from the loft.

Apart from some night birds and crickets, he hadn’t heard a single sound for the last half hour. When he first went into hiding, Jonathan heard screams among the other sounds of commotion, but the voices of both soldiers and villagers faded off soon after several men entered the barn with lanterns and led the animals away.

The palpable quiet disturbed him. He peered into the dark shadows below, but saw nothing. With cautious, slow movements, he moved to lean against a support beam where he rubbed each lower leg in turn to get the blood flowing. After some minutes, he felt his way to the ladder. With the aid of dim beams of moons-light coming through the walls, he descended through the dark, again intently listening for any noise around him.

Once on the ground, he brushed the dust and straw from his beard and hair, and donned his gray cloak. He pulled the hood over his head. Large enough to completely surround him, the cloak made Jonathan almost undetectable.

He moved to the large door of the barn, open just far enough to sidestep through. He left the barn and scanned the area for signs of movement. Satisfied there was no one about, he relaxed a bit, but still kept his hand close to the hilt of his sword.

He glanced up and saw that the rain clouds had moved on, revealing a brilliant night sky. The two smaller moons, Jade and Ebony, had risen above the western horizon. Within the hour, they would be joined by the last, larger moon, Sienna. The reflected light from the two moons mingled together as one beautiful lamp in the heavens. Ebony, a shiny charcoal color, and Jade, a deep green-gray, glowed almost like cooling embers. Two days from now, the largest moon, Sienna, would pass her sisters and begin another forty-five days of chasing them down again. Jonathan always enjoyed watching this dance, especially when the great reddish-brown moon would pass behind the others, giving them the appearance of a face.

Wanting to discover as much as he could about the situation in the village before the brightest moon rose, Jonathan made his way along the tall stone fences toward the back door of the Council Hall building. On any other early summer night, dim lights would glow from some of the village home windows, but tonight he saw nothing. Even the upper west rooms of the palace seemed to be dark and lifeless. Hearing nothing but the sounds of night, Jonathan became even more concerned. He quickened his pace to the hall.

Once he ascended the few steps at the outer back door with its connecting passage to the main floor of the palace, he reached into a leather pouch on his sword belt and removed a small piece of rabbit fur. He took from its folds a hexagonal crystal that had the appearance of pure water. Smooth as glass, six-sided, and flat with faceted ends, it fit easily into the palm of his hand. Jonathan rubbed the glow-stone vigorously against the fur, the friction causing the stone to emit a warm, soft, bluish light. With his thumb, he stuffed the fur back into the pouch, then snapped the crystal length-wise into the hollow pommel of the sword at his waist. Half-seated in the silver pommel, the stone still protruded like a short candle in a candlestick.

The glow it produced allowed Jonathan to see a breadth of about six feet in a dim circle before him. To make the light of the half-hidden crystal more effective, he unsheathed his sword and held it by the hilt, with its crystal blade pointed downward. Both the small, charged stone in the pommel and the glow-stone sword blade bathed his feet with an eerie, pale blue light.

Jonathan opened the outer door and put his hand on the edge, then put upward pressure on it to prevent the hinges from creaking. He pushed it wide open, then crossed the dark, deserted passageway to the inner door of the Council Hall. Once again he prevented the door from making noise, but this one he left only slightly ajar as he entered the main council chamber. There he found his father Samuel on the floor, lying in his bloodstained robes.

Squelching a cry, Jonathan ran to his father’s side and took Samuel into his arms. The cold body was heavy and stiff. Jonathan buried his face in the robes and wept. Several times Jonathan laid Samuel to the ground as he collapsed into a sobbing heap, after which he would pound the polished floor with his fist and then crawl back to his father to lift him close again. Tears of intense sadness streamed down into his beard, only to be replaced again with the hot tears of fury. Like water from a vase, his strength poured out until he was empty, and he collapsed.

Some time later when his weeping subsided, Jonathan found himself lying on the floor, staring up at the high windows of the Council Hall where some small amount of moons-light filtered in. Jonathan could feel the shoulder of his adored father beneath his head, and he wondered how long he had rested there. Rolling over onto his knees, Jonathan gazed upon his father’s still features. He bowed his head in prayer and started to speak, his voice cracking into almost a whimper.

“My God. My King. Help me.”

Unable to say another word, he listened. Another tear rolled down his cheek. Brushing it away, he breathed deep and exhaled slowly. Then Jonathan felt it. Comfort, the loving hands of a compassionate God warming his heart as a reassuring inner voice told him all would be well for his people. That singular thought was joined by a very personal promise that came into his mind with even more clarity: he would be kept safe.

Jonathan reached for his father again to pull him into a close embrace. With a gentleness one would have when handling an infant, he then respectfully laid his father to the floor beside the glowing crystal sword. He gazed into the careworn face of the man he most admired in life. Lines caused by time and concern for others furrowed his father’s wise brow. The years of a dignified sojourn in the world flowed around Samuel’s sun-darkened face like the mane of a lion, his silvered hair and beard almost hiding his strong neck. Even now in death and at rest, his father was truly an imposing figure-strong, straight, and regal.

Samuel had been a good man. In Jonathan’s eyes, there had never been one better. He had served the tribe as Chief Judge for just short of twenty years, supporting himself and his small family by his own labors. For this, he had been admired and revered. Samuel had never asked his people to do anything he would not do himself, even during difficult times. He had become a master at caring for his own family while still shouldering the responsibilities of leadership and judgment in serving the people he loved. In fact, much of the weathering of the old judge’s features had occurred during the countless seasons of working in the fields, with his late wife at his side. Samuel was loved most of all, however, because he had much preferred the title of judge to that of king, and had asked the people to address him as such. He never taxed his people for his own support, and never caused them to do evil. Instead, he had taught his people to have faith and hope, all the while remaining obedient to God’s commands.

As Jonathan knelt there studying his father, he wondered why the soldiers had killed him. It was actually Jonathan they wanted dead, he being the last direct heir of the bloodline, for Samuel had no other children. It had been dictated from the time the Original Man left his final prophetic blessing upon his sons that Daniel would have the Rights of Judgment. The family of Daniel would rule as judges and kings until the end if they remained faithful. Gideon and Uzzah had both been promised great prosperity if they would support Daniel, but from the beginning, there had been jealousy.

Those born into the Tribe of Gideon, wearing the Mark of the Raven, felt that if the birthright heir of the Tribe of Daniel could be removed-preferably by death-and the scepter fell into their hands, they would have the right to rule. The Thorn was the physical symbol of that right.

Jonathan shook his head in dismay. A simple object, the scepter only symbolized authority and power-it was not authority to rule in and of itself. And yet the Gideonites did not seem to understand this.

Thunk!

What was that? Jonathan jerked to a standing position.

A loud, dull thump came from above him and to his left, in the upper palace. Jonathan thought he also heard a yell somewhere in the distance, perhaps in the palace, but he could not tell for sure. Someone is still here! Jonathan whisked his blade from the smooth, polished floor.

Using the light from his glowing sword to navigate around piles of books, maps, and other items torn from the shelves, Jonathan raced to the stone judgment seat. He sat down, and while stomping his left heel against a small protruding piece of stone at the base, he twisted the right armrest outward. Reaching into a concealed compartment, he removed a cloth-wrapped rod, about seven inches in total length. He shoved it into a pocket of his undershirt beneath the folds of his tunic and cloak, and slid the armrest back into place until it clicked.

Time to get out.

Stepping over the debris on the floor, Jonathan knelt one last time by his father. He hesitated, but knew if he took time to move the body, he might not escape. He kissed his father on the forehead, then made his way to the hallway door, which was still ajar. Not wanting to make any noise by moving it, he squeezed through the opening with some difficulty. As Jonathan stole across the passageway that led to the palace, he peered to the right. At the end of the hall was a large door and a flight of steps leading to the second, third, and fourth floors of the palace. He watched the stairwell, not surprised at the flickers of light from above that dispelled some of the shadow.

Jonathan hastened through the wide-open outer door and kept close to the wall until he reached the corner of the building. He popped the glow-stone out of his sword pommel, stuffed it back into his belt pouch, then returned the sword to its hard leather sheath. With the lights extinguished, he sprinted into the open. He skirted the stone fences bordering the east side of the barn, passing his previous hiding place on the way toward the garden wall. Glancing back at frequent intervals to be sure he was not being followed, Jonathan ascended the stairs to the southwestern guard tower.

Once in the abandoned tower, he lifted up the bench seat and retrieved a shoulder sack of provisions and supplies. He also grabbed a large bow and a well-stocked quiver of fletched arrows from the wall rack. A long, silky rope hung on a post. Jonathan looped it around the main roof support, leaving both ends loose. With bow in hand and the sack and quiver on his shoulder, he tossed both rope ends over the rock wall, shinnied down, then jerked the loop free.

Jonathan tried to limit his noise as he jogged down the cobbled garden path between rows of old olive trees. He followed the moons-lit way toward the grain field, coiling the trailing rope as he went. Once the lengths of smooth rope had all been looped into his large hand, he paused to tuck it into his shoulder sack.

He rushed through the damp wheat and only looked back once he had made it to the dirt path bordering the forest. As far as Jonathan could tell, he had not been noticed or followed. The three moons were bright now, and by their light he could plainly see that the field remained empty. He watched the broken garden gate for a few seconds, then turned toward the trees. With one last sorrowful glance at his home, he disappeared into the dark forest from whence the Gideonite soldiers had come.

Chapter 4

Refuge

Familiar trails wound between aged trees, and Jonathan needed no more than the lights from above to find his way. He avoided thoughts of his father. His mind wandered to happier times as he felt his way down the dark paths splashed with occasional moons-light. As a boy, and even as a young man, he had spent many hours playing among these forest trees with his friends-especially with Eli, his closest friend. Eli’s keen gift of observation frequently made him the winner of any game that involved tracking or hiding from each other.

The sweet memories of carefree games with Eli made Jonathan smile as he went along. He took care not to leave signs of his passing-his footsteps light, his movements deliberate and smooth. As if to address his old friend, he whispered, “See, not even a single snapped branch or crushed twig left behind. Track me now, brother!”

Jonathan pressed southward for almost an hour until the terrain changed, the once-smooth, level paths starting to vary in elevation as the forest thinned. On the west side of the trail, the ground steepened, causing the trail to be diverted. He continued past the hill and approached another bend where moons-light reflected off sheer cliff faces now looming above him.

He stepped off the path between two close trees, taking care not to make too much noise, then paused to watch and listen. The forest was calm. A gentle breeze rustled the old oaks, but nothing else moved. Confident he was truly alone, he took fifteen paces to the base of the rock cliff and stood next to an old, dead tree. The weather-worn trunk still supported many branches bigger than the width of Jonathan’s shoulders. He gazed upward, intent on ascending to a large branch about twenty-five feet up that rested against the side of the cliff face. From the base of the featureless cliff, nothing seemed unusual about the specific place where the oak touched the rock. Jonathan knew otherwise, and he grabbed a limb just within reach. The familiarity of it all caused the corners of his mouth to twitch with excitement as he climbed.

Once he reached the intended branch, he could see the previously hidden depression in the rock wall just above him, shaped in such a way that until a person got right up to it, they couldn’t tell the cliff wasn’t solid all the way to the top. He stood on the huge branch and peered into the darkness of a natural cave.

Jonathan reached up and pulled himself to a sitting position on the ledge. Again he listened for any sign of movement in the forest below. Hearing nothing, he crawled back to the depression in the cliff face. Before entering the darkness, he reached into his belt pouch to retrieve his glow-stone and rub it to life, then crawled on his hands and knees into the cave. Five feet in, the chamber opened up with a raised ceiling, high enough for him to stand. Stashed along the edges of the small room were two complete bedrolls and other assorted blankets. There were also some cooking pans with utensils, old wooden chairs, a glow-stone lantern, some rope, arrows, and numerous other discarded items from the many visits he had made in years past with Eli and their other friends.

Now well after midnight, Jonathan could feel his tired bones. More than that, his heart ached with grief as the memories of the evening flooded back into his mind. Blinking away tears, he made his bed ready for the night. He was grateful the stash of bedding appeared to be pest-free, but he shook the blankets anyway.

Although hungry, he decided to wait until morning to arrange the supply sack he had taken from the guard tower. Jonathan removed his sword belt and laid it close to his bed. After taking off his cloak and his boots, he retrieved the steel dagger from his right boot sheath, placing it under a goose down pillow that had been rolled into the bedding, glad he and Eli had stashed the pillow in the cave several years ago.

A bit dusty, he thought to himself, but still very usable.

The summer night air felt quite warm, both outside and inside the cave, but the soft woolen blankets pulled to his chin still comforted him. He lay there with his head turned and stared out the moons-lit cave entrance. When tears came again, Jonathan attempted to pray, but his troubled thoughts prevented him from concentrating. Eventually weariness overcame him, and he entered a fitful sleep.

Chapter 5

Memories

Morning came, and Jonathan awoke to the singing of forest songbirds. Warmth and brightness crept into the cave, telling him of a sky both clear and cloudless. The angle of illumination in the passageway also told him he had slept far longer into the day than he had intended. Remembering the events of the evening, he sat up with a sigh. His hunger manifested itself in a strong growl. He had not eaten anything since the mid-day meal the previous day. Jonathan pressed the bedding into a tight roll and secured it with leather thongs. He pulled his boots on, then sat on the bedroll with the supply sack between his feet to take inventory of his cache.

The provisions were scanty-a mere two days’ worth of food, and that would be stretching it. There was a round of shepherd’s bread wrapped in a towel and some dried, spiced meat. He also found a half-round of goat cheese, raisins and dried apples in gourds with lids, and a small skin of wine.

Well, he thought, not a king’s ransom, but a good variety, even if it is a small portion.

Jonathan decided it would be prudent to eat only enough to curb his hunger, so he ate a chunk of the crusty bread and some dried apples. On the back wall of the cave, a damp trickle of a spring crawled down from the ceiling and disappeared into a crack in the rock. Using a stashed wooden cup to catch the water, he filled and drained it several times until his thirst was quenched. He filled the cup two more times, splashing the cool, clear liquid over his head so he could wash the dust from his face and short-trimmed beard.

Jonathan then went to work and coiled the rope from the guard tower to a suitable size to be slung across his chest. He tested the tension on the bowstring by pulling it to his chin with ease. He then arranged the arrows in the quiver to be sure they had not become entangled. He strapped on his belt, sheathed his boot dagger, donned his large gray cloak, and grabbed his shoulder sack and quiver. Then he made his way through the low passageway to the ledge. Once outside, the brightness of the morning suns made him blink as his eyes adjusted to the light. He sat and dangled his feet for a few minutes while he thought about his plans.

The mid-morning heat would soon make travel far less enjoyable. Behind him and above the rocky cliffs, the small twin solar disks of Azure and Aqua had climbed from the western horizon and into the dark blue expanse above him. The suns’ distance made them visually small, and Jonathan could block them both with his little finger by lifting his hand skyward. Yet the two suns were still so intensely hot and bright that they would blind a man if he were to look straight at them. Jonathan could see that the sun Azure was near to its companion Aqua, and knew that the next morning during their rising, Azure would pass in front of the lighter blue sun, marking the start of the Sabbath day. The purplish hue in the summer sky now surrounding Azure was beautiful to him.

As Jonathan sat on the rocky ledge, he still felt a fatigue as deep as his bones. He ran his hands through his shoulder-length brown hair to untangle it, and scratched his beard. He then reached into the pocket of his undershirt, retrieving the cloth bundle hidden there. With deep respect, Jonathan unrolled the cloth in his hands. A picture of a red serpent inside a white circle had been embroidered on the soft, purple square of linen. The Mark of the Serpent signified the Tribe of Daniel.

In the opened cloth lay a stunningly beautiful rod about seven inches in length and an inch or so thick. The rod had been crafted of smooth, clear glass, knobbed at the ends with white-gold caps etched with exquisite writing and designs. Jonathan read the familiar engraving on each end: “Holiness, Honor, Humility.” The light from the twin suns glinted off the surface of the scepter, and within the glass, the embedded thorn almost sparkled as Jonathan rolled the rod back and forth in his palm.

Centered within the scepter, and visible in every detail, was a two-inch long, bloodstained gray thorn. It had been pressed into the still-molten glass, and had thus been preserved throughout the last nine hundred years.

As Jonathan studied the bloodstained tip of the thorn, his mind went back to a cold winter day long ago when, as a young boy, he sat with his father in the Council Room after eating breakfast.

***

“Father, why is there a thorn in your scepter?”

Samuel smiled and scooted a bit closer to Jonathan on the wooden bench. He held the scepter up to the morning light streaming from the high western windows and turned the rod to catch the rays, dispersing the soft beams around them onto the floor.

“What do you see?” Samuel asked.

Jonathan looked closer and noticed that the tip of the thorn was dark brown, whereas the thorn itself was gray. “It looks like blood,” he said with some uncertainty.

“That’s right. It is blood. Would you like to hear the story about this thorn?”

“Yes!”

“Do you remember the name of the person who lived about one thousand years ago, the person we call the Original Man?” Samuel asked.

“Sure-Father Noah!”

“That’s right. When our world, which we call Gan, was created, the first man to live upon it was Father Noah. Noah’s wife was named Sarah. He loved her more than anything else. Mother Sarah bore Noah three sons, whom he named Daniel, Uzzah, and Gideon. The Writings of Daniel, Noah’s eldest son, tell of a day when he was chopping trees and brush on the edge of a field with his brothers to help his father clear it for planting.”

Jonathan frowned with disgust. “I don’t like chopping bushes.”

Samuel chuckled. “I know you don’t. But sometimes we have to do things we don’t like so we can provide food for ourselves. Much like the good eggs and bread you had for breakfast!” Samuel poked Jonathan, and he giggled.

“Daniel said in his writings that on this particular day as he chopped bushes, he happened to trip over a root. When he got up from his fall, his head hurt, and blood dripped into his eyes. His father rushed to him to be sure he had not been severely injured. Noah pulled this thorn from Daniel’s forehead.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Yes, I am sure it did. But Daniel felt much better when the thorn was gone.” Samuel assured his son with a pat on the shoulder.

“But that is not where the story ends. With Daniel’s brothers looking on, his father stood up and was very quiet as he stared heavenward. Daniel, Uzzah, and Gideon all watched Father Noah gazing into the sky. Daniel said, ‘his father’s face shone like the sun, his eyes full of joy and gladness.’”

Jonathan gaped at the excitement in Samuel’s eyes as he retold the story of Daniel. Oh, how he loved his father and wanted so much to be just like him.

Samuel continued, “As the young men watched their father, they realized Noah was listening to somebody they could not see. The three brothers felt a very special spirit. Then Father Noah gazed down at Daniel, and around to Uzzah and Gideon, and said in a clear voice, with power and humility: ‘Just as this thorn has pierced the head of my eldest son, thorns will pierce the head of The One Who Would Suffer. He will be mocked and beaten, and a crown of thorns will be made for Him to wear. Daniel, because of your faith in God, you will wear the crown of a king, and you will judge this people in righteousness to the end of your days. Through you and your posterity will all the peoples of my seed be judged until the True King comes and receives his kingdom here on Gan!’”

Samuel put his arm around Jonathan’s shoulder and explained, “Father Noah blessed all his sons that day. He prophesied of their posterity and told them of the great blessings they would all receive if they remained faithful to their Creator and God.

“It has been said that Daniel was both awed and humbled, and that his brother Uzzah was gracious and glad for him. But Gideon was jealous of the birthright blessing Daniel had received. The day eventually came, after the death of Noah, when the three sons and their families became tribes, separate one from another. Wars between the Gideonites and the other tribes became common because of the great jealousy Gideon had for Daniel.

“Remember! Remember to always pray for them that someday their jealousy and anger will be turned to love for their brethren.”

***

Jonathan’s mind returned to the present, and he again felt the pain of the previous day. He frowned as he regarded the scepter. Much of the suffering in the world had been caused by the desires of wicked men to go against the will of the Creator as spoken by Father Noah. All three tribes were very large now, comprised of thousands of men, women, and children. But recently, many had died at the hands of the Gideonites. Hundreds had been sent to their eternal home, leaving behind their loved ones to mourn their departure.

He reached up with a free hand, brushing a fresh tear away. His heart ached as he realized Samuel had paid the ultimate price for defending his family and his beliefs, leaving Jonathan alone in the world. Somber as he sat in quiet contemplation, he stared into the glass rod for quite some time.

Growing uncomfortable under the mid-morning light of the twin suns, he sighed and rolled the scepter back into its protective cloth, then retired it to his shirt pocket. Jonathan pulled himself up from his sitting position and yawned, stretching his strong back muscles. He viewed the green trees below him and prepared to climb onto the large, dead oak branch below.

Just then, he heard the faint noise of voices coming from the direction of the trail he had intended to follow south. He fell prone onto the rock ledge, his feet inside the cave entrance, and retrieved his spyglass from its belt pouch. Inching to the edge, he searched the trail for signs of movement.

He lay very still, but the strain of minimizing his movements and controlling his breathing caused him to sweat. Through the ocular of the spyglass, he saw an army of about two hundred soldiers coming from the south, all wearing hardened leather breastplates adorned with a black raven. They would soon pass directly below. Jonathan collapsed the small scope so as not to cause a visible reflection, then cautiously pushed himself back from the ledge and waited.

The noise grew louder as the army approached. Heavy sounds of marching feet on the shaded trail below echoed against the face of the rocky cliff. Jonathan strained to hear conversations, but could not discern any specific words from the men. He heard only the occasional muffled shout of orders from one section of the advancing army to another. Because of the speed of their march, it did not take the Gideonites long to pass the cliff and disappear over the rolling, wooded hills to the north.

Even though they were now gone, Jonathan was disturbed. He moved back into the defenses of the cave and took a squatting position a few feet into the shadows.

Now what do I do? he thought, frustrated. If I leave now, I am sure to be caught. If they are still sending large numbers of troops north, there will be more to come.

He puzzled over the predicament, then went to his knees.

“My Father and my God, what shall I do now?”

Jonathan listened with eyes closed and his hands on his knees. After a brief moment, he heard within his mind just one word from that familiar sweet voice- wait. Rising from his knees, he retreated to the confines of the cave and said audibly to himself, “Yes, I will wait until I feel differently.”

He busied himself in the cave for the rest of the morning. Feeling he would be there for a while, he removed his sword belt and shoulder sack and began to clean things up a bit. He organized the items in the cave, then took time to inspect his own clothing for frays or tears. The few he found he repaired with the use of some ingenuity and threads painstakingly removed from discarded cloth in the cave. The morning grew late, and Jonathan ate a more substantial part of his provisions for lunch. But as he finished his meal, he still did not feel it was time to leave. On one other occasion during the morning, Jonathan had stopped his activities to listen to what seemed to be another army passing below.

The much quieter afternoon relieved some of his anxiety. Even the chirping and activity of birds in the forest caused Jonathan to feel more relaxed. He decided to take the opportunity for a brief nap.

Although it seemed such a short time that he slept, he awoke late. He sat up suddenly, alarmed that the light outside was already dim with the onset of early evening. He got to his feet and stretched under the rough cave ceiling, touching it. Now twenty-nine years old and over six feet tall, what had seemed like such a grand cavern to him as a youth now just barely allowed him to move about comfortably.

Jonathan gathered his things and decided to go to the ledge for a look around. Reaching the old oak tree, he surveyed the forest floor below him and listened. Nothing out of the ordinary came to his senses, and yet he still did not feel inclined to leave. He still had the same feeling from earlier that morning. Not wanting to return to the cave, he set his back against the cliff wall and stretched his legs out, his dusty brown boots almost reaching the edge of the rock shelf. The heat of the day was gone, having been replaced with a refreshing, cool evening breeze. Coursing through a darkening sky, the twin suns both descended toward the eastern horizon, the expanse painted like an ocean scene in shades of intense blue. Soon the deep hues would be mixed with the familiar colors of a scarlet and violet sunset. Jonathan felt almost content as he rested there, admiring the beautiful sights of nature. He let his mind wander from thought to thought.

Not much time passed before Jonathan was startled by noise below. “Another army!” he whispered to himself.

He again went prone on the ledge to avoid detection, and inched his way to a better place to see the trails winding below him. The army approached, but this time from the north, heading south. Their march was quite slow for some reason. Jonathan studied their movements and soon realized the small group was a prisoner escort. He strained his eyes, scanning for the face of the prisoner between the branches and leaves which obscured a clear view. It was getting darker among the trees and harder for Jonathan to see, but as the eight men got close, he caught a glimpse of a man in bonds-as large as a bear, and wearing a sour expression beneath his flame-red beard.

Jonathan gasped. Eli!

Chapter 6

Rescue

The band passed Jonathan’s location, wending its way southward down the forest path. Jonathan’s mind raced with numerous options. The instant he committed to leaving, an impression came into his mind- rescue Eli. His whole body surged with adrenaline as he dropped from the cliff ledge onto the dead oak branch below, and climbed down the old tree to the ground.

The Gideonites marched about two hundred paces ahead of him now, and he darted between the trees, using them as cover so he could approach the group undetected. Jonathan closed the distance to fifty paces and could see they had reached a familiar open glade of the forest. As the group moved into the clearing, he realized his own cover would soon be lost.

The sky above was starting to turn from its deep blue of the day to the dark color of violet-a stunning backdrop to the few wispy clouds in the east, edged in scarlet and pink. The long shadows in the glade from the eastern tree line pointed to a grassy hill on the western side of the clearing. There, the trail split just before passing the hill, where it continued both south and west to rise over the hill itself.

Jonathan paused at the edge of the trees, brushed his dark gray cloak to one side, and impulsively whisked an arrow from his quiver. He pulled it back, making the bowstring taut.

What am I doing? Am I so eager to die?

Rescue Eli. The voice was quiet, but firm.

Jonathan obeyed. He stepped to one side of the trail, staying close to a tree for cover, and yelled to the Gideonites.

“Stop!”

The band jerked about and faced him. One of the soldiers grabbed the rope looped around Eli’s neck with both hands to keep him from running. Seven dark ravens stared at Jonathan with gleaming eyes from hardened leather breastplates, and swords were drawn in an instant. Two of the men began to reach for arrows to fill their bows, but Jonathan yelled again.

“Stop! Do not reach for those arrows, or you are dead men! Release the prisoner at once if you wish to live!”

The soldiers froze as if with indecision, not knowing what to do. Several of the men stared in earnest at one man who appeared to be their captain, awaiting his instructions. The Gideonite put out his hand, signaling the archers to hold, and glared at Jonathan.

“Who are you?” the soldier sneered.

Jonathan directed the tip of his arrow at the chest of the tall, strong man and studied him. The armored Gideonite had hardened leather guards strapped to his legs and arms and wore a leather cap edged in red. Jonathan recognized the dark, blood-red wool that confirmed this man served as a captain.

“It does not matter who I am,” Jonathan replied with a loud voice. “Release the man at once, or you will die! You have caused enough death and destruction, and I will not stand for any more suffering at your hands. I do not wish to shed your blood, but I will do so if you do not comply!”

The captain laughed. “I can see you are alone,” he ridiculed. “And you seem to be outnumbered. Any one of my men will kill you at my command. I suggest you put down your bow and surrender to me at once!”

Jonathan pulled the bowstring to his chin, causing the large wooden bow to creak under the tension.

“Release him or die!” Jonathan warned again. “You have offended both God and man, and I will send you to your eternal judgment if you do not obey!”

For a moment, the captain paused as if he feared the promise. Then he welled up with anger and commanded, “ Kill him!”

Jonathan’s hands followed his eyes to the archers, who had already nocked arrows onto their bowstrings. Before they could draw, Jonathan let his first arrow fly, striking one of them squarely in the chest with such force that it pierced the hardened breastplate of the soldier, throwing him back into a patch of purple and red wildflowers. With great speed and agility, Jonathan went down on one knee, nocking another arrow in the process, and struck the second archer in the neck, causing the archer’s drawn arrow to misfire wildly upward as he fell into a lifeless heap on the ground.

Jonathan saw Eli in motion, throwing his jailer to the turf with a shoulder butt, hard enough to make the man gasp for air. Still hampered by his bonds, all Eli could do now was duck while staggering away from the group. Another soldier charged his former prisoner with a drawn sword. Jonathan pulled another arrow and let it loose. The soldier fell with an arrow lodged deep into his exposed side before he had run another five feet.

Fearing again for Eli’s safety, Jonathan targeted the soldier closest to his escaping friend. The man fell, mortally wounded, near the Gideonite captain’s feet.

Vile hatred seethed from the captain’s eyes. When a raspy moan caught the captain’s attention and he bent to slit the dying man’s throat, the unexpected cruelty of the scene startled Jonathan, making his anger boil. He stepped forward, nocking another arrow.

The captain saw Jonathan draw and let out a deranged scream. Jonathan tensed as the man charged, closely followed by the last standing soldier. Fearing he would have to deal with two of them at once, Jonathan took down the second soldier with two successive arrows. The Gideonite captain almost upon him, Johathan dropped the bow to the ground.

Jonathan stood, unsheathed his crystal sword in one motion, and blocked the captain’s striking blow. The Gideonite’s sword sparked, and a chunk of the steel blade ricocheted to the ground. The captain reeled to the left. He began another swing directed at Jonathan’s exposed head, but Jonathan ducked and rolled, and then with tremendous strength, he thrust his crystal blade with full force up at the captain’s midsection, just under the breastplate. Jonathan withdrew the sword and jumped back, planting his stance with his weapon ready.

The Gideonite captain went pale, gaping in amazement as the bloodstained lining of his armor went from dark, reddish-brown to a bright, wet scarlet. He gasped for air and then tumbled face-first to the ground.

By this time, the last remaining Gideonite had recovered his breath, and he ran toward Jonathan with a waving sword. Jonathan met him with a swift blow, striking the soldier’s blade. The steel snapped in half with a sound like a hammer on an anvil. The soldier recoiled, fear in his eyes. Jonathan followed his gaze and saw that he stared at the crystal blade flashing blue and red in the late evening light. The soldier dropped his broken weapon to the ground and retreated a few more steps.

Not wanting to let the opportunity go, Jonathan lunged forward and placed the faceted tip of his sword directly on the eye of the raven painted on the man’s polished breastplate.

“Why did you not listen to me?” Jonathan asked, full of anger.

The soldier quaked in terror. As if his tongue had been bound, he did not speak a single word. His eyes were wide, and he kept glancing down at the strange, clear blade poking his chest.

Jonathan tried to catch his breath. He noticed that a still-fettered Eli approached the soldier from behind. The broad grin on Eli’s face widened into an unmistakable sign of joy, his white teeth framed by a red beard. Eli hobbled forward in restraining shackles which prevented him from taking more than half-strides. Jonathan thought Eli looked like a big bear tangled in vines, lumbering through the grass in the dimming light of the evening. The sight of Eli’s struggle stole all the anger Jonathan had left. Even though his chest still heaved from exertion, Jonathan smiled widely.

He turned back again to scrutinize the eyes of the Gideonite soldier, and saw deep within them a man not yet hardened by war.

“What’s your name?” Jonathan asked in a much softer tone than before.

“Pekah,” came the halting reply.

Jonathan studied the face of the soldier to get a sense of his character. Pekah’s face was young and fair, clean-shaven in the fashion of the Gideonite soldiers, with a short and unobtrusive nose, rounded chin, and dark brown eyes. His wavy black hair intensified the fairness of his complexion. Jonathan guessed Pekah could not have been much more than twenty-two years old.

In contrast with the fallen captain, Pekah did not seem to have the lust for murder and destruction in his countenance. His bright eyes weren’t dimmed, like those who had seen too much death. They did, however, show evidence of fear. Jonathan felt sorry for him.

Still holding his sword at the Gideonite’s chest, Jonathan briefly turned to check for other soldiers. When he looked back, he saw something else in Pekah’s face, but couldn’t make it out. Perhaps surprise? Jonathan thought.

“Pekah, I am-”

“Nate,” interrupted the deep voice of his friend, who had now joined them. “His name is Nate.”

Jonathan grinned at the use of Eli’s nickname for him. “Yes, I’m Nate,” Jonathan said as he lowered his sword to his side.

Pekah relaxed with the blade tip now off his chest.

“Although you and your fallen friends attempted to kill me, I don’t wish to shed your blood,” Jonathan said. “I won’t permit you, however, to continue your war against my people. If you covenant with me that you will lay down your weapons of war and return to your home in peace, I will spare your life.”

Pekah did not answer. Jonathan sensed a renewed fear in the soldier.

“Again, I swear to you, as I am granted breath by our God and Creator, that I will spare your life and release you, if you will but heed my request and give me your promise upon your very honor.”

Jonathan stepped back a few paces to give Pekah some room, and took opportunity to check him over. He saw that Pekah was strong and fit, slightly shorter than himself and Eli. The Gideonite’s rough hands betrayed the life of one accustomed to the hard work of a laborer, and seemed out of place when contrasted with the almost-new uniform he wore. Dressed in the typical manner of Gideonite soldiers, he wore a tightly-woven green wool tunic under his breastplate, which reached to just above the knees, held to his waist by a wide leather belt. His pants were black, and his brown boots wore the evidence of many long marches in recent days. In particular, Jonathan noticed that the paint on Pekah’s hardened leather breastplate shone in the evening light, an indication he had not been serving in the army of the Gideonite emperor for very long.

As Jonathan surveyed the soldier’s appearance, Pekah gaped at the sword in Jonathan’s hand as if surprised not to have been struck down by it. Jonathan looked again at Eli, and felt annoyed when Pekah cleared his throat to get his full attention.

“I seem to have a problem.”

Jonathan’s eyebrows lifted as he scrutinized the young Gideonite. “What kind of problem?”

Pekah swallowed hard. “If I consent, and give the oath which you have requested, my life will be in danger of forfeit. Desertion from the emperor’s army is punishable by death. From what I have heard, death for deserters is not a pleasant experience. The emperor is fond of torture to induce submission among the people.”

“I see.”

“And,” Pekah continued, “returning home will take me nowhere. My mother passed away a few years ago. I never knew my father. I only have one other choice.”

Jonathan waited. Pekah’s dramatic pause irritated him.

“My only choice is to follow you.”

Jonathan frowned, and he felt his brow furrow. He stepped closer to the Gideonite and glared at him. “What will you do for me?” he asked in a firm voice.

Pekah did not hesitate. “I will serve you. Yes, Nate-I will serve you until you release me, and even unto the end of my life, if you desire. Will you take me as your servant?” He stood unflinching and motionless.

Jonathan did not relish the thought of having a servant join him in battle, and yet something intrigued him about the idea of keeping Pekah close. This young man may be of use, he thought. “Swear it. Swear it by your honor.”

“I swear it by my life and my honor.”

Now satisfied, Jonathan switched his weapon to his left, then stepped forward, offering the palm of his free hand in acceptance, which Pekah instantly covered with his own right hand. Jonathan held Pekah’s gaze momentarily, then both men withdrew. An oath of honor such as this would be broken only by death, even by a Gideonite. Jonathan relaxed with a deep breath.

Seeing that his own sword was still in hand, Jonathan drove it deep into the soft grassy turf, all the way to the hilt, to clean it. He pulled it from the ground and flashed the perfect, sharp edges above him. Through the blade, he could see the eastern sunset sky where the small dots of Azure and Aqua rested on the horizon. He sheathed the sword, feigned a glare at Eli, then grinned.

“It’s good to see you. But you can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you?”

Eli returned the grin. “It’s my lot in life. Yours is to get me out of the trouble I’m in.”

Jonathan nodded and laughed. Eli frequently seemed to be into some kind of mischief when they were together as young boys. Jonathan had often shouldered the blame for some of the pranks so Eli would not be the one always in trouble.

“I’m sorry,” Pekah said.

Jonathan studied the Gideonite. Pekah appeared as if he wanted to say something more, but instead blew out a sigh. Jonathan followed the soldier’s eyes down to Eli’s shackles.

“Let me get the keys,” Pekah suggested as he ran to the fallen captain’s body. Jonathan remained alert, and was relieved to see that Pekah only retrieved keys from a pouch on the belt of the captain. When Pekah returned, he knelt before Eli, unlocked the fetters, and untied the ropes.

Now free from his bonds, Eli stepped to the side and gently kicked Pekah to make him lose his balance and fall. Jonathan snickered.

“That’s for yanking on the rope around my neck!” Eli said with a forced growl as he pulled the loop over his head, dropping it to the ground.

At first, Pekah appeared worried about retaliation from Eli, but when he saw the boyish grin on Eli’s face, he stood and returned a sheepish smile.

“We should find some shelter for the night,” Jonathan said in a serious tone, trying not to laugh.

“What about the-?”

Jonathan cut him off with a wave of his hand, pretending to cough. He didn’t want Pekah to know of the cave. “I think we should make our way a mile to the west. The trees there are very dense. Perhaps we can find a good spot off the main trail where we won’t be noticed.”

Eli agreed, and Pekah shrugged his shoulders.

Jonathan started to speak, but hesitated. Do I trust him? Yes. I must show him that I do.

“Pekah, get yourself a new weapon. We also need to hide the bodies before we leave, or we will surely be followed.”

Before they worked together to drag the bodies into the trees, Jonathan helped Eli retrieve his weapons, which had been bundled and tied to a large shoulder sack belonging to one of the archers. They found that Eli’s sword, belt dagger, and boot knife were all together.

Eli strapped them on, stretched his aching and cramped muscles, then rubbed the marks left by his bonds.

“Is that all of it?” Jonathan asked.

“All but my walking staff. Unfortunately the soldiers left it behind when I was captured,” Eli said as he brushed the dust from his coarsely-woven white tunic. “I’ll get a new stick tomorrow. Plenty of trees around.”

Jonathan led the way, and the three of them started the unpleasant task of disposing of the dead Gideonites. As they placed the bodies together, Eli suggested they reclaim any usable items from the soldiers, such as provisions and weapons, rather than leave the supplies for marching Gideonite troops to find. Jonathan consented. He helped Eli cut branches to cover the men while he watched Pekah gather supplies in eager haste. Jonathan could see that Pekah felt no grief for the dead soldiers, especially the captain. He watched with interest as Pekah removed a dagger from the captain’s leather belt, took a sword from one of the archers, and then strapped both weapons to his waist.

Jonathan cut a final branch, then motioned to Eli. They turned to assist Pekah in his search and found quite a few other useful things. Their pile of treasures included a few glow-stones, two glow-stone lanterns, a flint for fire making, two quivers of very fine arrows, two bows, and enough provisions to last for three days.

In addition to the supplies, Pekah also found a small bag of gold and silver coins on the captain’s belt. Each coin bore the image of Manasseh, Emperor of the Gideonites, on one side, and an image of the twin suns on the other. Jonathan estimated that there were about forty Gideonite solars total. Pekah returned them to the leather bag and presented it to Jonathan, respectfully asking him to take them.

Jonathan declined. “Pekah, keep them for us. Should we not need the money in Ain, the coins are yours.”

Pekah shrugged and tied the bag around his belt. They returned to their task of hiding the bodies of the fallen soldiers, using the cut limbs and some large pieces of bark from downed rotting timber. As they finished, they noticed the darkness fast approaching.

“There may be other patrolling soldiers about,” Eli said.

“True,” Jonathan agreed. “We should move on.”

The three men crossed the grassy glade and chose the western fork of the dividing path. Eli suggested they travel single file on the side of the trail once they entered the trees. This minimized the traces of their passing, even though occasional underbrush and branches slowed their progress. As they hiked through the forest, the waning light of dusk was replaced by light from the two smaller rising moons. The heavens peeked in upon them between the treetops, showing a beautiful spray of stars. As was common at this time of year, a dim green aurora danced over the southern sky, and Eli hummed a simple child’s lullaby about the lights in the heavens.

Jonathan’s troubled heart warmed upon hearing the deep, soothing melody. “Thank you, Eli,” he said.

“You’re welcome. Music lifts the spirit, does it not?”

“It certainly does help.”

Pekah did not comment.

Eli continued to hum, and Jonathan was glad for it. Curious about the Gideonite who had joined him, he peered over at Pekah. He could just make out the soldier’s face in the dim light provided by holes in the leafy canopy above. Whether aware of Jonathan’s curiosity or not, Pekah’s gaze did not leave the ground. He seemed tired and distant, so Jonathan did not attempt to engage him in conversation.

Now larger and much closer together, the trees bordering the shadowed path completely obstructed the lights of the moons and made it difficult for them to see where to step. Eli and Pekah rubbed two glow-stones to charge them, and then placed each crystal in a reflective lantern, the light of which allowed them to quicken their pace.

The men hadn’t eaten in some time, so the search for a place to rest for the night intensified. Their careful observation was rewarded as they turned from the path to follow the faint sound of trickling water.

About one hundred paces from the trail near a wide bend in a rocky stream, they found a thick growth of thorny, gnarled brush and vines overrunning a tight group of trees. The trees and bushes together made a natural barrier shaped like a cup turned on its side, the hollow facing the water. Because of location and a gentle southerly breeze, this made a perfect place to stay the night. Travelers on the forest path would probably not notice them as long as they were quiet, even with a campfire.

After unburdening themselves of all the supplies they carried, each of them helped to gather wood, piling it within a fire-circle of large rocks. Jonathan used flint to spark some tinder, and soon the fire burned bright and warm. They arranged logs for seating, then took the opportunity to wash at the stream’s edge before returning to camp to eat.

“I still have some dried meat, fruit, and half a cheese in my sack,” Jonathan offered. Eli growled like a hungry animal, rubbing his stomach for emphasis. Pekah grabbed his own provisions sack and produced a large round of leavened bread, some strips of salted meat, and a wineskin. Jonathan decided to save his own provisions, especially the fruit, for breakfast. Pekah grabbed his round of bread and started to break it into large pieces, but Jonathan held out his hand to stop him.

“Do you mind if we pray before we eat?” he asked.

Pekah appeared puzzled at first, but then shrugged his shoulders. “That would be fine.”

Both Eli and Jonathan knelt on the ground and bowed their heads. Jonathan glanced at Pekah, who mimicked them like an awkward youth.

“Our Father, our God, we come to Thee in humility and with broken hearts…” Jonathan paused as his voice began to quaver. He composed himself and continued. “We thank Thee for all which Thou dost provide; for life, for bread, for strength and wisdom and love. We thank Thee for the Son whom Thou wilt send. May Thy blessings be upon us, and upon our peoples. We thank Thee for the protection we have been granted this day. May the souls of those who have gone home to Thee find rest, forgiveness, and healing. Let peace reign, and the hearts of all men be softened by truth and love. Bless us to this end and prepare us for Thy will to be done. Amen and amen.”

Jonathan opened his eyes and found Pekah staring at him.

“You seem troubled. Did I say something that bothered you?”

Pekah shook his head. “No.” His gaze fell, and he gave no other explanation.

Jonathan did not press the issue. He took an offered piece of dried meat from Eli. Pekah still held the bread motionless in his hands, and Eli had to get his attention in order to ask him to share. Pekah apologized.

All three men fell quiet, lost in thought. Jonathan reflected on his father’s passing. He felt guilty for leaving Samuel’s body in the Council Hall, and wondered if he should have gone back. Surely the Gideonite army did not leave him there, Jonathan reassured himself. He imagined them taking the body to a hill outside the village walls. He pictured the familiar green hills and almost smelled the fresh dirt as shovels turned over the sod. Jonathan’s guilt turned to sorrow as he realized he would never till the soil at Samuel’s side again.

Fighting back tears, his attention turned to Eli, who chewed his last bite of jerky loudly enough to be heard. Eli gazed at him expectantly, as if he wanted to talk.

“Pekah?” Jonathan asked. “Do you mind if Eli and I excuse ourselves for a moment?”

Pekah shook his head and said, “No.”

Jonathan gave him a reassuring smile. “Thank you. We’ll be back.”

Jonathan and Eli grabbed their sword belts and left the fire. They found a suitable place to sit outside of earshot, but still within sight of the fire-lit camp. The site they chose was well-lit by the beaming three sister moons.

Before Jonathan could sit on the log they found, Eli grabbed Jonathan to himself and embraced him. They patted each other’s backs firmly, and then clasped forearms. Tears of joy and sorrow welled in their eyes and dropped onto their arms.

Eli released his friend, and both men used their sleeves to dry their eyes. Then they sat down together under the moons-light to talk.

Chapter 7

Promises

Jonathan broke the silence. “My father was slain.”

Eli exhaled. “I know. I saw him.”

“You were there? Tell me what you saw!”

Eli’s face filled with sorrow. Light from the moons above glistened upon his wet cheeks as tears tumbled from his green eyes and into his scruffy red beard. Jonathan’s own eyes blurred as Eli rubbed his eyes dry.

“I am so sorry, Jonathan,” Eli said with emotion. “This morning, after a speedy march with a group of eight other Uzzahite warriors, Tavor and I arrived at Hasor just as the suns were rising. I had hoped to assist you in your defense. However, my fears of arriving too late were confirmed as we approached the village walls. We came down from the north road, and when the east gate came into view, we found the heavy doors destroyed. The entire village had been deserted.”

“I think they were all taken prisoner,” Jonathan interjected as he wiped his cheeks with the backs of his hands.

“I think you’re right,” Eli confirmed. “We had seen a very large contingent of soldiers escorting a group of at least two hundred men, women, and children due west toward Saron the previous evening. We believe they were going to use the Geber Pass to get to Ain. Our scouts confirmed that Ain was taken just four days ago.”

Eli paused and crossed his arms as if to allow Jonathan time to absorb the new information.

“Father and I suspected Ain had already been captured, but we did not know for sure.” Jonathan let out a deep sigh, then pursed his lips. Confusion replaced his anger. “If you found the village deserted, how did you get mixed up with the Gideonite soldiers?”

“I sent most of my men to check the garden gate while I took Tavor with me to check out the temple, palace, and hall. The temple seemed to be undisturbed. Obviously the Gideonites were not after gold candlesticks that day.”

Jonathan managed a thin smile at this somewhat positive news.

“When I got to the hall, I found your father in the Council Room.” Eli placed his hand on Jonathan’s shoulder. “I sent Tavor to call the other men, and then the ten of us carried him out the broken gates into the olive garden. We found some shovels in the gardener’s hut. Jonathan, we laid him under your favorite olive tree.”

Tears were visible in Eli’s eyes again, and Jonathan’s own sorrow pulled his head low. He felt the strong squeeze of Eli’s hand on his arm. He looked up, again wiping his face with his hands. “Thank you, Eli. You did my father a great service.”

“I loved him too, Jonathan.”

Eli paused, but then explained that after their very emotional ceremony for Samuel, they split up to cover the entire village to be sure there were no survivors within the walls.

“When we met back at the hall, we thought it peculiar that we did not find any other bodies in the entire village. There were evidences everywhere of intense fighting when the village was overrun, but we did not find a single soul, living or dead. We decided to patrol the outside wall, and did so, starting at the garden gate. We circled the southern wall heading west.”

Eli cleared his throat. “We were surprised to find a fresh mass grave to the west of the village, still being filled by a group of Danielites and their captors. Not far off, a group of about forty Gideonites were camped in the hollow there by the vineyards. About ten of them rushed up to us as soon as we were seen, and knowing we were outnumbered, we surrendered. We were harshly questioned, and when they figured out that I was the leader of my band of warriors, they separated us. My nine were added to the main group of remaining Danielites and marched down the road towards Saron. I had the pleasure of traveling the forest trails toward Ain in company of the rogues you caught me with earlier this evening. The captain told Pekah and the others it would be a faster route.” Eli grinned and spat on the ground in defiance. “Once again, you have gotten me out of a bad one,” he said with a laugh.

Jonathan didn’t laugh, but he did return the smile. “It’s so good to see you, Eli. Thank you again for giving my father a dignified burial. It was I who left him on the floor of the Council Hall. I hated to do it, but I was in a hurry to escape.”

With hand gestures for emphasis, Jonathan proceeded to tell Eli about hiding in the barn, hearing the commotion in the village, and returning to the hall where he found his father. He also mentioned the noise which had startled him, and his retrieval of The Thorn. Jonathan patted his chest.

“Eli, I got it, and then literally ran out the door.”

“I’m glad you did,” Eli said as he glanced back toward the camp. Jonathan also leaned to see the dim outline of Pekah sitting by the fire.

Jonathan ended his account by describing the long day in their secret cave. The two of them laughed a little as they reminisced together about the many items they had hidden there long ago as boys. But again their moods became somber, and they both grew quiet as their gazes rested on the moons-lit ground.

Eli lifted his head and pointed at the campfire. “What are we going to do with him?”

“I don’t know. He seems to have a good heart. If we can convince him to join the side of peace, he may be able to soften the hearts of others. What do you think?”

“You may be right. Although we all expected this war, I would very much prefer that it end quickly, and he may be able to help.”

Jonathan tapped his sword pommel with his hand, anxious to do whatever was necessary to stop Gideon. Numerous possible outcomes crossed his mind in mere seconds, but then he threw a startled expression in Eli’s direction.

“What has become of your sister?” Jonathan asked. “Last I knew, Rachel had been in Saron. Did she make it home safely?”

Eli’s jaw stiffened with anger. He shook his head, and Jonathan instantly felt ill.

“But I don’t know for sure,” Eli added, his tone grave. “To my knowledge, Rachel was still at market with the family steward, selling our spring lambs, when Saron was surprised by the Gideonites. If she left early enough, she might have made it home to Ramathaim before they attacked. I just fear she did not. When we left the city, we did not see anyone coming north from Hasor. She should have been back by that time.”

Jonathan saw deep emotion like a kindled fire burning in Eli’s eyes. “If she did not make it out of Saron, where do you think she is?”

“She may be at Ain. Our scouts confirmed there was a significant movement of people from Saron towards Ain the day before yesterday. They reported to have seen several columns of prisoner escorts. But then again, she may have been… the Gideonites…” Eli shuddered.

At Eli’s unspoken suggestion, Jonathan remembered the dishonorable things some Gideonite captains had done with female prisoners in the past. He could not bring himself even to complete the thought. Jonathan fought the images away and mustered his courage.

“Eli, don’t fear the worst. Let us have faith she has been protected.”

Eli grumbled. “I suppose you’re right. But you know as well as I do, the Gideonites do not always treat women with honor or respect. Some of them have forgotten the ways taught by Father Noah and treat women as if they were mere property.”

Jonathan bristled at the thought. His father Samuel had taught him to honor women as God’s finest creation, and that attitude prevailed amongst his own people. Jonathan loved Rachel dearly, and the thought of Gideonite soldiers harming her made his blood boil. Rachel had been promised to him, and even though she was not yet his lawful wife, Jonathan felt protective of her.

“Well,” Jonathan spat out, “at least we’re traveling in the right direction. I think we can easily reach Ain within two days. It’s my intention to find out what’s going on in that fair city.”

Eli patted Jonathan on the arm. “I feel the same way, my brother. If she’s there, we will find her.”

The two friends made their way back to the campfire and found Pekah sharpening the dagger he had taken from the Gideonite captain. He glanced up as they approached, but then returned to his work. As Jonathan and Eli removed their weapons and found themselves seats near the fire, Pekah stopped his sharpening and sheathed the dagger.

“Nate, can you tell me about the sword you carry? I have never seen anything like it.”

It seemed to be a harmless question. Jonathan took up the sword that lay next to him on the ground, pulled it from the sheath, and turned it in his hands, causing reflections from the campfire to bounce above them in the trees. Pekah gaped in wonder at the lights and leaned forward to see the narrow, thin, faceted blade.

“It is merely a glow-stone, albeit a special one,” Jonathan said. “This nearly perfect crystal was found by my grandfather in the mines near Hasor, crafted into a sword, and presented as a gift to my father.”

Jonathan stopped short of telling the whole story. To do so would reveal his identity. The Sword of Daniel had actually been given to his father as a coronation gift on the same day Samuel married. He chose to keep those facts to himself.

“How was it made?” Pekah said.

“The crystal is the longest one ever found in the Hasor mines. I don’t think there has ever been another like it. My father told me the raw stone was without flaw except at the ends. The swordsmith who made the weapon could only cut or groove it near the blemishes in the stone, and so he removed one flaw by striking it from the end of the crystal, thus producing the faceted tip. He grooved out the flaw at the opposite end with special tools made from other stones. After he added the brass cross-guard, he used some type of silver alloy to form the hilt and pommel, all of which he anchored to the grooved area of the crystal. I added the leather strapping around the hilt to make the sword easier to control.

“The sword-smith also left the pommel hollow to accommodate a small glow-stone for lighting purposes,” Jonathan added as he took the stone from his belt pouch and rubbed it vigorously to charge it. He snapped it into place, and they all watched as the entire sword took on a soft, blue glow.

Pekah’s brow furrowed. “How is it that the blade does not break? Any crystal, when struck with the amount of force which you used today against our swords, should shatter, no matter how perfect it is.”

Jonathan smiled. He leaned forward, locking gazes with Pekah, and stated with a wry smile, “I don’t know.”

The answer was honest, but not complete. Although Jonathan didn’t understand how the blade remained whole, he did suspect why. Only a few close friends outside of his immediate family knew that his grandfather had been led to the location of the raw crystal by a dream of the night-a dream in which Father Noah himself had delivered a message of promise. Much like The Thorn, Noah promised that a sword crafted from the unique crystal would be claimed by the Holy One at His coming-a symbol of His kingship, a sword that shone like the blue fire of sister suns, a sword of light.

The Gideonites all knew about the scepter because their father, Gideon, was there when it was fashioned. But none knew about the sword. And under the present circumstances, Jonathan did not feel impressed to share the story of the dream with Pekah, or the prophecy given to his grandfather. After all, the Gideonites already sought the scepter.

Jonathan hadn’t intended to be so mysterious. But he almost chuckled as he noticed Eli thoroughly enjoying the puzzled frown on Pekah’s face. Eli clasped his large hands behind his head and leaned back against a log, grinning widely.

Fortunately, Pekah asked no more questions. The conversation lagged, and Pekah again grew quiet. Ready to change the subject, Jonathan removed the small stone from the pommel, sheathed the sword, and suggested that they discuss their plans for the next day. Eli agreed.

“Tomorrow is the Sabbath,” Jonathan began. “I would rather not travel on the Sabbath. We’ll need our rest for the days ahead, and so I plan to stay here through the daylight hours of tomorrow. We can leave before dusk in the evening, and then travel under cover of darkness with the face of the moons as far as we can.”

“It’s true,” added Eli. “Tomorrow will be the crossing of the sisters, and under their face, travel will be easy enough, if the weather holds.”

“But where will we be going?” Pekah interjected, staring at Jonathan.

“We believe a large body of prisoners was taken from Hasor,” Jonathan said. “It’s possible they’re traveling toward Ain by way of Saron. If so, it’s my intention to find them and free them, if I can.”

Jonathan watched Pekah’s fire-lit face for a reaction. With the news Jonathan had received from Eli, he knew Pekah was aware of the prisoners taken at Hasor, and he wanted to see how this Gideonite felt about their plan to find them. Pekah’s countenance indeed had changed, but Jonathan could not tell if fear or some other emotion affected the Gideonite.

Sensing Pekah’s great unrest, he spoke with soft tones. “I want you to know, I have accepted your oath to me. You swore you will follow me and serve me until the end of your life. I will do all I can to ensure your life will be long, and that you will be happy, if you seek happiness.”

“Pekah,” Eli said. “Nate is a man of honor. His promise will be kept.”

“Thank you, Eli,” Jonathan said.

Pekah merely blinked as he stared into the campfire embers.

Still curious as to what Pekah’s thoughts were, Jonathan spoke again. “Can you tell me what you know about the fall of Hasor?”

Pekah remained silent. He fiddled with his boot straps as he continued to stare into the coals. Jonathan did not press him, but waited on his answer with hope that he would choose to talk about it. He looked towards the fire himself, wishing he could in some way make this awkward discussion about their plans bearable for both of them.

After a short time, Pekah spoke in a low voice. “I’ve seen things I do not wish to remember.”

Eli cleared his throat, but did not comment.

Jonathan let out a soft sigh. He said a silent prayer for help with their conversation, remaining calm and attentive until the impression came with words to fill his mouth.

“Pekah, there is One who can heal all things. Do you know of Whom I speak?”

Pekah nodded.

“No matter what has happened in your life, no matter what things you saw at Hasor, no matter what troubles you, if you turn to the Great King…” Jonathan’s voice became softer. “Turn to Him with all your heart, and pour your soul out to Him in prayer, even if it is by simply expressing the thoughts and the desires which are in your heart. He will hear you. He is the Great Healer, and He can remove many burdens.”

Immense hope, and a love for the young Gideonite man, started to fill Jonathan’s heart. He also noticed that he had been particularly impressed to use the title of “Great King,” but didn’t know why. Pekah still did not reply. His eyes glistened, and he turned from the fire to stare out into the darkness of the trees near the stream.

Jonathan did not feel inclined to talk further, and so after some awkward silence, he suggested they all get some rest. Now past midnight, morning would be upon them before they would want it to be. Eli asked if they should have a constant watch through the night, but Jonathan felt that with the cover of the thorny grove, and the sound of the stream behind them, they would pass the night without being discovered.

None of them had bed rolls, so they fashioned small pillows from sacks and cloaks. By this time, most of the flame was low and red. Eli placed the large log onto the fire to keep it burning.

Jonathan and Eli both knelt on the ground with bowed heads. They invited Pekah to join them in prayer, but he declined. After an expression of gratitude for a clear summer night with no rain, both men wished Pekah a good night’s sleep before drifting off.

***

Pekah watched them doze as he lay there, feeling depressed and out of place with these two men. He gazed up at the stars, not focusing on anything in particular. He tried to relax, but the events of the previous three days kept crossing his mind. Closing his eyes, he tried to sleep, but sleep would not come. The hard ground made him uncomfortable, and the more he tried to rest, the worse he felt. He groaned and realized much of the discomfort he felt was because of the guilt in his heart. He wished he had never enlisted in the emperor’s army. He wished he had never been in Hasor. He almost wished he were dead.

Chapter 8

Balm

The night continued to cool, making Pekah wish for a blanket. Sounds were all around him-the chirping of forest crickets, the buzzing of other unseen insects, even the hoot of an owl off in the distance. He even noticed the low gulping noise of a frog somewhere near the constant gurgle of the stream. These temporary distractions were soon lost to his senses, becoming nothing more than droning background noise as he continued to sink deeper into his depression. Over and over again, memories and images of the siege at Hasor played through his mind. Pekah remembered the dripping rain and damp fields of waist-high grain he had pushed through when his contingent rushed up to the southern garden gates. He could hear the creak and boom of the gates falling, and the pounding feet of charging soldiers upon the streets of the village.

His chest tightened with disgust as he remembered seeing some of the unarmed villagers murdered by his fellow soldiers when they should have been taken prisoner instead. He saw a young boy, not even ten years of age, running down the street away from the invading army, but a Gideonite archer’s arrow had knocked him to the ground before he could escape. The screams of women and children filled his mind.

He also recalled the purported reasons why the army had been sent there, and the dubious mission his detachment had been sent to do. Memories of atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers offended his sensibilities. He squeezed his eyes closed, but he could not shut out the horror.

Pekah’s guilt intensified to the point that he began to feel physical pain, and he groaned under the weight of it. His chest ached. He rolled from side to side, trying to shake the horrible darkness settling over him. As he analyzed the events of the battle, he severely chastised himself at each identified moment where a different outcome would have been possible. Perhaps he could have stopped some of the needless death and destruction that had taken place. But in all of his painful memories, his mind kept stopping at one particular place in time, a moment that disturbed him more than anything else. Pekah remembered the smell of blood as he shuffled past the body of the judge in the Council Hall of Hasor.

An unexpected connection then materialized in his thoughts. Intense disgust poured down upon him like a breaking tidal wave. Pekah recalled loosening the leather belt of the dead captain, sliding the gilded dagger sheath off the end of the belt to remove it, and placing the weapon on his own belt just before they covered the body of Captain Sachar with branches and brush. Sachar’s dagger. A weapon used for murder. The same one which he had sharpened by the campfire.

His eyes opened in alarm, and his hand went instinctively to his side. There he felt the handle: smooth, hard, cold. Revulsion filled him, and he sat up with a start. He stripped the weapon from his waist, throwing it to the ground before him.

There it is.

Pekah frowned at it with extreme distaste.

I have been sharpening a murder weapon.

The scene of blood roiled in his mind.

Why did I ever touch the vile blade?

The detachment’s orders were very specific. Capture the judge. Bring him alive to the emperor. But Sachar had not followed those orders. In anger, Captain Sachar had pulled his dagger from his belt, and like a coward, threw it into the back of the defenseless old man. Pekah remembered protesting, but the deed had already been done. There had been no honor in Sachar’s actions.

He stared at the sheathed dagger in the dirt.

What ever possessed me to touch the thing?

Pekah was no murderer. He had no desire to use the tool of a murderer. As he thought about those ultimately responsible for the death of the judge and king of the Danielites, he questioned his own political leanings. Pekah had felt for a long time that the three tribes should be united as one people. Like many among his kindred, he also felt the Gideonite leaders were the best choice to rule over the Three Brothers. These feelings had provided justification for going to battle.

Were not the Danielites a rebellious and wicked people? Were they not in need of strong leadership? From his youth, he had been taught that the Danielite and Uzzahite peoples were lazy, weak, and prone to hostility towards Gideon. Manasseh, the Gideonite emperor, had warned the people that if they did not attack first, the Danielites and Uzzahites would attack them.

His people were wrong! By Pekah’s impressions, the villagers of Hasor were far from lazy. The city was clean, organized, and beautiful. And from what he could tell when entering the city, the people there were only defending their homes, not preparing to attack the Gideonites.

Was the emperor misinformed by his generals? Or was the emperor simply devious? The more Pekah thought about it, the more he could see that what he had been told could not be true. The emperor. His generals. His captains. They had willfully lied.

This realization sickened him. Oh, how naive he had been. So eager to do something great-to prove himself in battle-he had overlooked the great cost of their campaign. Pekah mentally kicked himself again and told himself he should have known better.

Sitting in the dim flicker of a slow fire, he wondered what he could do to make amends for the great injustice that had been done at Hasor. The pain he felt needed to be expressed, but Pekah didn’t know if Nate would accept an apology on behalf of his people. His thoughts rallied around this idea, however, and he decided to offer a plea for forgiveness at morning’s first light.

Feeling the need to rid himself of Captain Sachar’s dagger, Pekah pinched the pommel between a single finger and his thumb, and then stood. He tiptoed over toward Nate, stooped, then dropped the sheathed dagger into the dirt within Nate’s reach. Nate stirred. Pekah stepped toward his own patch of ground and makeshift pillow and watched, as with a dazed expression upon his face, Nate sat up briefly to look around, but then lay down again and rolled onto his side.

Pekah settled back onto his hard bed and surveyed the stars. “In the morning, I will tell Nate what happened,” he encouraged himself in an audible whisper. For a long time, he rehearsed in his mind how he would tell the story of the fall of Hasor. Sleep still did not come. He sat up again by the fire, and broke up small twigs. One by one he tossed the pieces into the coals. Each one caught fire, glowed, and turned to ash.

In this manner, Pekah passed the entire night, anguishing over the horrible things he had witnessed in Hasor. As the night advanced, the sister moons traced their way across the heavens. Sienna would soon catch her companions. Several times he noted their progress across the stars. Although tired, Pekah still felt restless.

When relief from the darkness finally came as the sky brightened in the west, Pekah stoked the fire again before retiring to the stream to refresh himself. He washed his face, then dunked his head in the water. The frigid stream made him sputter. Dusty from the previous day’s march, he removed his belt, stripped off his dark green tunic, and proceeded to rinse it in the water. After some scrubbing and wringing, he retrieved his belt, then headed back to the fire to hang his wet clothing over a bent branch near the heat.

As Pekah rubbed his hands near the flames, he watched as Eli rose from his bed. Eli smiled and waved a friendly hello, leaving in the direction of the stream. Nate stood up and stretched.

“I hope you slept as well as I did,” Nate greeted.

“Thank you, but not really. I didn’t sleep much.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.”

Nate looked at the dagger in the dirt beside him. He regarded it with curiosity, then glanced back at Pekah, who was watching for a reaction. Nate didn’t comment about the dagger. He merely stepped around it, aiming toward the stream.

“I’ll be back,” he said as he left.

Dawn approached. It would not be long before the twin suns made their appearance. Pekah tested his shirt, and found it still damp. He turned it around to dry the other side, but after a few more minutes he became impatient with the process, so he shook the wool tunic in the air, pulled it over his head, and cinched his belt. Faint wisps of steam rose around him into the cold morning air.

Eli and Nate returned from the stream together, both with wet hair and clean faces, just as the first beams of direct light fell from the rising suns. As the orbs rose from the western horizon, Pekah could see that Azure had eclipsed Aqua. They appeared to be one body except for the color difference and size of their spheres. Aqua’s almost colorless hue-a light blue with a greenish tint-formed a near-perfect ring around the smaller, almost purple Azure. Now superimposed, they seemed somewhat less bright than they had the day before, yet their intensity still required caution on the part of onlookers.

With the aid of the morning light, Pekah took the opportunity to get a better look at his companions, and found them to be quite a contrast standing together. Nate was tall, with brown hair and a well-trimmed short beard, large blue eyes, of medium build. Eli was taller yet, of a strong build, and his red hair highlighted friendly green eyes.

Pekah glanced over at his polished armor leaning against a log near the campfire. Eli stared at it as if making eye contact with the raven upon the hardened leather.

When Eli noticed Pekah also looking on, he joked, “Perhaps you can get your bird to feed me!”

Pekah was confused by the comment and shrugged his shoulders.

“You do know the story of the raven, do you not?” asked Eli.

“No.”

Eli appeared dumbfounded. “Well, would you care to hear it?”

Pekah still didn’t feel like himself after the horrible night he had, but to avoid offending his new companions, he relented with a less-than-convincing “Sure.”

Eli made a show of clearing his throat, and the three men each found a place to sit on the logs around the fire. Eli apparently loved to tell stories. He began with excitement and animation.

“The written words of my fathers tell us that this raven was a godsend to Gideon, and it kept him alive. Always fond of hunting, Gideon would travel many days, deep into the wilderness, searching for the largest deer or the largest boar to bring to his family for meat. On one occasion, he was far into the forest when a strong storm arose and left a dense fog which caused him to lose his way for many days, without food for most of them. Almost without hope, Gideon felt as if he would not live. But he prayed to God that he would be spared and led home.”

Eli paused at this point, as if to make sure his student still listened. Pekah didn’t have the heart to tell Eli he wasn’t in the mood for a story.

“As Gideon arose from his prayer, this raven descended with a branch of berries in its beak.” Eli pointed at the image on Pekah’s breastplate. “Dropping the branch, it flew away, and Gideon followed. More ravens came, each one bearing fruit. Gideon ate, and then followed the birds until he was back on familiar ground and was able to leave the forest. On the day when Father Noah gave his final blessings to his sons, he counseled Gideon always to follow the path of the raven, and to do so by watching out for the welfare of his brethren. Noah charged Gideon to provide for them in whatever ways he could, so they might all dwell together in joy.”

Pekah now understood the prodding joke from Eli about the raven feeding him, yet the story did not cheer his heart-not in the least. It made him feel worse. At this point in time, Gideon as a people was about as far off “the path of the raven” as the tribe could be. Pekah glanced again over toward Nate’s bed where the dagger lay in the dirt, a reminder of the sleepless night he had passed. An overwhelming urge to clear his conscience made his heart race, but words to express himself would not come. Frustrated, he sat in silence, unable to even acknowledge the story Eli had so eloquently related.

Eli took a deep breath as if he was about to tell more, but stopped short. Out of the corner of his eye, Pekah saw Nate grip Eli’s arm.

Nate suggested that they all pray to begin their Sabbath day, and then partake of a meal together. Pekah mechanically knelt and closed his eyes. Still feeling the effects of a difficult night, his thoughts wandered. At the end of the prayer, he could not remember a single thing said, nor could he remember who had spoken. His mind foggy, he joined the other two men in finding a seat around the dying fire.

Saving the bread and dried meats from Pekah’s provision sack, Nate took the food from his own supply, broke the bread, and passed it with handfuls of dried fruit to the others. Pekah received his portion, but held the crust in his hands, staring down at the ground much as he had done the previous evening.

The struggle he felt within was fierce. Guilt. Sorrow. Fear. Insistence that he had done nothing wrong. Yet still there was confusion as to why he felt so horrible. What was it? Then he knew. The murders-a little boy and an old man. Something surged within him, and he felt the sudden need to clear the air.

“Nate,” Pekah began very abruptly. “I was there on the day my people attacked Hasor. I wanted so badly to stop them, but I could not find the strength to try. I witnessed the murder of innocents. A little boy was killed for no reason.”

Pekah hesitated, and then without regard to what he was saying, he spat out, “I saw other things. The man you killed yesterday, Captain Sachar-I saw him kill the judge. He threw his dagger into the judge’s back, like a coward. That is the knife.” Pekah stiffened, fully expecting some sort of retribution.

How incredibly stupid. I’m alone in the woods with these two, and either one of them could kill me without a second thought.

Nate’s face went pale as he leaned forward to stare at the gilded sheath on the ground. Surprised at himself for what he had confessed, Pekah remained fixed and motionless, pointing at the weapon. Nate was still.

Should he not be angry? The leader of his people was murdered! Why doesn’t he threaten me?

Pekah saw the tears well up in Nate’s eyes, then pour down his cheeks.

“Please excuse me,” was all Nate said. He got up after placing his breakfast on top of his shoulder sack, and left the camp to go sit where he had the previous evening.

Pekah lowered his arm to his side, his eyes once again finding the ground. Grieving, he wiped tears from his face as the stresses of the night began to release.

What was I thinking?

He peeked over to where Eli sat, but did not make eye contact with the Uzzahite.

Eli rose like he was about to get up and follow Nate, perhaps to comfort him, but he did not leave, sitting down again instead.

Pekah set his bread aside. “I don’t understand, Eli. Why was he not angry?”

Eli did not answer, but moved closer. “Pekah,” he said as he sat down, “Nate was not the only person in his family defending Hasor when your army arrived. He has not mentioned it yet, but Nate’s father was killed during the fight. Last evening when Nate and I talked about the fall of Hasor, we shared information with each other about the events of that day. I feel terrible about what has happened to Nate’s father. I have always felt like one of Nate’s family, and I feel his loss as if it were my own.”

Pekah’s chest tightened. Once again, a feeling of intense guilt for his part in the skirmish made him tremble. He folded his arms, his hands squeezed into tight fists.

“And I’m actually quite surprised that you shared the information about the knife and the death of the judge. Pekah, why did you tell him?”

Pekah did not stir, but raised his brows and blinked the water from his eyes.

“Pekah, I need to tell you something. I know of your army’s mission. We had been told by a Danielite spy that the armies of Manasseh were marching, and of the emperor’s intent to capture the judge so they might find his son and either bring him into captivity or kill him. I also know they were searching for the king’s scepter. Is this true?”

Pekah found the strength to speak again. “Yes. Our orders were to find the judge’s son.”

“You didn’t find him, did you?”

“No, we did not. And after what happened in Hasor, I’m glad he was not found.”

Eli smiled. “I, too, am glad.”

They both looked toward the old log in the distance where Nate sat with his bowed head resting in his hands.

“Pekah,” Eli continued in a calm and reassuring voice. “Nate is not just any ordinary Danielite. Nate is, in reality, Jonathan, son of Samuel the Judge of Daniel, true heir to the throne, and now the only living member of his family.”

Pekah’s heart skipped, shocked by Eli’s revelation. He again glanced over to see Nate in the distance. By telling Nate about the blade he had taken from Captain Sachar, Pekah realized he had just thrown a javelin of pain into his new friend’s heart. The old man was Nate’s father?

“Why did I ever pick up Sachar’s weapon?” Pekah moaned.

“War is a terrible thing. Those who started this attempt at conquest are the ones to carry the blame, not you. Try not to let yourself take this burden upon yourself, for the burden is not yours to bear.”

Pekah felt the wisdom of Eli’s words, yet couldn’t accept them. He had personally participated in the battle. The guilt still lingered in his chest.

“Why did you tell Jonathan about the dagger? You could have kept that knowledge to yourself, and not a soul would ever have known what you saw that day.”

Pekah scratched the back of his head. “I couldn’t sleep,” he explained. “I was up all night long with images of death, suffering, and injustice plaguing my mind until I nearly burned with fever. When my detachment attacked Hasor with the rest of the Gideonite army, I immediately felt I did not want to be there. I volunteered to serve the emperor because I believed our peoples would be better served if we were united under one king. I had been told the Danielites were foolishly preparing themselves for war.”

“That is absolutely false!” Eli thundered as he shot to his feet.

Pekah interjected with raised hands. “I know, Eli. It was obvious to me upon entering the village that the Danielite judge had prepared his people for a defense, not for a march on Gideon. I am so sorry my people have caused this great and horrible conflict. Please forgive me. Forgive my people.”

Eli calmed, sighing as he returned to sit on the log. “I, too, am sorry. I’m sorry for all the misunderstandings which have been between our peoples for so long.”

“I don’t think Uzzah and Daniel have the same misunderstandings, do they?”

“No, Uzzah serves all peoples in the temples of our God. Our work is to carry the burdens of many, and we honor the responsibilities of Daniel, our brother. Our hearts are fixed on the same purposes. For the most part, those ‘misunderstandings’ don’t exist.”

Pekah bowed his head and stared at the ground between his brown boots. Then he muttered, “I need to fix this.” He stirred the dirt with a stick, making lines and intersecting circles.

“You are the first…” Eli started. He shook his head in disbelief.

“The first?”

“Yes, Pekah. You are the first Gideonite I have met in a long, long time who felt any remorse for the occasional wars which break out between our peoples. I want you to know that I am sorry for the people of Gideon who have suffered all of these years with the choices of your leaders. Perhaps, someday, your people and my people will both find peace.”

Pekah said nothing. Instead, he stared up into the dark blue sky visible between the branches above, wondering about the turn of events. Just yesterday he had been leading this Uzzahite in chains. Yet today, Eli felt sympathy for the plight of the Gideonite people, after being led by a rope like a dumb ox? He shook his head.

As he stared heavenward, he noticed a brightly colored bird in the trees, singing as if in a duet with the bubbly stream nearby. A pop from the campfire sent the bird on its way. Pekah turned to see Eli watching Nate… Jonathan, who still sat on the log away from the camp.

He wondered what Jonathan would do when he returned. Memories of the short skirmish the previous evening made a lump rise in his throat. There would be no possible way for him to win a match or duel with Jonathan if it came to blows. The very thought of having to defend himself against the Danielite made his heart race. He turned back to the fire, picked up a twig, and played with a dying coal.

When Jonathan finally wandered back to the camp, Pekah prepared himself for a stinging rebuke from the Danielite. But the rebuke did not come. Jonathan went straight to where he had slept the previous night, stooping to retrieve the dagger. Pekah was shocked that he touched it.

“Would you come with me?” Jonathan said with kindness, offering his other hand.

Pekah peered at him in disbelief, but took his hand and was lifted. Jonathan patted Pekah’s shoulder firmly. He felt fear course through him like a gust of wind, but gazed into Jonathan’s eyes and saw no malice there. Still, he shuddered as he followed the Danielite toward the stream, leaving Eli at the campfire. Jonathan glanced back once, but did not invite the Uzzahite to join them. Arriving at the water’s edge, Jonathan turned to face him. Pekah was sure Eli wouldn’t be able to hear them above the bubble of the stream, and for a fleeting instant, wondered if his own safety was in jeopardy.

“Pekah, thank you for telling me about the dagger.” Jonathan’s calm demeanor was unnerving.

How can this be possible? If I were him, wouldn’t I be furious?

“I want you to know,” Jonathan continued, “I’m sorry for the contention between our peoples. If there is anything I can do to repair the brotherhood between Gideon and Daniel, I will do it.” Jonathan’s hand hung loose at his side, holding the dagger more like it was a string of glass beads than a weapon.

“You are interested in repairing? How can you be… I mean, why are you not angry?”

“Angry? Yes, at first, I admit I was. But then I remembered how my father was always able to remain calm.”

“How would he have felt if you had been the one killed? Surely he would have been incensed.”

“I know he would have grieved. But my father was one of the kindest men I ever knew, Pekah. Quick to forgive, never held a grudge. Certainly not perfect, but he was not an angry man. He was always able to let go of those types of feelings.”

“So you just decided not to let hate and rage take over?” Pekah said, incredulous. He laughed as he picked up a small rock and tossed it into the nearby stream.

“Yes, it’s a choice. Out of revenge, I could kill you…”

Pekah flinched, stepped back, and eyed the dagger.

“… or, I could repair the breach. This dagger,” Jonathan said as he lifted it higher, “was a tool used to separate and destroy. It separated me from the love and companionship of my father. It killed him.” He paused. “The chief judge was my father.”

“I know,” Pekah blurted out, regretting it immediately.

“You know?”

“Yes. Eli just told me.”

Jonathan glanced at his friend by the fire and half-smiled. “Perhaps this dagger can also be a tool to unite and repair,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

Jonathan had a faraway look in his eyes. The stress and tension of the situation seemed to dissipate into the cool morning air, joining the thin fog rising from the morning dew. Pekah wondered what Jonathan was thinking.

“This weapon brought us together. We now have an opportunity to turn a tragedy into something better. You and me. We can end this war.”

Pekah almost snickered. “You’re crazy. What can I do to end a war? These things are above me.” He cannot be serious. Yet the grave expression on Jonathan’s face told Pekah he truly believed it.

“It has to stop somewhere, does it not? A war doesn’t end all at once. It ends when every participant decides to stop fighting. But the end starts with the decision of just one.” Jonathan knelt down in front of Pekah, unsheathed the blade, and used it to dig in the sandy dirt near the stream. “The covenant you made with me last evening.. .” he said while digging. “Are you prepared to make another?” He did not look up, but continued to scoop out dirt.

“What manner of covenant?” Pekah asked.

“An oath of peace,” Jonathan said with a smile on his face. “I am Jonathan, son of Samuel, a descendant of Daniel. I will never attack or provoke the people of Gideon, unless I am attacked first. I will only defend. You have my promise that I will do all I can to end this war. Will you do the same?”

Pekah’s chest tightened at Jonathan’s request. Yet, for the first time in many hours, he felt hope replacing his fear and guilt. Gideon could live in peace with Daniel and Uzzah. And he could decide for himself.

“You have my promise. I will do no less.”

“Thank you, Pekah.” Jonathan returned to digging.

When Pekah fell to his knees in order to assist, Jonathan sheathed the blade and set it aside, and with bare hands, the two of them worked together to enlarge the hole. The pit was now about a foot deep. Jonathan picked up the dagger, held the covered blade in his left hand, the hilt with his right, and with a swift, powerful pull, broke it into two pieces across his knee. He handed the sheathed blade to Pekah and tossed the handle into the hole. Pekah threw in his part. The joy in doing so thrilled him down to the marrow in his bones.

The two men then pushed the dirt piles into the hole. After standing and stomping the mound flat, Jonathan reached for a large rock. He dropped it directly on top of the burial site.

“And that is where it will stay, never to be mentioned again!”

Pekah glanced over to where Eli stood near their camp and saw that he had heard the unmistakable declaration. Eli appeared to be surprised. As for Pekah, the moment was exhilarating. Stirring within the depths of his own soul, he felt the healing balm of forgiveness. Jonathan had released him from all responsibility for his association with the tragic death of the old judge.

Pekah beamed with joy, and saw that Jonathan’s demeanor had also changed. Lines of sorrow were softer upon Jonathan’s face, seemingly replaced by peace. The sudden change of mood surprised Pekah. Once enemies, and now friends? He almost smirked at the idea.

Eli walked from the camp to join Jonathan and Pekah at the water’s edge. “I’m glad you two did not attempt to decide this war between you!” Eli rumbled as he reached them and scooped Jonathan into his arms. Jonathan coughed, and Eli let him go.

“I’ve been hugged by a bear!” Jonathan teased, still gasping.

Eli showed all his teeth in a menacing growl, and the three of them laughed.

“I think it’s time we go feed our bear,” Jonathan advised Pekah with a childlike twinkle in his eye. “He looks hungry.”

With that, the three of them returned to the camp and ate. As they talked, the weight of the war briefly lifted from their tired shoulders. Pekah felt as if he had been reunited with long-lost brothers. He noticed every detail of the beautiful morning. Never before had a simple meal of bread and fruit tasted so good.

Chapter 9

Pekah

Jonathan enjoyed their early-morning breakfast, which went on for the better part of an hour. Their conversation was full of reminiscing, much of it centered on the mischievous exploits of Eli and Jonathan as they grew up together in Hasor. The occasional laughter helped to ease some of the heavy emotional burden Jonathan had been carrying. He was glad for the diversion.

At one point, Pekah took the opportunity to thank Eli for telling him the story of the raven. “I’ve never been told why the raven is a symbol to my people. I had always assumed it was chosen because there are so many of the birds in the mountainous areas around our cities. Jonathan, what is the history behind the Serpent of Daniel? Now that I think of it, I don’t know the story of the Ox of Uzzah, either.”

Jonathan scratched his beard thoughtfully. “There isn’t really a story to go along with the serpent… it’s rather just a symbol of qualities my people feel are important. The creature is wise because it is always careful of the path it takes, lest it be trodden. It always knows the way back home to its hole in the ground, and it will not harm another unless harmed itself. Our symbol includes a white circle to remind us that a serpent can also be deadly, and unless wisdom and knowledge are kept within the bounds of truth, we can be led into deadly paths. A serpent should always be treated with respect.

“As for the ox,” Jonathan continued, “it’s a symbol of work and strength. It can bear many burdens, and does not tire easily. Uzzah is blessed with the strength of God as he serves all of Noah’s children in God’s temples. What do you know of temples, Pekah?”

Pekah’s brow lifted with interest, but quickly furrowed. “I know only of the sacrifices.”

Jonathan paused, his forming thoughts interrupted by the sound of the bubbling stream nearby. He felt a strong desire to teach Pekah more about the purpose of temples, but the chatter-like sputters of the water reminded him of their current location in the woods. He thought it might be best to discuss a plan for the day while they were still at leisure to do so.

“Pekah, do you mind if we talk of temples later?” Jonathan asked. “Right now, I would like opinions about our travel plans. For one thing, I have never been this far down the trail toward Ain. Father and I always traveled through Saron. I don’t know exactly how long it will take us to reach Ain, and I’m reconsidering my desire to stay here for the day, even if it is the Sabbath.” He smiled and watched both Pekah and Eli, waiting for their response.

Eli took a deep breath and let it out loudly. He kicked a twig toward the fire. “For some reason, while we have been talking, I too have been getting the itch to move on. I realize it is the Sabbath, however…”

Jonathan shook his head, and prodded him to finish with a drawn out “ Yes…?”

“Well,” Eli stammered, “I just get the feeling we’re supposed to leave. It’s almost as if we’ll be late for something important if we don’t leave soon.”

Jonathan stood up slowly, as if rising from a relaxing afternoon nap. A slight breeze picked up, and he turned toward it and smelled the air. Earlier, he had been quite content to stay where they were, but now that Eli pointed it out, he too felt as if something had changed.

“You know, Eli, I think you are right. Pekah?”

Pekah shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose that would be fine.”

All in agreement, they packed their belongings. Jonathan used a chunk of wood to push dirt over the cooled ashes of their night fire. It let off very little smoke, as most of the coals had gone gray and cold already. Eli toppled the logs previously used for seats into the surrounding undergrowth, and Pekah used a cut branch to mask whatever footprints he could find.

One last inspection proved their work to be satisfactory, so Jonathan waved them on. The three men left the hidden alcove of tangled brush behind them to follow the worn forest path which meandered under the more open parts of the canopy. Littering the trail were the occasional broken remnants of wind-stripped branches and fallen leaves, peppered by acorns from stately oak trees and cones from the pines scattered among them. Now much drier than the previous evening, the path showed little evidence of their footsteps as they hiked together westward. Although the light through the trees had not entirely burned off every patch of ground fog-remnants of moisture from the rains two days before-it was still a beautiful morning.

They traveled in silence for several minutes until the trees began to thin somewhat and the path became wide enough for them to walk abreast. At that point, conversations continued. Eli shared general things with Pekah about his duties at the temple in Ramathaim. He told Pekah about the temple site, the altar of sacrifice, and the throngs of people who would bring their offerings on celebrated holy days. With much expression, he described the smells and the sounds, and even the distinct feelings he felt while serving the people.

“I have never felt such a sacred connection to the divine or a deep reverence in my heart as I have there,” Eli said solemnly. “It’s as if heaven itself is touching the ground, and I am surrounded by it.”

Pekah smiled politely, but did not comment.

Jonathan observed and listened. The temple in Hasor, a place of teaching and worship, did not have a sacrificial altar. His thoughts drifted back to the days when he had traveled with his father and mother to make sacrifices at the temple in Ramathaim. At least twice a year, they would make the long day’s journey to the Uzzahite city for that purpose. The trip was easy, usually uneventful, and the family always enjoyed spending the time together. After the accident when his mother had passed away unexpectedly, Jonathan and his father still made the trip together, even though it saddened them to go without her.

Now that Father is gone…

Jonathan was almost unaware of his audible sigh. Both Eli and Pekah regarded him with concern. He noticed their gaze, and realized they’d heard him. Putting the memories out of his mind, he kicked a small rock with the side of his boot, sending it skipping through a bush. It startled a bird in the trees above.

Now stopped, Eli stepped closer, threw his arm around Jonathan’s shoulder, and gave him a slight squeeze. “I’m so sorry.”

Pekah offered a thin smile.

“Thank you both for understanding. I’m saddened by the thought of traveling alone the next time I go to offer sacrifice. No offense intended, Eli, but I’m not looking forward to it.”

Eli turned to Pekah to explain. “Jonathan and Samuel would always come to stay with my family for a few days so they could spend time at the temple.”

“Yes, our trips were always a family occasion. It won’t be the same with my father gone,” Jonathan said as they resumed their journey. “But I know he has found peace in the arms of the Promised One.”

“Yes, he has,” added Eli. “I’m sure of it.”

Pekah brushed a low-hanging branch away from his head. “I don’t mean any disrespect, Jonathan, but tell me more of this Promised One. Is He the same who should come and rule? How is it that you’re sure the king is with Him?”

Jonathan slowed his pace and raised an eyebrow at hearing Pekah call his father “king.” He didn’t expect such an admission from a Gideonite. He dismissed it, however, and answered the question sincerely.

“Yes, Pekah,” he replied. “The Promised One is the same as the One who will come and rule in righteousness. He is the True Great King. He is also The One Who Would Suffer. Do you know of Whom I speak?”

“Yes-my mother taught me of this Great King.”

“Did she teach you He would suffer and die?”

“I don’t recall hearing that, but she said that one day a Great King would come and He would heal the sick and unite the tribes into one people. There are many among the Gideonites who believe this, but I didn’t know He would die.”

“Pekah, we call the Great King ‘The One Who Would Suffer’ because He will suffer pains and sorrows, and will be put to death by cruel and wicked men. Before Father Noah died and entered into his eternal rest, he told Daniel that the Promised One will not be of this world, but one far away. There are many worlds under the Creator’s care, and our world is but one of an innumerable host of them. He also said there will be a sign given when the Great King has been born, and this sign will point our eyes and our hearts to His mortal home in the heavens. After He fulfills His mortal time, He will die, but will be raised up with new life, never to die again. Then He will come to rule and reign among us for a time, here on Gan. He will visit all of His kingdoms, because He cherishes them all.”

Jonathan glanced sideways at Pekah, whose expression was earnest.

“I had no idea, Jonathan. I have never considered that the Great King would not be a man born among us. You say He lives in the heavens, and yet will find His way to our world?”

“Yes.”

Pekah paused. “Why will He die?”

Jonathan gathered his thoughts. The three men stopped underneath an immense oak tree and felt the mid-morning breezes whisk around them, rustling the leaves above. Azure and Aqua were now fully eclipsing, burning brightly together in the sky, and the shade felt good to Jonathan. Hearing water, he noticed that the trail had brought them close to the bubbling stream of the night before, but here the stream ran much slower and larger, having been joined somewhere by other sources.

“The answer to that question could be a long one. Do you mind if we stop to get a cool drink?” Jonathan asked.

They left the trail and drank, then refilled their water skins before returning to the shade of the tree, feeling refreshed. Jonathan saw that Pekah patiently waited for the conversation to continue, and he cleared his throat and began again.

“He will die for us. We sacrifice to remind ourselves that He will one day provide a lasting sacrifice, that we might live again.”

“We will live again, like Him?”

“Yes. The Great King will take up His body again, and He promises the same for us. Our bodies will then be whole. They will be immortal.”

Pekah frowned. “I have heard Him called the Holy One before, but I don’t understand. If He is holy, why will He do this?”

“You mean, because we are not holy like Him?”

“Yes.”

“Let me try again. We die, and we sin. The Great King will not sin, and yet He will die in the flesh and then live again that we might have mercy. He does it because He is merciful. Does that make sense?”

Pekah nodded.

“Not only that, but He claims all justice by this act. Justice and mercy-He claims them both. This way, we can come to Him, fully justified by Him, and find our rest, if we are willing to ask for His mercy. We will live again to stand before Him, to be judged of our actions in this life.”

Pekah was thoughtful. “Tell me more. How does this mercy come?”

“Let’s walk.” Worried about the time, Jonathan motioned toward the trail and took the lead.

Eli broke in at that point. “We are obedient. When we do wrong, we make it right. But we must covenant with the Great King that we will follow Him. He expects us to do as He will do. But to truly make claim on this mercy, there must be water, and blood, and spirit.”

Pekah scratched his head, obviously very confused. “What do you mean by water, blood, and spirit? I have never heard such a thing before.”

“Eli, may I?” Jonathan inserted.

Eli nodded.

“Under priestly authority, water is where we make our covenant. We lay down our body in the water, and promise ourselves to the Holy One. He then raises us up, a new creature. Blood is where the price of mercy is paid. The sacrifice of clean, unblemished animals shows us the price He will pay. It is by His blood that we will find mercy. By our covenant and commitment to do His will, we are His forever. And then if we do these things, we will feel the Spirit of God purging all desire to sin from our hearts. We will know for ourselves the love He has for all His creations. This is why He will die.”

Pekah was silent.

“You seem perplexed,” Jonathan observed.

“I’ve felt some of these feelings before in my life. My mother taught me about the Great King. Somehow, I think I have always known she was right. I felt this way when you and I talked by the stream-I felt my burdens lifted as we made our oath of peace and buried the weapon of Sachar. Is that the mercy to which you refer?”

Jonathan felt warmth in his soul. “Yes. That is exactly what I am talking about.”

“I think I understand. But…”

Jonathan pressed him to finish.

Pekah’s gaze fell, and he stopped walking. “I’m embarrassed to ask.” He stared off into the trees.

How can I help him? Jonathan silently prayed. I must not have explained it very well. Father was so much better at this than I am. Then an idea came to him-Pekah wasn’t confused about the Great King or why He died. He moved next to Pekah so he could see his face.

“This covenant can be made by any man or woman… or a Gideonite soldier who wishes to repair wrongs,” Jonathan said.

Pekah’s eyes went wide. “How did you know what…?” he stammered. He could not even finish the question.

“Sometimes I get ideas, especially when I pray. The Great King teaches me what to say and do. He loves you, Pekah. I have no explanation other than that.”

Tears filled the Gideonite’s eyes. He turned away to wipe them.

Jonathan stepped back to stand by Eli, who seemed pleased. He waited for Pekah to compose himself.

“Thank you,” Pekah said as he faced them.

Jonathan wondered if he wanted to talk more, but Pekah began walking again. Jonathan patted Eli on the shoulder, and the two of them followed.

The morning passed with very little conversation, each man lost in his own thoughts as they went along. Jonathan tried not to dwell on memories of his family, but couldn’t help it. Even the simplest of things-the sound of a bee, a green sapling leaning next to a fallen log, a round rock displaced from the stream-reconnected him to nearly forgotten experiences of long ago. Some of the memories brought back the loneliness he had felt at the passing of his mother. Others, like the memory of felling trees with his father for their winter store, strengthened him.

When they finally left the trail for a rest, it was mid-day. Jonathan was starting to get hungry. He attempted to suggest that they eat, but stopped short when he noticed the strange look on Pekah’s face. Before Jonathan could ask him what he was thinking, he spoke.

“I feel as if my eyes have been shut all of my life, and have just opened… it’s as though I’m seeing the light of day for the very first time. I think my mother tried to explain all of this to me, but just didn’t know how.” He looked at Jonathan, then at Eli, and then back again, his grin widening. “What must I do?”

“I believe you have been well taught by your mother. She sounds like a very special woman. Have you thought about what we discussed?”

Pekah nodded. “I have. When I remember the things I learned as a child, everything you have told me makes perfect sense. I want to make things right. But I need help. I need His mercy.”

Jonathan searched Pekah and found his expression earnest, sincere. “You may make this covenant. It’s your choice.”

Eli leaned to peer around Pekah, his red beard stretched into a grin. “There’s some water!”

Pekah acknowledged the unspoken suggestion with an eager nod. “May I?” he said.

“If you desire,” Jonathan confirmed.

“I do. Can Eli do this for me, as a priest of the temple? I assume these things must be done properly.”

“I can, Pekah.” Eli answered. “But so can Jonathan. He too is a priest, and on the day he is made king, he will become the High Priest of Daniel.”

Pekah did not hesitate to voice his wish.

At first uncomfortable with the request because of his lingering grief, Jonathan inwardly acknowledged that he was beginning to feel a bond with the Gideonite. “I would be honored,” he said.

The three of them again left the trail and went to the river in search of a suitable pool of water. Finding no part of the river to be deep enough, they decided to follow it downstream, in the direction of their journey toward Ain. They hiked along the riverbank for a while, and it became apparent that unless they could find a large boulder in the current, or another joining stream, there would just not be enough water. They continued. The river followed the general course of the trail, and although their progress slowed somewhat on account of brush, rocks, and the occasional fallen tree, they still enjoyed the journey and felt no reason to rush.

Their patience soon paid off, and they found another stream joining the river, coming from the north hills and dumping into the river at a ninety-degree angle. Here, the water deepened considerably, and as luck would have it, there were also some sizable boulders to be found near the juncture. Near one particular rock, the water swirled, creating a pool which appeared at least mid-thigh deep. They decided to give it a try. They removed their weapons, sacks, and other items they did not wish to get wet, then gingerly stepped into the cold water, shivering as they did. The water soon became bearable as they adjusted, and just as suspected, the pool was a perfect depth.

As they stood in the rolling river, Jonathan asked if he could pray. He then implored the Great Creator to accept the covenant Pekah was about to make, and asked that the Holy Spirit would be present.

He finished the prayer, took a deep breath, and placed his left arm on his new friend’s shoulder.

“Pekah,” Jonathan said with authority, after raising his right arm. “Do you covenant to serve the Great King of Heaven the remainder of your days upon Gan, and to keep His commandments, that He might bless you with the Holy Spirit?”

“Yes, I will, and I do,” Pekah answered.

“Then, having authority from the Almighty God of all the Heavens, and in accordance with the covenant which you have made, I baptize you by water so that your sins may be forgiven, and so you may eventually be granted eternal life, through the redemptive power of the Great Sacrifice of the Great King who will come, who was prepared for that purpose before the foundation of this world.”

Jonathan took Pekah by the hand, then lowered him into the clear, cold pool of the river, bringing him up again, wet from head to toe. Pekah sputtered from the shock of the water, but glowed with joy. Tears joined the water streaming from the black hair on his forehead. Eli grabbed him up, squeezing him nearly to death and causing him to gasp. They laughed together.

The three of them stumbled back to the bank of the river amid the rocks and currents, Eli providing much of the strength to keep the others from slipping. Pekah shivered almost uncontrollably, yet grinned all the time with excitement. “You have made me very happy,” he said. “I cannot recall the last time I felt this wonderful!” His teeth chattered as he spoke.

All three men removed their wet shirts and pants and wrung out as much excess water as they could. Using large rocks found along the bank, they laid the clothing out to dry in the suns-light. Rays from Aqua and Azure chased away the cold prickles on their skin and helped to dry their undergarments while they took time to eat their mid-day meal.

“I hope we’ll arrive in Ain before our food supply runs out,” Jonathan mentioned as they ate. “It would be best to be there by tomorrow evening.”

“I don’t mind walking a little faster,” Eli said.

“And we have to find Rachel,” Jonathan said. “Perhaps along the way we’ll find some game to replenish our provisions. There are also farms all around the city. Surely we’ll find someone who can share a meal.”

Pekah’s blank expression made Jonathan realize they had never mentioned Rachel in his presence. Choosing now to share their true purpose for going to Ain, Jonathan explained that Rachel was his betrothed wife and Eli’s sister, and that they intended to find her.

“How do you think we can locate her, without being captured?” Pekah asked, concerned.

“We have to try,” Jonathan replied. He glanced over to see Eli looking off into the sky. Eli’s gaze lowered when he noticed Jonathan staring.

“Just thinking about Uzzah,” he replied to Jonathan’s questioning look. “Father and Mother will both be crushed if anything happens to Rachel.”

Jonathan nodded sympathetically. Pekah appeared to be confused once again, and asked who Uzzah was. Eli cleared his throat, his eyes moist.

“Uzzah is my little brother. When I was thirteen, he was almost twelve. We were in the Hara Mountains with my father looking for some sheep that had strayed from the flock. We split up. I never saw my brother again.” Eli could say no more.

“Hundreds from the city helped the family search for him,” Jonathan added. “They never found his body. To this day, the family doesn’t know what happened to him. They assume he fell into a ravine, or was taken by wolves.”

“I am very sorry to hear it,” Pekah said.

Eli wiped his eyes, but offered no further comment. With nothing more to say, Jonathan broke off another chunk of bread. They ate in silence.

After they had eaten, they found their clothing to be mostly dry. They each dressed, and then retrieved supplies and weapons. The only one with armor, Pekah also strapped on his leather breastplate. Before they left, Jonathan walked toward a dead oak tree where he had spied a sturdy branch sagging within easy reach, just thick enough for him to get his large hands comfortably around it. He pushed with all his weight. The trunk shivered as the branch split away, making a deep, booming crack that echoed through the trees. Although Eli was skilled enough with a bow, a thick walking staff would suit him better if they were to get into a fight. Jonathan handed the broken limb to Eli, who accepted it eagerly.

“Thank you!”

“My pleasure. It ought to keep you busy.”

Eli winked at Jonathan. He took the dagger from his belt and used it to lop off the remaining twigs, producing a rough, but usable “stick,” as he called it. “I can finish it as we walk,” he said.

The men then left the river and returned to the trail winding through the trees. They marched at a good pace for several hours and talked about various things, none of which were very important, but it helped to pass the time. While they traveled, Jonathan watched with interest as Eli used a smaller boot knife to whittle down the sharp ends of his stick. Eli also removed the bark and rough knots on the limb, making it smooth. By the time Jonathan noticed the long shadows of late afternoon around them, Eli’s walking staff was a work of art. Although the rounded surface had a slight natural curve to it, the now-carved branch proved to be very strong and sturdy.

Eli claimed he could not have found a better specimen if he had tried. As they traveled, he occasionally tested its strength by hitting dead branches upon the trees lining the trail, easily shattering them. After a few finishing touches to the surface of the staff, Eli sheathed his knife.

The heat of mid-afternoon was now well upon them, causing their pace to slow considerably as the trees thinned along the trail. The sound of the river, all but lost to them now, made Jonathan suspect it had taken a turn to the north. They discussed theories as to where the waterway had gone, but were not overly concerned, knowing the river would eventually meet up with them again.

About half an hour later, as they had predicted, the river came close enough to smell and hear, and just ahead of them, the simple forest trail drastically changed. They could see the path widen, being joined by a cart-road from the south which rose over a hill covered in wild flowers and grasses.

Pekah stopped walking. “Not far from here is a pass to the city of Gilad. Being this close to Gideon makes me a little nervous. I didn’t know we would find this particular road-I thought we were farther north than this.”

Jonathan pointed to the road in the distance. “This road goes to Ain?”

“Yes. I have traveled it before, although not all the way into the city.”

Jonathan’s brow furrowed, and he sighed with some frustration. “I’m not sure how to proceed, Pekah. If we take this road, there are sure to be Gideonite soldiers on it, and we’ll be found.”

Eli cleared his throat and motioned in the direction of the river. “What if we cross the water and continue west from there?”

The three of them debated their ability to re-cross later if the river deepened, but in the end, they all agreed it was a prudent thing to do. They left the trail before the road joined it and waded into the river at the shallowest part they could see. It took them some time to cross because of the current, but they did so safely.

Once on the other side, they found the area north of the river to be a bit more forested, yet still passable, even though there were no trails. Progress was slow at first, but their pace improved as they got used to navigating the thick timber. After many hours of strenuous hiking, they were rewarded with a good camping site for the night, just as the suns fell below the eastern horizon. The grassy glade before them proved to be even more secluded than the site they had used the night before, and far enough from the road on the other side of the river that they were certain any travelers from Gilad to Ain would neither hear them nor see them.

They made their camp as comfortable as possible with cut pine boughs for bedding, and then took time to eat a peaceful end-of-Sabbath meal, after a prayer together. Dusk turned into night while they ate. Before retiring, they stoked the fire high to keep any animals in the area from disturbing them.

***

Pekah was the last one still awake. He reflected on the day, immensely grateful for the peace he now felt. Staring into the night sky, he enjoyed seeing the three sister moons rise and begin to cross the sky in typical grandeur. The beauty of the procession and the face which they made went unnoticed by the sleepers. The sight of the moons made him smile.

In contrast to the previous night, and with his soul no longer aching, Pekah drifted off. During the early morning hours when the fire had dwindled to nothing more than low embers, he began to dream.

Chapter 10

Prophecy

Pekah wandered alone down a dark, moons-lit road bordered by many tall pines. Pungent scents of pitch and green needles mixed in his nostrils with the dust being kicked up from his boots. Each step he took sent pebbles skittering before him, bouncing and banging so loudly as they went that the sound reminded him of a rock-slide in the high wilderness areas of Gideon’s mountain ranges. Silence hung like a pall over the landscape, a stark contrast to the cacophony produced by the little rocks. Endless trees on an endless road blurred into what seemed like walls of a tunnel deep underground.

He trudged on for hours. The scene around him did not change. More trees, dark walls of them. No sound except his thunderous steps and the pebbles jumping before his toes. Despair slithered across his heart. He stopped.

At that moment his attention was drawn to a leather bag hanging from a strap around his neck. Pekah pulled the drawstring open. Inside, he found a cloth-wrapped cylindrical object, which he lifted from the bag. As he studied the roll of purple cloth, he recognized the head of a serpent embroidered upon it. Taking great care, he unfolded it to reveal a clear glass rod. Engraved white gold knobs capped each end of it, and the glass held a thin, gray object embedded at the very center.

Curious, he brought the rod closer for inspection. The scene around him instantly changed, startling him. No longer on the pine-bordered road, Pekah found himself in a well-lit chamber, with wood-paneled walls and candles burning atop multi-stemmed candlesticks in all corners of the room. To Pekah’s surprise, Eli stood next to him, smiling.

Pekah lowered the glass rod in order to take in his surroundings, and saw an ornately carved wooden chair at one end of the room, empty, but flanked by two armed Gideonite soldiers. They glared at him crossly, and pointed to the object in his hand as if they wanted him to explain it. Pekah could not identify what he held. He looked to Eli for help, but before Eli could speak, another man entered the room from a door behind the chair. He recognized the man at once.

Dressed in the finest green silk vestments Pekah had ever seen, the man reeked of luxury. An almost gaudy amount of white gold and other finery trimmed the silk, catching every candle-flame flicker. A thick silver chain stretched across his chest to clasp a shimmering gray robe, which flowed from his shoulders like a mist.

His short brown hair was intensely dark, though not quite black. A cleft chin and a sharp, long nose dominated his clean-shaven face. His lips were pursed, his demeanor very unhappy.

As Emperor Manasseh took his seat in the wooden chair, Eli nudged Pekah and told him to show the object in his hands to the Gideonite. Eli added three words to his request, in a most serious tone: “Holiness, Honor, Humility.”

Pekah reluctantly did as Eli asked by extending his arm forward, the glass rod resting atop the cloth in his outstretched palm.

The very action of moving his arm forward sparked a fire of warmth under his shoulder which traveled through his arm, across his chest, down his back, and deep within his heart. Every part of his body erupted into feeling, as if the hot blast from a smelting furnace bubbled up molten iron within him, causing the hair of his head to react with motion as if from an unseen wind. At that instant of intensity, a flash of blinding light emanated from the glass rod. The invisible power sent shock waves through the room.

Chapter 11

Bodyguard

P ekah jerked up from his makeshift pillow, his gaze flitting around him. The morning was yet early, the twin suns making their presence known with a tinge of color across the western sky. Eli and Jonathan still breathed deeply.

Pekah’s heart raced. He rubbed his arms and ran his fingers through his hair as the remnants of feeling from his dream waned. He sat there amazed that it had felt so real, and wondered at the meaning of it. He replayed the scene in his mind, but could not make any sense of it. Unanswerable questions pounded in his head.

Where was Jonathan? What was the glass object? Why did the emperor meet with me? Where did the light come from?

Asking did not seem to help. Each supposition brought on harder questions, which left him even more bewildered. This went on for some time, and before he knew it, the suns announced their imminent rising by coloring the tops of the hills around the camp. Eli and Jonathan began to stir. Eli sat up first, and after a long, growly yawn, reached to hit Jonathan on the arm.

“Jonathan!”

Jonathan sat up and rubbed his eyes, glaring at Eli. “Ouch!”

“Look at Pekah. He seems spooked.” Eli said.

Pekah turned to meet Jonathan’s gaze.

“What is it?” Jonathan asked.

“I had a very strange dream.”

Jonathan stood and stretched. He wandered over to Pekah’s side of the fire and plopped down onto a nearby log. “What did you dream?”

Pekah took a few seconds to consider what he might say, and thought it best not to tell all he had seen. He started by describing his walk under the light of the moons, emphasizing the long dusty road and the endless trees that seemed to close in on him.

“I noticed I was carrying a leather bag around my neck. When I opened it, I found a purple cloth with a serpent on it, and inside the cloth I found a glass rod, with white gold ends, both of them engraved with writing on them. There was also something embedded in the glass itself.” Pekah hesitated, not wanting to give up too much of the dream just yet, but he did add one other detail. “What do the words ‘Holiness, Honor, Humility’ signify?”

Jonathan and Eli threw glances at each other, and Pekah noticed the exchange. He ignored it and continued.

“One other thing that was quite peculiar-I’m not sure where I was when I pulled the rod from the bag. I stood in a room lit by candles. Eli was there with me.”

“Did you know what you had in your bag?” Eli pried.

“No, I have never seen anything like it. Do you know what it was?”

Eli again looked at Jonathan, who bit his lip and frowned. Jonathan had an expression on his face as though he was busy trying to come up with an excuse not to discuss it.

Pekah sensed something amiss. “You know something you’re not telling me.”

Jonathan exhaled deeply and stood. He reached into his tunic and pulled out a bundle of purple linen. He stepped closer, then knelt down by Pekah and showed it to him, unfolding the cloth to expose a white circle and red serpent embroidered on it.

Pekah was stunned. “That’s what I saw in my dream!”

Jonathan smiled and unrolled the cloth the rest of the way. A glass rod lay in his hand. “This is The Thorn, the scepter of Daniel. It belonged to my father.”

A shiver went through Pekah, making the hair stand on his neck. When he leaned over to see the scepter more closely, Jonathan motioned for him to take it. He picked it up, turning it to see the engravings at each knobbed end. Closer examination of the gray object embedded in the glass helped him discern what it was-a long, discolored thorn; sharp, and perfectly preserved. He turned the rod upward, exposing it to the first rays of morning light. The two blue suns sent their shafts through the glass, breaking into colors of a rainbow. Pekah could now clearly read the engravings on the knobbed ends, exquisitely carved letters spelling out the three words Eli had said in the dream.

Pekah’s mind began to race as he realized that this was the object Sachar had been searching for in the Council Hall at Hasor. “I… I

…” Pekah stammered as he gave The Thorn back to Jonathan. He could not finish his sentence.

Eli pointed to The Thorn. “The scepter of Daniel will be passed down from father to son until the Great King comes to claim the throne.”

Jonathan returned the glass rod to its protective cloth and stuffed it into his tunic. “Did you see something else, Pekah?” Jonathan asked as he sat down.

Pekah looked away at first, worried about what the dream might mean. Why wasn’t Jonathan there? Should I tell him? Turning to Jonathan, he saw patience in the calm gaze of his new friend. Although comforted by Jonathan’s reaction to the situation, something held Pekah back. All he could do was say, “I would like some time to think this through, if that’s all right.”

“That’s fine. Talk about it when you are ready.”

“Thank you for understanding.” Pekah stood and stretched. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to the river to wash up.”

“I could use a wash myself,” Jonathan said.

Eli got up from his bedding and joined them. When they arrived at the water’s edge, they found the river slower and deeper than expected.

“We’ll probably have to cross soon before we end up swimming,” Eli observed.

“Pekah, what do you know of this river?” Jonathan asked.

“To my recollection, it does get wider downstream. I think Eli’s right-it may be best to cross now.”

Jonathan agreed, and the three men returned to their camp to gather everything. They kicked dirt over the fire and returned to the river bank, where they stripped down to their undergarments. Carrying their belongings high above their heads to keep everything as dry as possible, they made several trips. Once they had piled everything on the far bank, they took opportunity to bathe more thoroughly than on the previous day. They had no soap, but they did the best they could, hand-scrubbing and rinsing several times in the frigid water.

The day promised to be a hot one, and the morning air dried them quickly. They dressed, gathered their items, and hiked back up toward the road, taking careful steps to avoid making noise. Their route took them uphill.

When they reached level ground, Pekah pointed to signs in the disturbed dirt which told of a medium-sized wagon. Judging by hoof prints between the wheel marks, they could tell the wagon was pulled by two horses. On either side of the wagon tracks were the footprints of three men. Pekah and the others readied their weapons. Taking care to scan their surroundings in all directions, they advanced to a pile of manure and found it still slightly warm.

“Not more than an hour old,” Eli said as he knocked the pile over with his staff. “If we keep walking, we are going to have company.”

“Should we re-cross the river?” Pekah asked.

“I don’t think so,” Jonathan replied. “We are less than a day from Ain, and I would like to know who these travelers are.”

Pekah fidgeted. “And if they are Gideonite soldiers?”

A sparkle in his eye, Jonathan said with a sly grin, “We will take them as prisoners.”

Eli chuckled, grabbed Pekah by the arm, and pulled him down the road toward Ain. “We don’t want to be late!”

They kept an intense pace for a good hour and a half. Because they had missed their morning meal, they ate as they traveled, sharing some crusts of bread and dried fruit. Thirst drove them to the river for a brief drink, but they returned to the road, walking even faster than before.

Each bend in the road tightly hugged the long tree lines, which had become far more dense. Less common now, oaks were largely outnumbered by various types of pine. The thicker evergreens offered them very little forward visibility, so they traveled from outer edge to outer edge of each curve of the road, straining to see ahead of them.

As they rounded one particularly large bend, they were surprised to see that the horse-drawn wagon they had been following had been abandoned in the middle of the lane, loaded with food supplies and numerous casks marked as wine. No one was nearby. Ahead of the wagon they could see another bend in the road. Pekah and Jonathan drew their swords, and Eli held his staff defensively with both his large hands.

They crept forward, straining to pick up sounds around them. The two bridled horses were somewhat skittish, stomping nervously as the men approached. Eli hushed them with a gentle pat as he walked by.

As they rounded the bend in the road, they found the body of a Gideonite soldier lying in the dirt to one side. Pekah looked to his companions for their reactions, but they were intent on continuing. At the start of the next turn, they found another dead soldier dressed in green, wearing the Mark of the Raven. Blood near the body had not yet congealed. The smell of it offended Pekah’s nostrils, making his nose twitch. Jonathan motioned for them all to hasten.

Almost jogging, they made their way to where the road skirted a large pine. On the other side they found two dead Danielites, over which crouched a Gideonite, very much alive.

Startled by their sudden presence, the soldier jumped up, nocking an arrow into his bow. His sword lay on the ground at his feet, and he nudged it to the side with a gentle kick.

Holding his hands and sword up in alarm, Pekah yelled at the man, “Do not shoot!”

Both Pekah and Eli stepped ahead of Jonathan, but Jonathan moved next to them, completing the line.

“You there! Why do you travel with a Danielite?” the soldier hollered at Pekah.

Pekah glanced at Jonathan, then back at the soldier. “We are traveling to Ain,” he said, his tone curt. So as to not provoke the soldier, he instinctively lowered his weapon, Eli and Jonathan following suit.

With obvious irritation, the soldier pulled the bowstring back a few inches, pointing the arrow tip at Eli’s feet. He appeared to recognize the coarse weave of Eli’s white tunic, and the general features of Eli’s face, which all but shouted “Uzzahite.”

“It’s very uncommon for the three tribes to walk together,” the soldier snarled. He nodded at the fallen Danielites. “These two surprised us from the trees and killed my men. But they did not kill me, as you can see.”

The Gideonite spat on the ground. He kicked dust into it as if daring them to start the fight.

With almost fatherly sternness in his voice, Jonathan broke his silence. “Soldier, we have no quarrel with you. Lay down your weapons.”

The soldier changed his stance, targeting Jonathan’s feet. Eli took another step forward, raising his staff to his chest, and with insistence said, “You had better listen to the man. A peaceful surrender is far better than the alternative.”

The soldier ground his teeth like a horse chewing on its bridle, but did not stand down. He pulled the bowstring fully back, now pointing at Jonathan’s legs.

“If he decides to fire,” Eli whispered, “we will not reach him in time.”

The tension in the air was palpable. None of the four men moved.

Pekah decided to try negotiating with the Gideonite soldier. “I don’t know your name,” Pekah stated with an outstretched arm, “But I do know that you would probably like to know mine. If you drop your weapon, I will tell you who we are, and why we are traveling together.”

Very briefly, the situation seemed to improve. The soldier relaxed his pull and let the arrow-point fall farther toward his own feet. But then one of the fallen Danielites, whom Pekah had assumed to be dead, let out a groan of pain. The Gideonite started to aim for the wounded man.

His face full of anger, Jonathan advanced, his crystal sword sparkling in the daylight. Just as quick as a lightning flash, the Gideonite swung his aim back around and up at Jonathan’s chest. Pekah reacted out of pure instinct and jumped in front of Jonathan just as the arrow was let loose. It struck Pekah squarely in the breastplate, knocking him off his feet. Eli had already charged, and with all his strength, he connected his swinging staff with the side of the Gideonite’s head, producing a splitting sound like a melon falling off a farmer’s cart. The soldier dropped like a rock into a heap upon the ground.

Jonathan knelt at Pekah’s side and lifted his head from the ground. The arrow lay in the dirt beside him.

Pekah wheezed. “I can’t breathe,” he said, nearly choking on the words.

Jonathan yanked the breastplate straps loose, and Eli helped Pekah sit up. Jonathan pressed his finger against the small wound to stop the bleeding. “Pekah?”

Pekah gasped, still fighting for air. He groaned. “Ohhh… that hurt!”

“Not as much as it hurt him,” Eli added gravely as he pointed to the fallen Gideonite.

Once he could breathe without gasping, Pekah inspected his armor to find that the arrow had not completely pierced the hardened leather. Only the very tip of the arrow-point had made it through. The wind had been knocked out of him, but he was alive, and grateful for it.

“Can you stand?” Jonathan asked.

“Yes. Help me up, please.” He leaned on them for assistance. “Much better.”

Jonathan patted him on the shoulder, then motioned to the Danielite soldier. “He is still alive.” Jonathan led the way to the soldier’s side.

As they approached, Pekah knew the Danielite would not live. He had been cut through the belly, and the amount of blood loss indicated that his time was short.

“Can you hear me?” Jonathan asked as he knelt on one knee beside the man’s head.

The man groaned but did not answer right away. His head tilted toward the voice, and then upon opening his eyes, there came a moment of recognition as if he knew who Jonathan was.

“Do you know him?” Pekah asked Jonathan.

“No.”

The soldier tried to lift his head, but fell back to the ground. Eli retrieved a wineskin, and Pekah assisted in holding the man’s head up while Eli dripped some of the liquid into the man’s mouth.

“Thank you,” the soldier said with difficulty. He coughed, wincing at the pain. With wide eyes and the force of a driven purpose, he choked, “The emperor… is in Ain.”

The Danielite then lost all of his strength, groaning as his last breath left him.

Jonathan laid him to the ground with care, and arose from his kneeling position. Emotions welled in Jonathan’s eyes and dripped down onto his beard, and Pekah’s own eyes misted. Eli was no less somber.

The companions stood there together in respectful silence for almost a minute until Eli suggested they take a closer look at Pekah’s wound. It had stopped bleeding, but still needed attention. Eli pulled a small bandaging cloth from Pekah’s supplies, and Pekah tucked it into his shirt and pressed it to the wound, wincing at the pain. Eli grabbed up the breastplate and examined the small hole, pressing the indentation back out the best he could. Pekah strapped it back to hold the bandage in place.

“Did you see where the arrow hit your armor?” Jonathan asked.

Pekah peered down to see the arrow mark, precisely at the raven’s eye, and right over his heart. His knees suddenly felt weak as he realized that without the armor, he would be dead, just like the Danielite soldier.

“Are you sure you are well enough to travel?” Eli asked, concerned.

Distracted by what the dying Danielite had told them, Pekah only nodded.

Eli studied Pekah, but Pekah averted his eyes elsewhere.

“What’s bothering you?” Jonathan prodded.

Pekah sighed, but still did not answer.

“Did you know the emperor was going to be in Ain?” Eli asked.

“Yes.”

Jonathan stepped into Pekah’s line of sight. “When did you learn he was there?”

Pekah touched his leather breastplate, right at the tender spot on his chest, before looking up again at his companions. “In the dream I had last night, I didn’t know where I was, but Eli stood with me, and we talked to Emperor Manasseh. I don’t remember what we said.”

Jonathan grabbed his beard and twisted it in his fingers before tucking his hands under his belt.

Recognizing Jonathan’s pensive reaction, Pekah felt it best to tell what he was doing in his dream, and so with soberness he added, “I had the scepter with me. Eli told me to show it to the emperor.”

“I wasn’t with you?”

“No, but now that I think about it, I didn’t feel you were absent by accident-you were absent intentionally.”

Jonathan reached into his shirt. He handed the purple cloth and rod to Pekah, forcing them into his hands, clasping them both with his own. “Then you will take it. Show it to Emperor Manasseh,” he said in a kind, yet stern, tone.

Pekah gaped at the scepter in his trembling hands as Jonathan released him.

“Pekah, you saved my life today, and I will be forever grateful. I’m giving this to you in hopes that it may be used, perhaps as an instrument in your hands, to convince Manasseh to end his aggression toward our peoples.”

“Will you not need a leather bag to carry it in?” Eli winked in Pekah’s direction. Pekah shrugged his shoulders as he followed Eli’s gaze to a small leather sack around one of the dead Danielite’s shoulders. Eli stepped over to the man and recovered it, opening it where Pekah could also see the contents. The bag held a severely damaged wooden spyglass. The ocular was broken, and the cylinder cracked. Noting that the item was rendered useless, Eli discarded it, then shook all the remaining fragments from the bag, and handed the pouch to Pekah.

“Here. Is it just like you remember from your dream?” Eli asked.

Pekah examined the bag and tested it by placing the wrapped scepter within. He drew the strings together and hung it over his neck. “Perhaps,” he responded with uncertainty. He felt a little strange that everyone was playing along with the dream he had related.

Jonathan stepped closer and gripped Pekah’s shoulder. “When we get to the city, I will stay behind on the trail and find a place to conceal myself.” He cleared his throat and with a wry smile added, “That way, you won’t have to throw me into the river to be rid of me.”

Eli laughed heartily. Pekah couldn’t help but smile, glad to have found friends who were genuine and trusting. Even though he still felt immense apprehension about taking The Thorn to the emperor-a man known for his cruelty-he knew now his dream was real, undoubtedly a gift of prophecy from the Great King.

The men counseled together about the horses, the wagon, and the men lying dead on the road, and decided that Eli and Pekah would take the wagon and team into the city as a gift to the emperor so they could gain an audience with him. They walked back to the horses and calmed them with soft words, patting and rubbing their necks. Then they led the cart to where the dead soldiers lay.

Jonathan located a soft piece of ground in the woods where they could dig graves for the fallen men. Using a shovel they found on the wagon, they turned up the rich soil beneath two overhanging oaks. They took turns digging until Eli became frustrated. With characteristic teasing, he used his bear-like strength to finish the last two holes on his own. The bodies were retrieved and laid to rest in the fresh burial pits.

“I want to find their families,” Jonathan said as he cut a lock of hair from each of the two Danielite soldiers.

One man had a ring, to which Jonathan tied the corresponding lock of hair, and the other had a narrow lace ribbon attached to his quiver strap, surely placed there by a loved one. Jonathan removed it, wrapping the hair within it. He tied it off in a small, rolled package, then stuffed both objects into the pocket previously occupied by The Thorn.

After covering the bodies, Eli spoke a word of prayer, and the somber men returned to the road to fetch the cart. None of them spoke as they resumed their journey. Only the sounds of the horses’ hooves and the grinding of the wagon wheels filled the air. Like the low-hanging smoke from a doused fire on a cold morning, Pekah once again felt the heaviness of war in the air about him. Conflict, death, burial-Pekah suspected the pattern would repeat many times in coming days.

Although expecting to find additional soldiers at some point along the road, their travel during the last of the morning and the rest of the day remained uneventful. They did not stop to eat their mid-day meal, but ate most of their own supplies as they traveled. During a momentary rest, they also raided a few of the supplies they hauled in the wagon. They found dried meats, a cheese softened on account of the heat, and a skin filled with water. Markings on the casks in the wagon indicated that they held wine, beans, spices, fruit, and olives. A few of the casks were marked for the emperor, which assured the three companions that the Danielite had been correct about Manasseh’s presence at Ain.

They traveled the rest of the day with nervous anticipation, discussing how they might best enter the city and what they might say to the emperor, disagreeing about how Manasseh would react to seeing the scepter. Although it would be difficult to convince him to end the war, they placed their faith in one distinct hope: Pekah’s dream was meant to tell them what they should do. Trusting that effective and convincing words would be given by the Spirit in the proper moment, they stoked the embers of faith within their hearts, confident they could provide, or produce, the environment and situation in which the Great Creator would work out His purposes.

And so they marched on, well into the early evening, when they came to a place in the road which led sharply downhill. It descended by way of a few switchbacks and continued a mile more into the outskirts of the walled city they now saw in the distance. The thinning tree line still provided enough cover to make them unnoticeable to anyone near the city who might happen to gaze their way.

From their new vantage point, they could see they were in the high hills east of Ain, bordered on both the north and the south by small mountains. Far to the west of Ain where the sister moons would later rise, an immense mountain range with high, snow-capped peaks and rugged valleys formed a jagged horizon. This range ran in a southeasterly direction, behind the small mountains on their left, toward the lands inhabited by the Gideonites. Between those distant mountains and the high hills on which they now stood was a beautiful valley, filled with numerous orchards and farmland, all of which lined the road to the city of Ain.

The three of them searched the immediate area for a place of refuge and saw that the tree line north of the road led to some rocky outcroppings, which promised a remote, and yet high, observation point.

“I’ll go up there to wait for your return,” Jonathan said.

Pekah handed Jonathan the remainder of the dried meat and cheese from the wagon. “Take the rest of this with you.”

They both helped Jonathan to load his shoulder sack.

“Take care, brother,” Eli said, hugging Jonathan tight.

“I will.” Jonathan let go of Eli and extended a hand to Pekah. “If I have learned nothing else in the last few days, your presence here has been quite providential. I’m convinced you will succeed. You must.”

“We’ll be back soon,” Pekah promised, not knowing what else to say.

“Eli…” Jonathan said with some emotion. “Please find Rachel and the other prisoners. Perhaps the emperor will be willing to trade the scepter for their release.”

“I hope so. But I wish there was another way. What if we never see The Thorn again?”

“The promises are sure, my brother. Somehow, it will find its way back into our hands. Certainly the lives of our people are worth more than the glass rod, are they not?”

Eli let out a slow breath. “Yes. You’re right. I certainly didn’t mean that Rachel’s life doesn’t matter. May the Holy One forgive us for putting it into Manasseh’s hands.”

“The One Who Would Suffer will someday claim the scepter as promised,” Jonathan said.

“I know He will,” Eli agreed.

Jonathan put both hands on the back of his neck, then let them fall as he turned his head. He suddenly had a strange look in his eyes.

“What is it?” Pekah prompted.

Jonathan nodded as he spoke. “I just realized. It may be a good thing to keep them apart for a while.”

“Them?”

“I didn’t tell you before, but there is a tradition passed down in my family-a prophecy. The Thorn will be claimed by the Holy One when He comes, a symbol of His authority as King. But it will not be the only item claimed. My sword, the sword of Daniel, will become His sword. It just occurred to me it may be a good idea to keep the two items apart for a while, even if we have to trade the scepter for prisoners. Does that make sense?”

Pekah scratched his head. “Yes. I think it does. If the scepter is not with you, the sword will most likely be overlooked.”

“Precisely.” Jonathan leaned away, then turned back to Pekah, his gaze earnest. “I need to tell you… besides Eli’s family, a few select friends of my father’s, and myself, nobody else on Gan knows that the sword I carry shares the same promise as The Thorn. And you are the first Gideonite to possess that information. Guard it well.”

“It shall never leave my lips.”

“Then may The One Who Would Suffer protect you with His power.”

Pekah swallowed. “Thank you.”

The three of them again exchanged embraces. With a wave, Jonathan left the road and climbed toward the rocky heights. Pekah and Eli watched him leave. Once he disappeared behind an outcropping, they each took a halter and led the horses with their trailing wagon down the gentle, winding switchbacks of the road to Ain.

Chapter 12

Ain

P ekah nearly became dizzy as they wound their way back and forth down the switchbacks, but they soon found themselves approaching the farmland where small stone and wood homes were interspersed among groomed gardens, orchards, and grain fields. An abnormal stillness had settled over the area. He guessed his fellow Gideonites had rounded up all the inhabitants of the outskirts of Ain and taken them into the city itself, or elsewhere entirely, as there was very little sign of life apart from the occasional penned goat, cow, or chicken.

As they continued to lead their horses down the dirt road between the fields, it became apparent that several days had passed since the animals had been tended. Some of them showed signs of illness. Other farms devoid of livestock suggested raids by the invading army to feed both troops and prisoners. Most of the homes seemed to be undamaged, but as they advanced, they noticed several homesteads had been reduced to piles of charred rubble. The smoky smell of ash stung their noses.

Most disturbing were the fresh mounds of dirt, some as long as a man, others as small as a child. Pekah guessed that the army forced survivors to bury their dead before marching them away in bonds. Imagining the event caused a lump to rise in his throat. The dreary scene gnawed at his soul, reminding him of similar feelings experienced two nights previous-feelings of regret, of sorrow, of pain. He shook his head in an attempt to dislodge the memory.

Eli waved a hand in front of his face. “Pekah?”

“Oh. Sorry, I was just thinking.”

“That’s fine. I was, too. In fact, I was thinking about Jonathan. You know, Pekah, Jonathan doesn’t normally share his feelings.”

Pekah glanced over at Eli, glad for the diversion from the dark, wispy images of Hasor.

“He’s a private man, and has few friends. I’ve marveled as I have watched him be so open with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he usually stays to himself. You may have noticed, he’s deliberate in his conversation. He feels things very deeply. Because of that, he has difficulty sharing with people, and therefore, doesn’t take the time to create friendships. Does that make sense?”

“I suppose so.”

Both men were silent for a few minutes. The rhythmic crunch of the road under the horses’ hooves thumped like the music of a hand drum. It lulled the men into a slow, synchronized march. Pekah considered Eli’s comments, but his description of Jonathan didn’t seem to fit.

“I didn’t notice. He seems friendly enough to me.”

“You’re right. Apart from the obvious sorrow he feels over his father, Jonathan has been talkative, but he hasn’t always been that way. Several years ago, his mother passed away in a tragic accident. Since then, he has stayed pretty much within the circles of family and close friends. In fact, I cannot recall the last time he engaged in any significant conversation with a person he has not known for years.”

“What happened to his mother? Or is that too private to ask?”

“No, it’s not private.” Eli paused. “One year at the end of harvest time, Jonathan’s father was laid up for a few days with an injured ankle. Jonathan and his mother were plowing a field in preparation for winter. They stopped at the end of a furrow to rest the horse. That particular animal had always been a bit skittish, so Jonathan held the reins, and his mother held the halter. Something spooked the horse, and it reared. Jonathan lost his footing in the soft furrow, and dropped one rein as he went down. This caused the horse to pull toward his mother. She fell under the animal and never woke up.”

Troubled, Pekah put a fist over his mouth, his head bowing toward the ground. He looked back up at Eli. “I’m very sorry to hear it. Jonathan must feel terrible.”

“Jonathan blames himself, or at least he used to. Do you understand why I am surprised at his behavior?”

“I think so.” Pekah recalled the manner in which Jonathan had forgiven him near the stream-sincere, gentle, and reassuring. Not a hint of desired retribution. Pekah wondered if Jonathan’s struggle to forgive himself had taught him compassion for others. “Thank you for telling me, Eli. I appreciate being able to get to know him a little better.”

“You’re welcome. I doubt he would have told you that on his own, but I thought it was important to share. He’s a good man, and I think he could use another trusted friend.”

Pekah thought of his own family. A father he never knew. A mother he missed. No siblings. He sighed. “I could use a good friend, too.”

Eli smiled.

In the distance they could now make out the eastern gate of the city, including the banners of Gideon snapping in the evening breeze. Soldiers milled about near the wall, keeping watch. Pekah and Eli took the opportunity to exchange well-wishes. Pekah steeled himself against the possibility of being taken prisoner or failing in his mission. Their march toward the city wall remained deliberate and sure.

“I’ve been thinking,” Pekah said. “When we get to the city, the Gideonites may not like the fact that we’re traveling together, and you’re not in bonds.”

Eli put out his hands, ready to be taken prisoner.

Pekah chuckled. “We’re not doing that again! I just wondered if you have any idea what to say to the guards.”

“Say as little as possible, I suppose. We should demand audience with Manasseh. Anything else might get us into a whole lot of trouble. What do you think?”

Pekah thought for a minute. “I agree.” Although he was still nervous, this straight-forward plan strengthened his resolve. They walked the rest of the way in silence.

“What is your business here?” came a bellow from the gate-tower once they were within earshot of the city entrance.

Pekah did not answer, but raised his arm in greeting, and Eli bowed his head low. A few of the soldiers outside the gate readied themselves to meet them, drawing weapons. Pekah waved again as they approached, making sure his raven-emblazoned breastplate was plainly visible. One of the Gideonites waved back in acknowledgment, but then dropped his arm quickly.

As they drew up to the rise in the road which led to the wall, several of the soldiers, with weapons in hand, came to inspect the wagon and the two men. The largest soldier among them, who seemed to be in charge although he did not wear any distinguishing uniform, stomped up to Pekah and threw a sour expression of displeasure in Eli’s direction.

“What is your name, soldier, and why are you with this man of Uzzah?” he spat out, a drop of spittle landing on his chin.

“I am Pekah, and this is Eli. We have traveled far with a gift of supplies for the emperor and news of the war in the north.” Pekah paused, and then added, “We also bring important news from Captain Sachar and must see the emperor at once!”

The large Gideonite scratched his left forearm with the pommel of his short sword, hesitated a few seconds, but then waved them onward. “Open the gate!” he hollered, loud enough to startle the horses.

The gates complained as they swung inward, revealing a cobbled pavement leading into the city. Pekah was motioned to enter, and he shot a nervous glance at Eli as they both tugged on the horse halters to pull their load forward. The Gideonite leader assigned four men to escort the wagon. Several of the soldiers guarding the gates whispered to each other as the group of men crossed under the archway.

Once they had passed the posts, the doors were again secured behind them, and the four escorts led the way into the city. They passed tents in the entry court and then followed a well-worn cobbled passage flanked by stone and brick buildings, many of them outfitted with canvas awnings hanging over the two-lane street. The shops and businesses they passed were unattended, many showing evidence of looting. Several of the doors were torn from their hinges, and a few of the buildings were being used as makeshift barracks by armed Gideonite men. The sounds of the horses’ hooves echoing between the buildings grabbed their attention, but Pekah did not acknowledge the onlookers. Eli was as silent as a rock.

The short street emptied into a small round courtyard, punctuated by a beautifully carved stone fountain that depicted an overflowing flower basket, with four spouts arcing into a pool of clear water. A spillway from the pool filled a shallow, covered aqueduct, which ran down the side of the fountain to become part of the road before disappearing somewhere behind the walls of a neighboring building. The escorting soldiers allowed a few moments for Pekah and Eli to drink, and then hurried them on again, out of the court and into the confines of another narrow street.

This street was much like the first except for the fact that the buildings here were all two-story. It also emptied into another round courtyard, graced by yet another fountain. Not as elaborate as the last, the sight of the fountain did not hold Pekah’s attention. Worried about what he might say to the emperor, his beating heart thumped in his chest, distracting him from appreciating the picturesque balconies, exquisite iron railings, and vibrant flower pots above him. He trudged onward.

When they broke free of the road and entered into the central plaza of Ain, Pekah could see the sharp edges of the eastern mountains in the distance, slicing Aqua and Azure as they drooped ever lower. Soon the colors of dusk would burn lines across the sky. Pekah was bothered by the lateness of the day. He hoped they would still be able to deliver their message and avoid staying the night in Ain.

Noticing that shadows from the buildings obscured some details of the stone walls surrounding the immense court, he traced their edges to the well-lit center of the city plaza. There sat another wide and impressive sculptured fountain. The awesome sight of it nearly took his breath away.

A huge granite bowl rested more than two stories high upon three separate pedestal columns, whose footings dipped into a perfectly round, raised pool. Flanking all sides of the splashing pool were statues of lions. They stared outward as if guarding the precious water, and their polished manes glistened in the mist produced by the fountain’s clear curtains. Underground aqueducts on opposing sides of the lower pool took the spring water to various parts of the city, and the stone cobbles above them betrayed their presence with a gentle rise. Near the northern edge of the plaza, next to the spot where one of the aqueducts disappeared behind a brick and mortar wall, Pekah could see remnants of the original landscape. There was still a five-foot rock outcropping that the builders of the city had chosen to pave and build around, rather than remove.

Near the rock stood a most peculiar wooden structure surrounded by several canvas tents. About nine feet tall, fifty feet long, and forty feet wide, the building was made of stained wood panels fastened together by slotted beams. These beams were stained green, connected at the top to cross-members that in turn were fitted with other wood panels, forming a pitched roof. The structure was locked together at various joints by polished brass pegs, and their accent against the richly stained panels attested not only to the fact that this structure was portable, but that it belonged to someone of wealth.

As they continued to walk, Pekah spied a flag fluttering in the late evening breeze near one end of the building, and he gulped. It was the banner of Manasseh. Sewn onto the flapping cloth was a more detailed version of Aqua and Azure, an image pressed into all Gideonite solars. With the intended goal of their mission now imminent, he suddenly had the urge to flee. He looked at Eli, whose jaw was set, his eyes wary.

Pekah wanted to express his anxiety to Eli, even if he had to whisper, but the escorting soldiers stopped and held them back with an upturned hand. One of them walked toward the tents.

While they waited, Pekah observed the other soldiers who milled about the plaza, and saw some of them leaving in groups toward the west side of the city. Because of the constant activity on that road, he suspected prisoners were being held in that area.

The soldier returned from the tent almost as quickly as he had left, and said, “I have spoken to the general, but he forbids you to see the emperor today. He has arranged for a tent to be prepared. The emperor will see you in the morning, in his stateroom.”

Orders were given, and the other Gideonite escorts left with the wagon and horses.

“Follow me,” the soldier then commanded in a tone that conveyed his impatience.

They marched briskly toward the group of tents, passed several, and arrived at a small one next to a wall. The tent was in the process of being vacated by two unhappy captains, gathering their things in haste. Once the captains finished and left, the Gideonite guide curtly dismissed Pekah and Eli for the evening.

“A meal will arrive shortly. A watch will be posted. Do not leave your quarters.”

Pekah pushed through the entrance folds, and Eli ducked to enter. Once inside, they saw their assigned barracks had been supplied with canvas folding cots, both with bedrolls and pillows, and a glow-stone lantern sitting on a tiny portable table.

Even though they would not be able to deliver their message until morning, Pekah felt an immense burden lifted from him just to be away from the other soldiers. Greatly relieved they had not been imprisoned, he breathed easier. Eager to sit down, both men unbuckled the swords about their waists.

“We weren’t deprived of our weapons-do you have any idea why?” Eli asked.

“I believe it’s because I was in uniform,” Pekah said. “It would be improper for them to remove my weapons without some order to do so.”

Eli shrugged and scratched his scruffy red beard, shaking some of the travel dust of the day from it.

Pekah grinned, then teased, “Apparently, they let you keep yours because you didn’t scare them, either.”

Eli chuckled. Both men removed quivers, bows, boot knives, swords, and daggers, placing all the weapons at the ends of their separate beds. Eli laid his staff next to his cot. Both men shook the pillows and situated their bedding. About this time, the same Gideonite soldier entered the tent with a tray containing two bowls of hot stew and some bread crusts. He set it down on the table and took a wineskin from his shoulder. Without a word, he exited the tent and pulled the flaps closed. Pekah could see by the dim shadows cast on the tent wall that two guards were posted near the entrance.

“A very social fellow,” Eli observed in a mocking tone.

Using the cots for benches, they sat down to the first hot meal they’d had in many days. Eli offered a simple prayer of thanks, after which they picked up the bowls. They had been given no eating utensils, so they used the crusts of bread to sop up the gravy juices, and then tilted the bowls to eat the meat and vegetables left behind. Once they finished, they took turns drinking from the skin, after wiping the crumbs from their faces with their sleeves. Eli belched loudly and apologized, but Pekah didn’t mind.

“I wonder if Jonathan will get any sleep tonight. Cots are certainly better than rocks,” Eli said, pointing down at his bed.

“As long as a Gideonite patrol doesn’t find him, he’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

“Well, I don’t plan on being bothered by your Gideonite friends tonight. I have no intention of leaving the tent.”

“Nor I. My bones are weary. Sleep is all I want right now.”

“I agree!”

They pushed their cots back to the walls of the tent and moved the table near the door. Eli wasted no time in making himself comfortable for the night. Although the energy of the glow-stone lantern was already fading, Pekah tossed a cloth he found on the tent floor over the top of it, then climbed into his bed.

Exhausted from worry and a long day of walking, he fell asleep almost immediately.

Chapter 13

Manasseh

J ust after sunrise, Pekah’s sleep was interrupted by the clanging of a bell somewhere in the distance. He sat up to yawn and stretch, even though he didn’t feel like moving. The stone beneath his feet sent an ice-cold shiver up his legs. Wasting no time, he pulled on his stockings, then yanked on his boots. He stomped each of his heels in turn until both feet were comfortable. Still having little motivation to stand, he remained on the cot and watched his friend.

A scowl on his face, Eli grunted several times as he pulled his boots close to his own bed and then fought to put them on. Normally, Pekah would have wanted to laugh, but he only let out a heavy breath, remembering what would soon take place. Having never met the emperor before, Pekah wondered what Manasseh’s temperament would be. He could only hope it would be good.

Light streamed into the tent when the Gideonite escort from the night before stepped inside, bearing a morning meal of eggs, sausages, rolls, and fresh milk. Without a word, the soldier left them with the bounty.

It was obvious to Pekah where the army had gotten their supplies. He felt certain the Danielite prisoners did not have any say in the matter when it came to the spoils of their defeat. The Gideonite army ate well, thanks to their captives.

Knowing Eli would want a blessing said over their meal, Pekah volunteered to offer it. Eli appeared to be somewhat surprised, but encouraged him to do so. It had been a long time since Pekah had prayed out loud. He thought for a moment about praying at his mother’s knee. Those prayers had only been the heartfelt pleas of a child, but they had been sincere. Afraid to attempt more than a simple expression, he gave thanks for their meal and asked merely for help in their conversation with Manasseh that day.

The two of them relished the hot meal. After they were done, they took a brief moment to tidy their tent and retrieve all their belongings. Now with nothing left to do, anxiety once again scratched at the door of Pekah’s mind. He fought off the feeling by pacing in the tent.

“Do you think we should venture out the door?” Eli asked.

“I suppose so, but are the guards still posted?”

“There’s one way to find out!”

Eli lunged forward and ducked through the tent flaps. Unwilling to be left alone, Pekah hastened out behind him, and when he stepped into the morning light of the suns, he was instantly met by armed guards.

“You may wait here, but you cannot leave the area,” one of them said.

Pekah acknowledged him, and backed up to lean against the stone wall of a building that bordered the plaza. Right above him was a shuttered window and a railing being used to hang wet clothing. He moved to the side to avoid the dripping, and Eli joined him. This gave them both a view past the Gideonite tents and into the plaza, where the fountain they had admired the previous evening still swelled and splashed. Many more Gideonite soldiers were present, and some of them escorted prisoners to and from various locations in the city. Pekah didn’t know why they were moving prisoners about, but he suspected they were being used to provide the army with manual labor.

After watching one particular group disappear down a narrow street, Pekah’s gaze fell on a pile of weapons far against the opposite side of the plaza, heavily guarded. Those must be weapons confiscated from the defending Danielites, he guessed. Images of the battle at Hasor once again started to creep into his thoughts. He fought them off and stared at the fountain.

Their escort returned with a uniformed man who stood as tall as Eli. He wore markings of rank, indicating he was a general. Pekah gave a respectful salute, and the general gave a single nod. The escort then dismissed himself.

“I have been with the emperor this morning, and I told him of your arrival. He awaits your news,” the general stated in a most official manner. The confidence and stature of the Gideonite leader made Pekah uncomfortable.

The general motioned them to follow, departing toward the wood-paneled building. As they arrived at the north entrance of the portable stateroom, the guards that had accompanied them took positions by the door, and the general opened it. He demanded that they remove all weapons, which were put in the care of the guards outside. The general then led the way. Pekah and Eli exchanged anxious glances, but followed him inside. Pekah’s heart pounded. The general secured the door, then led them around a hanging tapestry and into a well-lit chamber.

In the closest corner of the room stood a desk for writing, supplied with various types of papers and parchments, and an inkwell. Several wooden chairs, each paired with a small table, lined the two opposite walls of the chamber. A branched candlestick rested upon every table. Pekah was surprised to see large, wax candles atop each branch, instead of glow-stones. The scent of the candles reminded him of pine sap.

The main furnishing of the room was a high-back throne with engraved posts, large armrests, and solid sides. The gilded headboard sported a border of gold leaf and bore the symbol of the Tribe of Gideon at its center. The raven was exquisite, with etching so detailed that the multi-colored stained woods that made up its feathers appeared real enough to fly away. The raven’s eye had been inlaid with a single ruby, and its shiny beak was of beaten gold. It did not take any serious thought for Pekah to determine who would sit there.

The general pulled two of the chairs from the wall and set them at a distance, facing the portable throne. “Sit here until I return,” the general directed. He then stepped behind the throne, around another hanging tapestry, and through an unseen door that Pekah heard click when the general closed it.

Pekah stared at the curious tapestry that depicted a raven with a serpent in its beak and coiled under its claws. Gideon typically depicted the raven with a sprig of berries in its beak-it bothered him to see the serpent there. He frowned at the blatant political statement. Looking away, he saw that Eli, too, had noticed.

“No offense, Pekah,” Eli whispered, “but perhaps the emperor could become acquainted with an alternate tapestry scene.”

Pekah was curious. “Like what?”

“Like a raven being crushed under the hoof of an ox,” Eli whispered with a smirk.

Pekah bit his lip to restrain a laugh. He knew Eli meant no harm.

They did not wait long. Two soldiers entered the chamber from behind the throne. One was the tall general from before, and the other man a stout, uncharacteristically short Gideonite-quite heavy, with a bulging belly and almost stubby arms. He wore the insignia of a captain.

Both of them advanced and took seats next to each other against a wall. With sounds of a door closing behind the tapestry, the two soldiers rose to their feet, and motioned Pekah and Eli to do the same.

Pekah felt the blood rush to his face as Manasseh rounded the curtain to stand before the throne. The emperor did not motion them to sit, but rather left them all standing while he tipped a goblet to drain it.

Just as in Pekah’s dream, Manasseh was dressed in green silk vestments hanging loosely on his shoulders, his neck overburdened by a significant amount of varied jewelry and precious chains. Taller than Pekah, Manasseh was still not quite as tall as the general. The silver robe he wore around his neck was kept in place with a heavy, silver chain, and fabric trailed behind him on the floor. Before the emperor took his seat, he set the goblet down on a pedestal, then unclasped the robe and laid it across an armrest of the throne.

Pekah could see that Manasseh closely resembled the image on Gideonite solars, complete with long nose and cleft chin. He wondered why the emperor appeared to be so perturbed.

Manasseh wagged his finger at the general, motioning for him to address the two travelers. The general stood tall and spoke directly to Pekah.

“We understand you have news from Captain Sachar and the battle at Hasor. Tell us your name, and how it is that you are now here, traveling with this man of Uzzah. You are permitted to speak.”

In a blatant show of intimidation, the chubby soldier opposite the general drew his sword and placed the tip on the wood floor so he could rest his hands upon the pommel as he stood.

Pekah felt an adrenaline rush that sickened him. He coughed once, then cleared his throat.

“My name is Pekah,” he began, his voice quivering. “I traveled in the captain’s company on the march to Hasor four days ago. We arrived in the afternoon, the sound of our approach muffled by the rain, and then stood without the walls.”

Manasseh sat forward in his seat. Pekah wondered at the emperor’s sudden interest.

“The order was given to attack the village. We struck swiftly, and many surrendered. Captain Sachar led our troop into the Danielite Council Hall, where we found the chief judge.”

Pekah paused, not sure how to proceed in his telling. The captain had disobeyed orders, and Pekah was uncertain how Manasseh would react to the news of it. The large soldier in the chamber impatiently tapped his sword tip on the floor.

“The judge told us his son had left some days before and had taken the scepter with him. Sachar was upset by this, and killed the judge.”

The general grumbled and muttered something under his breath, and Manasseh frowned angrily.

“We searched the hall in its entirety, but did not find the scepter. The captain then took us into the palace, but we did not have any luck there, either. That night we camped in Hasor and intended to march north to find General Rezon’s army on the following day. Captain Sachar said the general had bypassed Hasor and would be waiting for us near Ramathaim.”

Pekah glanced sideways at Eli. The surprise on Eli’s face reminded Pekah that he had not told either Eli or Jonathan about Rezon’s march north. He wondered if Eli knew anything about the Gideonite general’s character. Well aware of Rezon’s pride and arrogance, he was certain General Rezon would not leave Ramathaim without conquering the city.

“Soldier, finish your tale,” demanded the general.

Pekah straightened. “Our plans to join Rezon did not materialize. The following morning while breaking camp, we were approached by a small band of Uzzahite warriors, one of which is here. His name is Eli. Captain Sachar told the troop that our orders had changed. We marched toward Ain by way of the forest trails.”

Recognition lit the well-fed captain’s face. He spoke loudly, making the walls of the portable throne room quiver. “My king,” he said, pointing to Eli, “This man’s accompanying warriors are imprisoned in this city. I saw them arrive just last evening with a contingent from Hasor, which had traveled without rest for two days and nights. They traveled by way of Saron and the Geber Pass. When they arrived, I learned that the small band of Uzzahites with them had been deprived of their leader by Captain Sachar.”

“But why did Captain Sachar separate from the rest of the army?” the general asked, his tone harsh.

“I do not know, sir,” Pekah answered.

“Where is the captain?”

Suddenly feeling defensive, Pekah felt beads of sweat form on his forehead. He studied the silent emperor, whose face puckered with anger. Manasseh waved his hand for Pekah to continue.

“Eli was taken as a prisoner by my band, under Captain Sachar’s direction. We marched south on the same forest trail used to approach Hasor, with the intention of turning west to bring him here. But as we marched, we were attacked.”

“Who attacked you?” asked the general.

“We did not know who he was, but he was a Danielite. He demanded we release our prisoner, but Captain Sachar did not see the need to surrender, as the Danielite man was alone. The captain gave the command to attack him, but the battle did not go as planned.”

“What do you mean, ‘not as planned’?” the short Gideonite leader interjected.

“The lone Danielite killed every one of our troop, including Captain Sachar, single-handedly. He only spared my life because I surrendered.”

Now irritated, the general took a step closer to Pekah. He put his fists on his hips and demanded to know where the Danielite was.

“He’s not here,” Pekah said, a milder tone in his voice. “But we did travel with him for two days. During that time, we discussed many things, and I considered both what had happened at Hasor and what I would report when I got here.”

Pekah paused, staring down at the ground to gather his thoughts. “My emperor-I wish to tell you of a dream I had, but before I do, I must tell you more about this Danielite. His name is Jonathan. He is the son of the chief judge and heir to the throne of Daniel.”

The emperor did not speak, but a wry smile formed on his face. His baleful expression unnerved Pekah. Shifting on his feet, Pekah avoided Manasseh’s piercing gaze. Help me, he prayed. Gathering his strength, the young Gideonite soldier rose a bit taller, confident.

“Oh, Emperor, he taught me much in these two days. I have come to realize that perhaps I have been wrong about many things… things I remember being taught from the beginnings of childhood, and reinforced when I entered the service of my king. During the last two days, I have learned that this Danielite is a good man-a man of integrity and honor. His only desire is for this war to end, and for there to be peace in the lands once again. He wishes to purchase your favor, my king, and this is why we have come with supplies and news of the war.”

Pekah ignored the scowl on Manasseh’s face and took a breath. “The night before last, I had a dream about standing in this very room. I saw you here, my emperor, with these two men. I told Samuel’s son, Jonathan, about this dream, and he told me to come here today. I have brought you a gift from the Danielite himself. He waits outside the city walls, and he has asked that I buy the release of the prisoners in the city. He asks that you sit with him to negotiate a lasting peace.”

The general stepped back to where he first stood and seemed to be somewhat appeased, perhaps even impressed, by Pekah’s bold response. But the other man had a strange look on his face, almost as if he were in a trance.

Manasseh, on the other hand, did not appear to be amused. He pulled a dagger from somewhere in his garments, pointed it at Pekah for emphasis, and said, with hints of vitriol in his voice, “What did you bring me?”

Eli nudged Pekah and encouraged him to show the scepter. He then whispered into Pekah’s ear, “Holiness, Honor, Humility.”

The dream. This is my dream.

Pekah could feel himself turn as white as snow. His knees weakened, and he dizzied as if he would faint. He gaped at Eli, whose facial expression was concerned, yet supportive.

Pekah shifted on his feet, and with trembling hands, reached for the leather bag around his shoulder. He pulled open the drawstring and retrieved the purple cloth. Slowly unrolling it, he exposed the beautiful glass rod to the light of the many candles in the room. The scepter glistened.

The emperor stood in surprise, recognizing what Pekah held in his hands. He took a step forward, but stopped as Pekah spoke.

“Emperor Manasseh, will you trade the prisoners of Daniel and Uzzah for the scepter?”

Manasseh shook his head immediately. “I will not give you the prisoners. This trinket will not buy their freedom or end this war.”

Pekah’s countenance fell, and Eli stiffened.

“This war will continue,” the emperor almost shouted, “until all of Daniel is destroyed and Uzzah is made to serve Gideon forever.”

Manasseh stood in pure malevolence, his face hard, his eyes cold.

Both Eli and Pekah recoiled from the evil threat. Eli glanced about, as if looking for an escape.

Pekah shocked himself with a forceful and defiant response. “Then you cannot have it!” he cried. “Jonathan, Samuel’s son, sent me to trade this for prisoners. If you do not release them, you cannot have The Thorn!”

For some reason, the general and the captain did not move or speak. They stood as if they had been shackled to the floor and rendered mute.

Anger and hatred seethed from Manasseh’s face. He was a volcano, ready to spew hot, searing lava into the air. His presence seemed to grow in the room, and the darkness he carried made Pekah flinch. At the moment Manasseh appeared ready to burst, with great intensity he commanded his men, “Kill them! Kill them, and bring me the scepter!”

The Gideonite leaders still did not move. They stared at each other, and then, almost as if they were offended by the emperor’s request, they regarded him without any expression whatsoever.

This made Manasseh rage. He shrieked as if stung by a wasp and ran forward with dagger flashing. Unable to react, Pekah stood motionless, his arm still outstretched, the scepter between himself and the furious man. Time seemed to slow, and the steps taken by Manasseh were easily counted.

Eli started to move as if to protect his unarmed friend, but there came a terrible noise like a great, rushing gust of wind. It was as if an unseen tornado had entered the room-unfelt, yet undeniably heard in its roaring intensity. Eli froze. The wind, or unseen power, penetrated Pekah’s body and caused his heart to burn with fervent heat.

Coinciding with that instant, a light, as bright as the lights of Azure and Aqua at mid-day, cut through the paneled roof above them and flooded the chamber with energy and brilliance. It touched Pekah, then sprang forward, coming to rest in the glass rod of The Thorn. Heavenly fire-which did not burn-burst from the scepter at every angle and shamed the candle lights into oblivion.

Manasseh stopped short, his eyes wide and fearful. The light from the scepter blinded him. Then, as if with the force of a battering ram, a direct beam shot from The Thorn, knocking the emperor back into his throne. The rushing wind became tangibly real. It tore the roof and all four walls of the portable stateroom into small beams, sticks, and splinters, scattering the pieces into the air like winnowed chaff. Only the paneled floor, chairs, and candelabrum remained intact.

The walls now gone, Pekah watched in amazement as soldiers from all around the destroyed building scattered like frightened sheep, running for their lives. Chunks of riven wood, brass pegs, cloth, and broken beams rained from the sky. The explosive sound reverberated in the plaza and shook the ground.

With arms up to protect their faces, the general and the captain fell to the floor of the stateroom. Eli’s red hair was in disarray, and Pekah’s dark hair was blown backwards, but both men remained standing, entirely unharmed.

Manasseh slumped dead in his throne, the dagger he still clutched in his hand resting upon his lap.

Light still flickered in The Thorn.

Chapter 14

Rachel

R ising from his knees, Jonathan moved to sit upon a round-topped boulder and stare out into the valley, a prayer still in his heart. The crisp morning air nipped at him, so he held his arms close to his chest, warding off another shiver. Just above the western peaks which bordered the city far below him, Aqua and Azure burned bright in the sky. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, exposing his neck to their warmth.

Please protect Rachel, he prayed. Strengthen my friends.

Jonathan sighed. Waiting, especially with nothing to do but brood, grated at his patience. He opened his eyes and played with a pebble. Nearby, a squirrel chattered, darting from rock to rock, but keeping its distance. When it reached a bush not far from where he sat, it pawed through a pile of sticks, popped something into its mouth, and then raced toward a tree. Jonathan snorted.

“Your life is easy, my little friend.”

He tossed the pebble into the bush where the squirrel had been, and reached for his sack. Finding the last chunk of dried meat, he bit off a corner and held up the rest, hoping the squirrel would see.

“Thank you for showing me your stash of nuts, but I brought my own food.”

The salt tasted good to him, so he chewed slowly, savoring it. Well-lit by suns-light, Ain shone like a jewel, its stone walls and buildings almost white amidst a sea of orchards and field-covered hills. Too far away to make out details without his looking-glass, he thought about retrieving it from his pile of belongings, but didn’t feel like moving.

Like a deep rumble from a landslide, the ground shook beneath him. Startled, he leaped to his feet and surveyed his surroundings, but found nothing amiss. As the sound intensified, he realized it was coming from the direction of the city. He shielded his eyes from the suns and stared out into the valley. At that moment, a fierce blast of light flashed over the center of Ain. Before Jonathan could even gasp, the brilliant display ended. And then it was quiet.

How long he stood there, his jaw slack and eyes wide, he did not know. Still, the city was silent. Eventually he tired of standing. Finding his seat upon the boulder once again, he watched.

***

The general rose cautiously, keeping his eyes fixed on Pekah.

Pekah recovered from his shock. He hastened to wrap the scepter, placing it back into the leather bag about his neck.

“Are you all right?” Eli said as he grabbed Pekah’s arm.

“Yes, I think so. Are you?”

Eli nodded.

Pekah rubbed his eyes and ran his hands through his tousled black hair. He blinked several times, then focused on the general, who was helping the captain up from where he had fallen. Fearing they were still in danger, Pekah retreated a few steps, and Eli joined him.

The Gideonite soldiers did not approach them, but stood surveying their new surroundings, undoubtedly shocked to see the walls and roof of the portable stateroom now missing. Like a cosmic crater, the wooden floor of the platform had become a central depression amidst large mounds of rubble, randomly arranged in an almost circular fashion. Just outside the rim of broken beams, cloth, and metal, several of the tents closest to the scene had been toppled by falling debris.

Near the ruined tents, a few soldiers milled about, some of them armed, and others not. The soldiers gazed in earnest at the general, waiting for a command to act. Behind those who had gathered, the plaza fount still splashed, although the water basin and the pool below the pedestals had several items floating in them.

The general walked cautiously over to the throne. He checked the emperor for signs of life. He sighed and then turned to Pekah and Eli. “He’s dead,” he declared, his voice uneven.

They glanced at each other without a word.

The general shook his head, but then curiously scrunching his face, asked, “Did you say you had a dream… about this?”

Certain that Eli wouldn’t want him to say anything that would further jeopardize their situation, Pekah didn’t answer, even though the general’s countenance had softened. The sound of metal on metal caught his attention, and he looked up to witness the stout captain sheathing his weapon. This put him further at ease, but he still didn’t know how to respond.

The general repeated, “Pekah, you had a dream?”

Affected by the general’s calm demeanor, Pekah felt relieved. “Yes, two nights ago. I dreamed I stood here, in the presence of the emperor, showing him the scepter. As I told you, it was sent with me by the Danielite heir to purchase the prisoners.”

The general scratched his clean-shaven chin thoughtfully, and then waved the Gideonite captain over.

“Thank you, Pekah.” The general touched the captain’s shoulder. “My name is Jasher, and this is Captain Amon. Amon, tell this man about your dream.”

Amon stepped forward, crossing his arms across his bulging belly. His heavy breathing sounded as though he had just run a foot race. He answered in a deep, cavernous voice. “Just two nights ago, I dreamed that I was here, and saw a man bring the scepter of Daniel. But I did not see what I see now.” He swept his hand over the area of destruction.

Light danced in Jasher’s eyes. He again put a hand on the captain’s shoulder, but spoke to Pekah. “I, too, saw this day. My dream and Amon’s were one and the same. I dreamed that the war would end because of the man who would bring the scepter of Daniel.”

Jasher let go of Amon. The general’s head bobbed up and down, his eyes sparkling.

Pekah held his breath. The occurrence of the same dream between the two Gideonites, and the similarity of their dreams to his own, sent a shiver down his back. Feeling unnerved, he gulped.

“My brethren,” Eli interrupted. “This cannot be mere coincidence. The hand of the Great King of Heaven has been made manifest here. Pekah came to bargain for the lives of the Danielite and Uzzahite prisoners in the city. He offers peace under the authority of Jonathan, son of Samuel, heir to the throne of Daniel. Because this day was foreseen by all three of you, I am convinced the dreams pertaining to this strange event have been inspired by the Holy One.”

Eli paused as if to gauge the reaction of his audience. Pekah looked at the general, who still appeared to be excited, and then Eli added, “It is also apparent to me that Manasseh’s refusal to comply with Jonathan’s sincere request, delivered through his messenger, cost him his life.”

Pekah flinched at Eli’s blatant statement of fact. He nervously watched Jasher and Amon, wondering if they were offended by Eli’s claim, but to his surprise, the general stepped forward and offered his hand in friendship. “I am Jasher of Bezek. I regret the actions of our emperor, which were unjust. I pray your forgiveness.”

Shocked by Jasher’s apology, Pekah hesitated, but then frankly forgave the man. He turned to see Amon’s mouth open as if he wanted to speak. All eyes fell on the captain in anticipation.

“I believe,” Amon said, “we will need to gather all those we can, and invite them to come and witness for themselves what has happened. I can only hope they will see and understand what we have seen. This truly is almost unbelievable. Had I not seen it with mine own eyes.. .”

Shaking his head, Amon stepped off the wooden platform and advanced to the closest group of onlooking soldiers. He said a few words to them, and directed them toward the platform. Pekah watched with interest as Amon continued around the plaza, gathering all who were nearby.

By the time Amon finished, there were over ninety Gideonite soldiers of various rank milling around the platform, talking in hushed tones. Many stared at Pekah. Some appeared to be afraid. Made uncomfortable by their gaze, Pekah turned away to see Jasher pull a wooden chair to the front, then climb upon it to address the crowd.

“Men of Gideon, you have witnessed a strange thing this day,” the general shouted in a commanding voice. “I mean to enlighten your minds with truth, that your hearts may be at peace. Captain Amon of Gilad is also a witness of all that I have seen and heard. The emperor is dead-not by the hand of any man, but by power from above, which I have seen and cannot deny.”

The crowd murmured. Jasher put up his hand to quiet them, then proceeded to tell the gathered troops all he knew about the arrival of the two messengers. As he told of the terrible and frightening force that leveled the building when light stormed from the heavens, filling the room with power and brilliance, many of the Gideonite soldiers sank to the ground with heads bowed low. Others whispered amongst themselves.

Jasher’s voice trembled as he told the gathered Gideonites of the dreams experienced by Pekah, Amon, and himself. He emphasized that the entire event had been foreseen. When Jasher stopped his narrative, a hush of profound silence came over the listening group.

Almost a minute passed. Not a soul moved. As if by coincidence, even the breezes of the summer morning stilled, giving loud punctuation to the news that the emperor was indeed dead. The silence was interrupted by the noise of several soldiers who entered the plaza escorting a captured Danielite woman. Her captors craned their heads over their shoulders at the strange scene near the wooden platform, but continued on their errand and disappeared down another narrow street. Pekah guessed the street led to the quarantined sector of the city where the prisoners were being corralled, similar to what he saw at Hasor before the Danielites were herded away.

Captain Amon approached Jasher and whispered in a tone just loud enough for Pekah to hear: “You will need to act quickly if you wish to maintain control of the situation. Otherwise, the army will disband.”

Amon’s quick assessment impressed Pekah. How will Jasher do that? Pekah wondered.

“Men of Gideon,” Jasher thundered, “I remind you-you have sworn yourselves to the service of Gideon and his people. The emperor is now dead, but his desire for war against Daniel and Uzzah will continue to be carried out until the armies of the Gideonite people have been led to different paths. You must choose the path you will take,” he emphasized. “Will you help me to end this war? Will you follow me on a path to stop bloodshed? Will you assist me in restoring peace to the land?”

Pekah felt hope well up in his breast as the idea was accepted by the troops. Where he had seen distrust and caution in the faces of those who listened, Pekah watched as a yearning for peace bloomed in their eyes. Many who had fallen to the ground rose to stand again before the general. A few of them offered their verbal pledges to Jasher. Several more put their right hand forward, and Jasher walked among them. He went from man to man, touching his outstretched palm to theirs in token. This covenant was eventually accepted by all but one soldier who stood apart from the rest.

Calling the man forward, the general placed a hand on the soldier’s arm and led him to the edge of the platform. “Do you see the dagger in Manasseh’s hand?” Jasher asked.

“Yes.”

“Manasseh tried to kill this man,” Jasher said, pointing to Pekah. “In fact, the emperor ordered me to kill him, but Pekah had done nothing worthy of death. I swear to you by the heavens that everything you have heard today is true. Will you not accept the signs you see before you as proof that my desire to end this war is just?”

The soldier looked at the emperor, then at Amon, and then again at the general. He nodded. “Yes. I will follow you.”

Jasher smiled and received the man’s pledge. Then he took his makeshift stand again, lifted his hands in the air, and addressed the group with excitement. “I can see you have come to the same conclusion I have. The war between the tribes must be stopped. I intend to end this war. All captains of ten, or captains of fifty, please stand forward!”

Eight men stepped closer to the platform, waiting to receive their orders. From his perch on the chair, Jasher gazed down at Amon with a smile, and then at Eli and Pekah standing nearby. He waved to them, as if to say that all would be well, then turned to the soldiers again.

“Men of Gideon,” he began again, “Rezon marches upon the northern cities of Uzzah, searching for the heir of Daniel. He has sworn an oath to Manasseh that he will not rest until the Heir has been killed, and the scepter of the tribe has been captured. Rezon is on a mission that he cannot be permitted to finish, else we as a people will incur the hot displeasure of the Great Creator, who has sent this man of Uzzah with one of our own brethren to plead for the end of this conflict. Rezon will not find the Danielite in the lands of Uzzah, for he is here, near the city of Ain, in hiding. Rezon also will not find the scepter of the Danielite kings that he seeks, for I have also seen the scepter, this very day!”

A rumble of noise went through the crowd as the news was assimilated. After the chatter died down, Jasher finished his plea.

“In grave matters such as these, I choose not to give commands which would be followed out of blind duty. Rather, I ask you to stand by me in joining the tribes of the Three Brothers once again together in peace. Will you march with me to find Rezon, that I may counsel with him, in hopes that his heart may be turned, as mine and yours have been?”

After a brief delay, a shout of commitment went up from the body of soldiers, saying, “It shall be done!”

Pekah was thrilled upon hearing the words, excitement filling him like the warmth of beams from Aqua and Azure breaking through the clouds. Amon saluted the general with both hands high in the air. Jasher stepped from his seat and motioned the eight leaders to come closer for specific instructions. Orders were given, but Pekah did not hear them on account of the commotion now coming from the gathered crowd. Separating into groups of ten and groups of fifty, the commissioned captains shouted out commands to secure the prison area and prepare it for the general’s arrival. Without another word, the crowd left in columns, down the same road previously taken by the prisoner escort.

His lips curled as if amused, Captain Amon patted Pekah on the shoulder. “You have delivered your message to us. Now we will deliver it to Daniel and Uzzah.”

“Thank you,” Pekah said, humbled by the acknowledgement.

“Please follow me,” Jasher invited, smiling.

Walking to the end of the platform where weapons had been stashed in a large wooden bin, Jasher stopped so Pekah and Eli could retrieve their belongings. With Jasher and Amon leading the way, the four of them then marched across the plaza, past the beautiful central fountain, and down the confines of the narrow city street where the soldiers had gone. Bordered by multi-storied buildings with wrought iron railings on balconies, the cobbled passage was the most colorful street Pekah had yet seen in Ain. In addition to flower pots hanging from some balconies, most of the stone walls had been painted bright colors-yellow, blue, green, and orange. He was cheered, simply walking down the street.

A few blocks later they turned onto a road which opened up into a small park, another beautiful fountain at its center. On the other side of the open area stood several of the Gideonite soldiers who had left them at the plaza, their captain yelling at prisoners cordoned off in the better part of an entire neighborhood. All the Gideonites brandished their weapons, and angry shouts rose from the crowd. A wounded prisoner sat on the street, being tended by another. As Jasher and Amon approached, the captain hollered for silence.

“What happened here?” Jasher demanded.

The captain stiffened. “When we explained that you would soon arrive to free the prisoners, several of these men called us liars. One of them rushed forward with a rock in his hand. We did only what was necessary to control the crowd.”

Pekah looked at the Danielite who sat on the cobbled street, holding up his wounded arm so it could be wrapped with a strip of cloth. The injury appeared to be superficial. A large stone lay nearby.

Jasher pointed to the captain. “Take the man to the medical tent in the plaza so the wound can be properly dressed. Then set him free.”

The wounded Danielite gaped, amazed.

“Help him up,” the Gideonite captain ordered. A group of five soldiers broke away to assist in carrying out the general’s request, and they all left.

Amon escorted Pekah and Eli to the front of the holding area. Standing before Jasher’s group were two men, one a captain from Daniel and one from Uzzah.

“Tavor!” Eli cried out as they met. Tavor managed a meek smile, but did not say anything in return. Looking around at the assembled crowd, comprised mostly of Gideonites, Tavor’s expression soured. The Danielite captain next to Tavor clenched his teeth, his lips curled almost into a snarl. Eli could say no more before General Jasher introduced himself.

“I am Jasher of Bezek. I am a general of Gideon, and I have received news delivered by these men,” he paused, pointing to Pekah and Eli, “which has changed my entire perception of this war, almost in an instant! I am here to speak with the leaders of your peoples, so we might come to an agreement. I desire a permanent treaty, so peace might be had once again in the land.”

Tavor’s jaw dropped. The Danielite captain mumbled something under his breath in surprise. Jasher gave them both time to recover, and then proceeded to tell the two men all that had befallen both Amon and himself earlier that morning, including the fate of Manasseh and the covenant made by the men under his command. He then said, “I wish to end this war. Will you join me in doing so?”

Tavor still did not appear to believe what he was hearing. He backed a few steps away from Jasher in distrust, and looked to Eli for help. Eli nodded in affirmation and stated, “It’s true. This is his sincere desire. I am joining with him myself.”

The Uzzahite warrior studied his own commanding officer with some suspicion, but when he saw the sincerity in Eli’s face, a smile appeared. Tavor put forward his hand, taking Jasher at his word. The two of them made their oath, and then the Danielite captain did the same.

“You and your peoples are then free!” Jasher declared. “Please gather your leaders and come to the central plaza, where we will make plans for a very important journey. Together, we will commit the rest of the Gideonite armies to our cause!”

With that, General Jasher spun around on his heel and left them all standing there in wonder. A small contingent of soldiers followed Jasher as a bodyguard detail, but the rest stayed behind, talking to Captain Amon.

Eli almost pounced on his friend. He gave Tavor a great bear hug, just as he had Jonathan four days earlier. Tavor choked and pushed him off, patting Eli on the arms.

“How has this happened?” Tavor begged of him.

“I’ve made a new friend,” Eli said, pointing to Pekah. “This man is responsible for your release. His brave actions before Manasseh changed the heart of the general, who in turn has convinced the entire Gideonite army here in Ain to unite with Daniel and Uzzah!”

Pekah introduced himself.

“Thank you,” Tavor said, “for whatever it is you have done. I’m grateful for it.”

Pekah blushed and looked away at first, but then turned to say, “You’re welcome.”

Eli chided Tavor for leaving him at Hasor, as if it was his fault. The three men laughed together until Eli’s countenance turned from excitement to anxiety.

“Have you seen Rachel?” Eli asked, his expression earnest.

Tavor held up a reassuring hand. “Yes. She is here, and well. She cares for some of the wounded and sick.” He then pointed, adding, “She’s near one of the other fountains of the city.”

“Tavor, please take us to her!”

Interrupting, Amon stepped closer and said, “We should go together. That will allow my men to spread the word as we go, and therefore prevent conflict.”

“As you wish,” Eli agreed.

Following Amon, the entire body of soldiers entered the holding area. As they tromped through the streets, captains accompanied by their small bands peeled off to gather prisoners around them, declaring their freedom. Their jubilant message went through the crowds faster than they could walk, a cry of “The Three Brothers are again united!” echoing down the city streets before them. The profound declaration made Pekah’s skin tingle with excitement.

Leaders from the tribes of Daniel and Uzzah pressed close for news as the mob flowed farther into the neighborhood. At first, this caused confusion among some of the prisoners, but when they witnessed Eli, Tavor, and the Danielite captain walking among the Gideonites, many of them realized something extraordinary had taken place.

By the time the crowd reached the fountain, over three hundred men, women, and children trailed behind in a long procession. Captain Amon waved Pekah and Eli onward, then turned away from the main group in order to take care of business with other soldiers.

It did not take but a moment of searching the area for Eli to spot Rachel, and he called out to her. The woman stood from her work of checking the bandages of a wounded Danielite soldier and pulled her straight auburn hair back into a knot behind her. Recognizing Eli, she ran to fall into his outstretched arms and burst into tears of relief. Eli cried openly as he patted her back and whispered words of encouragement.

Made uncomfortable by their emotional reunion, Pekah stepped back to give them privacy. When Eli released her, Pekah stood closer but did not speak.

“Are you well?” Eli said tenderly.

“I’m very tired,” Rachel said as she put her hands to her cheeks to stifle a yawn. “Because we have no bedding, it has been hard to sleep.” She let her hands fall, then briefly looked away. “And I’m hungry. The Gideonites have fed us, but the rations have been small.”

Pekah could see her hair was visibly soiled in parts, and there were minor tears in her brown, front-laced dress. She had pulled the dress up to mid-calf, girding it about her hips with a green sash. The hem of her garment was also riddled with snags and mud, and her bare feet showed signs of recent bleeding. Hints of deep sorrow softened her brown eyes. Although he was not responsible for her discomfort, the pitiful sight tugged at Pekah’s heart.

Seemingly anxious to share all her burdens, Rachel volunteered the events of the past week in quick succession. She explained that the Gideonite army attacked Saron just as she left the market, and all the goods and money she had obtained by the sale of the spring lambs were lost.

“Eli, Asah is dead.” Rachel sniffed.

Eli shook his head, horror in his eyes. “What happened?”

“Our caravan had just started along the road to Hasor when we were attacked. Asah told me to run, and he tried to fight off a soldier who saw me trying to escape. But it was too late. We were surrounded. I ran back to our cart to find Asah dead.” Tears welled in Rachel’s eyes.

Eli held her again, his eyes misty. Looking over Rachel’s shoulder at Pekah, he said, “Asah is my father’s steward. Since Father is the High Priest of Uzzah, Asah has always taken care of the family property. He is a good friend.”

Pekah acknowledged Eli with a nod. He could find no words of comfort, and he sighed, wishing he knew what to say.

Still holding his sister, Eli asked about her arrival in Ain. Rachel wiped her eyes and pulled away. She then told of their march from Saron, through the Geber Pass, and finally into the city of fountains. She explained that the new leather boots she had purchased at market had caused her feet to blister. To ease the pain, she had removed them and wrapped her feet in shreds of cloth. A lack of shoes caused them to bleed, but now that she had been in the camp for three days, her feet were starting to heal.

“Rachel,” Eli said softly, holding her by the shoulders, “I was very worried when I heard Saron had been attacked. When Jonathan and I discussed where you might be, we only suspected you might be in Ain. Thanks be to the Holy One that you are here, safe.”

Rachel’s eyes twinkled with delight at the mention of Jonathan’s name. Her face glowed with joy as she looked from right to left in the crowd, searching for her betrothed.

“He’s not in the city, my sister,” Eli said as he put his hand on her arm. “Before coming into Ain, Jonathan secreted himself in the hills-he awaits my return with news. Jonathan is not aware that General Jasher of Gideon has declared an end to the Gideonite aggressions, or that Jasher wishes to join Daniel and Uzzah in ending the conflict.”

Eli’s declaration startled her. “How can this be?” Rachel asked.

“This is Pekah…”

Pekah bowed at the introduction, his eyes holding hers as he did. Rachel politely nodded.

“He brought a message to the emperor-a message inspired by the Holy One. Manasseh rejected it. A great sign was given from the heavens, and General Jasher witnessed the demise of his leader. Jasher’s heart has been turned, and he has made an oath to join in the protection of Daniel and Uzzah. Our peoples have been freed!”

Tears flowed again down Rachel’s face, and Eli stepped closer to wipe them away. Eli kissed Rachel on the forehead, then held her close.

“How are your feet? Can you travel?”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“I want to leave right away and go to Jonathan. Do you wish to come with me?”

Rachel put a hand on her mouth, then she looked away. “Where is he?” she whispered as she brushed hair from her eyes.

“I’ll take you to him.”

Her eyes bright, she pulled herself up and kissed Eli hard on the cheek. “Thank you for coming for me.”

“Jonathan made me.”

Her mouth fell open, then she punched Eli on the arm, making him laugh. “I need my boots!” Rachel said as she ran off to find them.

Pekah tugged at Eli’s sleeve.

“Hmm?”

“She… she’s beautiful,” Pekah stammered.

Eli grinned, with arms crossed. “Yes. Yes, she is.”

Chapter 15

Rezon

T wo days earlier, just after dusk the same night on which Pekah dreamed of his encounter with the emperor, Rezon’s army camped outside the city walls of Ramathaim. A rich, green aurora billowed near the southern horizon. Embers glowed bright in the campfire next to General Rezon’s tent, where four Gideonite guards stood at attention, one at each side of the lodging. The flickering of a torch within danced upon the thin canvas walls. In the cool, still air, Gideonite soldiers in the camp huddled in small groups around steaming pots of dinner, ignoring the watchman fires upon the high city walls behind them.

On their way to the general’s tent, three soldiers hastened past some troops who slurped on thin stew. Nearly tripping over each other as they went, the tallest of the three fumbled with the straps of his breastplate, while another held his sword and shield. Once they arrived at the general’s pavilion within a tight cluster of tents, the three men approached the guards and stated their business. One of the guards disappeared through the tent flaps and then returned, motioning them inside. They stooped through in single file and found themselves standing before the seated general.

Rezon looked up from a map spread over the table in front of him. He studied the three visitors through strands of sandy brown hair that had fallen out of a thin leather band about his head. He brushed his hair to the side as he stood, then stepped toward the men as two of them saluted him in unison, raising their hands high. The third soldier gawked at the general, staring at his unusual hair color. He did not salute.

Almost amused by the staring Gideonite, a smirk crossed Rezon’s lips. Embarrassed, the soldier’s gaze fell to the ground.

Rezon scratched the stubble on his unshaven face, and then said with indignation, “I’m sorry the color of my hair causes you such.. . concern. My mother was a Danielite.” He returned to his seat and grabbed for a goblet. The soldier still did not look up. Rezon sipped a mouthful, swished the liquid around, and swallowed. He pointed at the soldier who had stared. “You are excused! As you leave, tell the guard at the entrance to see me at once.”

The man finally did salute as he left, his expression dejected. The posted guard appeared through the tent flaps, saluted, and waited for orders.

“Have that man arrested immediately,” Rezon barked. “Take him to the center of camp and flog him. Do not kill him, however. I want him-and those who witness his punishment-to remember it.”

The guard raised his hand and ducked out. The other two soldiers remained at attention before the seated general. The face of the tallest remained expressionless, even stolid, yet the other wore a crooked smile.

After a thoughtful exhale, Rezon addressed them again, using his goblet to motion in their direction. “Which one of you is Ilan and which is Zev?”

The tall soldier blurted, “I am Ilan, and this is Zev.”

“I like the name Zev, ” Rezon replied as he set his goblet down and crossed his arms. “I need a wolf right now. In fact, I need an entire pack of wolves. Do you know why my chief captain chose you?”

Both Ilan and Zev said, “No, sir.”

Rezon regarded the two soldiers, inspecting their uniforms. Both were outfitted in the characteristic fashion of other Gideonite captains, and even had a remarkably similar appearance. They were of pure Gideonite descent, with short-trimmed, wavy hair almost as black as night, complemented by clean-shaven faces. Both were battle-hardened, about thirty years of age, and their darkened eyes showed the signs of many years of indulgence in various vices. This pleased Rezon.

He stood, drew the dagger from his belt, and placed it on the table in front of him, deliberately pointing the blade at the two soldiers. Recognition lit Ilan’s and Zev’s faces, and they stiffened. The general moved to stand next to his table and placed his fists at his side. He then spoke in soft tones intended to keep the outside guards from overhearing their conversation.

“You were chosen because Jael trusts you. You are trustworthy, are you not?”

Both men enthusiastically answered, “Yes.”

Rezon paced to the edge of the tent. “How very unfortunate the other man proved to be less than qualified.”

Returning to the table, he pointed at each of the men in turn. “You are here to help me. I have been given the delightful task of bringing Daniel and Uzzah into subjection. This task will be complete within a few days from now. Once I’m done, I am to return to Ain. If they can be found, I will present either the scepter of Daniel, or the head of the heir himself, to the emperor. I am confident the Danielite escaped here, to the great Uzzahite holy city. He surely has the scepter.”

Rezon paused and reached for his goblet again, draining all that remained. He looked at the wineskin hanging from the center pole of the tent, but did not retrieve it. Instead, he set the goblet down, and then almost shouted, “I do not want to bring them to Manasseh!” He stopped, wanting his statement to have some shock effect on the two men. They only stood straighter.

“Manasseh, the Great Emperor of Gideon, has asked that I do all of this for him, thinking that the peoples of Daniel and Uzzah will submit to his will as an ass does to its master, while they grind corn together at the mill. I know something of Daniel, however, and they will never follow a man of Gideon.

“But I… am not just a man of Gideon!” His piercing gaze held both soldiers still.

“What would you have me do?” offered Zev, with evident anticipation.

Rezon turned away. Purposely avoiding eye contact, he spoke to the tent wall. “If only the emperor could be… convinced.” He turned back, his eyebrows high, lips curled.

Zev leered at Ilan, his grin sinister. He stepped up to the table and picked up the general’s dagger, holding it in his right hand. Wincing, he squeezed the razor-sharp blade. A drop of blood appeared on the bottom of his grasping hand. Zev placed the dagger back on the table, and then opened his hand, showing two fresh cuts in his palm and fingers. A small amount of blood pooled in his hand, covering other cuts which had previously healed.

“I will remove Manasseh from his place, else I will be removed from mine,” Zev said as he wiped the blood across his own bare neck with the final word.

Without hesitation, Ilan also approached the table to take the dagger, his eyes fixed on Rezon. He repeated the same oath, in the same fashion as Zev. When both of the men standing before him had blood smeared across their necks, Rezon picked up his dagger and wiped the flat of the blade on the palm of his right hand. He then sheathed the weapon without cleaning it.

“I am very pleased. Leave tonight, and return to me when it’s done. I have arranged for your provisions and for horses.”

Ilan and Zev smartly saluted and turned to leave. Rezon called them back. He unbuckled his leather belt from around his green tunic, slipped the dagger and sheath from it, and set the belt down on the table.

“Here,” Rezon said as he handed the sheathed weapon to Zev. “Use this with care.”

Zev gave a bow, and the two soldiers left.

Rezon stood alone in silence. He let out a laugh, so deep and low it sounded like a grunt. The prospect that he would soon be in command of the entire Gideonite army danced in his mind, his greed and lust for power making his pulse quicken.

He returned to his chair after replacing his belt, at a loss of what to do next. While tapping the table with the bottom of his empty goblet, his mind wandered. Thoughts of the coming siege held his attention briefly, but then he called to the guard outside his door.

“What is your wish?” the soldier asked when he entered.

“I’m lonely. Bring me a prisoner-and I will not be pleased if she’s ugly.”

The guard saluted and left. Rezon refilled his goblet, then sat down. A coin on the table caught his eye. He picked up the solar and flipped it over to see Manasseh’s image. Closing his eyes, he rubbed the surface of the coin with his thumb and smiled.

Chapter 16

Jonathan

T he cold water from the fountain caused Rachel to gasp as she washed the dried stains of blood and dust from her calloused feet. Taking care not to make them bleed again, she ignored her discomfort and cleaned the healing cuts the best she could.

“Are you all right?” Eli asked as he approached.

“Yes, it just stings.”

“Do you think you can wear your shoes?” he asked, holding them up.

“I believe so. Earlier today I washed my stockings, and a woman who lives in this part of the city gave me some oil to soften the boots. I’ve been working the leather.”

She put on her stockings and took the boots from Eli’s outstretched hands. After latching the brass buckles, she stood to test them. She smiled, pleased to be able to stand without pain. “They feel much better.”

“I’m glad. Are you sure you can travel in them?”

Rachel paused. She hadn’t seen Jonathan in weeks, and the thought of him being just outside the city was almost more than she could stand. “Eli, I would walk barefoot to see him.”

“I know,” Eli chuckled.

***

Pekah stood near Tavor and Amon while they discussed their plans. Travel arrangements were finalized as Eli and Rachel approached.

“Are we ready to leave?” Pekah asked.

“I believe we are,” Eli said.

“Eli, is this your sister?” Amon inquired.

“Yes, Captain. This is Rachel.”

“I am Amon of Gilad, a captain of Gideon,” he said, voice rumbling. He bowed, and Rachel dipped her head toward him.

“Your brother has told me the heir of Daniel is nearby in the foothills outside Ain, and he means to bring him here so we may meet. I’ve arranged for horses for both of you, and a small group of soldiers as an escort. When you return, I invite you to accompany me to the central plaza, where we will all meet with General Jasher.”

“Thank you very much for your kindness,” Rachel said.

Eli spoke. “Captain, we plan to return before the evening meal.”

“Wonderful!” Amon said. “I’ll be expecting you. I look forward to meeting this Danielite.”

Following Amon, they made their way back to the plaza where they found a small contingent of men tending enough horses for everyone, including an extra mount to bring Jonathan back, and light provisions, should they be delayed in their return. Amon said his goodbyes and left for his tent.

“Would you like help?” Eli asked Rachel, holding the reins of her horse.

“I can manage.”

“But your feet…” Eli protested.

Pekah chuckled. “Better not argue with your sister,” he said.

“So true!”

They all paused as she mounted the horse side-saddle. Once she settled in, the men readied themselves. The Gideonite captain assigned to accompany the group did not say much, but motioned for them to follow. They went at a leisurely pace. This gave Pekah another chance to admire the fountains and balconies of Ain. Although beautiful in their own right, the cities of his homeland were significantly more plain-no fountains, and the buildings were typically made of large timbers. I would live here, he thought.

It did not take long for the group to navigate through the maze of streets, and they soon found themselves outside the city walls with the gates closed behind them. The escorting captain rode around the group to get a headcount. Once he was certain none had strayed, he gave the command to ride.

As they rode, a gentle breeze carrying the scent of farmland reminded Pekah of the abandoned farms, untended animals, and quiet homes he had seen previously. A milk cow grazing on an open hillside caught his attention. The sight of the loose animal reminded him that the families had not yet returned to their homes.

Soon they left the outskirts of the city, where they began the gradual ascent of the winding switchbacks. Pines and oaks were scattered along the road, but the trees did not obscure the view of the tops of the hills or the rocky outcroppings in the heights on the north side of the pass.

Pekah watched the area intently, hoping to catch a glimpse of their friend, but searched in vain. A hawk circled near the top of the rise, taking advantage of the late morning thermals, but nothing else moved in the area. The twin suns, warm and bright above them, felt good to him.

Conversation had been scarce during the short ride, but now that they neared the top of the switchbacks, they fell silent. The Gideonite soldiers who had provided the escort now motioned Pekah to direct their way. He led them off the road and across a dry stream bed, where they stopped near some trees at the base of the rock outcroppings. Pekah dismounted and tethered his horse. Eli joined him. Except for Rachel, the rest of the riders remained in their saddles. She jumped down from her perch. Her mouth open, she craned her neck, searching. Pekah cheerfully accepted the reins from her hand and tied her horse to a tree branch next to his own.

“We should look there,” Eli said, pointing farther up the hillside. “I think Jonathan would have chosen a more secluded spot above us for his refuge.”

Pekah thought about it and agreed. Rachel remained behind, but he followed Eli a short distance to a spot between two rock outcroppings, both as large as wagons. Pekah leaned into the slope to continue climbing. A few pebbles tumbled down from above them, causing both men to look for the source.

A familiar face appeared around one of the massive piles of stone. Jonathan appeared to be nervous, holding his bow defensively while he watched the company of Gideonites waiting a bow-shot away.

“Everything’s fine!” Pekah assured him.

Jonathan looked at Pekah, at Eli, then at Tavor among the soldiers. He seemed to relax. Then his eyes fell on Rachel.

Pekah turned his head to see Rachel stumbling up behind him, her eyes wet. Jonathan returned his arrow to his quiver and hurried down to her. Before she could embrace him, he fell to his knees, grabbed her hand, and held her palm to his cheek as he closed his own tear-filled eyes. She stooped to wipe his wet cheeks with her other hand, then tugged at his shirt sleeve until he stood.

Jonathan did, and with a gentle pull, he brought her close and held her. With her head nestled near his, the two of them whispered several things unheard by the rest of the party. There were nods from Rachel, and even a slight giggle. He held her for a few more moments and then released her, but kept her hand tightly in his own as if not willing to let it go.

Pekah and Eli stepped closer to the pair, both grinning.

“Glad to see you,” Eli said. “I can hardly wait to tell you what has happened.”

Jonathan surveyed the faces in the group below, taking extra time with those who were Gideonite. He motioned for Pekah to come closer, and then in a hushed tone asked, “Why are they here, if you’re not a prisoner?”

Speaking in a manner and volume intended to address the entire group, Pekah told Jonathan they had all come as an escort to find him, and General Jasher of Bezek had declared an end to the conflict.

“Jonathan, the Three Brothers are once again at peace!”

“Tell me how,” came Jonathan’s incredulous reply.

“I assure you, it’s true. Eli will tell you everything while we ride back to Ain. Shall we go?”

Jonathan nodded, then proceeded to escort Rachel to her mount, an arm around her shoulder. Falling to one knee and steadying her hand, he provided a step and lifted her gently to her seat. Rachel did not protest as she had with Eli. Her eyes bright, she beamed at him, and he kissed her hand before releasing it.

Taking his place on a steed provided by Tavor, he begged them for a drink. “My water skin ran dry this morning. I was too far from the river and didn’t want to leave my lookout.”

Eli handed him a water skin as the group began their descent on the winding road toward Ain. He asked about Jonathan’s previous night under the stars.

“I used young pine boughs to make my bed comfortable, but I didn’t sleep well. Too worried, I suppose.”

As they rode, Pekah frequently glanced over to watch Jonathan, noticing that he would often reach out to touch Rachel’s hand whenever their eyes met. He felt a twinge of jealousy as he witnessed their tender exchanges. He let out a sigh, masked by the clomping of horses’ hooves.

Pekah’s mind wandered back to the conversations being carried on between the riders. He found Eli relating the tale of their arrival in Ain on the day previous. Eli told of the reception they received and everything else leading up to the final scene with Manasseh, taking special care to describe the emperor’s violent and angry reaction when Pekah refused to hand over The Thorn. Eli stopped his narration and motioned for Pekah to finish the story.

Pekah kept his gaze upon the horse’s ears before him, self-conscious about his part in the tale. Choosing his words with care so as not to bring attention to himself, Pekah tried to describe the manifestation of power from above. “A fierce wind blew in the building. It was like being in a storm, but it wasn’t dark. A light entered the room as if from heaven. Jonathan, I could feel it.”

“You could feel the light?”

“Yes. It felt like fire, but it did not burn me. And it was stronger than the wind. The light flashed through The Thorn and hit Manasseh. He immediately died, and the building shook and fell apart.”

“I saw it!” Jonathan said, startled. He leaned forward in his saddle with an intense look on his face.

“You saw what?” Eli asked.

“The light! Early this morning, I sat watching the city. The ground shook, and I saw a flash of light. I worried that something terrible had happened.”

“That’s when we were talking to Manasseh!” Pekah said.

All three men fell silent, the significance of the event sinking in.

Now thoughtful, Pekah touched the leather bag hanging from his neck. Realizing that Jonathan had never asked for the scepter to be returned, he mentioned it, but Rachel had Jonathan’s attention. Apparently confused by the story, she asked more questions, which Jonathan and Eli answered. Pekah listened. By the time they were within sight of the city gates, Pekah forgot his desire to give the scepter back.

In the distance, they could see the banners of Gideon flapping in the wind, now joined by the banners of both Uzzah and Daniel. A lump rose in Pekah’s throat when he saw the colors posted together. And in my lifetime, he thought. Reviewing the chain of events that had brought him from Hasor to Ain, he marveled.

When Jonathan asked about the flags, Eli filled in the rest of the story, including the dreams of General Jasher and Captain Amon. As Eli described the procession that flowed into the prison area, declaring the freedom of all with an end to the conflict, Jonathan grinned. He reached out and shook Pekah’s hand. “Thank you, my dear friend. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. You have brought about an end to this war!”

Tavor spurred his horse closer. “Jonathan-this is actually just part of the army of Gideon. Much work remains to be done in order to truly end the war.”

Tavor is right, Pekah thought. General Jasher may have aligned with the other tribes, but Rezon has not. At least, not yet.

There wasn’t much talk after that. Pekah had other things he wanted to say, but noticed that Jonathan had a far-off look in his eyes, as if he were somewhere else, and chose not to disturb him. The last minutes of the journey passed by with only the gentle clomping of hooves reaching his ears.

They arrived at the gates to find them open, Danielite families gathered both outside the walls and in the courtyard, all assembled for their various journeys back to their homesteads around Ain. Avoiding the noisy crowd, the riders pressed on, past the tents and down the street that would lead them to the central courtyard.

The first time Pekah and Eli traveled this way, most of the neighboring buildings had either been abandoned or filled with Gideonite soldiers. They were now occupied by Danielite businessmen and families, spending their time tidying up their various properties. The laughter of children was a most welcome sound, but what touched Pekah most was seeing Gideonite soldiers working side-by-side with Danielites and Uzzahites in repairing broken doors, railings, and windows.

At one residence, two dark-haired soldiers had hung their armor over a post and were in the process of taking orders from an elderly Danielite woman as to where she wanted a large clay flowerpot moved on her flagstone porch. The woman had a gentle hand on the shoulder of the soldier next to her. The other one gazed up from where he knelt as if she were his dearest grandmother. This display of service by men who, just hours before, had been considered conquerors of the city, brought tears to Pekah’s eyes.

Arriving at the grand central fountain, they found themselves surrounded by a large host of Gideonite soldiers. The gathered crowd listened intently to General Jasher, who stood behind a makeshift podium set up on the exposed floor of the portable stateroom. Pekah rose in his saddle to see if the throne was still occupied, but it was empty. He pulled back on the reins so he could ask a man standing below him what had been done with the body of the emperor.

“They took Manasseh’s body out of the city and burned it in a funeral pyre,” came the reply.

Pekah thanked the man for the information and spurred his mount to catch up to the group.

The travelers arrived together near the northeast corner of the platform and dismounted. A loud cheer arose from the crowd as General Jasher announced he had released all prisoners, and some were already returning to their homes. Even with the clamor, Jasher noticed the arrival of Pekah’s group. He nodded with recognition as one of the escorting Gideonite soldiers raised his hand in greeting.

“Men of Gideon, my friends of Daniel and Uzzah,” Jasher thundered to the crowd once the noise died down, “we have just one more duty to perform, a duty to make right the wrongs that have been done by our people. We must travel to the other lands of Daniel and of Uzzah. We need to counsel with Rezon, in hopes that he will abandon his oath to wage this war. I am not the man to plead the cause for peace, yet there is now one among us to whom this right belongs.

“Pekah,” Jasher called, pointing. “Please bring your friend before us, that we may see him together.”

A hush went through the crowd, and all heads turned toward Pekah. Estimating those listening to be in the hundreds, perhaps even a thousand, he threw a nervous, silent plea to his companions, to which they responded with encouragement. Eli nudged him toward the steps. Tavor and Jonathan followed him for support, but Eli stayed below near Rachel.

As Pekah trudged toward Jasher, he surveyed the huge assemblage below him. There seemed to be a general attitude of anticipation from the soldiers around the platform, but there were many new faces gathered in the plaza that had not been present earlier in the day. He wondered if they had made the same covenant with Jasher. Because of the concern and distrust that darkened their faces, he doubted it.

Pekah could see many seasoned soldiers present-captains of ten and captains of fifty, and others who were surely from the late emperor’s personal guard. The expectation in their eyes made him nervous. Others before him appeared to be angry. He followed their disapproving glare toward Tavor and Jonathan. These soldiers would be the most difficult to convince to join Jasher’s cause.

Jasher motioned Pekah to take his place before the assemblage, which he did somewhat reluctantly. He cleared his throat, and addressed them with a traditional Gideonite greeting, “Prosperity and a safe haven for you all!” This prompted an echoed, “And to you!” from the crowd.

Pekah’s knees trembled. He cleared his throat again, and with a shaking, open hand, presented Jonathan to the soldiers below. “This is Jonathan, son of Samuel, and the heir of Daniel. He has come seeking peace, and desires your help so all may go home to their families and be comforted from the losses and pains suffered in past weeks-pains and losses that have caused all The Brothers to mourn. Will you join with Jasher and with Jonathan, so peace may be accomplished?” As the words came forth, he was surprised by their strength.

Apart from those who had already covenanted to join Jasher’s cause, there were a few more declarations of enlistment among the other soldiers. Most were younger men who shouldered little or no visible authority. Other soldiers in the crowd, many of them older, remained stolid, unaffected by Pekah’s announcement. One grizzled, battle-hardened individual even spat on the ground when Pekah paused for reaction. Pekah noticed, but his resolve strengthened, a well of power springing up within. His hands steadied, and his knees held firm. He even felt taller.

“Just two days ago, after a sleepless night, a son of Daniel and a son of Uzzah shared with me the story of the Raven of Gideon. I am now in my twenty-third year, and never before had I heard this tale, even from my own people. How long has it been,” Pekah demanded, “since Gideon has led any brother lost in foggy paths out into the bright light of day?”

Not a single voice rose from the crowd.

“When did Gideon forget the charge given to him by Father Noah, to care for all, and to bring them into safe havens?”

Again, there was no response.

Pekah felt his face redden with irritation. His voice almost cracked with frustration as he pressed them again: “ How long has it been? What has Daniel or Uzzah done to merit this aggression from one who should be their brother?”

The gray-bearded soldier stepped forward, and those around him parted like water. His boots stomped out echoes upon the stones of the courtyard, noises that seemed out of place as the rest of the soldiers stood in silence. He pulled at his beard, and then drew his belt dagger, pointing it in a most menacing fashion at Pekah. “ You, my young son,” the soldier snarled, “have misplaced your trust in Daniel and Uzzah. Your Gideonite brethren have been oppressed for many years by the Danielite and his family. Manasseh himself, a man blessed by visions from heaven, was directed to ask for the scepter of judgment. .. and was denied. Daniel will not allow any other to hold or to possess it.”

Pekah stood dumbfounded at the audacity of the man. Young and inexperienced as he was, he knew full well Manasseh had no right to the scepter, and had certainly never “asked” for it. His plan was to take it forcibly. Captain Sachar himself had proven that fact as he murdered the rightful owner of the relic.

“You are misinformed,” Pekah fumed.

The old man bristled at the accusation, and stepped closer to the podium where Pekah stood.

Searching for support, Pekah saw he was now flanked on the left by Jonathan and Tavor, and on the other side by the general. Jasher’s teeth showed, his smile wide. The general’s expression startled Pekah, and he almost didn’t hear the response of the old soldier.

“General Rezon is the emperor’s servant,” the Gideonite soldier continued. “I was with Rezon personally when he asked the old Danielite judge for the scepter. Manasseh sent us to request it, and we were denied.”

“It’s true!” yelled another soldier. “I was with Kalev on that day.”

Recognition lit up Jonathan’s face. He pulled on Pekah’s sleeve, and he stepped back so they could talk privately. The crowd murmured.

“Pekah,” Jonathan whispered. “I remember this particular soldier. He rode into Hasor as part of the escort with General Rezon, many months previous. Word came to my father that the Gideonite emperor had sent a small band north for some unexplained reason. I hid in the palace gardens and watched them as they approached my father, who was pruning and grafting trees. The Gideonite men did request the scepter, but not in a diplomatic manner. From my place of hiding, I had an arrow trained on the general’s chest. Rezon threatened my father, saying that if we did not comply, he would return with a greater force to take it.”

“General Rezon demanded that it be given to him?”

“Yes, but my father replied that the scepter was not his to give.”

Pekah thanked Jonathan and stepped back toward the noisy crowd, mulling over the new information. He was annoyed by the half-truths spoken by the stubborn Gideonite. An idea formed in his mind. He pulled the pouch from around his neck, having nearly forgotten it still hung there. Carefully loosening the drawstrings of the bag, he removed the purple cloth within. After unrolling the rod, he lifted it high. It glittered in the late afternoon suns.

“Kalev, is this the scepter you were seeking?”

Gasps and whispers floated above the crowd like hovering bees.

Pekah stood with his arm outstretched. He moved the glass rod back and forth, causing reflections to spill in every direction. With a wry smile, Pekah stared at Kalev.

“I seem to have accomplished the very thing you claim could not be done, and I did not even ask for it! This scepter was placed in my hands by Jonathan, Daniel’s heir. I shall never forget his words. He said, ‘I am giving this to you, in hopes that it may be an instrument in convincing Manasseh to end his aggression toward our peoples.’ Jonathan told me I was to use it in trade for prisoners, if need be.”

Pekah now glared at the old soldier. “As you can see, Daniel does not have the scepter. Gideon does.”

Murmurs became arguments, and Pekah wondered if they were sounds of surprise or disdain. He peered over to get the general’s reaction. Jasher glowed with pride, almost as if Pekah were his son. Embarrassed, Pekah looked at the ground. He lowered the rod and returned it to its protective cover. With some degree of regained composure, Pekah threw one last barb.

“Even though the Danielite next to me has not asked for it to be returned, I do not claim The Thorn to be mine. It is certainly not yours.”

With that bold statement, the crowd erupted, unintelligible yells coming from some areas and cheers from others.

Kalev was furious. He fiddled with the pommel of the sword at his side, his gaze fixed on Jonathan. Pekah did not flinch. General Jasher moved up to the edge of the platform with hands raised, challenging the crowd.

“You have now seen what I have seen. Daniel is no aggressor. The emperor deceived us all. It is our duty to end this conflict. Pekah has joined with Daniel and Uzzah, as have I. Will you also join me?”

This time, there were far more Gideonite soldiers raising their arms in token than there had been a few minutes before. Still, in addition to Kalev, there were several other soldiers who gathered into a tighter group, refusing to accept Jasher’s challenge. Defiant, they stood in the midst, some with weapons drawn.

One of them, a few years younger and taller than Kalev, spoke up. “We… we will not. We are men of Gideon. We will not make an alliance with Danielites.”

After all the explanation and testimony given, this refusal angered Jasher. He loomed tall and menacing as he approached the very edge of the wooden platform. Shocked that Jasher’s authority as General of the Host of Gideon was being defied, Pekah leaned in, hoping to catch every word.

“You may have desires within your hearts to refuse, but as your commanding officer, I am now giving you an order. Gideon will march with Uzzah and Daniel to stop Rezon’s attack on the northern cities. Yet I cannot have dissenters in our midst. Therefore, I am giving you a choice: either you will return to your homes in peace and renounce this war until the end of your days, or you will be found guilty of sedition. You will forfeit your lives.” He paused. “What say you?”

The men he challenged shrank back, searching their friends for one who would lead out. Not one would. Fingers twitching on the pommel of his sword, it seemed as if Kalev was going to defy Jasher again. He gripped the sword tightly and looked about. Very few men stood with him. He grumbled. Stepping forward, he thrust out his hand. Jasher’s gaze locked with Kalev’s. The old soldier made his oath to return home, and the others joined him in the pledge. This appeased Jasher, and he promised them safe passage out of the city.

At this juncture, Jonathan took a step forward, and with his arm raised, said, “I will follow Jasher. He will be my protector, to lead me into safe havens.” This allusion to Father Gideon, founder of the tribe, drew a very positive reaction from the crowd.

An unknown soldier from within the group below tossed a Gideonite breastplate onto the platform, where it landed squarely at Jonathan’s feet. He did not hesitate in the least, but retrieved the armor and strapped it on.

Cheers flew skyward as soldier after soldier raised his arm in their traditional greeting, welcoming the Danielite into their midst. Several shouted encouraging words, and a few even waved swords in the air. Others joined together and cried aloud, “Health and prosperity to the heir of Daniel!”

Pekah’s jaw tightened, attempting to fight back the tears now welling in his eyes as he saw his new friend proudly wearing the Black Raven of Gideon.

Chapter 17

Bounty

W ould you please join me in the general’s quarters? Our evening meal awaits-there is enough for all. General Jasher insists,” Amon said.

“Thank you.” Pekah immediately noticed his own hunger, his stomach growling.

“We would be honored,” Jonathan said.

Amon raised his voice and waved his hand to include Tavor and others standing nearby. “Please come, be filled, and rest before we depart for Saron in the morning.”

Once they were all seated around a group of mismatched tables in Jasher’s tent-a large reception area attached to the general’s sleeping quarters-Pekah breathed in the wonderful smells of the hot meal about to be served. He studied the guests around the table. Smiles were plentiful, and Rachel’s eyes exhibited pure delight, which Pekah surmised came from having both Jonathan and Eli safely there with her.

Content being among new friends, Pekah watched, intrigued by each of them. Eli teased Rachel, making her laugh. Jonathan leaned in close to whisper something that made her blush. Tavor had taken a seat next to Amon, and the two of them chatted amicably about various things pertaining to the events of the day.

Pekah caught the tail end of a question posed by Tavor about the farms around Ain. Amon started to answer the question, but then stood to get everybody’s attention. The chatter died down, and all eyes fixed on the captain.

“I want to explain something about this meal,” Amon said. “Just one day ago, many things were taken by force from the citizens of this conquered city. But this meal was provided entirely by the donations of families who were returned to their farms in peace. Gideonite soldiers assisted in repairing fences and doors broken during the attack. The families were grateful for the service rendered, and many of them donated chickens, fruit, flour, and other items. Many of these good people shared from very limited supplies, having lost most of their stores in our conflict. And yet they still shared.”

Amon’s eyes misted, and the room stilled. “We thank them. We thank them for their forgiveness, which they have truly manifested by their generosity. Have we ever witnessed such a day as this? I have not. I look forward to many, many more.”

Amon sat down amidst the gentle clapping of approval from the room.

Jasher then stood and thanked all for being present. He also mentioned the miraculous events of the day, and noted that he felt privileged to have had just a small part in bringing The Brothers together once again. “I wish this war had never started,” he said. “There are many things that should have been considered before Gideon marched in aggression. I shoulder much of the blame. Before casting my lot with Manasseh in this matter, I should have personally traveled to Hasor to verify what Rezon had told us about Daniel’s preparations for war. Long-standing prejudice clouded my thoughts. I consider it to be my greatest mistake. I thank Pekah, whose eyes were open to the truth, for opening my own eyes in these matters. I also want to personally beg the forgiveness of my brothers from Daniel and Uzzah for the pain, sorrow, and death inflicted upon them and their families. I pledge myself to my brothers in peace. I will never again cause them this kind of pain.”

The sincere, emotional expressions by Amon and Jasher appeared to touch Jonathan’s heart. His eyes moist, he stood, speaking softly.

“There have been sorrows for Gideon, too. I thank you for your pledge, and pray the Holy One will forgive us all, not only within Gideon, but Daniel, and Uzzah too. We are not without fault in this grave misunderstanding.”

Jasher responded that his wish was the same, to which Amon also added his approval. “Can we invite the priest within our midst to begin our meal with words of thanks?” Jasher inquired.

“Did he mean me or you?” Tavor asked Eli.

“I’m sorry, Tavor,” Jasher answered, overhearing the question. “I didn’t know you were also a priest of the temple. I was referring to Eli. Eli, would you please?”

Eli stood, and with head bowed, prayed tender words of thanks and appreciation for the safety of those present. He implored the Holy One for His guiding hands to assist those who still suffered. Before closing, Eli also asked for a quick resolution of the war still being waged near his own home of Ramathaim.

As Eli took his seat, Pekah noticed Rachel blotting tears from her eyes. Eli reached for her, drawing her close. Jasher again rose from his seat.

“My friends-please eat. Enjoy this wonderful bounty.”

Pekah relished every savory bite of the delicious meal as he chatted occasionally with those around him. Most of the conversations at the table centered on happier days spent with family and friends, but a few times during the meal, messengers who stood by were called up to receive orders from Jasher or Amon, after which they would depart on their errand. Minutes later, others who had been summoned would enter the tent, receive instructions, and then depart again. Among the guests, there was some discussion of plans for the morrow, but only in generalities, with nothing decided.

Near the end of the meal, Pekah listened in as Rachel told Jonathan of her journey from Saron. She was gracious-the references she made to the Gideonites who captured her were matter-of-fact, not spiteful. When she told Jonathan of Asah’s death, she broke down. Jonathan held her close, whispering in her ear until her sobbing stopped.

“I’m very sorry for your family’s loss,” Jasher offered when she had composed herself.

“I am also sorry for your grief,” Amon said. “Please forgive the people of Gideon for this terrible deed.”

“Thank you for your understanding,” Rachel said while blotting tears away. “He meant a lot to me and my family.”

Conversation around the table returned to small talk. As the evening grew late, Eli suggested that arrangements needed to be made for the night, but Amon announced that he had taken care of everything.

“Extra tents have been set up near here. Eli, Tavor, and Jonathan are invited to share a tent. There is also a tent for the lady,” Amon said, with a gesture to Rachel.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said.

Amon straightened and smiled, apparently pleased for his part in making her comfortable.

Jasher rose from his seat, and the rest of them did likewise. As they all stood to leave, the general reminded Pekah that he was still conscripted, and told Amon to find him accommodations with the other soldiers. “However, you may stay with your Danielite friends if you wish.”

“No, sir,” Pekah replied. “I will stay with the other soldiers, as suggested.”

“I have an extra cot in my tent,” Captain Amon offered. “I doubt the barracks in the city have any free sleeping space. We’ve sent all those who do not have a bed here within the walls to an outpost north of Ain.”

“Very well,” Jasher said.

Outside the tent, and standing under a lantern which Amon held aloft, Pekah waved his goodbye to the others. “May you all sleep well.” He then turned and followed Amon into the darkness.

***

Jonathan let go of Rachel’s hand, then waved to Pekah as he left with Amon.

Pointing to a barely discernable form in the darkness, the cloud cover preventing the moons from illuminating the plaza, Jasher said, “That tent near the fountain has been prepared for the three of you men. Jonathan, I plan to gather my captains for our journey toward Saron soon after dawn. At first light, would your group join me for a quick meal?”

“Yes, General,” Jonathan replied. “I, too, would like to be on our way as soon as possible. There are many lives at stake in the north. I hope the armies can hold the walls of Ramathaim until we arrive.” He reached for Rachel’s hand and held it tight.

“So do I,” Jasher said. “Jonathan, would you please accompany me to the lady’s quarters?”

“Yes, I will,” Jonathan said, winking at Rachel.

“We’ll see you at our tent,” Eli said as he and Tavor left.

A short distance away from the general’s accommodations, yet apart from all others, stood a tent Jonathan hadn’t noticed before. Light spilled from the open entrance. Two guards were already posted there, and to Jonathan’s surprise, a beautiful Gideonite woman waited at the entrance, her face illuminated by a lantern hanging from the tip of a pole above her. She appeared to be quite young, but she stood tall and confident. When Jasher approached, the woman stepped forward to kiss him on the cheek. Both surprised, Jonathan and Rachel exchanged glances.

“This is my recently wedded wife, Abigail,” Jasher said. “Rather than eating dinner with the soldiers and having to listen to talk of war, she insisted on seeing the beautiful fountains of Ain. She arrived a few hours ago under escort with a message from my mother, who has been ill. Abigail has cared for her while I’ve been away.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Rachel said.

Holding Abigail’s hand, Jasher motioned to the others. “This is Jonathan and his betrothed wife, Rachel. Jonathan is the heir of Daniel, and he came with the soldier I told you about, the one who brought The Thorn.”

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” Abigail said, her head dipping forward.

“I admire your courage to travel during wartime,” Jonathan said.

“Sometimes she does not concern herself with whatever danger may be out there in the world,” Jasher teased.

Abigail poked Jasher in the ribs, making him wince.

Jasher took Abigail’s hand. “Because of the change in conditions here in Ain, I asked her to stay, but we are still at war. Would it be acceptable for Rachel to stay with her as a companion?

“I would sleep much better knowing you were in the company of another woman, rather than by yourself,” Jonathan agreed.

“Yes, that would be fine,” Rachel said. “Thank you very much for your kindness.” She smiled at Abigail.

Eyes bright, Abigail reached to take Rachel by the hands, seemingly delighted to make a new friend.

“Abigail, let’s leave these two alone for a few moments. These dutiful soldiers can be their chaperones,” Jasher teased. The soldiers posted at the tent saluted sharply. The general then offered his arm to his wife as the two of them meandered toward Jasher’s tent.

Jonathan took no more notice of the guards, and reached forward to brush a strand of hair from Rachel’s face. He then pulled her to himself. Rachel’s eyes glistened with joy as he held her, and she shivered in the cool night air.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.

“I’m just thrilled to be here with you,” Rachel said as she stepped back.

Still holding her hands, he took in the beauty of her soft features under the lantern light. She took in a breath as if she wanted to talk.

“What is it? You seem to have a question.”

“When are you coming to Ramathaim with our letter of marriage? We’ve been betrothed for nearly a year now, and I’m getting anxious to know the date.”

Jonathan grinned at the prospect of finalizing their marriage. “That’s why we are going home, so I can tell Rezon to leave. He’s not invited to the celebration.”

Rachel let out a giggle as Jonathan pulled her close again, twirling her around as he did so. He held her there for a few minutes, warming her, and then bent down to kiss her tenderly on the forehead. Light from the two lesser moons bathed her fair skin.

“Don’t think you’re going to get away with a mere touch on my head, son of Samuel,” Rachel said, teasingly defiant.

He usually kissed her in a more subdued fashion, but now, with both hands, he brought her face to his and kissed her hard on the lips, making her flush. He did it again, just to show how much he enjoyed it. Rachel moved forward, resting her head on his chest. They held each other, Jonathan’s chin nestled against her warm cheek. Over Rachel’s shoulder, he could just make out a woman approaching, a glow-stone in her hand. As she got closer, he could see it was Abigail. He released Rachel with a final kiss.

“I pray you will sleep well this night, my dear lady.”

“And you, my prince.”

Both went away smiling, Rachel into her tent with Abigail, and Jonathan to his.

Chapter 18

Symbols

K issing my sister again?” Eli asked with a low chuckle when Jonathan entered the tent.

“Guilty.”

“You’re a lucky man,” Tavor said. “I have not kissed the love of my life for more than two weeks.”

“How long have you been married now? Four years, right?” Jonathan asked.

“Almost five.”

“I still remember how hot it was that day. How is your family?”

“The twins have been very… busy lately. My Sarah is a wonderful mother, but the two boys really test her strength. I wish I were there to help.”

“I’m sorry you’re not home,” Jonathan said.

“I am too. Eli and I have been scouting about longer than I would have liked, and I worry about her.”

“I understand completely-I would feel the same way.”

Tavor’s gaze fell to the ground. He cleared his throat. “Jonathan, I’m very sorry to hear about your father. Samuel was one of the best men I have ever known.”

Jonathan briefly looked away. “Thank you, Tavor. I think so too.”

Eli’s loud yawn caused the others to do the same. Each man arranged his things by his cot and bedded down quickly. Tavor slid the door closed on the glow-stone lantern closest to him, muting the light in the tent. Jonathan closed the other lantern, but it still spilled faint streams of light onto the floor through its bent door. He reached for a tunic left behind by previous occupants and covered the lantern.

Soon Eli snored like a bear in hibernation. Even after Tavor’s breathing became deep and regular, Jonathan lay thinking about his father. He was troubled by the painful memory of finding Samuel on the floor of the Council Hall.

I am alone.

He had certainly not expected to lose both his parents before he was even married.

Now, neither will see their grandchildren grow up.

A tear rolled down behind his ear. He sighed.

Thank the heavens above Rachel still has her parents. I look forward to seeing them play with our children.

He forced himself to reflect on happier times. He remembered wonderful days full of sunshine, the outdoors, and talking about the simple things of life with his parents. Jonathan had learned so much from both of them as they worked together in the gardens of Hasor.

As he began drifting off to sleep, he could almost smell the beautiful rose bush Samuel had planted in the gardens for Jonathan’s mother, Rachel.

I will do the same for my Rachel. I will plant her a rose bush. It will be a tribute to both my mother and my wife.

Jonathan rolled over and slept.

***

Sometime in the middle of the night, near morning, before the sister suns began to paint the horizon in brilliant blue, Jonathan dreamed-a dream that seemed very real to him.

He saw Jasher in a field, standing beside his wife, Abigail. There were many Gideonite, Danielite, and Uzzahite soldiers gathered around, all gazing upon the admired military leader with great sadness. Pekah stood in the group, and Jasher called him out of the crowd. As Pekah approached, Jasher kissed his wife, then took her hand and placed it in Pekah’s hand. Jasher then removed his armor and sword, placed them at Pekah’s feet, waved to those gathered, and walked away, disappearing into the distance. Jonathan then noticed three small children next to Abigail, all of them tugging at her skirts. Pekah continued to stand next to her, and all the soldiers present in the scene took one knee before him. They stretched forth their hands as if to receive what he would have them do.

The dream broke, and Jonathan jerked upright. Darkness still reigned outside the tent, and he could barely discern the heaving chest of Eli or the smaller form of Tavor near the tent wall.

He mused over the dream and wondered at it. It made no sense to him.

Why would he leave his wife and his armor in Pekah’s care?

He reviewed the dream again in his mind, surprised by the vividness of the mental images left behind. He noticed that Jasher had been very deliberate in placing Abigail’s hand in Pekah’s, almost as if he were giving her to him in marriage. And then there were the children…

This bothered Jonathan. Apart from a formal divorce-which was quite rare, and usually only in a case where a spouse had been unfaithful-the only way Abigail would be released from her husband’s claim was if Jasher had died. And yet the dream did not necessarily indicate such a thing. Jasher was alive and well when he walked away.

Jonathan lay back down. He tried to close his eyes, hoping for sleep to come again, but it did not. He gave up, and rose to dress for the day. Pulling his boots on as he stumbled toward the exit, he grabbed his gray cloak and his weapons, including the Gideonite breastplate he had obtained the day before, then left his slumbering companions behind.

He stepped out into a morning with scattered signs of a gray storm lingering in the valley. Low clouds threatened moisture, the air cool and somewhat damp. Traces of water from a quiet midnight rain remained on the ground in small pools.

The yawns and grunts of waking soldiers came from various tents around him. Jonathan could see faint traces of smoke rising from stone chimneys behind the Gideonite encampment. The pungent smell from the fires drifted in ribbons across the great plaza. Not far away, Jonathan could hear the sprays and gurgles of the central fountain of Ain. Turning his head, he could just make out the bulky shapes of three pedestals holding the bowl, and the round basin below where numerous lions guarded the water.

Jonathan pulled his cloak around himself as he shuffled toward the women’s tent. To his surprise, Rachel and Abigail were already awake and sitting outside in chairs, chatting gleefully-their hand gestures exaggerated, and both of them laughing like lifelong friends in the pre-dawn air. Seeing him approach, Rachel ran to greet him with a hug, then led him the rest of the way. Abigail rose from her seat too, and bowed slightly. Seeing the wife of General Jasher brought Jonathan’s dream back to him in a most vivid manner. He wondered again at the meaning of it.

“It gives me pleasure to again meet the heir of Daniel and to know that my new friend Rachel will truly be blessed by your union.”

Jonathan smiled and bowed back to her. “It gives me pleasure to make the acquaintance of the wife of a very brave and wise general of Gideon.”

Abigail thanked Jonathan for his kind words. With a hand on Rachel’s arm, she asked, “Would you both join me in Jasher’s tent? Even though it’s early, I am sure breakfast is ready. I know he wants to leave soon.”

“We would love to,” Rachel eagerly accepted.

Jonathan didn’t mind her speaking for him. He almost chuckled, thinking he had better get used to it.

She moved over to him, looping her arm in his as they followed Jasher’s wife to the officers’ hall.

They attempted to hurry through the meal, but before they could finish, the commotion of an army on the move already buzzed furiously around them. As they rose to leave the tent, Jasher greeted them at the door. They exited, and, once outside, could see the women’s tent had already been taken down. Abigail’s belongings were stacked in a couple of crates, ready to be loaded onto a wagon.

Jonathan noticed a sudden change in Rachel when she sighed and looked away. He gave her a concerned frown.

“I will be all right.”

“Are you sure?”

“I lost everything I purchased in Saron… but that’s not important. Remembering my capture made me think of Asah again. It makes me sick that I will have to tell Father about Asah’s death.” Rachel grabbed for his hand and held it tight, her brown eyes looking up into his.

“He was a very faithful steward. Uzziel will miss him greatly.”

“Yes, he will. Asah has been a lifelong friend to Father. The news will break his heart. How will I tell him?” Rachel’s lip quivered.

“I’ll go with you.”

Rachel squeezed his hand tighter.

Their conversation was interrupted as Jasher approached. He acknowledged Abigail with a brief touch of her arm. “Jonathan, I would like to march soon. Are you ready?”

“I am. We need to get to Ramathaim as soon as possible. I’m worried about Eli’s family-and for that matter, the entire city.”

“Agreed. I’ve arranged for mounts for you and all your companions. After you have gathered your contingent together, will you join me at the fountain?”

“I will.”

Shortly thereafter, the entire group assembled near the lion-guarded pool. The wagon loaded with items belonging to Jasher and Abigail caught Jonathan’s attention. It looked vaguely familiar. He motioned for Eli and Pekah to take a look. Eli grinned wide.

“Yes,” Eli said. “That’s the same cart.”

“I thought so! It looks as though your gift to the late emperor will get some proper use.”

Pekah laughed.

All around them in the central plaza, groups of tens and fifties made final preparations to leave, some with horses, some with wagons of supplies and weapons. Jonathan marveled at the sight. Never had he witnessed a mixing of the tribes-groups of fifties being comprised of tens of Gideonites and tens of Danielites, with occasional tens of Uzzahites scattered here and there. Before him, a sea of raven-emblazoned breastplates covering the green tunics of Gideon was accented by the humble browns and grays of Daniel, and garnished with the coarse whites and browns of Uzzah.

Above them, Azure and Aqua were hidden behind a tapestry of gray, causing the morning to be cool, yet slightly humid, as the mists of the previous night lifted from the damp cobblestones of the plaza. Jonathan peered heavenward, hoping to catch a glimpse of the blue suns, but could not make them out. Now three days since the Sabbath, the two sisters were surely as far apart as they could be.

His neck ached. He rubbed it, noticing his own fatigue. Aimlessly scanning the crowd, his gaze fell on Jasher, who whispered to his next in command. Amon nodded, and Jasher lifted his hands until all chatter died.

“I wish to make good time in our travel today, so we are going to leave at once. We will take five hundred. Others are still gathering, and will bring up the rear with the supply wagons. I have arranged for horses for our group, especially on account of the women who will be traveling with us.”

A particularly rotund Gideonite shouted from the back of the crowd, “Will the emperor’s chamber be loaded up and brought with us?” His deep voice rumbled across the plaza, and those who heard him turned to look at the platform. Jonathan could see the dark wood flooring, once part of the portable stateroom of the emperor, and right next to it, a pile of broken beams, splintered lumber, and other pieces of ruin.

Jasher hesitated, but then responded gravely, “No. We will leave it. Let the Danielites of Ain have it. Perhaps they wish to save it for a memorial, so their children will remember what happened here yesterday when a very brave man named Pekah came to visit the emperor of Gideon…” Jasher’s voice trailed off, and then with a tremor in his voice, he exclaimed, “And remember today, when Gideon rides with Daniel and Uzzah. May our peoples never war again!”

A cheer went up from the group. Jonathan felt Jasher’s humble words pour into his own heart, and he was thrilled by the joy and excitement shining in faces all around him. Many in the group shook hands in friendship, and a break in the clouds spilled light across the city.

Rachel squeezed Jonathan’s hand, but he hardly noticed she had done so at first. She tugged a little harder, finally getting his full attention. He turned to see tears of joy in her eyes, apparently also deeply touched by Jasher’s pronouncement. Grateful for her sensitivity, he pulled her close and felt her warmth.

Daniel. Uzzah. Gideon.

Jonathan soaked up every detail-the crowd, the fresh smell of the light fountain mist floating in the air, the blast of a horn as Jasher waved the troops out of the plaza, Rachel’s hand in his. Everything about the experience made his skin tingle.

“I will remember this forever, Rachel.”

“Which part will you remember most?”

“The tribes, all together. Our children will hear the story of this day until I’m too old to tell it, or they are too tired of hearing it.”

“You will be a wonderful father, Jonathan.” Rachel pulled him close and kissed him.

Chapter 19

Assassins

T he next day Jonathan awoke to the warm glow of both suns and heard the enthusiastic chirping of birds in the trees all around him. They had camped in the Geber Pass, their tents filling every level spot next to the road that hugged the Saron River, winding between craggy cliffs and sheer rock faces. Gurgling from the swift water echoed against the nearby rock walls on the east, while the clangs, scrapes, and voices typical to any breakfast scene for several hundred soldiers bounced through crevices and cracks on the west.

Jasher’s company, led by Amon, had been joined by three other captains of fifty during the previous day, and the smoke from fires belonging to two thousand others was strung out as far as they could see toward the valleys and mountains of Ain-the city itself no longer visible in the distance. Most of the men in Amon’s camp had eaten and darted about in preparation to march once again.

Jonathan stood with Eli, Pekah, and Tavor, all dressed in Gideonite armor. A breastplate large enough for Eli had been found and brought to the camp during the previous evening’s meal. He wore it proudly.

Searching for either Captain Amon or the general, Jonathan spied Jasher apart from the camp, talking to Abigail. Eager to get Jasher’s opinion about leaving right away, he motioned to the others, and they started walking. As they approached the couple, Jonathan realized they were whispering. He held back, not wishing to interrupt any conversation intended to be private, but Jasher noticed them and waved them over.

“Good morning, Lady Abigail and General Jasher,” Jonathan greeted.

Abigail smiled and bowed. The general stepped forward and gripped the heir of Daniel by the hand.

“What a beautiful morning it is!” Jasher exclaimed.

“I don’t mind a little rain, but it certainly is nice to see the suns again after a day of total gray. Far better for travel, too.”

“With weather like this…” Eli said with a suspenseful long pause and a yawning stretch, “I am going to need another breakfast.”

“You would eat three, if offered,” Tavor chided with a wink.

Eli appeared shocked at the accusation, and then sheepishly shrugged his shoulders in a most exaggerated manner, causing his bright red beard to bunch up.

They were interrupted by the noise of horses riding fast from the north, and all turned to see who approached. Two Gideonite soldiers, both with wavy hair as black as night, rode up to the small group, pulling their mounts to a stop. The tallest one dismounted first and held both horses in place, but the shorter, stronger one jumped from his perch, heading straight for the general.

“General Jasher,” he declared, “I am Zev. Ilan and I have been sent by General Rezon to deliver an important message to the emperor. Where can I find him?”

Jasher studied them, but did not answer.

Something peculiar about these two, Jonathan thought, watching them closely.

“The emperor is not in our company,” Jasher finally replied. “Can we talk about this message privately? I can then take you to Manasseh, if need be.”

Ilan shot Zev a troubled glance, but did not speak. Zev straightened and, with a wry smile, said, “Yes, sir. Would you like to walk for a minute?”

Jasher consented and motioned for the rest of the group to remain as he joined the two riders. Zev and Ilan led their horses by the reins, and the three of them went a short distance in the direction from which the two soldiers had just come.

Zev whispered. From where he stood, Jonathan couldn’t hear a word of their conversation. Meanwhile, Ilan frequently peeked over his shoulder, his expression puzzled. On his third glance back, his countenance changed to fear.

“Did you see that?” Tavor said in a low voice.

“Yes. The Gideonite just realized that Jasher travels with Daniel and Uzzah,” Eli replied.

Abigail stepped close to Jonathan, who stood next to Eli and Pekah. “Why are they each wearing a glove on the right hand?”

Pekah turned white as wool and grabbed Jonathan’s shoulder in alarm. “I’ve heard rumors of secret alliances within Gideon. They make pledges in blood, cutting their right hands.”

Abigail gasped. “Something’s wrong! They’re going to hurt Jasher!”

Jonathan’s jaw clenched. Pekah’s eyes lit up with fire as he yanked his sword from its sheath, the sound of scraping metal heard by Jasher and the two soldiers. They turned to see. Recognizing that their situation had become very precarious, the two soldiers backed away from the general, putting Jasher between themselves and the others. Jasher startled, arming himself in a second.

Zev’s reflexes were as quick as a cat. He was on his horse, spurring it northward, before anyone could move to stop him. Ilan too attempted to mount, but before he could get in the saddle, Eli threw a sizable rock and hit him in the back with such force, he was knocked to the ground. Jasher pounced, his sword tip pressed against Ilan’s neck.

Jonathan grabbed for an arrow from his quiver, but realized his unstrung bow was of no use. He drew his own sword and stepped next to Pekah for support as Zev disappeared behind a rising cloud of dust.

“What is your message for the emperor?” Jasher thundered, pressing his sword point harder against Ilan’s neck.

Ilan did not respond. He lay on his side, wincing. Jonathan and the others approached, weapons in hand. Jasher backed away as Ilan was encircled. Ilan’s gaze darted all around at the Gideonites, Danielites, and Uzzahites above him. He trembled in fear.

Before Ilan could be stopped, he whipped out his belt dagger, placed the tip against his chest, and rolled over on top of the blade, choking out a pain-filled yell. Jonathan leaped forward, trying to grab Ilan’s shoulders, but was too late-Ilan gasped for breath, then stilled. Frustrated, Jonathan dropped to a knee and flipped him over.

Abigail let out a soft scream and collapsed into a pile on the ground. Jasher ran to her, and Eli followed to help. The general lifted her sobbing frame into his arms, having some difficulty keeping her limp body from dropping again. The rest of the men gathered around, watching with great concern as Jasher consoled his wife.

After several minutes, Abigail was strong enough to stand on her own. She wiped the tears from her eyes onto the sleeves of her slim green dress.

“Are you hurt?” she asked, nearly sobbing out the words.

“I am fine, my love. I am fine.” Jasher rubbed her shoulders tenderly until she stopped shaking.

Abigail sniffed, then pulled her raven-black hair into a knot. She managed to give Jasher a thin smile.

His hand still on her shoulder, Jasher turned to address the men. “I didn’t see what happened before Pekah drew his sword. What made you all suspect something was wrong?”

With great admiration in his voice, Jonathan said, “Abigail noticed it. She asked why they were wearing a single glove.’”

Jasher squinted as if confused.

Pekah explained. “Her observation reminded me of a rumor I heard while serving under Captain Sachar-General Rezon has placed men under a blood oath to kill his enemies. They make the oath by cutting their right hands.”

Jasher’s eyes grew as large as apples. He looked at Jonathan, then at Pekah.

“They were going to kill you!” Abigail trembled, her body swaying.

Catching her, Jasher pulled his dear wife into his arms once again.

Chapter 20

Uzziel

J ust after dawn, Uzziel the High Priest stood on the outer city wall of Ramathaim and peered over the crenellations toward the steep hillside below, hoping to catch some view of the army in the distance. He grumbled, still unable to see much of anything. Rains from the previous day caused a lingering, thick fog to enshroud the entire landscape, including the slopes of Bald Mountain over which the sister suns were rising. It would be another hour or so before they would be able to burn off the mists.

Josiah and Abram stood nearby, fully armed, with bows ready. Even though they were occupied with their own thoughts, their presence made the old high priest feel safe where he stood. Uzziel peeked over the battlements again, thinking about the previous evening when visibility had been hampered by the storms that rolled through. He hoped clearing skies would soon allow him to catch a glimpse of the progress being made below.

The Gideonite army had been camped there for the last four days, building embankments and connecting them with trenches. The trenches provided cover-the only way for the Gideonites to stay safe from an onslaught of arrows from skilled Uzzahite warriors. Each time Uzziel had checked, piles of earth and deep ditches were ever closer to the city walls.

Uzziel analyzed the strategy he had previously observed, marveling at the careful, deliberate planning being done by the Gideonite army. Clear paths on both sides of the advance had been left completely untouched by pick or shovel, along with a wide patch of ground next to the road from Hasor, running straight up the middle. This would allow siege machines and other heavy equipment to advance into position eventually. Yesterday, Uzziel had caught a glimpse of covered battering rams and weighted catapults being built. He expected the damage inflicted by the machines would be terrible.

Worried, Uzziel leaned against a merlon and looked over his beloved city. He felt gratitude for what he saw-elegant architecture and tactical design. Ramathaim nestled up against the Hara Mountains, its northern gates wedged far into a wide canyon leading to Karmel and other cities of Uzzah and Daniel. Two other semi-circular stone walls, each reaching for anchor points on opposite sides of the gaping canyon mouth, protected the southern side of the city. Skilled stone masons had anchored the gray granite blocks of the outer wall to the eastern and western cliffs, and the height was a dizzying drop of more than two hundred feet. The inner southern wall, although not as high, rested on the top-most terrace of a network of stepped gardens, orchards, and vineyards. A vast, arcing courtyard touched both the bottom terrace and the outer wall, unbroken except for a sloping road which climbed from the outer gates, up the terraces, through the main gates, and into the city.

Besides being the fastest way to the northern realms, the canyon provided a plentiful water supply to the city. Fed by natural springs, the small river descended from the heights above to duck under the northern wall, disappearing into numerous tunnels under the city streets. Various branches of the hidden river then poured into open-air stone canals that zig-zagged across the city until all routes met again at a beautiful pool in Ramathaim’s eastern quarter. Water then spilled over into an aqueduct that hugged the eastern cliffs and bridged the city walls. Reaching the end of its journey, the water plummeted into a small lake below the outer wall, and the remaining stream then meandered through the southern foothills until it turned east to the ocean.

As he looked northward, Uzziel thought of the reinforcements who had arrived the previous day. In addition to families seeking protection, warriors from neighboring communities to the north had poured into Ramathaim, greatly adding to its strength. The provisions they brought with them would easily allow the city to endure a siege of over ninety days, if the walls were not breached. Many of the northern cities had been emptied of their inhabitants, and a thousand of their men were staged in the northern canyon to protect both the passage and Ramathaim’s water supply.

All of this gave Uzziel some amount of confidence. Reinforcements and provisions were blessings from above. As long as the southern walls held, families would be protected.

Families.

Uzziel searched below for the road to Hasor, but still couldn’t see through the fog. Previously guarded emotions bubbled up within him.

Where are Asah and Rachel? They are now five days late.

Uzziel’s chest tightened. With Gideon here, may the heavens keep my daughter away!

He caught an unexpected sob before it could escape and gripped the parapet to steady himself. Neither of the attending soldiers seemed to notice his body trembling under the control he tried to exert. It took him several minutes to fight back the grief that threatened to overwhelm him.

With a heavy sigh, Uzziel motioned to Josiah and Abram to follow him back down the steep steps into the grassy outer courtyard. “I will come back later,” he said. “Perhaps with more time, the fog will burn off.”

“That’s fine. We can go,” Josiah replied.

Uzziel led the way. Already girded up, his robe was held in place by a coarse, white sash, but the steep decent still forced him to further lift the lower folds in order to prevent a fall. His robe, almost entirely white except for the exquisite blue hem, bounced on his bony knees with each step down the granite stairway.

Pushing thoughts of Rachel out of his mind, Uzziel thought instead of the colored hem. “As blue as the heavens above,” he was fond of saying, or as his wife Miriam would say, “As pure as the color of Azure.” Both were good descriptions for the rare color, produced from saltwater shellfish obtained in one particular lagoon a few days north of Karmel.

Uzziel was comfortable in the simple garment of a temple priest. The coarse, white cloth accentuated his red-streaked hair and long, well-groomed beard, also nearly white. Miriam said all the white caused him to look much older than he really was, perhaps even distinguished, but it still suited him well. Thinking of her made him smile.

Once on flat ground, his rapid pace across the courtyard made it hard for Josiah and Abram to keep up. They seemed to be distracted by everything around them, watching for any sign of danger within the city walls. When they reached the far side of the grassy courtyard and approached the main city gate, they were hailed from above. Gigantic wood doors, made of beams thirty feet long, groaned open to receive them.

The three men passed the sentinels posted inside the doors, expressing their appreciation, and the doors shut behind them. They followed the cobbled pathway across a second, much smaller, interior courtyard where several groups of soldiers were preparing arrows and other arms. Uzziel took the second street on the right that immediately began to ascend. Buildings bordering the street leaned in on them, getting closer with every step, until the width of the passage became barely wide enough to allow two horse-drawn carts to pass each other. The cobbled road steepened further.

Uzziel breathed more heavily as they continued on the sloped road. They crossed several intersecting streets and finally arrived at a beautifully crafted archway on the west side.

“Please come in,” Uzziel invited his bodyguards, who were now guests. “Would you join me for something to eat? Surely you’re hungry.”

The two Uzzahite soldiers said, “Yes, thank you,” almost in unison. At his direction, they sat down at the oak table centered in the main room of the residence. The smell of a hot breakfast wafted in from the brick oven in the adjoining chamber, making Uzziel’s mouth water.

A woman in her early fifties entered the room, looking quite surprised to see three of them there.

“Uzziel, I heard you come in, but I didn’t know you had guests with you!”

The soldiers politely introduced themselves as they stood up, and then at Uzziel’s insistence, sat again on the bench.

“I am sorry, dear, for the surprise.” Uzziel said, smiling. “Did you know it rained all through the night? I didn’t even notice. It left behind a nice fog to greet us this morning-couldn’t see a thing! The steps to the wall were slippery, too. Almost fell on my way up. Thanks to Abram, I didn’t fall-he caught me. The Gideonites are still there-I was quite disappointed to see them. I suppose they will not go away as I had hoped. It makes me wonder what they are eating for breakfast. I bet they raided everything they could from…”

Uzziel did not get the last sentence fully out before Miriam placed a hand on his arm, and he remembered to breathe.

“Sorry, dear. I’m so hungry!”

“I am glad… very glad, that I made extra today. Would you like some eggs? Isn’t it a beautiful day?” Miriam brushed her auburn hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand. Her question was sincere, yet hollow, like an echo in an empty barrel. She didn’t wait for answers to either question. She placed four plates on the table and dished out scrambled eggs before Uzziel even had time to say, “Yes, thank you.”

Josiah and Abram were both young, strong men. Neither seemed to be married, or at least Uzziel did not think they were. But at one point in their breakfast conversation, Abram mentioned that his wife Esther had recently given birth to his first child, a boy. He commented on the wonderful blessings that had come into his life, expressing his desire never to lose them.

Uzziel was genuinely happy for Abram, but the conversation died as his eyes knowingly met Miriam’s. The charade Uzziel and Miriam had been playing was too difficult to keep up any longer, and a palpable despair settled over the couple. Josiah tried to comfort them.

“Your daughter will be fine. Surely the Great Creator will keep her safe.”

Uzziel sighed. “Yes, I pray that He will.” He reached for Miriam’s hands. They were cold, and she shivered as he pulled her closer. Dread clouded her eyes.

“My dear little Uzzah… I cannot lose another…” Miriam whispered.

“Miriam,” Uzziel said with a tremor in his voice. “Rachel will come back to us.”

Their eyes held each other’s for a long time, then Miriam stood, sniffling.

“Your food is going to get cold,” she chided as she returned to serving.

Josiah and Abram proved to have the ravenous appetites of youth. They cleared every serving bowl or platter of bread, fruit, eggs, and other items placed before them. Uzziel ate slowly, privately worrying about his daughter.

Abram wiped his mouth on his napkin and sincerely thanked the lady of the house for the wonderful meal and for inviting them to partake without any prior notice. Uzziel apologized again to his wife and kissed her hand as he rose from his seat, making her blush. Josiah and Abram stood as Uzziel hugged Miriam close to him.

“Rachel will be fine… she will be fine!” he whispered in her ear, trying to be optimistic.

Miriam sniffed.

“My prayers are with you,” Josiah said.

“And mine,” Abram added.

“I am most grateful for those prayers,” Miriam said as she escorted them to the door. “I’m praying too.”

The soldiers followed the temple priest out as Miriam shut the door, and Uzziel led the way back down the street. At the first intersection, they turned to the right onto Marketway, a cobblestone road higher on the sides than in the middle, a natural drainage ditch in the center. Waste water trickled downstream, carrying an occasional food scrap or piece of straw with it. Although the street was a permanent marketplace, most of the small tents and stands were not yet open on account of the early hour. Even though they were just passing through, Uzziel either waved or briefly chatted with almost every person they met, but Josiah and Abram were patient.

Leaving the marketplace, they crossed a large court, fenced in by buildings on two sides and a massive wall on the north end. Walls of brick and stone provided an immovable complement to the animal pens bordering the wide courtyard, all of which were filled to capacity with sheep destined for the temple just beyond the archway in the high wall. The sheep here were not tended by street vendors, but rather by priests who had the rotating assignment to care for them. All the temple herds had been gathered into the city when news of the approaching armies arrived, and once the courtyard pens had been stocked, the remaining animals were driven into the Karmel-Ramathaim Canyon to graze. There, they would be guarded until the hillsides around the city were again safe.

Arriving at the archway, the high priest and his bodyguards passed underneath and into view of the glorious white granite temple that loomed before them. Each stone used to build the magnificent structure was much lighter, even almost white, compared to the gray granite blocks used in every other wall or building of the city. The walls of the temple were smooth and somewhat reflective, but not so shiny that Aqua and Azure could be discerned in their surfaces. The blue orbs were just high enough in the sky to illuminate most of the temple grounds, which were no less striking than the building itself. Trees with ornately braided trunks, well-groomed shrubs, a stunning fountain on the west end of the plaza, and immense flower beds framed the building on all sides, except for the eastern porch. This area, an expanse larger than the temple itself, had been paved with gray granite flagstones so finely cut, so expertly coupled together, that a person would find it difficult to insert a knife blade between the stones.

The raised porch stood three steps above the rest of the grounds. At its center stood the Rock of Sacrifice-an altar that had been cut from a single massive block of white granite. At the time of the temple’s construction, it took a thousand men and several teams of horses to move the block down from the special quarry in the Karmel-Ramathaim Canyon. Stonemasons worked for several weeks on the rock to shape it, the craftsmanship unparalleled.

The altar featured recessed stairs to reach the top from the west, a large central depression for the fires that burned there every day, wide slots on the other three sides to allow for stoking the flames with additional cedar planks, and an iron grate seated into hewn notches in the top, providing the level surface where the sacrifices would be offered. Each corner of the symmetrical platform also had been carved into the shape of an ox horn-a symbol of both the sacrifices offered there and the Tribe of Uzzah.

Directly east of the Rock of Sacrifice was an octagon-shaped laver, or font, fed and drained by unseen aqueducts beneath the flagstones. Built into the platform, the recessed font enabled those who came for the ritual washing by immersion, or baptism, to descend into it. It was large enough for the priest and the initiate both to stand in the waist-deep water, where they could perform the ordinance without fear of striking the sides of the font.

From the vantage point of the Rock or the font, an observer could gaze up at the single temple spire. It towered far above the hand-carved oak entrance, reaching for the suns. The stepped, cylindrical spire was the most impressive feature of the structure, and the top-most cylinder had been crafted from small, white granite blocks, intermingled with large, exceptionally wide glow-stones from the Hasor mines. The natural prism-like surfaces of the glow-stones spilled rainbow colors and bright shafts of light all around the complex. The capstone of the spire held both stone and crystal together-a semi-globe of pure gold that dazzled the eyes of anyone looking thereon.

Uzziel would never tire of the temple. Gazing upon it brought such deep and poignant feelings to him, he always felt inclined to smile and say a prayer of thanks in his heart for the beauty of it.

Now at the second hour of the day, a group of temple priests arrived to begin their duties. One of the more senior members of the group broke off from the others and approached Uzziel with obvious excitement to see him.

“Boaz!” the high priest greeted as the man approached.

“Peace be to you, Uzziel! What word have you had from the Captain of the Host?”

Uzziel put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and said with some consternation, “I have not spoken to Jeremy this morning, but I fear the outlook will not be good. I went upon the outer wall just as the suns were rising, but could not see the progress being made on the trenches. I would guess, from what I saw yesterday, that there may be only one more day before Gideon is close enough to use the machines.”

Boaz scratched his beard as Uzziel released him. “I’ll join you at the wall with my own bow, if you wish.”

“I know you would. But for now, we’ll leave the battle to the younger warriors,” Uzziel said with a wink.

Boaz gave a low chuckle and patted Uzziel’s arm. “You’re right. My eyes are not as sharp as they were yesterday.”

Uzziel laughed with him for a moment, but then became grave. “Boaz, I came to tell you that I got word from a pair of our scouts, who returned last night under the cover of darkness. They confirmed that both Hasor and Saron have been taken.” He paused, then said, “I fear there will not be any assistance from Daniel.” His eyes misted.

“I have feared the same,” Boaz acknowledged, a tremble in his voice.

Both were silent for a moment. Josiah and Abram glanced at each other, but said nothing.

Uzziel took a deep breath. He needed to remain positive. “All will be well. The Holy One will give us aid.”

“We’ve been praying for such aid,” Boaz said. “We have also been praying for your children. Please take courage, Uzziel.”

“Thank you, my dearest friend,” Uzziel said, a fresh tear tumbling down his cheek. There was another awkward silence, and then Uzziel spoke to Josiah and Abram.

“We must be going, my friends.”

“Yes, sir.”

Boaz said goodbye and trudged toward the entrance of the temple, his head low as he went.

Chapter 21

Siege

T hat day passed, and the auroras of the season burned across the skies once again during the night. Uzziel did not sleep well. All night long, he searched through wooded mountains and called out for his children in his dreams. None of them answered.

The first signs of light appeared behind the thin curtains of his bedroom window, and Uzziel awoke to find he was holding Miriam close. She did not stir. He lay there, his mind churning over the scenes he had witnessed the previous afternoon. He had watched the progress of the Gideonite advance-slow, yet constant, the enemy never tiring. By day’s end, they had come considerably closer to their goal of bringing their siege weapons to an attack position within range of the outer city wall.

Uzziel gently pulled his arm out from under Miriam’s neck and dressed in silence. He left just before dawn to meet Josiah and Abram at the base of the outer wall. A fire-pit stood near the stone stairway by the outer gates-one fire among many scattered between the inner and outer walls. In addition to the soldiers assigned to protect the high priest, ten more Uzzahite warriors were present, each nursing steaming hot cider.

“Peace be to you, Priest of Uzzah,” came their formal greeting.

“And to you, my sons.” He tried to hide the sorrow in his voice. “Have you heard the enemy stirring this morning?”

“Not yet,” Josiah said.

“Then let us get to the top and see if we can wake them up. I brought a nice big torch-arrow to light their morning,” Uzziel said, attempting to be playful.

Abram set down his mug with a wide grin, and grabbed his bow. Uzziel handed him the arrow. Josiah yanked a cold torch from a holder near the fire and lit it before handing it to the high priest. Uzziel invited the other soldiers to stay behind to finish their breakfast, and motioned for Josiah to lead the way. The three of them walked to the familiar stairway and began the ascent. As they climbed, they could see Azure and Aqua just peeking over the western heights of Bald Mountain, bathing the entire valley in bright light. It was going to be a beautiful, clear day.

Once they attained the walkway, they huddled behind the merlons for a few seconds before venturing a peek below. What Uzziel saw nearly took his breath away. Somehow during the night, and without the knowledge of the patrols of Ramathaim, the Gideonite army had succeeded in bringing one of their siege engines within striking distance of the wall. The catapult was hidden beneath a camouflage of brush.

As he watched, a contingent of Gideonites uncovered the catapult, while other enemy soldiers stood by with bows ready. None of them paid any attention to the top of the wall, and the three spying Uzzahites were not noticed before they had a chance to duck behind the parapets again.

Josiah said in a whisper, “They don’t realize they’ve been seen. Let us light our arrow. We’ll send it as a gift and make the siege engine burn!”

Eager to comply, Abram nocked the arrow, and Uzziel put flame to it. Abram waited a few moments to let the fire encompass the entire tip, and then swung around to the nearest crenel, letting the arrow loose.

It was nearly to the target before the Gideonite soldiers reacted to the tell-tale whistle. They yelled in alarm when the arrow firmly embedded itself in the exact center of the catapult’s throwing arm. Several scrambled out of the way and sent their own arrows flying toward the wall, but much too late to hit any mark. One man yanked the arrow from the catapult arm and stomped on it to extinguish the flame. Only a singed streak was left behind on the war machine.

“I think we should get off the wall!” Uzziel chuckled.

Josiah assisted Abram to move Uzziel away from the parapet, then the three of them ducked out of sight and bounded down the stairs from which they had come. The other Uzzahite warriors at the fire-pit were now armed. One soldier stepped forward, introduced himself as Samuel, and offered a large shield. He insisted that Uzziel walk under it, and helped Josiah and Abram to hold it above the high priest’s head. They hurried across the grassy court and up the ramped road to the protecting inner wall of Ramathaim. They darted through the open gate, and Uzziel thanked Samuel, who then dismissed himself. A loud crash and rumble came from the direction they had just come.

“They’ve used the machine!” Abram exclaimed.

Without comment, Uzziel ran back out and stood next to Samuel. Josiah and Abram caught up with him, and the four of them watched as a flood of Uzzahite warriors assembled from every direction, helmets and shields flashing in the morning rays. With amazing speed, the troops fell into columns, with arrows ready. A spotter on the wall signaled the direction of the catapult and provided the archers with directional angle for their aim, and then he dropped his other arm as if it were a mallet. Like lightning striking from the heavens, a volley of arrows-some flaming and some not-arced over the outer wall. They heard screams in the distance, and the spotter reported that many of the projectiles had found their mark.

In perfect harmony, each of the Uzzahite warriors lifted a shield from the ground to create a protective ceiling over themselves. Just as they had anticipated, a return volley whistled over the wall and bounced like pebbles thrown all around them. Again, the shields were dropped, and another strike was delivered by the Uzzahite archers. The spotter on the wall signaled that the catapult was now unprotected.

Twenty archers with flaming arrows assembled on the wall. After three swift salvos, the spotter signaled that the machine burned. The warriors’ loud cheer burst skyward. Uzziel leaned forward, straining to see for himself if the spotter’s report was true, his heart pounding in his chest. Like a leaf caught in a sudden gust of wind, a pillar of smoke rose over the wall. Uzziel danced.

Chapter 22

Plans

F amiliar sights of industry bordering the river told Jonathan they were very close to Saron, city of the plains. Flowing northward from the direction of the Geber Pass, the Saron River held both gristmills and lumber mills upon its grassy shoulders. Each appeared to be untended, although water wheels continually sloshed in the river.

Jonathan stood in the stirrups, but a gentle rise before the advancing army still hid their destination from view. Even though he could not see the city with his eyes, he remembered its charming characteristics well-a tiny blue lake fed by a spring at its center that eventually emptied by way of canal into the river, wandering streets paved with brown bricks, round adobe buildings with thatched roofs, and small parks of trees where the citizens could gather to socialize in the evenings.

Quaint as it may seem to a visitor, Saron was in reality a very busy place. Artisan shops of every variety, markets for commodities and handcrafted wares, bustling bakeries, storehouses, and especially the efficient mills drew the masses to Saron, transforming it into a center of trade and industry. Jonathan had been there many times himself. Every day, apart from the Sabbath, scores from each tribe would arrive to sell their goods and purchase needed items. Sometimes the streets were so clogged with people, Jonathan could barely move, but he didn’t mind. He was used to the crowds.

As the army crested the hill, Jonathan could see Saron sprawled out before him. It spread across the rolling plain like the branches of a fruit tree-some portions dense, and others mere offshoots. Seeing a particular area of the city where he had done business before, he pointed out the familiar location to Rachel, who rode next to him. Engrossed in conversation, Jonathan hardly noticed crossing the rest of the distance from the hill.

When they gained the outskirts of the city, they found themselves near one of the livestock trading areas. Daniel, Uzzah, and Gideon always traded with each other in Saron-it was a completely natural and common sight. But now Jonathan stared in wonder at the gathered throng near animal pens where the proud banners of Gideon, Daniel, and Uzzah flapped together in the breeze. Only the colors of Daniel had ever flown there before.

Jonathan guessed that the messengers dispatched earlier in the morning had gathered the crowd when he recognized one of them rushing to greet Jasher, who now rode nearby. The soldier saluted as he approached.

“General Jasher, the city has been secured. All prisoners have been released. They await your arrival.”

“Excellent!” the general replied. “And our men?”

“All patrols have been called in. They have been informed.”

Jasher hailed the crowd that had swelled into hundreds, then waved the army forward, leading the way. Many people along the roadside lifted their hands to touch the riders as they went by. Once at the center of the throng, the general raised his arm, and the procession came to a stop. After the crowd quieted, Jasher shared the events of past days. Even though he had heard the story before, Jonathan listened intently.

“My brothers from Daniel and Uzzah, it is my desire to end this war,” Jasher said as he finished recounting what had happened in Ain. “I now ride with Jonathan of Daniel and many of your friends from the northern cities of Uzzah. Saron is free. You may return to your homes-but I need the help of those who are able. Together we are strong. We must stop General Rezon. Will you join me?”

The crowd cheered. Many able-bodied men stepped forward and pledged their support.

Jasher again waved them onward, and the entire crowd followed. Many of the Danielite residents of Saron, freed by Jasher’s arrival, peeled off from the entourage to return to their homes. Progress through the city slowed. Excited children ran to and fro through the crowd. One child rushed up to her home and hugged the adobe walls before entering with her mother. The sight of her happiness thrilled Jonathan. He caught Rachel looking over at him with a sparkle in her eye, and he winked at her.

When Jasher turned onto the road to Hasor, Azure and Aqua were burning high in the sky. The army halted for a much-needed rest. This allowed others to catch up, including the many men of Saron who had previously departed to check on their homes. They returned bearing additional provisions and weapons. Only those with young families stayed behind, but word came that they had committed to assist the families of those who were leaving, making the cause of peace a communal effort.

After loosing their horses to graze upon the slopes bordering the road, Jonathan stood upon a small hill with his friends and surveyed the scene. Amongst the crowd he could see banners representing every tribe-the green and white of Gideon, the purple and white of Daniel, and the blue and white of Uzzah. A gentle breeze made them all wave proudly. Underneath the high banners, the gathered multitude appeared as dew upon the grass. Jonathan smiled.

Jasher approached and pulled Amon aside, but not out of hearing range. Jonathan watched with interest as Amon received orders from the general.

“Place, or find, captains of fifty within each tribe,” Jasher directed. “Then place over every three captains a more senior captain to lead them all.”

“You wish to make units of one hundred and fifty?” Amon verified.

“Yes. And I want to mix the tribes. Three groups of fifty-one from each tribe.”

“Very well, sir. We have enough from Uzzah to form perhaps three or four of these units, but not more. What do you wish to do with the rest of Daniel and Gideon?”

“You may mix them in a similar fashion, I suppose, but with two groups of fifty from each of the tribes.”

“And their colors? Do you wish each fifty to fly their own?”

“Precisely. When we find Rezon, I want him to see what has been done. I want him to see The Brothers together and be surprised. Astonishment-that is what I am after. What do you suppose Rezon will think when he sees us?”

Amon laughed. “I know what I would think.” He saluted, then departed to relay the orders to the other captains. Jasher walked off with his entourage of messengers and aides in tow.

“How far is Hasor from here?” Pekah asked.

“Slightly farther than you made me march the day before the Suns’ Crossing.” Eli grinned from ear to ear. When Pekah began to laugh, Eli shouldered him off balance as he had on the day of his rescue, and chuckled.

“Don’t hurt my bodyguard,” Jonathan scolded.

Rachel drew close and took his hand in hers. “Your bodyguard?” she asked.

Pekah’s face reddened.

“Rachel,” Jonathan said as he gestured toward the young Gideonite, “Pekah saved my life. The day before you and I were reunited, we came upon a Gideonite soldier who was not happy about the three of us traveling together. Pekah stepped in front of an arrow meant for me.”

Pointing to the small dent and crack in Pekah’s breastplate, Jonathan added, “Here is the testament to his deed.”

Rachel leaned forward to see it better, then looked up at Pekah, her eyes wide. “You weren’t hurt?”

Shaking his head, Pekah said, “Only a scratch.”

Rachel gave him a warm smile. “The Great King rewarded your selfless act by protecting your life. You are very brave.”

Embarrassed, Pekah looked away, but replied, “Thank you.”

Jonathan’s attention was diverted by two Danielite women making their way through the crowds of soldiers. He couldn’t make out what the taller woman said, but she held something, showing it to everyone. Each person she approached responded, “I’m sorry, I have not.”

Once the women were close enough, Jonathan could discern what the woman had in her hand. Both of the women recognized Jonathan and bowed their heads in respect.

“Jonathan, Son of Samuel, please help me,” the taller woman pleaded. “We are looking for our husbands. My husband is Benjamin, son of Daniel…”

“And mine is Simeon, son of Saul,” said the other. “Benjamin is wearing a token like this on his quiver.”

The lace ribbon she held matched the one found on the Danielite soldier’s quiver strap just outside of Ain on the road from Gilad. Jonathan swallowed. “Yes. I have seen them, my dear ladies.”

At first their eyes lit up with excitement, but when they saw Jonathan’s countenance, fear clouded their faces.

Jonathan carefully reached into the hidden pocket beneath his tunic and pulled the forgotten items from safe-keeping. He opened his hand, revealing a tight roll of lace, hair sticking out both ends. Next to it was a beautiful silver ring, a small lock of hair attached.

The sight made the women gasp. One of them was so shocked, she seemed to be frozen in place. The taller woman’s hand trembled as she took the lace from Jonathan’s open hand and stared at it in disbelief. Tears welled up in her eyes. She searched her companion’s eyes, and the two of them embraced, sobbing uncontrollably.

Rachel wept with them.

About this time, Abigail returned from an errand, smiling and happy, but she stilled as she witnessed the mood of the group. Seeing Rachel trying to console the women, she joined them, asking what she could do to help.

Jonathan still held the ring. Rachel whispered with a sniffle, “Let me give it to her. Do you mind?”

He placed it in her hand. Tears from Rachel’s eyes fell into his beard as she kissed him on the cheek. He did not bother to brush them off, but Rachel noticed and did it for him.

Making their way a few paces off, the men left the women alone to talk, but still watched over them. Abigail seemed to offer words of comfort. After a while, the crying stopped, and the women talked in low voices. Jonathan saw one of the women staring at her keepsake of ribbon. He thought about his actions in the forest, grateful he’d had the presence of mind to retrieve the belongings. He wondered if the women ever would have known what happened to their husbands if he hadn’t noticed that ribbon.

Somber, Jonathan and the others made their way over to several horse carts that had arrived with provisions. After taking a few bags of the items being distributed, the men found a place to sit on a hill by the road. They ate in silence as they watched the women talk.

Tavor frowned. He cleared his throat. “Eli, what should be done with Rachel when we get to Hasor? The battlefield is not really a place for her.”

Jonathan agreed.

“If Rachel is told what to do,” Eli explained, “she will probably do the opposite, out of spite. Whatever we decide, Rachel will have to be asked. Gently asked.”

“Eli’s right,” Jonathan said. “Rachel’s not going to like being left behind. At the same time, I don’t want to leave her in Hasor alone. There may be scouting troops from Rezon’s army patrolling around.”

“What do you think about the oak tree in the woods?” Eli asked with a wink.

Tavor’s eyes lit up.

Jonathan knew Tavor had been to the secret cave, long ago when all of them were still young men. To Jonathan’s knowledge, Tavor had never told a soul of the cave’s existence.

“Why a tree?” Pekah asked.

“Well, there’s a safe place to hide near the tree,” Jonathan said.

“But we are the only three who know how to get there,” Tavor interrupted. “One of us would have to take her, but it would be improper for Jonathan or me to take her there alone. It will have to be you, Eli, or the entire group.”

Eli nudged a stone with his foot. “I’ll take her,” he grumbled. “She’s going to like it even less than I will. My place is with you, Jonathan.”

“Thank you, Eli,” Jonathan said. He sighed, staring up at the scattered clouds drifting far above, which partially obscured Azure and Aqua from sight. He wanted Eli and his nine Uzzahite warriors to stay close by, but did not feel comfortable having Rachel as part of the advancing war party. He wondered how Rachel would react when told Eli would take her into hiding. The thought made him wince.

Chapter 23

Hasor

A bsolutely not!” Rachel declared. “I will not be left in Hasor to wonder what has happened to my brother or my betrothed! I’ve had that uncomfortable experience once already this week, and I don’t care to have another!”

Both Eli and Tavor flinched. Jonathan wanted to argue the point, but the smoldering flame in Rachel’s brown eyes made him think better of it.

Once the men had been silenced, Rachel said, “Besides, I want to be near the battle this time. I can help the wounded. I can encourage them.”

Jonathan relented. There was no way he could deny her, and he knew Eli couldn’t force her. “Rachel-thank you. The men will be grateful for your service.”

Her face still red, Rachel searched his eyes. “Good!” She mounted her steed, her look smug.

“Move out!” Amon gave the command above the crowd.

Jasher tromped up to the men and took Jonathan privately aside.

“I want you and your companions to ride with me near the banners of the tribes, if that’s acceptable.”

“It’s an honor,” Jonathan said as he tightened his Gideonite breastplate.

Once again, Jonathan’s ears filled with the rumble of hooves, a dust cloud rising above the riders. With the beautiful weather they were having, it seemed more like a family outing than a march to battle, but those false perceptions faded as the day dragged on. Several places along the Hasor road still exhibited signs of recent battles. Fresh gravesites reminded them all of the seriousness of their quest.

***

Late in the evening, the walled village of Hasor came into view. Jonathan pulled the reins back when Jasher signaled the advance units to halt. Far in the distance, just north of the village and outside its walls, loomed an exposed camp of Gideonites. Campfires there already burned, smoke drifting high into the air.

Jonathan retrieved his spyglass to get a better view of the enemy. Jasher did the same. Jonathan admired the general’s spyglass-ends of polished brass, cylinders of beautiful cherry wood, three telescoping sections-then lifted his own two-section scope, placing the sight to his eye.

The enemy camp was small, its soldiers easy to count. Jonathan estimated the band to be about forty men, none of whom paid any attention to the road from Saron. Finished counting, he reached to give Pekah the spyglass so he could look. Pekah scanned the camp briefly, then handed the scope back.

Jasher cleared his throat. In a low voice to his captains, he said, “ Thus it begins…”

Chapter 24

Messenger

S omewhere over the walls of Ramathaim, a cock crowed. The sound caused Rezon to roll over in his bedding with a groan. His head still hurt from the night before when he had spent the evening with his captains and drunk far too much. He pushed his sandy brown hair out of his eyes and stared up at the top of his center tent pole. He could just make it out in the growing light, surmising that the suns were about to appear over the western peaks of the Hara Range.

With some effort, he sat up and reached for the clean clothing lying on a stool near his bed of piled furs and blankets. He stood to dress. As he cinched his sword belt, he heard shouting in the camp. A posted guard popped in to report, giving a smart salute and then delivering his message like a springtime downpour.

“General Rezon, the catapult we pushed into position during the night has been attacked. Before we could use it, the Uzzahites saw it. It’s burning. A few men were injured, but none were killed.”

Rezon’s mouth twisted into a scowl. “Was it not protected?”

The guard stammered as he tried to describe the protections put in place, but gave up trying to excuse the incident. “Yes, but Uzzah hit us too hard and too fast.”

Rezon waved the soldier away, who saluted as he was dismissed. He reached for a crust of bread on his table, left over from the day before, and washed it down with the final drops in his wineskin. Temporarily satisfied, he loudly called for assistance. One of his captains entered the tent, bearing some hot breakfast. At the sight of the fresh eggs, fruit, and cheese, Rezon wondered why he had finished off the old bread.

“Gad,” Rezon said with a growl, “what is being done about the attack?”

Gad set the tray on the table. “Another two hundred men have been stationed to assist the front line. Five more catapults are being readied for use, and they will be pushed into position at the same time. I do not think Uzzah can stop them all.”

A smirk formed on the general’s face, but changed to a frown. He glared at Gad as if the captain were at fault for the previous mishaps with the siege engines. Gad stiffened.

“I will make sure they do not,” Rezon swore.

Gad left the tent, and Rezon sat to eat his breakfast. After pushing the empty plate away, he took the opportunity to inspect himself in a hand mirror. He retrieved his leather headband to pull his hair back, and then straightened the hem of his red tunic under his belt. The color of red on this first day of battle was intentional. He moved the mirror around to get a complete view, thinking that red did look good with his soot-colored cloak and black leather pants.

As he stood there admiring his appearance, his mind drifted to thoughts of his mother. He had her features. Even his sandy-brown hair color was similar to hers. He remembered her kindness-she had always been so patient. Rezon turned his face to the side, searching for some of her better traits. Perhaps they were there, but he couldn’t see them.

More like my father every day. He sometimes hated himself for that. His father had been a cruel, harsh man. Why can I not be more like my mother? His self-analysis always came to the same conclusion: People are weak. They do not understand kindness. They respond better to other methods.

Rezon shook the memories away.

My mother was weak.

He left the tent and looked past six other captains, who stood nearby, to see that the sister suns were well above the tall, round-topped mountain fronting the western slopes. He turned to inspect his best men and expressed his satisfaction. Girded for battle, their leather caps edged in bloodstained wool matched the exposed bottom linings of polished leather breastplates, each painted with the Raven of Gideon. Most of the breastplates were also adorned with jewels or trimmed with gold. The captains saluted in unison with hands raised high, and the general acknowledged them.

For the next hour, Rezon sat with his captains around the campfire before his pavilion, discussing the morning’s events and instructing them again on his strategy for the day. “Once the catapults are ready, I want them all pushed forward together. Jael and I will give orders from the observation hut. We will use the catapults to clear the defenses, then we will bring up the battering rams. When the gates fall, we will rush in to secure the outer wall. This will provide us the needed protection to attack the inner wall more freely.”

Returning from the front lines, Captain Gad hastened up to the group. “General, we are within an hour or two of completing enough tunnels and trenches to support the advance.”

“And the trenches are within striking distance of the wall for our archers?” Rezon asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well done. We will attack today, when the sister suns are high in the sky,” he said. “I want to give the units assembling the war machines a little more time to finish all of them.”

Rezon paused and then said, “Once the forward trenches are complete, set our archers into position. Prepare your men. I will join you at the forward observation hut when it is rolled into place.”

The captains stood, saluted, and then left, except for Gad. He stayed behind to assist Rezon with any last-minute preparations for the attack. Numerous soldiers also came and went, performing various tasks and errands as Rezon and Gad discussed strategy over a hot drink.

About the time their cups were drained, a rider approached the pavilion area, his horse visibly failing and wheezing. A lather of sweat covered its mouth and chest, some of the froth dripping to the ground. The horse’s muscle tremors and wobbly legs caused the rider nearly to fall as he dismounted. Another soldier led the exhausted animal away. Rezon stood to receive the rider. As Zev approached, he frowned. “You rode that horse too hard.”

Zev saluted but did not respond. His eyes went to the pavilion.

Rezon understood. “Come with me.”

Upon entering the tent, the door flap was lowered, and Zev stood alone before General Rezon. Over the next few minutes, Zev described his journey with Ilan to Hasor, Saron, and the Geber Pass. He told of the various groups of Danielite soldiers they had to avoid, and then of their uneventful passage through the mountains. As Zev told of the encounter with General Jasher when they reached the high point, and of the companions who traveled with Jasher, the general stiffened.

“Jasher was traveling with Danielites and Uzzahites… and women?”

“Yes, sir. They were definitely together. Many of the Danielites and Uzzahites were wearing Gideonite armor.”

“Where is Ilan?”

“I fear he is dead, sir. As I escaped, Ilan was captured by Jasher. Hoping he followed, I glanced back, but I saw him roll over onto his weapon.”

Rezon wandered over to his table and retrieved his goblet. He wanted to fill it, but instead just stood there, tapping the side of the cup with his finger. His clenched jaw made his teeth hurt. Distracted, he lifted the empty goblet to his lips to drink, but no refreshing liquid came forth. The lines in his forehead deepened.

“If Gideon is traveling with The Brothers, it can only mean one thing,” Rezon said as he slammed the empty goblet to the table. “Jasher of Bezek has already killed the emperor. He has somehow convinced those who should be in subjection to me, to support him as the new leader. I cannot fathom how he did it, but I see no other explanation.”

Zev nodded.

“Tell me again when this happened. How did you return so fast?”

Zev explained that he had ridden hard all day after meeting Jasher in the pass. To reach Ramathaim more quickly, he went through the hills in order to bypass Saron, and continued most of the night with just a few rests for his horse. During the last hour of the ride, he pushed the horse to its limit.

“My guess is that Jasher’s army left Saron just this morning,” Zev added.

“You have done well, my wolf. I would like to reward you for the speed at which you returned with this information.”

Rezon turned to his desk and removed a parchment sheet from the writer’s box there. With a raven’s quill, he wrote a hasty note, held a green wax stick to a candle flame, and melted a drop onto the bottom of the parchment. From his pocket he pulled a small medallion on a chain, which he pressed into the soft wax, then returned to his pocket.

Zev approached the desk and removed his belt. He slipped Rezon’s dagger from it, placing the sheathed weapon on the table.

“I’m sorry you have returned it unused,” Rezon said dryly. “But don’t worry-I will find another use for it.”

Rezon rolled the written message and tied it with a leather strap from his box.

“Take this to Jael of Maharai.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

“Good. These are orders to make you a captain of fifty. Jael has been instructed to reassign you.”

Previously a captain of ten, Zev appeared to be excited by the promotion. He thanked the general, saluted, and left after being dismissed.

Rezon was pleased with the way Zev had demonstrated his total commitment.

“I will use him well,” Rezon said out loud, although no one was there to hear him. He unbuckled his belt so the returned dagger could hang there once again. After cinching his belt, he left the tent to return to the campfire. Gad was there, ready to deliver more news of the preparations. Rezon listened until Gad was finished.

“Zev, now a captain of fifty…” Rezon said with a long pause, waiting for the raised eyebrows of his third in command, “… was just here to inform me that Jasher of Bezek marches with Daniel and Uzzah out of Saron today.” Rezon did not use the title of “general” for Jasher, now that he considered Jasher a traitor to the cause.

“We have only two days before their arrival, then,” Gad calculated. “Unless they march through the night.”

Rezon held up two fingers. “But I think it will be two full days. The foolish man travels with women.”

Chapter 25

Mercy

A qua and Azure swam high in a cloudless sky when Rezon’s first in command and Chief Captain of the Host, Jael of Maharai, arrived at the main pavilion in the center of the Gideonite encampment. Jael greeted Rezon warmly-not with the customary salute of all other soldiers, but with an embrace reserved for very close friends or brothers. Like complementary patterns of the same weave of cloth, they carried themselves in a similar manner, yet were a contrast in physical appearance.

Jael, large and stocky, also of mixed decent, had short-cropped, straight black hair. His facial features were more indicative of his Uzzahite lineage than his Gideonite heritage. Rezon, on the other hand, sported shoulder length sandy-brown hair and was of average height and build, his inherited Danielite features unmistakable.

“Rezon,” Jael said in a matter-of-fact tone, “I am anxious to begin. I want that wall down.”

“So do I. Like you, I’m ready to bring down the pride of Uzzah. I intend to make this city mine by tomorrow.”

Both men turned to see Gad approach and salute. Behind him were two other soldiers, one of whom held a rope. The other end of the short rope was tightly wrapped around the wrists of a terrified Uzzahite boy.

One of the soldiers whacked him behind the knees, and he fell to the ground.

“What is this?” Rezon demanded as he studied the boy, who was dressed in Uzzahite armor far too large for him.

“We found him hiding in some trees just east of here. He’s a spy.”

“I am no spy,” the boy said, trembling.

“Raise him,” commanded the general.

The two soldiers jerked the boy to his feet.

“How old are you?” Rezon asked.

“Twelve.” The boy seemed calmer.

“What is your name?”

“Daniel.”

“Daniel? A young Uzzahite warrior by the name of Daniel? Isn’t that precious. ”

The boy held his tongue.

“What are you doing here, if you are not a spy?” Rezon asked, his eyebrows low.

“I came to burn your catapult.”

Rezon laughed. His captains laughed with him.

“I am impressed by your courage. Do you know who I am?”

Daniel shook his head.

“I am Rezon, General of the Host of Gideon. This is my army. I am quite surprised to find you standing before me, alive. You must be a brave warrior to have come out here alone.”

Rezon looked to his captains and asked, “What shall we do with him?”

“Slit his throat,” Jael said, his eyes cold.

“He is a spy,” Gad added.

Rezon’s hands went up. “My countrymen, let us not be so hasty. This boy has spirit.”

He stepped closer so he could lift Daniel’s chin. He gazed into the boy’s eyes and saw both fear and determination. He let go and stepped back. “Who am I to prevent this young man from accomplishing his mission as a spy? Somebody, give me a solar.”

One of the soldiers guarding Daniel jumped forward and handed the general a Gideonite coin, then stood as if he expected some sort of gratitude. Rezon waved him away.

“Boy, take this coin as your payment. You are now an emissary of Gideon. Return to your city. Tell them everything you have seen here. Tell your leaders that I intend to attack today.”

Rezon closed Daniel’s hand around the coin. Daniel didn’t flinch.

“Let him go at the edge of camp. Inform the archers that he is not to be harmed.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Gad.

Rezon and Jael watched as the three soldiers stopped to talk with one of the archer captains. Once the orders were relayed, Gad took the boy past the siege engines, through the front lines, and out onto the road leading to the main gate. When they cut his bonds, the boy ran. A hand to his forehead to shield his eyes, Rezon was amused when he saw the boy stop in the distance and turn to face the army, his arm cocked back. Light glinted off the coin as it sailed through the air to land near one of the catapults. Spotters on the wall signaled for the door to open, and Daniel ran the rest of the way to disappear through the gate.

I can be kind-even merciful, Rezon thought, praising himself. He returned to his tent.

***

An hour later, Rezon stood next to Jael in the safety of a three-walled observation hut placed behind the front line. Anxious, he shifted on his feet and shook his head.

“Where is Gad?” Rezon demanded, irritated.

His face red, Jael did not answer, but stared out from under the propped-up cover of the window facing the city.

The sound of boots near the hut caught Rezon’s attention. He turned to see Gad appear at the opening of the hut.

“General, we are ready.”

“I hope so, because the suns do not travel backward.”

“I know, General. I’m sorry for the delay. But the troops are ready now.”

Rezon turned back to the window as Gad hurried away on another errand. “Jael, hit them hard.”

Jael reached out the window and dropped his hand in signal. A single horn sounded, then others repeated up and down the line.

All at once, six catapults were shoved into position by several hundred men and fired in unison. The first large stones and iron balls hit the top of the outer wall of the Holy City of Uzzah like a thunderclap. Two protective merlons crumbled, exposing a section of the walkway.

Using his spyglass, Rezon saw a spotter run for cover on the wall, one of Gad’s archers barely missing the man. Behind the battlements where the spotter now hid, a volley of flaming arrows from Uzzahite archers whistled high into the sky. Gad’s shouted commands caused an immediate response from those protecting the siege engines. A mass of men in green tunics swarmed over the catapults, and large shields were raised. Most of the incoming fiery bolts bounced harmlessly to the ground. The remaining fire-arrows that did hit their intended mark were easily doused.

Shielded by other soldiers, teams of strong, muscular Gideonites cranked the arms of the war machines back into firing position. The men were fresh, and they were able to ready, load, and fire each catapult at the rate of about three times an hour. The teams worked tirelessly-cranking, aiming, firing. As the day passed, frustration set in. Merlons were easy to knock down, but the solid stone blocks of the wall proved to be much more difficult, with most projectiles only chipping chunks from the thick barrier.

In addition to the resilience of the wall itself, the effectiveness of the catapults was lessened because of the constant harassment by sorties of Uzzahite warriors from sally ports at either end of the wall. Both ports were fiercely guarded by Uzzah. Many Gideonites died while trying to breach the doors until Rezon called an end to sorties against their attackers.

After several hours of minimal progress against the central portion of the wall, Chief Captain Jael stepped away from the observation hut and sent a few messengers to each end of the line. In response, the heavy wood beams of two catapults groaned and creaked as several hundred men pushed them back and then pushed them forward again, this time aiming them toward the sally ports.

After several missed attempts, one of the catapults hit its mark. The protective archways covering the outer reinforced door of the eastern port tumbled to the earth, completely blocking the exit. An additional catapult was turned toward the western port, and two tries later, its archway also fell. Rezon’s army cheered.

“Get those catapults lined back up with the center!” Jael shouted. He pulled Rezon’s arm and pointed. “Do you see the archways above the main gates?”

“Yes,” Rezon said.

“I think we should target those too.”

Rezon brought the sight of his spyglass up to his eye. Massive gates were reinforced with iron plates and bands, very little of their wooden beams exposed. The successive archways that extruded from the wall over the main gates were made of gigantic, precisely cut granite blocks and prevented a direct hit on the door. Most of the projectiles previously fired had enough arc left in their trajectory to cause them to bounce off the top of the protective structures. To this point, the catapults had not hit the gates at all.

“You’re right, Jael. You are going to have to get the arches down first. Otherwise, you will never hit the gates. I do worry, though.. .”

“About what?”

Rezon folded his arms. “We could end up blocking the gates completely. If we do, we won’t be able to get the rams into position. Maybe we should just push the rams forward. The arches could even provide cover.”

“Rezon, those main arches are a death trap.”

“They have murder holes?”

“And spouts for hot oil.”

Rezon spat on the ground. “Then knock them down.”

***

Uzziel peered down from a spotter’s post in a blockhouse upon the inner wall. The sound of popping pebbles from grinding wheels had caught his attention. Below him, the gates of the inner wall had been flung wide open. Eight machines, much lighter and more nimble than the heavy catapults being used by the enemy, creaked their way down the ramp, flanked on either side by the soldiers who rolled them. He pulled at Josiah’s sleeve.

“What are they doing?”

“Captain Jeremy had us build the onagers in secret. They were assembled far up the canyon and tested there. From what I hear, they have been marked with distance lines. With the assistance of a good spotter and some luck, we should be able to aim them with great accuracy. Obviously, the Gideonites don’t know we have them.”

Uzziel was excited. He didn’t know what the weapons were, but any advantage, especially if obtained by a surprise attack, thrilled him.

“What do they fire?” he asked.

“Yes,” Abram replied, snickering.

Uzziel was confused at first, but then it hit him. “Oh!”

A messenger ran up the stairs to the blockhouse and saluted. “Captain Jeremy sent me. He wanted you to know that although the eastern sally port was completely blocked by debris, the western port is still operational. He doesn’t think the Gideonites are aware of this. Only one of the men stationed there was injured. None killed. The captain says he will only open the door again if strategically necessary.”

“Thank you.”

The messenger scurried off.

Through a wide observation slit in the stone wall, Uzziel stared down at the onagers, now well onto the grassy pathway between the two protective city walls. Captains of ten and fifty arranged the engines in an arc and prepared them for service. A fire-pit, which Uzziel had not noticed before, hummed with activity. Pairs of men hauled iron balls coated in a sticky, tarry substance to each onager, handing the projectiles off to the teams manning the weapons. The teams then loaded the leather pockets hanging from the ends of the throwing arms.

A spotter on the outer wall relayed direction and distance for each of the onagers separately. Soldiers operating the engines moved adjustable stopping bars and anchored them in place while designated soldiers stood at the ready to set a burning torch to each tarred ball. Once the spotter signaled their readiness, the captain gave the order.

Eight flaming balls rose high over the outer wall and came crashing down onto two catapults near the trenches. Enemy soldiers near the siege engines stared in disbelief as all but one of the projectiles hit its mark. An alarm sounded, and Rezon’s soldiers rushed forward with water buckets to douse the flames, but one of the units was so completely engulfed by flame that they abandoned it. The spotter on the wall signaled again, this time indicating perfect hits.

A cheer that seemed to shake the heavens echoed back and forth between the peaks on either end of the valley. Uzziel supported himself on one hand as he leaned closer to the observation slit, nervous about the retaliation he knew would be forthcoming. His hand trembled. Frantic activity down below made him look again. What he saw drew out a smile-sloshing buckets being passed so fast along a line of soldiers that by the time they reached the catapults, the remaining water was almost less than a spit. He had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing.

***

Rezon stood in the observation hut, seething with anger. He shouted orders for the three loaded catapults to be aimed in the direction from which they had been attacked. Responding to the commands, soldiers struck latches with mallets, and the machines launched their stones high over the wall. Yelling and great commotion from inside floated over the walls, heard by all the ranks of Gideon.

Stretching further out the open window, Rezon thought he could make out screams of pain.

Oozing with delight at the successful hit, he guffawed as he slapped Jael on the shoulder. “That will teach them.”

***

Uzziel held his breath as three large stones sailed high over the battlements, hurtling toward the open field between the walls of Ramathaim. He stood, his old eyes focused on their expected impact point, then he let out a sigh of relief when he realized the onagers were already being moved. He watched with interest as a group of Uzzahite soldiers ran up to the three Gideonite stones that missed their mark, now sunk into the grassy turf. Turning toward the wall with their hands cupped around their mouths, a few soldiers took turns yelling. Some of the men banged on shields. One of them screamed as if in pain. Then, with their ruse accomplished, they hurried from the area and rejoined their ranks.

Peering down to where the onagers had been moved, he saw that soldiers were already prepping them for another attack. He clapped his hands with joy as he saw the Uzzahite captains manning the weapons signal to the spotters that no one had been injured, and that all the machines were safe.

Soldiers brought fresh leather pockets to replace the ones that had been damaged by the flaming projectiles, then loaded more tarred iron balls. The targeting and firing process repeated, and as soon as the fireballs were airborne, the rope-drawn onagers lurched toward the central ramp.

Intent on the fields outside the outer wall, Uzziel listened as the missiles fell. He heard the splintering booms of another breaking catapult. He heard shouts-cries of pain-the twang of bows from enemy archers randomly targeting areas around the last known firing location. Above it all, he could hear a single man ranting at the top of his lungs. Unintelligible threats drifted up to the blockhouse. Uzziel could not make them out at first, but then recognized a few distasteful words. He frowned.

Leaving the blockhouse so he could avoid the language and also congratulate Captain Jeremy, stationed below, Uzziel motioned Josiah and Abram to follow. As he descended the steep stairs with Abram’s assistance, the ranting continued to echo off the cliff walls on either side of the city. Uzziel wondered who was so angry. The few words he could make out were offensive, and one even blasphemous. He wiped his brow, muttering under his breath.

“May the God of heaven have mercy on that man’s soul.”

Chapter 26

Subterfuge

L ate that evening as the first stars flickered in the sky, the battle between Gideon and Uzzah paused like breathless silence at the end of a sigh. Rezon stood in the doorway of his tent, observing the tiny watch-fires upon the walls of the city. Repeated pounding on the archways above the main gate had not yet broken them, but support structures had crumbled. A single, great crack had also appeared above the gate. Now that they were unstable, Rezon suspected the archways would fall on the morrow.

He tore at a chunk of jerky, punishing the salty meat with his teeth. He was pleased by the progress made during the afternoon, but the recent loss of another catapult irritated him. He swallowed hard and gulped from a goblet. At his side, Jael and Gad discussed strategy for breaking the gates. He held up his hand, and their conversation ceased.

“So, you believe the arches will fall, and you will still be able to push the rams into place? How do you propose to move the rubble?”

Jael drew in a big breath. “Yes, they will fall. But not all the rubble will have to be moved. The rams are not very wide. Besides, with the arches down, whatever passageway the Uzzahites built into the wall will be completely exposed. Our own archers should be able to hold the enemy down. You will gain entry to the outer courtyard by nightfall tomorrow.”

Rezon looked at Gad, who seemed to agree. “You have convinced me. As you said, we will need to be prepared to hold the outer wall as we advance the catapults and rams.”

“It has all been arranged,” Gad assured him.

“Good. Even the archers?”

“Five hundred strong,” Jael replied.

“Wonderful. I am dreaming of entering the city. I hear it’s such a nice place to live.”

“You shall have the grandest estate we can find within the walls,” Gad promised.

“Estate?” Rezon asked, feigning surprise.

Gad flinched as if he had said something wrong.

Rezon sneered. “No, my dear captain. I do not intend to have the largest estate. I will leave that to Jael of Maharai.”

Jael folded his arms across his puffed chest. Gad now appeared to be confused.

Rezon leaned closer to the captain and said in an earnest, breathy tone, “I intend to occupy the temple itself.”

Jael let out a loud, approving whoop. The sound of it echoed off the walls of the city.

***

Just a day’s journey away from Ramathaim, four units of ten Gideonites readied for the night by finishing their evening meal, gathering firewood, stoking campfires, and posting guards to watch over the camp until morning. From a distance, Jasher’s advance group observed their preparations through numerous spyglasses. They knelt on the ground, talking in whispers.

Jonathan stowed his spyglass in his shoulder bag, grateful that the Gideonites had chosen to camp on the road rather than in Hasor. Inviting them to depart will give me great pleasure, he thought.

“What are your orders?” Amon asked the general.

Jasher paused, and then said with determination, “We will confront the group now. If they surrender, I’ll send them home to the mountains of Gideon. If they do not… we will end it.”

Amon motioned for Sodi, one of the other Gideonite captains in the advance group, to bring up his men. Sodi scuttled forward, taking a knee next to the general. Pointing to the village, Jasher ordered the captain to sneak off to the south and then approach the encampment by staying close to the western wall of Hasor.

“Sodi, I need you to obtain that western position, in sight of their camp, and wait,” Jasher instructed. “I will bring a company of one hundred and fifty right up to the camp, with the banners of Gideon out front, followed by Daniel and Uzzah. Captain Amon will take a position opposite you, with Captain Mehida to protect my flanks. Captain Ezra of Daniel will support. When the situation appears to be under control, join me.”

Sodi bit his lip and gave a seemingly reluctant nod before accepting the assignment. The hesitation surprised Jonathan. He glanced over at Jasher, but the general was intent on the enemy encampment. Jonathan felt certain Jasher had not noticed Sodi’s reaction. He wondered at Sodi’s strange behavior.

At Jasher’s direction, the captains left with their units to take up defensive positions. While the remaining group waited for Amon and Sodi to signal their readiness, Jasher instructed the women present to stay behind with another one of his captains. Both Abigail and Rachel agreed to remain by the road with the main army.

It took some time for the captains to get in place, but once they were, Jasher called for his men to march. The eastern hills swallowed the sister suns as the army stomped their way to the Gideonite camp, intentionally drawing attention to themselves. Standard bearers took special effort to wave their flags in such a way as to make them easily discernible from a distance. Jasher even had one of his soldiers hail the Gideonites, telling them of their approach.

Jonathan saw that several armed men in the enemy camp formed a line between two tents, and one of them, a Gideonite captain, stared intently through a spyglass back at the approaching group. The captain seemed puzzled. He lowered his spyglass for a moment to speak to another soldier. That soldier disappeared into the center of the camp, and then a horn blasted in the air. Seconds later, men swarmed around their leader with weapons drawn, shields at the ready. Still staring at Jasher through the glass, the captain made some unheard comment to a soldier on his left, and then shook his head as if he could not believe the scene before him.

Jasher’s men closed in, the standard bearers falling in behind. He hailed the Gideonite captain in the camp, but the nervous soldier did not return the greeting. All forty Gideonites in the camp stood as silent as trees.

“Greetings, Captain of the Host of Gideon. I am Jasher of Bezek. I come in peace and wish to have a word with you in private, if we may.”

Again, the other captain did not speak. He stowed his spyglass, then fiddled with the pommel of his sword.

“What is your name?” Jasher asked with authority.

“I am Izri of Bethara.” He paused, eyes darting between colored banners. “A captain of Gideon. I serve faithfully under General Rezon, according to the will of Emperor Manasseh.”

Although directed at Jasher, Jonathan felt the sting of Izri’s accusation. He put a hand on Pekah’s arm, preventing him from drawing his weapon. Pekah’s face was red.

Jasher replied with an eerie calmness in his voice, “I am a general of Gideon, and I serve the best interests of Gideon and his peoples.”

Izri still did not tell his men to stand down.

Impressed by Jasher’s approach, Jonathan listened as the general masterfully controlled the situation. Jasher could have just commanded the captain to submit, but instead, the general rehearsed everything that had transpired over the last several days. By the end of the tale, all the Gideonites in the camp had sheathed their weapons, including Izri. Many of the soldiers appeared eager to join with Jasher and his men. These Gideonites stepped back toward the camp, allowing their leaders to work out the tension felt between the two groups.

“Will you join me?” Jasher asked.

Izri still stood between two other armed men, one of whom was also a captain. Izri acted as though he wanted to negotiate. He tapped on his breastplate under his folded arms. The captain next to him shifted on his feet, glancing nervously about. All heads turned to see Amon and Sodi approach.

Amon and Sodi commanded their troops to stand down, and most of their weapons were stowed. Sodi, still holding his sword, marched to the front with Amon, taking a spot next to Jasher. Jonathan made room for both of them. His interest piqued, Jonathan watched the general. Jasher still waited for a response from Izri.

Sodi and Izri made eye contact for the first time, an almost imperceptible signal passing between them. Jonathan pulled back, not able to tell what it meant. The exchange reminded him of the encounter in Geber Pass, and his palm found the pommel of his sword.

Jonathan looked at Amon.

“Yes, I saw it,” Amon whispered.

“Do they know each other?” Jonathan whispered back.

“It appears so.”

Jonathan’s eyes rested back on Izri with some suspicion. Izri’s hand was now on his weapon, but he remained as stiff as a statue and did not look at Sodi again.

Izri’s eyes were fixed on Jasher-a cold, empty stare, as if he were looking at the general, but not actually seeing him. Jonathan stiffened. He gripped the hilt of his weapon, ready to pull.

As fast as a lightning strike, Sodi swung his weapon high into the air, and then slammed the blade down on Jasher’s right leg. Pandemonium ensued as Jasher fell to his knee with a yell. Amon leaped toward Sodi, his sword thrusting forward. The sharp tip of Amon’s steel blade struck Sodi square in the chest, splitting his leather breastplate and killing him instantly. One of Sodi’s men took a swing at Amon, but Jonathan was able to block the blow. He then dispatched the man with a single stroke. He held his ground, hoping to prevent any other would-be attacker from within Sodi’s unit.

Other men loyal to Jasher lunged forward in an attempt to stop Izri and his soldiers, but only Izri and the two Gideonites next to him had armed themselves. The three of them screamed an unintelligible threat and rushed forward, trying to fight their way to the general. Somehow Izri broke through.

Just as Izri planted the tip of his sword in the general’s side, Izri’s head was lopped off in the wide swath of a sword held by a nearby Danielite. The other two men were killed before they reached the general. Fifty Gideonites, led by Captain Mehida, surrounded Izri’s remaining men, demanding that they surrender.

Jasher fell to the ground in agony. Pekah and Eli both knelt at his side, fumbling with a tourniquet around the wounded leg, while another soldier ripped green and white cloth from a banner. Yet another soldier pressed cloth strips against the deep wound in the gasping general’s left side. Jasher tried to sit up, but several soldiers kept him down.

Jonathan stood near Amon and Tavor, searching the faces of every man nearby, intent on detecting any other imminent attacks. He still held his sword high in the air, ready to strike any foe. Many of the men around him stared up at his hand, their expressions confused. Tavor nudged him and pointed to the blade. Jonathan’s heart skipped a beat when he realized the Gideonite soldiers had now seen the Sword of Daniel. Too late now, he thought.

He whispered his thanks to Tavor, then stooped to the ground, removed the bow and quiver from his back, and retrieved the piece of lamb’s wool from the belt pouch that held his small glow-stone. After vigorously rubbing the entire blade for a minute, he did the same to the small stone, jammed it into the pommel, tucked away the wool, and snatched up his items.

Jonathan lifted the blade skyward. A pale blue glow that continued to brighten gently rested on the scene. In the near dark, the light of the large glow-stone sword was of great benefit to those who worked feverishly to save Jasher’s life. Within moments, the sword nearly blazed like the suns. Jonathan ignored the few Gideonites who gaped at it.

Amon barked orders to the troops. Runners were sent with all speed to the main body of Jasher’s army, secreted around the bend of the road. Other soldiers prepared a stretcher, on which the general was laid. Several of the captured Gideonites shared information about their camp and directed Captain Mehida to Izri’s tent. There, Mehida’s men found bedding, unlit torches, and some glow-stone lanterns. They lit up torches and charged lanterns, then passed them down a line so the pathway to the tent was easier to see.

Jonathan, Pekah, and Eli followed the litter bearers, encouraging Jasher to stay awake and talk to them. They arrived at the tent to find the inside fully ablaze from the many lanterns and torches held by the soldiers. Several men carefully transferred the general from the stretcher to the more comfortable bedding at the center of the tent.

“I am trained in healing,” a soldier hollered, pushing his way through the crowd.

The healer arrived at Jasher’s side, paused briefly, then checked the wounds.

Looking on, Jonathan could see that Jasher’s skin was pale as moons-light. His breathing strained, he drifted in and out of consciousness. His body trembled intermittently from shock.

The healer placed a few nearby blankets over Jasher to keep him warm. Only the general’s right leg and left side remained uncovered so the wounds could be treated. Jasher still bled through his temporary bandages, and those attending his wounds could barely keep up with making more cloth strips. The healer ordered the assisting soldiers to apply more pressure, then searched the crowd.

“Where is Captain Amon?” he asked.

Amon stepped up from the back and identified himself.

“My name is Serug. I need to speak to you alone.”

Amon barked orders that the tent was to be cleared except for those attending the general or holding lights. Jonathan paused and wondered if the captain meant for him to leave with the others. He caught Amon’s gaze, and the captain motioned for him to stay.

Jasher’s weak voice was heard, but not understood right away. Amon went to his side, and Jasher repeated his request.

“I want to speak… with Pekah. His companions should stay. Where… is Abigail?” The wheezing general coughed, and Serug wiped blood from his lips, then called for a small sip of water to be provided for Jasher’s comfort.

Abigail burst into the tent with an escort. She rushed to Jasher’s side and shook her head, saying, “No, no, no, no!” Tears poured down her cheeks as she took Jasher’s right hand in hers.

Managing a smile, Jasher gazed lovingly upon his distraught wife. His shoulders shook with another cough. Turning white, he winced. His eyes fluttered shut, but then opened wide.

“Amon?” Jasher called out.

Amon leaned down. “Yes, sir?”

“I did not know it… before tonight…” he paused to cough, then continued. “Sodi… part of Rezon’s covenant. Izri, too.” The general coughed again, but it was shallow and labored. “There may be others. Find them.”

“We will. I promise,” Amon replied.

“Pekah?”

Pekah moved up to where Jasher lay. “Yes, General?”

“Amon… is my most loyal friend. I can always…”

Jasher shook. The veil of death seemed to be drawing over him. But once again, he became very alert.

“I trust him like none other. But he is married and can’t help me. You are not. I trust you.”

Pekah didn’t seem to have any idea what the general was trying to say. He looked quizzically at Amon, at Eli, and then at Tavor who were all nearby, but they could not explain. Pekah cast his questioning gaze toward Jonathan. All Jonathan could do was shake his head and shrug.

With great effort, Jasher tried to lift his head to see Abigail. A soldier rolled a spare blanket and placed it behind the general’s neck.

Tears welled up in Jasher’s eyes. “My only love… my dear Abigail.”

Abigail nearly sobbed. She clung to his shoulder.

“Pekah, give me your hand,” Jasher choked out.

Pekah slowly brought his hand near that of the general. Jasher reached for it and drew Pekah closer. The general then placed Abigail’s palm in Pekah’s. At first, Pekah recoiled, but Jasher’s grip tightened. Pekah relaxed. He did not move, and neither did Abigail.

“Abigail. Marry this man. He is good. He will care for you as I would.”

Jasher coughed again, and his eyes began to close. Abigail wept openly now, and she started to pull away from Pekah, but Jasher’s eyes opened. He squeezed her hand into Pekah’s again.

“I love you… my dear, sweet Abigail.”

With that final declaration, Jasher’s breath sighed out of him.

Abigail fell forward, burying her face in Jasher’s arm. There she stayed for many minutes, grieving. With Pekah’s hand released, he stepped back, looking bewildered. Jonathan sheathed his sword and stepped forward to grasp the Gideonite’s shoulder, giving him support. Pekah stared at the dead general and hardly seemed to notice.

Jonathan let go. Abigail sobbed into her husband’s neck, her frail frame shaking uncontrollably. Jonathan’s chest tightened, the sorrowful scene causing him to gulp as he fought away tears. He turned back to his Gideonite friend and saw that the young soldier appeared to be overcome with emotion, his head low.

Pekah wept.

Chapter 27

Abigail

T he smell of freshly turned soil filled Abigail’s nostrils as she stood at the gravesite, clinging to Rachel’s arm for support. Everything around her appeared drab, washed out by the moons-light falling from above. The scrapes and thumps of a shovel endlessly throwing dirt into a hillside depression that was now nearly full, and the chirp of a single cricket hiding somewhere in the trees nearby, were the only sounds disturbing the night air. Standing on the gentle rise where Jasher’s body had been laid to rest, Abigail was forlorn, affected by every detail of the dismal place.

She trembled with each vibration of the ground as the gravesite grew before her- becoming a haunting mound of dark memories. Her head throbbing from the incessant pounding of the thrown dirt, she tried to watch the soldiers who wielded the tools, but found it nearly impossible to make out their faces. At last the grave was filled, and the soldiers rested, leaning on the shovels.

Fresh tears welled in her eyes and mixed with the reflections from the moons above. Her bleary vision prevented her from seeing anybody but those who stood closest to her-Rachel, Eli, Jonathan, Amon, Tavor, and Pekah. In every face, she recognized deep concern. She wiped her eyes with her sleeves, grateful for her friends’ silent support.

One by one, every person around the grave approached her, offering their sympathy. She listened to each of them, but remembered none of their words. After they had all come to her, they stood quietly nearby, waiting for her to say her goodbyes. With yearning for the husband she had lost, she fell to her knees and leaned into the mound, her hands clawing at the soil.

Abigail could feel Rachel kneeling by her, patting her back, rubbing her shoulder. The attention only made her sob harder. Her strength gone, she collapsed into the dirt. The men around her whispered, and she felt herself be lifted. Cradled in Eli’s arms, she looked up into his moist eyes. He only stared forward and carried her down the hill without a word.

Overwhelmed, Abigail buried her face in his shoulder.

***

Sitting on the back steps of the Council Hall, Abigail propped her chin up, an elbow on her knee. Her mind numb, she watched as the rising sister suns caused scattered clouds above the hills west of Hasor to blush. Nearby, one hundred and fifty of General Amon’s company stirred in the courtyards of Hasor, their tents pitched close to the hall. After getting some much-needed rest, Abigail felt better, but solemn. The first rays of daylight fell upon the ground in front of her. Rachel, who had shared her guest room on the upper floors of the palace, sat beside her, watching the breaking morning lights.

“You should eat something, Abigail,” Rachel kindly suggested, a hand on Abigail’s arm.

“I do feel better this morning. I think I will.”

Rachel appeared to be relieved. “That would be good. You’ll need strength today if you wish to ride with us.”

Abigail felt foggy, even exhausted. She recalled being carried into the village the night before. Although the bed in the palace had been comfortable, she remembered she had felt cold. She shook her head. “It seems like a dream, Rachel,” she muttered. She pulled her knees up to her chest and held them.

Rachel’s gaze fell, and she put a hand on Abigail’s crossed arms. She gave Abigail a squeeze, but said nothing.

Abigail appreciated the unspoken show of support. She yearned for Rachel’s friendship, and felt strength flow into her from Rachel’s touch. But the grief she felt was overwhelming. She sighed and stood up to look across the way toward beautiful stone houses, all in neat lines and close together. She could see that several of the homes had been re-inhabited, as smoke rose from their chimneys.

Bordering the first row of houses ran a chest-high stone fence, north to south, ending at the small village courtyard before the Council Hall. Soldiers dismantled tents in the court, while others packed everything up. Horses were also being readied. The noise of the scene intensified.

“Rachel…”

“Yes?” Rachel said, standing.

“Thank you for caring for me last night.”

“You are most welcome.”

“I must have cried myself to sleep.”

“You did.”

Abigail crossed her arms, warming herself from the morning chill. She wondered at the small group of soldiers before her.

“What happened to the rest of the army? There aren’t many here.”

“After you fell asleep, most of the army left. Captain Amon… I mean, General Amon, sent Captain Mehida north with the army.”

“General?” The word stung. A tear rolled down Abigail’s cheek.

“Yes. By the voice of all captains present, Amon was made General of the Host of Gideon.” Rachel hesitated. “They said it was done according to custom.”

Abigail wiped the tear away and sniffed. “Yes. That is the custom. It just surprised me. Jasher…” She didn’t finish.

“I know it hurts. I’m so sorry. If I could share the burden with you, I would.”

They embraced. Abigail felt the sincerity of her new friend’s words. Feeling horribly alone in a land far from home, Rachel’s kind words calmed her fears. I don’t know what I would do without Rachel here, she thought. Pulling away, Abigail thanked her.

“Abigail, I should also tell you… well, I don’t want you to be surprised later. Jonathan and Eli were asked to be General Amon’s special advisors. Tavor was made a captain to take Eli’s place, and Mehida now occupies Amon’s former position. They also made Pekah a captain of fifty.”

Abigail turned away. Somehow the news about Pekah’s promotion didn’t bother her, but she wanted to be upset about it. Bewildered by her husband’s last request, she searched her soul for anger toward Pekah, for disgust-anything to justify not heeding Jasher’s dying wish. She tried to understand his motivation, hoping to find some reason to reject his desire. All she found was love. Jasher loved her. She cried.

Rachel patted her on the back. “Abigail, will you come with me?” Rachel asked with a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Abigail wiped her eyes, then pulled her straight black hair behind her ears. A lump still in her throat, she only nodded. Rachel led the way.

Previously, they had come out of the western door and hallway that connected the Council Hall to the palace. Rachel explained that this time she wanted to go back into the palace by way of the eastern door so she could show Abigail the Temple of Hasor.

They followed the graceful curve of a flagstone path winding between mature oak trees on the south side of the hall. As they rounded the south-east corner of the edifice, the Temple of Hasor loomed before them. The sight of the white granite walls and the tall central spire filled with glow-stone windows nearly took Abigail’s breath away.

“It’s almost identical to the Temple of Sacrifice in Ramathaim-smaller, but just as beautiful,” Rachel explained.

“It is magnificent,” Abigail said, admiring the spire.

Rachel touched her arm. She saw Jonathan, Pekah, and Eli walking toward them from the temple. Jonathan found his way to Rachel and fell to one knee as he kissed the hand of his betrothed.

“You rested well, I hope?”

“Yes, thank you,” Rachel replied, watching Abigail.

Unprepared to face the man she had been told to marry, Abigail awkwardly avoided Pekah’s eyes. Both Jonathan and Eli greeted her warmly.

“Peace and comfort to you, Lady Abigail,” Jonathan said.

“And rest from your sorrows,” Eli added.

“And to you-and thank you, Eli. I am very grateful,” she said, her voice muted. She studied the boots of the men. They were scuffed and worn. Feeling Pekah’s gaze, she forced herself to look up. He looked at her steadily, his face calm.

“We were in the temple before dawn this morning,” Pekah said. “I prayed that you would feel the love of the Holy One in your broken heart, that it might be made whole, and that you would be comforted. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Touched by the evident emotion in his voice, Abigail believed he was sincere. She bowed her head, but could not find the words to respond. Her husband’s request of the night before, for her to “marry this good man,” again played out in her mind, leaving her speechless. She did not know Pekah. Although probably her age, he seemed younger, a stark contrast to Jasher, who was older, wiser.

Abigail barely managed an expression of gratitude for his kindness. Pekah nodded, stepped back, and seemed to melt into Eli’s shadow.

Abigail’s eyes lifted once again to the central spire of the exquisite building. Trying to be strong, she stated, “There’s a peace here. Something about these grounds makes me feel bright and warm, like the color of the stone. It’s the most beautiful building I have ever seen.”

Eli stepped a bit closer to the women and pointed to the spire. “The capstone on that spire was placed by Jonathan’s grandfather and my grandfather together. It’s not an old structure like the Temple of Sacrifice in Ramathaim. That temple was built several hundred years ago. Have you ever been there?”

“I haven’t,” Abigail said. “If it’s as beautiful as this temple, I would like to see it someday.”

“You may get your wish soon,” Eli said with enthusiasm. “You’re riding with us today, are you not?”

“Yes, I am.”Abigail hesitated, and then added, “Rachel has been so good to me. I have nowhere else to go, but with her.”

Rachel smiled and hooked her arm through Abigail’s.

Memories of the previous evening suddenly made Abigail feel like a burden. In addition to Rachel, many others had gone out of their way to try to comfort her. She remembered their concern as they all stood around Jasher’s grave. That concern again showed in the eyes of all those present, making her feel conspicuous.

“Is it all right if I come with you?”

Rachel seemed somewhat shocked by the question. “Of course it is! I wouldn’t want to go without you!”

This warmed Abigail’s heart, causing her to fight back tears. Rachel threw an arm around her shoulder.

“Would you ladies please excuse us?” Jonathan asked as if he were intruding.

Rachel reached for Jonathan’s hand. She held it for a moment, and released him with a very stern, motherly, “Yes, you are excused.”

The men chuckled at her playfulness and took their leave toward the western courtyard, where the army made preparations to travel. Abigail hugged Rachel, then together they walked toward the temple, arm-in-arm.

Chapter 28

Traitors

S till very solemn, Pekah stole a glance over his shoulder to see Abigail as he left. She was hugging Rachel. Picking up his pace, he followed close behind Eli and Jonathan. As he thought of Abigail’s hand in his, a yearning to talk to his friends in private welled up within him. What did they think of Jasher’s last wishes? Were they upset? Did they think it was improper?

The general’s request felt out of place to Pekah, even awkward. What man would give his wife away? Pekah felt certain there were some present in the tent who were not happy about what had happened, but no one had said anything to him. And that was precisely the issue-the fact that Jonathan and Eli had not mentioned the experience at all made him even more uncomfortable with it. It seemed as if he had breached the rules of propriety.

He groaned. But I didn’t do it! Jasher did. I was just as surprised as anyone else.

Pekah couldn’t wait. He walked a little faster and tapped Jonathan on the shoulder, and they all stopped.

“Jonathan,” Pekah said, mustering courage, “I feel terrible about last night. Why did Jasher do that?”

“Do you mean, his words to Abigail?” Jonathan asked.

“Yes.”

“I certainly don’t know all his reasons, Pekah. I can guess, however, that Jasher saw something in you he hadn’t seen in others. How well did you know him?”

“We had never met before I arrived in Ain.”

Jonathan frowned thoughtfully. “Pekah,” he said, “Think on the events of the past week. Nothing we have experienced has been anything less than a miracle. Perhaps this event is also part of our Creator’s plan.”

“I feel guilty about it. He pressed his wife’s hand into mine. I felt like… like I had sinned.”

“I understand how you might feel that way, but we don’t judge you in that manner, Pekah. We were there. Jasher’s whole intent was for Abigail’s welfare.”

“And I agree with it,” Eli added. “Jasher did the right thing.”

Pekah was stunned. This was not the reaction he had expected. “You agree with what he did? How can that be?”

Jonathan put a hand on the young Gideonite’s shoulder and gave him a quick pat of reassurance. “What Jasher did showed incredible love and respect for Abigail. Even as his life ebbed away, he was concerned for her-not his pain, not his life- her. Personally, I think that was one of the most compassionate things I have ever witnessed.”

The blast of a horn sounded from the other side of the Council Hall.

“Pekah, remind me later to tell you something else pertaining to Jasher. This is not the right place, but I think you should know what I have to say.”

“Thank you. Thank you both. I do feel a little better knowing you don’t think less of me for what happened, but I will need some time to think this through.”

“We’re here to help,” Jonathan said.

As they walked toward the assembling army, Pekah felt grateful for their understanding and support. These were the best friends he’d ever had.

***

When they arrived in the western courtyard, Pekah saw that all the tents had been packed, and most of the company of Amon stood together. Others arrived about that same time, including Tavor and Ezra, captains of Uzzah and Daniel. Jonathan and Eli moved to stand next to Amon, and Pekah took his place with his fifty of Gideon. All present greeted the newly appointed general.

Amon acknowledged their salute and then spoke to the entire crowd.

“My brethren, you are gathered as part of an army that never has been assembled before. The Brothers march together…”

His deep voice trailed off, almost with an echo. Amon looked all around at the eager faces, each soldier waiting for orders. Standing tall, he spoke with a powerful, drum-like inflection.

“A terrible thing happened outside these walls last night as the sister suns sank below the horizon. I made a promise to my general.. .” Amon paused. “… my friend. I promised him I would find all others who might be of Rezon’s covenant. Before we travel together today, I must be certain that I am among friends. For that reason, I am asking every one of you to remove your weapons where you stand. Lay them on the ground. That is an order!”

Pekah saw that a few soldiers present hesitated at first, but in the end they all did as commanded-even the captains.

“Ezra, Tavor, Pekah, my friends Jonathan and Eli… retrieve your weapons and stand with me.”

The five men did as requested, and moved to stand next to Amon.

Amon then raised his voice again. “Earlier today, I made a covenant with these five men, a vow that will not be broken. They have placed their hands under mine. And now I wish you to do the same.” Amon’s expression was one of determination. “Are there any here who are part of Rezon’s covenant?” he bellowed.

Not a soldier moved. None responded.

Like the other leaders, Pekah searched to and fro, watching every face for signs of distress. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

“Come forward then. I want to see your hands!”

A line started to form in front of the general. In an orderly fashion, soldiers presented themselves and offered their right hands, palms upward. The first man stepped forward, and the captains examined his palm, looking for the tell-tale scars. Passing the test, the man then placed his hand over Amon’s.

“Do you swear by your honor that you will serve your tribe, renounce Rezon’s war, and join with all Three Brothers in peace?” Amon asked.

“Yes,” the soldier said.

Amon then committed each man present, whether of Gideon, or Daniel, or Uzzah, to the same oath, each one in turn. Every Danielite and Uzzahite swore it, and nearly all of the Gideonite soldiers did the same. But then Amon came to a soldier of mixed descent whose features reminded Pekah of Eli. He appeared to be very nervous.

At first, the man did not approach. But all those who had passed through the line previously were now armed, and Amon’s entourage stood there with swords glinting in the morning suns-light. After a short hesitation, the soldier cleared his throat and stepped up to Amon, pride in his countenance.

Amon held the man’s palm open, and Pekah could see marks on the soldier’s hand. The scars overlapped, causing a wide, white, jagged trail across his palm, evidence that he had been part of Rezon’s covenant for quite some time. A hush came over the entire company.

“Please stand over here,” Amon ordered with a gesture.

The man complied, and the remaining soldiers were checked. To the surprise of all, one additional soldier with dark, wavy hair presented a scarred palm. Amon made the two of them stand together. They seemed to recognize each other, but Amon did not ask their names.

Pekah watched the general with interest. Amon stood in silence, grinding his teeth and breathing hard. The expression on his face reminded Pekah of the pain caused by betrayal. When Amon spoke again, his voice was harsh.

“Where did you get these scars?”

Neither of the men answered.

“Your presence here has endangered the safety and peace of all around you. A very good man died last evening because of the wicked acts of your associates. The Brothers have banded together to end this war. You cannot stop it. I suspect that your leader, General Rezon, will not wish to join us. Do you agree? ”

Both men again refused to answer. Each man’s gaze was intently focused on the toes of his own boots.

With a deep, almost mournful sigh, Amon said, “You will forfeit your lives for the covenant you have made. That is what you swear, is it not? You swear by your throats? Well, that time has now come.”

Four captains stepped up at the order of the general to bind the hands of the two men. Amon’s entire contingent then marched the traitors through the home-lined streets north of the Council Hall, out of Hasor through the north gates, and around the village to the western side, not far from Izri’s former camp. Rezon’s men were placed up against the village wall. The rising suns shone brightly upon their faces.

“Bowmen at the ready!” Amon ordered. “Take your aim! Fire!”

Both of the traitors fell with three arrows each.

Amon shook his head. He directed the captains to have the men buried.

Pekah studied the crumpled bodies before him. What a waste, he thought. If they had only spent some time among the Danielites, maybe they wouldn’t have listened to Rezon’s lies. Instead, they would have seen that Jonathan’s father had no intention of attacking Gideon. Pekah sighed, suddenly very grateful he never had been given the opportunity to join with this group of wicked men who had pledged their lives to Rezon’s service.

“We ride within the hour!” Amon thundered.

Chapter 29

United

A s the company dispersed in order to prepare for their departure, Jonathan, Eli, and Pekah stayed behind with those digging the graves for the executed men. Jonathan watched in silence for a few minutes before asking Eli and Pekah to come with him. “Before we leave for Ramathaim, I want to visit the gardens of Hasor.”

A lump in his throat, Jonathan squared his shoulders and started around the village wall in the direction of the gardens. The smooth flagstone path hugging the wall made their way easy. Rounding the southwest corner of the stone wall, Jonathan could now see the olive groves, vineyards, and vegetable gardens nestled between the guard towers.

He glanced up at the southwest tower platform above him as they entered the gardens, remembering his escape in the dark. It seemed like a long time ago. His boots now clicking on the cobblestone path, he fought to control his emotions. When the olive grove came into view, he looked at Eli. Eli’s nod confirmed the place. Walking the rest of the way into the grove, Jonathan left the path and passed trees with numerous grafts, many of their branches looking like the tail of a porcupine. Ducking under one limb as he went, he touched the coarse bark as he passed, remembering that he had worked with his father on that very tree the previous fall.

Avoiding another branch, Jonathan noticed that Eli and Pekah were no longer behind him.

He did not need to be led to the burial site of his father, a spot intimately familiar to him. This had been his and Samuel’s favorite olive tree-tall, full, grand. No other tree in the garden was as impressive. Although olive trees were somewhat rare for this part of Gan, trade winds from the East Ocean blew sufficiently inland to moderate the climate around Hasor. This transplanted tree had prospered. With nearly perfect symmetry, it looked more like an aging oak displaced from the nearby forests than an olive tree.

As Jonathan drew near to the east side of its massive trunk, he found the mound of backfill from a recently dug grave several paces away. He removed his sword, bow, and quiver, and then knelt at the edge of the mound. Fists resting on the ground, he poured out his soul in prayer. At first he could only think of the scene within the Council Hall-the glow of his sword, the vandalized book shelves and debris piles, and his father clothed in blood-stained robes. But with everything that had changed in the past few days, his thoughts refocused on the miraculous turn of events since he had met Pekah.

Instead of pleading for comfort, he gave thanks. He reviewed each of the miracles he had witnessed, and conversed with his God and King as if He were there beside him. As he did so, he realized that being driven from Hasor had been a great blessing. His father’s sacrifice had been turned to good. As he prayed, he felt certain that Samuel was a guiding participant in all of it.

Unaware of how much time had passed, Jonathan once again became cognizant of his surroundings. He wiped tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand and then ran his fingers through the soft dirt, churning the soil in his hands before dropping it and retrieving more. He looked for Eli and Pekah, but they still held back to give him some privacy. They were silent.

Jonathan patted the dirt firm, then grabbed his belongings and turned to rejoin his friends. His eyes were bleary, but surprisingly, he found the strength to put a smile on his face.

“Are you going to be all right?” Eli asked.

Jonathan thought for a moment, and nodded. “Yes. I’m fine. Do you mind if we go into the Council Hall for a few minutes before joining Amon in the courtyard?”

“We have enough time,” Eli said. “But why?”

“You shall see.”

They left the gardens to enter the village by way of the south gates, broken down by the invading army of Gideon just days before. Following the cobbled roads that led to the temple and Council Hall, the three men passed the barn where Jonathan had hidden during the siege. Arriving at the Council Hall, they found that Amon was nearly ready to depart. Jonathan hurried them inside and shut the door.

Jonathan drew in his breath at the sight before him. He had expected the same mess of torn books, overturned tables, spilled candles, and broken furniture that he had left the night of his escape, but the room was now tidy and clean. A few pieces of furniture were missing, namely several of the chairs from around the Council Table, but everything else seemed to be in its proper place.

The table held a few damaged books, hand-inked pages previously torn from their bindings now stacked in neat piles next to the volumes. Other than those awaiting restoration, the books had been placed back on the shelves. Jonathan examined the floor where his father had lain between the judgment seat and the back door. Even the blood stains had been removed from the smooth stone. He wondered who had cleaned up the hall.

Walking over to the books on the northern wall, he saw they were all correctly filed. “Someone from Daniel placed these in their proper locations,” he observed. He looked around the room again and remembered his purpose for coming.

“Pekah,” Jonathan said as he turned to look at the new captain of Gideon, “I haven’t asked for The Thorn to be returned to me. I gave it freely. But I would rather not take it with us into battle with Rezon.”

Pekah appeared to be embarrassed. “I forgot I still had the pouch around my neck.” He removed the pouch, then opened it to retrieve the cloth bundle, which he handed to Jonathan. “I’m sorry.”

“No apology needed. I considered you the steward of the scepter.” Jonathan grinned, and then repeated, “Steward of the Scepter-I like that.”

Pekah smiled.

“Eli, Pekah, I want you to see where this is stored, but I don’t want anyone else to know. Would you mind locking the doors, please?”

Eli hastened to the back of the hall, and Pekah went to the front. They locked both doors, then returned to watch.

Jonathan looked at Pekah and said with amusement, “And this, my dear Gideonite captain, is why you and the late Sachar never found The Thorn!”

He went to the judgment seat and sat down, and while firmly pressing his left heel against a small protruding piece of stone at the base, he twisted the right armrest outward. Placing the cloth-wrapped scepter in the revealed compartment, he slid the armrest back into place until it clicked, then rose from the seat. He looked up to see shock on Pekah’s face. Eli simply laughed out loud.

“Please keep this a secret,” he asked. “I don’t believe any other living person knows about this hiding place, and I would prefer to keep it that way for now. But we are going into battle, and if something happens to me, I don’t want to be the only one who knows where it is.” Then with feeling, he added, “I trust you both with my life.”

Eli grabbed Jonathan up and squeezed him hard, making Jonathan choke out a laugh before he let go.

“You are my very dearest friend, Nate. I would do anything to protect you. And…” Eli paused momentarily as if to be sure Pekah was listening. “… Pekah already has.”

Pekah glowed. Eli gave a small bow of respect in his direction, making him redden even more.

Jonathan thanked Eli for his sincere loyalty. Turning to Pekah, he said, “Your humility is evident, but Eli’s right. You have done some amazing things in the last week. I thank you again for saving my life.”

Pekah stumbled over his words. “You are welcome.”

The three men then left the Council Hall.

They found Amon’s company ready to ride, and it was apparent that Amon had been waiting for them. Even Rachel and Abigail were on their mounts next to the general. Rachel threw Jonathan a look of disgust, but then broke into a smile.

“I hope I won’t have to wait this long for your letter of marriage to arrive,” Rachel teased.

Jonathan shrugged, pretending not to know what she meant. “Am I late? I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”

This made Rachel laugh, and Abigail managed a smile.

Amon called for attention, then asked Tavor if he would pray to their Creator and Protector for deliverance. Tavor graciously accepted. The priest of Uzzah stayed on his horse, but bowed his head and loudly offered a prayer that all could hear-a humble petition, heartfelt, and sincere. On behalf of the united army, he requested protection and success, then closed with tokens of gratitude, all of which were echoed by a communal “amen.”

The general thanked Tavor for his petitions. With a waved command, they left the walls of the village of Hasor and started down the northern road.

Blinding dust clouds rose from the wide and well-traveled road to Ramathaim as the thundering hooves of more than two hundred horses hastened on their way. Pekah, Ezra, and Tavor all rode near Amon, each at the head of their fifty, and Jonathan, Eli, the women, and all of Amon’s support staff traveled in the rear. Many of the mounts in the final group were burdened with provisions, tents, and other supplies. As they began to fall behind, Amon gave the order for them to catch up later. The distance to Ramathaim was normally a very full day by donkey-drawn cart or by foot. But with the horses, Jonathan calculated that Amon’s company would make it to the Holy City sometime after Azure and Aqua were high overhead, well before the cool of the evening set in.

Dirt that had turned to powder testified of the thousands who recently marched that way. Jonathan suspected Captain Mehida’s host had traveled far during the night. Feeling sure they would not find the army until they were nearly to the Holy City of Uzzah, he hoped Mehida’s army would not be exhausted by their forced march.

Those hopes were bolstered a few hours later when they found signs Mehida had camped sometime before dawn. Amon called for the company to halt. The gurgle of a familiar stream promised an opportunity to water the horses. On their way to the stream, they passed an abandoned fire-pit. The general bent down to check its warmth with his palm.

“The coals are still alive. I expect we will catch up with Captain Mehida within the next hour or two.”

“Ramathaim isn’t far,” said an Uzzahite soldier in their midst, his tone anxious.

Jonathan noticed fear in the eyes of some of the younger soldiers around him, the implications of being so close to their goal finally settling in. A few of them, mostly Danielites, expressed their misgivings about going into battle, causing conversations to center on the gruesome work of death that would soon be required in order to subdue General Rezon and protect the inhabitants of the Holy City. Dread settled over the entire company like a pall, the sudden change in mood felt by everyone.

The thought of participating in the impending battle soured Jonathan’s stomach. Grateful as he was for Amon’s leadership, and for the great change wrought upon Jasher’s army, Jonathan found it difficult to soften the bitter anger he felt in his heart. As long as the war continued, he doubted he would find peace in his soul. Even though he wanted nothing more to do with the war, he had no choice. Rezon had to be stopped.

Jonathan pushed his own need for peace out of his mind. Standing near Rachel while their horses took water, he reached for her hand. “Do you need anything?”

“I’m fine. Tired of riding, but fine,” Rachel said, her response anxious.

Jonathan wasn’t convinced. Although she did not complain, he could tell she was not only weary, but perhaps even afraid. He stayed close to her until Amon suggested that they be on their way.

Amon’s eagerness to catch up to Mehida’s army caused them to ride harder than they had all morning, but the determined pace helped ease some of the heavy burden on their hearts. When they stopped for their mid-day meal-or mid-day snack, as Eli had termed it-they ate standing up. Again they rode with the speed of a falcon to its prey.

Just as predicted, they caught up to Mehida’s thousands on the edge of the foothills, the sharp peaks of the Hara Range looming before them. As they rode into the ranks, a cheer went up from Mehida’s men. Many of the soldiers wished health and prosperity upon the heir of Daniel as he passed by them. Somewhat embarrassed by being singled out, Jonathan managed to greet them politely, wishing them the same.

“Welcome, General Amon,” Mehida said with a salute as the company approached the head of the column.

“Thank you, Mehida. You have done very well in your march. Are the men still strong?”

“Yes, sir. We rested for several hours this morning, and they seem to be as fresh as they were yesterday. What are your orders, sir?”

“No specific orders at this time, Captain. We are here to march with you. I’m grateful for your strength. My men feel the weight of the coming battle, but we will march to Ramathaim with our proud banners declaring the unity of this Army of Brothers.”

Soldiers from Gideon, Daniel, and Uzzah, who were close enough to hear the general name the army, all shouted, “Hosanna!” Others added their voices as the expression was repeated again, followed by the entire host joining in yet a third time, their shout loud enough to reach the heavens. The rumble of their declaration seemed to shake the very ground upon which they stood. The heaviness of fear lifted, replaced by a thrilling feeling of purpose. For a moment, Jonathan felt nothing in the universe could prevent them from accomplishing their goal.

With great excitement, the men holding the green and white banners of Gideon, the purple and white of Daniel, and the blue and white of Uzzah, waved them back and forth in front of the Army of Brothers. At Amon’s command, they marched onward together, toward glory or defeat, according to the mercy of the Holy One in whom they trusted.

Chapter 30

Vengeance

G eneral Rezon!” the messenger shouted as he ran toward the observation hut.

Rezon and Jael both turned and watched as the messenger stumbled up the hill, clearly exhausted by his efforts in the hot afternoon suns. The messenger saluted in a sloppy manner before bending over to catch his breath. Impatient, Rezon ordered the man to speak. With some difficulty, he spat out the information he had just learned from scouts on the southern patrols.

“An army is approaching. It is as we were told… an army of Gideon, Daniel, and Uzzah! They are less than an hour away!”

Cursing angrily, Rezon looked at Jael.

“I will kill every one of them myself!” Jael spewed, his voice filled with venom.

Rezon turned back to study the outer wall of Ramathaim. The protective arches of the front entrance had just fallen, fully exposing the main gates. Most of the rubble had fallen to one side, leaving plenty of room to get a ram near the reinforced doors. Glaring out the hut window, he could see two covered battering rams that had been pushed up near the central catapult. Housed within A-frames on wheels, the capped rams were protected by steep, sloping roofs covered with wet furs, soaked overnight to make them more fire resistant. Teams of soldiers waited alongside rope handles intended for swinging the suspended ram.

“Are there only two rams?” Rezon asked Jael.

“Yes. More are being constructed, but these are the only two ready.”

“Well, we cannot wait for others to be built. Keep them rolling.”

Now twitching with anger as he thought of the approaching united army, Rezon turned back to the messenger who had not been dismissed. His ire boiled over.

“Get out of my sight or be flogged!”

Looking confused, the messenger ran off without saluting.

Rezon stepped out of the hut to kick a helmet lying on the ground near him, sending it into a nearby trench that stretched up to the front lines.

Gad approached the hut, and Jael passed on the orders.

“Get those rams ready to advance!” Gad shouted to the front line.

***

Puffs of white smoke rose from the Rock of Sacrifice as the remains of an offering finally surrendered to the flames below. Boaz and Uzziel both knelt before the altar, heads bowed in reverent prayer. They had been there for quite some time, but their knees were not uncomfortable as they rested upon white cushions. Other priests serving at the temple went about their duties, but none of them disturbed the two aged men praying before the altar.

As if they sensed the sacrifice was complete, Boaz and Uzziel opened their eyes at the same time.

“What do you feel?” asked the High Priest of Uzzah.

“Uzziel, I had the strangest thought,” Boaz answered “I had the distinct impression that Jeremy needs to assemble the Host of Uzzah in the streets of the city. They need to be ready right now. I think something is going to happen soon that will make the enemy more vulnerable to us. I don’t know how it will be done, but we need to be ready.”

Uzziel thought for a minute, recognizing that his own feelings were similar-to muster the army right away. “I will send the message to Captain Jeremy at once,” Uzziel said as he stood up from his prayer and brushed his white robe free of wrinkles.

“The temple priests will be armed, and then we’ll join you.” Boaz retrieved the cushions, handing them to another priest who came to assist.

“Meet me at the inner gates. I think we should be assembled within the hour.”

“I agree.”

With that, the High Priest of Uzzah trotted off toward the archway that led to the markets of Ramathaim.

***

“What do you see?” Amon whispered as he stood behind Captain Mehida and Jonathan, who were using their spyglasses to observe the enemy assembled on the hills of Ramathaim.

“There are about four thousand men with Rezon,” Jonathan replied.

“It may even be nearer to five thousand, and they have several siege weapons in position,” Captain Mehida added.

Amon shook his head with a sigh. His heart felt like a heavy stone in his chest. “We are outnumbered almost two to one.”

Arms crossed in a defiant manner, Eli loudly cleared his throat to get Amon’s attention. “No disrespect, General, but Uzzah is behind those walls. Our numbers are at least equal, and we have an advantage-our people defend their homes. Rezon will not stand.”

Amon didn’t take offense at the comment. “I apologize. You’re right, Eli-Uzzah will fight as no other warriors can. This is your home. My only worry… I’m not sure how to let your people know we’re here. We will need their help.”

Eli and Tavor both regarded each other, and then laughed.

“Oh, they’ll know,” Tavor said. “Eli’s father is the High Priest of Uzzah. He will be ready to help.”

Amon wasn’t sure how the priests of Uzzah would know, but he thanked the men for their confidence. Motioning the captains to gather closer, he bent on one knee and used a thin rock to draw in the dirt. He started with marks for the enemy.

“Rezon’s army is here. We need to give the appearance of numbers. Place your men along a line from here to here. This will also give us more room to fight. Ezra?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take a rear-guard position and keep the women with you. I would like the balance of your horsemen to act as messengers. If the front line falters, send groups of ten and fifty as required to strengthen it.”

“And if the battle goes poorly?”

Amon paused. “Take the women to safety, back to Hasor or Saron.”

“I will keep them safe.”

“Very well. We still need to get a little closer before we can plan our attack. I want to see if I can figure out how Rezon plans to protect the siege engines. Are each of you in agreement?”

All captains present supported the decision. They quickly dispersed to retrieve their horses and gather their men. Amon gave orders to advance. Vigorously waving the banners of the Three Brothers, the army lurched forward, dust and the rumble of thousands of feet floating skyward.

As they closed on Rezon’s position, Amon gave the order for the bowmen to be at the ready for a volley into the enemy’s ranks if they charged. Spotters at the perimeters of the advance signaled that the way remained clear before them. The march slowed, but they pressed on until they came to a halt just outside of bow range for Rezon’s army. Companies of fifties and hundreds stood in their ranks and waited for Amon’s command to rush the enemy. Jonathan and Mehida dismounted and again stood at the front to observe the enemy Gideonites. Amon took the time to retrieve his own spyglass. Pekah saw it and commented on the workmanship.

“My field-scope and Jasher’s were made at the same time, by the same craftsman,” Amon noted. “They were presented to us by the emp.. . I mean, Manasseh, when we embarked on this…”

Amon could not find the word he wished to use. “Adventure,” came to mind, which had been used by Manasseh himself. But the idea that this unwarranted aggression was an adventure now seemed a poorly chosen description.

He did not finish his sentence. Instead, he peered earnestly through his field telescope, hoping to discover some apparent weakness in Rezon’s organized ranks. Seeing nothing obvious at first, his gaze finally settled on one area of the battlefield. Trenches had been dug all around the hills, but the siege weapons themselves were stationed in a wide, central pathway between the trenches.

“Do you see where the siege weapons are?” the general asked.

“Yes,” Mehida answered. “They have prevented themselves from moving the engines in any direction but north and south.”

“I think we may be able to use those machines to prevent the army from assembling in a large body. Their own machines and trenches block the way.”

Jonathan tapped the general on the shoulder and pointed to a spot just past a wooden hut. “General, look-Rezon is pushing battering rams into position near the front gates, and sustaining considerable losses from the bowmen of Uzzah.”

Amon looked again and saw the advancing rams. Gideonite captains shouted, shields were lifted, and most arrows were deflected, but some were not. Amon’s gaze fell on the hut. He recognized Rezon and Jael standing with the others. Rezon continued to watch the rams, even though many of his men turned to look back at Amon’s army. Amon was surprised.

“Rezon seems to be ignoring us! Does he think we will not attack? ”

Disdain in his voice, Mehida said, “Rezon is arrogant. He knows we’re here. Perhaps he feels you’ll wait until he makes the first move. Or maybe he’s trying to cause us concern, making us wonder what he’s doing.”

“Perhaps you’re right. I’d wager he has other weapons we haven’t seen,” Amon replied.

Rezon did seem overly calm for being caught between a united army and the city walls. If Amon were in that position, he would turn and attack immediately. Rezon’s behavior made no sense. Amon shook his head.

“We should rush the location of the siege weapons before they can formulate a counter-attack,” Mehida suggested. “Then we’ll have a way to defend a central location from Rezon’s army-the machines and trenches can provide cover for our men.”

“That’s a good plan,” Amon readily agreed. “Pass the word among your men. Then let’s ride!”

Amon returned to his horse and watched as his captains immediately rode from company to company with specific orders for each group. When they returned to their places, Amon gave the signal. The Army of Brothers charged forward with swords glinting in the suns-light. Their unified shout turned to thunder, causing the Army of Rezon, many of whom had pretended to ignore them, to turn completely about to meet the charge.

“Bowmen at the ready!” Amon bellowed as he rose in his stirrups, his steed in a slow trot behind running foot soldiers.

The front line of footmen closed the distance by half.

Amon yelled for the bowmen behind the rushing soldiers to release, and a volley of arrows arced over the charging men toward their intended targets. Just as the arrows began their hurtling descent, the front line of Rezon’s men jumped into the trenches and pulled large shields above their heads. Very few arrows met their mark, but instead, bounced off the protective covers that had been deployed. Rezon’s soldiers then clamored out of the trenches again. They too charged with weapons swinging.

The two armies met, and the clash was deafening. Yells of anger, pain, and exertion shot up from the crowd amidst the clangs, pops, thuds, and booms caused by colliding weapons. Like the explosive spray from a high wave slamming into a sea cliff, the front lines furiously collided, the severity of the sudden encounter rippling outward into the ranks of both armies until all were engulfed.

Amon’s men pushed forward, trying to gain access to the war machines of Rezon, but were repulsed. They fell back momentarily, only to push forward again. Their second surge was even less successful than the first. Rezon’s men strongly leaned into Amon’s army, causing the line to break against a wall of resistance. The Brothers fell back once again, and Rezon’s troops rushed forward with their might. It was then that General Amon realized he had made a critical error in his planning.

The Gideonites of Rezon tumbled into the host of The Brothers like the boulders of a rock slide, and when they came to a standstill, only a careful observer could still distinguish them from the similarly armored Gideonites in Amon’s army. Chaos ensued. The battle slowed considerably as the soldiers hesitated at each confrontation to determine if the potential opponent was friend or foe. Captains on both sides continued to shout their commands, and in some cases, the differentiation between Rezon and Amon was determined solely by which command each man would obey.

It was at this point of great confusion that Captain Mehida lifted his sword skyward and yelled with all his vocal strength, “For Daniel and Uzzah!”

“FOR DANIEL AND UZZAH! ” came the thunderous echo from Amon’s army. They again charged forward, pushing Rezon’s troops back with such fury that the Gideonites who had been pledged to the service of Rezon and the late emperor began to melt before them.

Amon raised himself high in the stirrups so he could better see the battering rams near the walls of Ramathaim. He realized that all the Gideonites who had been moving the siege weapons toward their intended goal had abandoned their posts-now running down the slopes to join the raging battle below. To Amon’s great surprise, the unsuspecting soldiers of Rezon were being followed. Both the front gates of the outer wall and the sally port on the western end of the stone curtain gaped open, coughing up hundreds of Uzzahite warriors who gathered into tight groups. Amon sat back down in the saddle and called some horseback messengers to his side.

“Tell the captains to prepare a charge!”

The messengers rushed on their errand while Amon scanned the slopes. Wanting to be sure he kept track of Rezon’s whereabouts, he again scrutinized the center of the field. There he found the target of his own indignation.

His back to the hut placed there for his protection, Rezon stood next to the catapults, Captain Jael at his side. Both shouted commands at the rate of a flash flood. Rezon’s captains turned their troops from flank to point as if they were the spiked iron ball swinging from the end of the general’s long-chained flail. This change in direction caused Amon’s men to fall out of ranks.

Amon anxiously searched for the messengers and found one of them who had navigated his way through the sea of soldiers toward Captain Pekah. When the messenger arrived, he shook a signal flag in the air. This initiated another battle cry, echoed by the entire host.

“For Daniel and Uzzah! ”

To the obvious surprise of Rezon’s army came the roar of fifty silvered horns. The blast of sound bounced back and forth between the shouldering mountains of the city and rolled down the hillsides to the ears of everyone below. All heads turned to see the gates of Ramathaim open. A united voice of over two thousand Uzzahites then punctuated their sudden arrival with, “ For UZZAH and DANIEL and GIDEON! ”

Amon’s heart swelled with joy as he witnessed the brave men of Uzzah charge into the fray. He pulled his spyglass up to his eye in time to see a third of the Gideonites of Rezon turn back to protect their leaders. They clashed with Uzzah just as both parties reached the war machines. Amon trained his sight on the war hut.

At the center of the battle, Captain Jael seethed with hatred. In great sweeping arcs, Jael swung his large sword back and forth, clearing the ground before him as if he were cutting wheat with a scythe. Rezon remained protected from the battle, his most trusted and deadly servants bringing a sudden, painful end to the lives of all who opposed them. The fury that was visible in their faces caused Amon to catch his breath and look to his own men.

The Brothers fought like a lioness protecting her cubs, while the warriors of Ramathaim ignited a scene of terror for the minions of the emperor as they fell upon them with swift vengeance. Working together to press the enemy, Amon’s thousands surged toward the Uzzahites on the eastern flank in an attempt to hem the Gideonites in on three sides. When they finally met, they cheered for each other as the two armies merged to become one. Now vastly outnumbered, Rezon’s soldiers began to surrender in masses.

Seeing weapons dropping to the ground like hail, Amon ordered an immediate halt to the bloodshed. The Uzzahites of Ramathaim and the Army of The Brothers both fell back, allowing the nearly surrounded Gideonites to retreat to the base of Bald Mountain that rose out of the west slope of the plain. The united front then pushed forward with weapons brandishing, trapping Rezon and his faithful against the mountain backdrop. Hundreds of others surrendered. These were quickly separated from the enemy and deprived of all weapons.

Amon surveyed the carnage, sorrow filling his breast. The dead and wounded lay all around him, the smell of blood overpowering. With so many cries for help assaulting his ears, he called for Ezra’s company to assist with their care. To the other captains he yelled, “Tighten the line, and keep Rezon where he is!”

Watching their progress for only a moment, Amon then called his advisors to his side. Accompanied by Jonathan and Eli, they gathered and pressed forward to join him. Like a boat parting water before its bow, their horses cut through the ranks until they found a place on the edge of the semi-circle of soldiers surrounding Rezon’s men. Every man among The Brothers saluted them as they advanced. Once at the edge, they all dismounted and stood in a group to face Rezon and Jael, both near the front of the captured Gideonites. The hatred in their faces seemed to be chiseled into their features.

Amon grunted. He could not keep himself from imagining the difficulty that a man as arrogant as Rezon would be having at a time like this. The irony of it all struck him as being humorous. Rezon had been captured by an army comprised of his enemies and his onetime friends.

With the shouting of orders and the sound of battle now drifting away in the breeze, only the moans of the dying and the discomfort of the wounded reached Amon’s ears. Some of the women from Ezra’s company and many Uzzahites from the city hovered over the fallen wounded, tending to their needs, protected as they went by soldiers from every tribe. He looked around at the ranks of an army standing in silence, who waited for him to speak to the conquered. Fierce determination shone on their faces. He turned back to Rezon, intent on declaring an end to the war, but Rezon took a few steps forward, away from the protection of his men. He spoke first.

“Captain Amon, I should be pleased to see you,” Rezon nearly shouted, his voice stinging Amon like a wasp. “But I am not. You have sold yourself to the enemy.”

Amon did not flinch. He watched as Rezon stroked the clean blade of his sword as if he were testing the sharpness of the edge.

“Sold myself? I have no idea what you mean. I received no money for what I have done.”

Rezon’s eyes closed to mere slits, and he spat upon the ground. “Surely you are not accusing me of something, my brother?”

Amon’s thoughts shifted to the demise of Manasseh. Powerful memories of the incredible experience caused him to speak with boldness. “I was, at one time, part of those who would have accused the innocent. That much I do admit. But I never have taken money in exchange for the life of another.”

Amon paused, then clarified his statement with burning vitriol in his voice, “You are filth, Rezon. I have learned of your treachery. Jasher of Bezek now lies in his grave because of your lust for power.”

Rezon winced. Amon felt sure it was feigned.

“What of Jasher’s lust for power? Did he not murder the emperor? And what of yourself, Amon of Gilad? Is that not why you are here, to take control of the whole Host of Gideon yourself?”

Amon watched Jael, who twisted his long sword in his hands, clearly agitated.

These two disgust me, Amon thought. Looking to his right and to his left, he witnessed many of those same feelings written in plain language all over the faces of his captains and friends. This filled him with hope. An eager desire welled up in him to shout out the tale of Manasseh’s death as far as he could spread the news. But Amon felt this particular telling was not for him to do. The opportunity belonged to the other men who had been present on that occasion. The men of Gideon need to hear it from the two Brothers who have united us all.

“Rezon, this is Eli of Uzzah, and this is Pekah of Gideon. They are here to correct any lies you have been telling your men about what happened to the emperor. You were not there, but I was-along with Jasher and these two men. Let the truth be told by those who saw it with their own eyes.”

Rezon’s teeth clenched. The fire burning in his eyes gave the man the appearance of red-hot metal doused in cold water. But he did not argue, and neither did any of the nearly four hundred faithful men who stood behind him, although they still appeared to be ready to carry out any command the Gideonite general might wish to demand of them.

Amon took a half-step back when Rezon’s countenance suddenly softened. He wondered if Rezon was actually ready to hear what he had to say.

“Eli,” Amon asked kindly, “Would you please tell this misguided Gideonite the true story of the fate of Manasseh?”

Eli looked like a famished brown bear that had been thrown a salmon for dinner. The priest of Uzzah took a step forward, cleared his throat, and then told the entire story of the War of Gideon from his own point of view, including Pekah’s decision to join the cause of peace, and details of their harrowing journey to Ain.

This drew many derogatory comments from the captured men of Rezon and his captains, but Rezon still did not react. Amon wondered why his face remained expressionless, almost as if he did not hear what had been said, or he simply did not care. Rezon did make eye contact with Jonathan at that point-however, the exchange carried no emotion. Amon could see that Jonathan’s face held nothing but pity for the Gideonite general.

Eli continued and explained that The Thorn had been freely given to Pekah by Jonathan. With a great flourish, he told of the scene of light and power he witnessed and insisted that Manasseh’s death was punishment from God. This caused a great stir among the ranks. Those of Gideon who had previously surrendered gaped at each other in awe. They craned their necks to get a glimpse of the man called Pekah, who stood next to General Amon.

To Amon, Rezon remained completely unreadable. Not a soul moved. Amon spoke. “Now that you know I did not participate in the death of the Gideonite called Manasseh… your emperor, ” Amon intentionally stressed, “I wish to inform you that I have joined with Uzzah and Daniel. I have committed to their peoples, and to my own, that I will end this war. I now offer you safe passage back to the land of Gideon if you will fully renounce your intentions of continued warfare and covenant with me that you never again will wage war with Daniel and Uzzah. What do you desire? Life or death? The choice is clearly yours.”

Amon waited. Searching glances bounced back and forth between many of the hesitant Gideonites, but then many of the soldiers who had once sworn themselves to Rezon formed into lines. They threw their weapons into a pile. Rezon seemed completely accepting of their surrender. In the end, even Jael took a step to toss his own sword a few paces short of the heap of steel and wood.

Rezon was the last man to move toward the pile. He still gripped his sword tightly as he strolled forward. Once he was next to Jael’s sword, he dropped his own in the same place. The two Gideonite leaders stood together.

“If my men are willing to make such a covenant,” said Rezon, “Then so must I. How can I fight against so great an army?”

Still suspicious of Rezon, Amon motioned toward them. Two Uzzahite archers stepped out of the crowd and pulled their bowstrings back until they creaked, both arrows directed at Rezon’s heart.

“Why are you aiming at me?” Rezon protested as if deeply hurt by the distrust.

Amon did not answer, but he again signaled to the archers. Their bowstrings went slack, although both men held their missiles firmly to the nock point. He took a deep breath.

I need to make a strong statement, he thought. It would give him great pleasure to personally receive a covenant from Rezon, but in light of recent events, and the incredible tale Eli had just related to the soldiers, he felt a greater, lasting impression would be made upon those present if the man ultimately responsible for the miracles at Ain would do the honors.

“Pekah, would you and Eli retrieve the general’s weapon and receive his oath of honor?”

Pekah readily accepted the assignment. Looking to his large Uzzahite friend, he approached General Rezon and Captain Jael. They stopped a few paces short, warily watching the two Gideonites.

Rezon showed his hands, plainly empty, and then clasped them behind his back in a show of submission. Jael did the same. Pekah and Eli stepped around the pile of weapons, stopping over the two swords lying together in the grass.

Eli held his sword in his right hand and his long walking stick in his left, both in a defensive manner. He motioned for Pekah to place the two men under covenant. Pekah hesitated only briefly, but then with visible courage, he extended his right hand out as the recipient of the covenant, with his palm upward. Looking on, Amon was annoyed by Rezon’s expression of total indifference.

General Rezon sighed, almost pathetically. He then spoke loudly to the crowd. “I hereby covenant that I will not wage war with Daniel or Uzzah again.” Then with great show, he pulled his empty right hand from behind his back and placed it over Pekah’s. “Instead,” Rezon said with a long pause, “I will murder them!”

In a flash, the left-handed Gideonite viciously stabbed forward and drove his dagger deep into Pekah’s chest. The blade pierced him right at the spot in his breastplate where the Gideonite arrow had weakened the hardened leather. Pekah’s eyes glazed over, and he fell forward with a thud. In the distance, two distinct and recognizable screams hurtled into the air. Ezra’s men quickly rushed to protect the women.

Jael slammed into Eli, knocking him off balance and away from Rezon. As if planned all along, a hundred Gideonites scrambled past the general to gain access to the pile of weapons before them. The Uzzahite archers, whom Amon had called up, let their arrows fly. One struck Jael in the shoulder and the other ricocheted off Rezon’s breastplate as he bent to retrieve his sword. As the Gideonites swooped in to grab weapons, The Brothers were upon them in force.

One soldier next to Rezon retrieved Jael’s sword, and with Rezon nearly dragging the wounded captain, the three ran back into their own ranks. They made for the base of the mount and began to climb. Loyal soldiers used their own bodies as human shields, receiving the onslaught of arrows intended for the general. Man after man fell with arrows in their backs but the defense never faltered, other men immediately taking their place. Other Gideonites stayed behind and rushed the main group of horsemen. Most were trampled in the fighting, but enough of Rezon’s men were armed that they held up the riders, preventing them from chasing the escaping Gideonites. Rezon’s small group disappeared over the top of the small mount.

In the intense battle that raged, Amon, Jonathan, Eli, and Tavor fought side by side, each dealing death with almost every blow. After many minutes of fighting, those who had enabled the escape of Rezon had been annihilated. The dead lay all around The Brothers like piled logs.

Amon braced himself, his hands on his knees, his chest heaving. When he caught his breath, he looked up to see Tavor at Eli’s side, tending to the burly red-headed man. Eli glanced down at the blood streaming from a gash in his arm. He stumbled, but Tavor caught him and set him down on the ground. Next to Eli, Jonathan reached down to touch a superficial slice on the back of his leg. He winced. Of the small group of friends, only Tavor was unharmed.

The general searched for something to staunch Eli’s bleeding. An Uzzahite tending the wounded handed him a few strips of clean cloth. He rushed to Tavor and assisted in treating Eli’s wound. He held the cloth tight while Tavor wrapped and then tied the ends.

Distracted by Jonathan, he watched as the Danielite hobbled toward a still form on the turf. It was Pekah.

Amon left Tavor with the remaining cloth and followed him. When Jonathan reached Pekah’s lifeless body and collapsed in a heap, Amon stopped. He swallowed hard.

Clearly anguished, tears streamed down Jonathan’s cheeks as he pulled Pekah close and sobbed.

His head low, Amon turned away.

Chapter 31

Hope

J onathan stood next to Eli in the dim glow-stone lantern light of the tent, both with tears dripping into their beards. The door flaps of the medical tent had been lowered to give them privacy, closed well enough that very little of the evening light filtered through. Outside, Azure and Aqua were just about to dip behind the eastern peaks of the Hara Range.

Pekah’s body lay before them, stretched out on one of the cots intended for use by the healers of Rezon’s army for treating the wounded. Split down the middle, his torn blood-soaked tunic had fallen over his arms. The gaping wound in his bared chest stared back at Jonathan and Eli as if it were mocking them with cruel laughter. Even though someone had closed the captain’s eyes, it seemed as if an expression of total surprise remained.

Having trouble grasping the reality of seeing the still form on the cot, Jonathan gazed upon Pekah’s body as if he expected the young Gideonite to sit up and tell them there was really nothing wrong. But Pekah did not move.

“I don’t understand,” Jonathan muttered to himself.

At first, Eli acted as though he did not notice the comment. Then he glanced sideways at Jonathan. “Understand what?” Eli asked.

Jonathan still stared at the body. He scratched the back of his head, trying to shake loose a foggy memory of the past. As his hand absentmindedly fell to his chin, a thought clicked into place. He started, eyes wide and searching.

“Eli! Three nights ago… do you remember?”

“Remember what?” Eli asked.

“Do you remember sleeping in the tent by the Fount of Ain?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

“I never told you, but much like Pekah’s dream about the Emperor Manasseh… I had a dream about Pekah.”

Eli stepped back, astonished. “Did you see Pekah like this?”

“No, not exactly.”

Jonathan then related the dream, in every detail.

“But in the dream, you saw children! What of the children? How do they fit in?”

Jonathan didn’t answer. He fidgeted with his beard as if pulling on it would ease his troubled mind. He let go to scratch his head, and then pulled on his beard once more.

Eli seemed bothered by Jonathan’s nervousness, but did not say anything.

A profound thought crossed Jonathan’s mind and he felt a warm change in his own countenance. It was as if the sister suns themselves broke through the canvas of the tent roof, spilling morning beams into the room. Although Jonathan’s face lit up, tears welled up in his eyes once again. The unmistakable feeling in the room reminded him of the quiet sanctity present in the temple of the Holy One.

Jonathan felt the burning fire start to smolder in his bosom. Earnest, he looked for a reaction from his friend. Eli’s eyes were closed, his head back as if thinking hard, or praying. Jonathan cleared his throat to get his attention. Eli exhaled and opened his eyes.

A tremor in his voice, Jonathan said to the priest of Uzzah, “Eli

… Pekah was not supposed to die!”

***

Outside the tent, Rachel held onto Abigail’s arm. They sat on a bench before the fire pit, recently stoked in preparation for the darkness to come. Nearby, Tavor and Amon sat on stools left behind by Rezon’s company. They talked in muted voices about their plans to take horsemen into the Hara Mountains in hopes of tracking down the escaped Gideonites.

There to assist with Pekah’s burial, Rachel yearned to get back to her parents, who had returned to the city in order to make preparations for guests. Once the battle had ended, both Uzziel and Miriam came out of the city under heavy escort, searching for their children. Recognizing her parents among a crowd of citizens, Rachel had rushed forward with Eli to meet them. Uzziel collapsed to his knees in exhaustion as all of the stresses of the past week poured out of him. Tears of joy flowed freely as he pulled them close, saying, “My children, my children!”

The memory of their frantic hugs and kisses warmed her heart. She mused over the image of her brother-Eli had acted like a young boy, clinging to his mother. When her parents returned to the city, she stayed so that she might be close to Jonathan. Now he was in the tent, but she was not alone. Sitting close to her friend, she could feel Abigail’s arm against her own.

Silent, Abigail stared at the fire. Rachel sighed, pulling her hair down around her neck as she looked to the east. The two small blue dots she expected to find there were no longer visible in the sky. Freed by the departure of Azure and Aqua, dark shadows now ran across the foothills of the Hara Range in a race to touch the western peaks first. Hues of violet and scarlet mingled in the few clouds loitering above the city and continued to darken. Although beautiful, the suns-setting only made her feel the coming night.

Rachel glanced at Abigail. Unlike earlier, when Abigail had fallen into a sobbing heap upon the ground, she was calm now. Still, her dazed expression testified of horrible pain from emotional wounds. Rachel wondered what the woman was thinking, if she was able to think at all.

Trying to piece the incidents of the past day together, Rachel watched the flames dancing before her. Two lives. Two men. One, Abigail’s husband. The other, her appointed guardian. How would Abigail ever deal with such terrible loss? Rachel ached for her friend. She could not imagine what Abigail might be feeling.

The front wall of the tent sucked inward, then popped out as a gusty breeze pulled at the canvas. Rachel’s thoughts strayed back to the murder scene. She shivered, forcing herself to put the images of Rezon’s treachery out of her mind. Hoping a distraction would help, she reached down to tighten a buckle on her left boot.

The ground trembled. It lasted only a few seconds, but Rachel felt it. Abigail stared back at her, frightened. They reached for each other, clasping hands. Nearby, Amon and Tavor stood in alarm, both watching the tent. Rachel followed their gaze. Pulling Abigail up with her, she stood gaping at the sight.

The gap at the bottom edge of the tent shimmered, a brilliant, white light coming from within. The tent almost appeared to be floating in its staked place, with light pouring from every loose seam-even from the creased folds of the entrance. At the height of luminance, Rachel heard a sharp gasp from inside the tent. Then it was quiet, and the brilliance subsided until it disappeared.

The men still stood as if planted in the ground. Tavor whispered something to Amon, and both men drew their swords. But neither approached the tent. Next to Rachel, Abigail’s face was full of fear and wonder.

The tent flaps flew open, and Jonathan limped out. Because of the light gleaming in his eyes, Rachel thought he looked as if he had ascended to heaven and then returned. A most sublime, reverent expression shone from his face. Rachel’s jaw fell further.

Eli then stooped through the tent door, his countenance much the same-showing profound, deep awe.

And then there came another.

Pekah stepped out of the tent.

Amon and Tavor collapsed to their knees as if paralyzed by fear. They hid their faces like children playing a game. Upon seeing the dead man walking, Rachel and Abigail both fell to their knees, cowering together.

Is it a ghost? Rachel shuddered with fright. Holding Abigail tighter, she swayed back and forth in her friend’s arms, not wishing to look at Pekah again.

Pekah was dead! Rachel knew he was dead. And yet, there he stood.

Abigail clutched at her arm. Rachel pulled Abigail’s face to her shoulder, shielding her from the sight. She glanced about, hoping for protection for the both of them, but the other soldiers who had been milling around the area scattered like sheep before a lion.

Rachel looked back to see Jonathan, and noticed compassion in his smile. A strange curiosity welled up within her when she realized Jonathan was overjoyed to see Pekah standing there next to him. Needing his touch, Rachel reached for him. Jonathan hastened to the women and lifted both Rachel and Abigail to their feet.

“Everything’s fine!” he said with encouragement. “Pekah is alive. Do not be afraid!”

He hugged Rachel and pulled Abigail close to comfort her too. Like a child peeking out from the skirts of her mother, Rachel peered around Jonathan’s embracing arm at Pekah, incredulous at what she saw. He truly was alive! She glanced back to Amon and Tavor, who still sat upon the ground, leaning back as if Pekah was dangerous. But Pekah did not move.

He stood there, his tunic rent, stained in blood and falling off his shoulders. His chest was completely bare. Even in the dim light of dusk combined with the light of the fire, Rachel could see that the young Gideonite captain’s chest was clean and whole, with no trace of a wound. No bruise, no scar-no mark of any kind.

Pekah smiled.

Chapter 32

Eligible

T he next morning dawned a bright and warm Sabbath with a few lazy clouds drifting across the sky. Birds were singing themselves into an almost raucous frenzy, the sounds of battle no longer keeping them in a frightened silence. Uzziel sat at his table near an open window that allowed the morning to pour onto the hand-inked pages he surveyed. His eyes misted. Several of the names listed were familiar, one of them a close associate-Abram of Uzzah, his own trusted bodyguard. How will Abram’s young wife Esther ever manage on her own? the high priest thought to himself, a heavy sadness bowing his head.

Putting aside the list of the deceased, Uzziel fiddled with a key on a loop of leather. Rachel had handed it to him the previous evening while sobbing out her own story. Thoughtful, he turned the key in his hands. It reminded him of the first time he met Asah, when he showed up on their doorstep asking for employment. Many years had passed since then, and Asah had become a trusted steward. The thought of never seeing his faithful friend and assistant again in this life caused Uzziel to feel cold.

Too many good people died in this horrible war, he thought, shaking his head. How many? He didn’t know for sure, and couldn’t bring himself to count the names on the list. But there had to be nearly a thousand lost in the final battle, not counting those from Hasor, Saron, and Ain.

Unable to look upon the list any longer, Uzziel turned the pages over, smudges of dirt on them reminding him of the previous evening. He had been outside the gates, looking on as the citizens of Ramathaim and soldiers from Amon’s army respectfully filled the trenches of war with the bodies of those who had perished. Tavor had helped him to make the list as they walked beside the trenches, cataloging the personal effects of the deceased before the long graves were filled.

The grisly work had taken them all evening-the trenches covered and the list completed just as the sister suns hid their faces behind a red-stained horizon. The image of temporary markers, consisting of the personal effects of the deceased and littered along fresh mounds of dirt, still haunted him.

He sniffed, looking down at Asah’s key. Until we meet again, my dear friend, he thought as he put the key around his neck. He felt a hand on his arm.

“Dear, please eat something,” Miriam encouraged.

“Thank you, Miriam, but I just don’t feel like eating right now.”

Miriam patted him on the back and then went about her business tidying up the table. Earlier, she had served breakfast to Rachel and her new friend of Gideon, Abigail.

“What a sweet young lady,” Miriam whispered as she wiped crumbs onto a plate.

Uzziel heard her. He got up from his chair and kissed his wife on the cheek.

“I’m off to find our daughter. Rachel said she wanted Abigail to see the temple. Did Eli and Jonathan say where they were headed this morning? I’d like us all to worship together.”

“They left without eating-said they were in a hurry, but they did mention being back in time for Sabbath services.”

“Very well. Can I take something to eat with me?”

Miriam handed him a cloth pouch, already stocked.

“I knew you would ask,” she lovingly said.

“Thank you. I’m not sure what I would do without you…” Uzziel’s voice trailed off. He kissed her and left.

***

“Pekah?” Jonathan asked as they sat at breakfast in Tavor’s home. “How are you feeling this morning?”

“I’ve never felt better. In fact, I awoke before the suns. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Of course you couldn’t sleep. You got your rest during a long afternoon nap,” Eli joked. That got a laugh out of all of them. Even Sarah giggled softly as she glanced over her shoulder from tending to Tavor’s young sons, who were eating at a separate table.

Jonathan studied Pekah. He had been laughing, but now had a far-off look in his eyes as he rubbed his chest.

“Does it hurt?” Jonathan asked.

“What?”

“Your chest-does it hurt?”

“No-why do you ask?”

“You were rubbing it as if it did.”

“I was? Hmmm.” Pekah rubbed it again as if he expected a sore spot to be there. “No, it’s fine. I suppose it’s just the memory of the wound that is painful. It seems so strange. I can remember Rezon stabbing me. I even remember the initial pain. For a moment everything became dark, as if I had fallen asleep standing up. But then…” Pekah’s voice trailed off. He touched his chest, pointing. “There’s not even a mark.”

Jonathan smiled. “I’m glad.”

“Thank you both,” Pekah said, looking at Jonathan, then Eli. “I’m indebted to you-and very happy to be alive. I wasn’t ready to go.”

“Are you sure?” Eli asked, an eyebrow raised. “I thought the other side wouldn’t be so bad.”

Pekah’s eyes closed. After he opened them, Jonathan saw that his eyes were moist. “No, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had, but I knew I needed to come back. My mother was there, and she told me.”

Stillness settled upon the room. No one said a word, not even Sarah. Jonathan felt particularly hesitant to delve deeper into Pekah’s experience. Only once before had he heard someone tell of spending time in the world of spirits. He yearned to hear more about the afterlife-to know what it might be like for his own parents who were there, to glimpse in his mind’s eye the scenery, the people, the feeling, the light-but he simply could not ask. Pekah would have to volunteer it.

“Jonathan?” Pekah asked.

“Yes?”

Pekah fidgeted with the last apple slice sitting beside the leftover bread crumbs on his plate.

“Yes?”

Pekah looked up. Intense sadness pulled at his mouth and brow. “Lady Abigail… I wonder if Jasher has…” Pekah did not finish either of his sentences.

“I’m not sure what you’re asking. What about Jasher?”

“If Jasher has brothers who are not married, then shouldn’t one of them take Abigail to themselves and provide for her?”

Eli spoke before Jonathan could reply. “Yes, Pekah, I think you’re right. That would be proper. And besides, there is-”

Jonathan held up his hand. Eli stopped and stared at him.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, Eli, but Amon told me several things I need to share with Pekah.” He turned toward the Gideonite captain. “The night Jasher died, I also wondered if he had any family. I took General Amon aside, and we had a conversation about it. I asked the same questions.”

Although tempted to share the reason for his asking, he did not. I’ll tell Pekah about the dream later, he thought. Besides, I’m not sure what it means anyway. He decided to keep it simple.

“Pekah, Jasher had no brothers. He was the oldest of five, and his siblings were all sisters. He had no male cousins. It seems as though there is not a single living male member of his family who can fulfill this duty. Is that what you needed to know?”

Pekah’s head bowed low under the weight of what he had heard. Jonathan gave him time to absorb the information. When Pekah finally looked up at Jonathan, concern still clouded his face. “How can I do this? Why did Jasher choose me?”

Jonathan didn’t answer right away. Trying to offer Pekah a reassuring look, he said, “Jasher had been deeply impressed by you. Your experience as you stood before Manasseh was sacred to him. He saw you protected by the power of the Holy One, and commented on it several times as we rode between Ain and Hasor. Jasher watched you intently during those two days.” Jonathan placed his hand on Pekah’s shoulder and finished with, “Amon himself said, Jasher could not have chosen better.”

The distress in Pekah’s face visibly softened. “I will not force her to marry me.”

“I would not expect that. Abigail must choose this on her own. Take some time to get to know her. If she’s comfortable with the idea, she’ll let you know.”

“From what I’ve seen, Abigail won’t have a problem with it,” Eli said. “Jonathan, did you not see the woman rush to him after he walked out of the tent?”

Jonathan nodded with a grin, and Pekah blushed at the memory. He hadn’t expected Abigail to throw her arms around his neck like she did, once she’d overcome her surprise. She obviously did not consider him revolting.

Popping an apple slice into his mouth, Pekah stood. “I appreciate your ideas-you’ve made me feel much more comfortable. Abigail may still choose to go a different way, but if she decides to honor Jasher’s request, I will at least consider it. Sarah?”

Sarah glanced back from feeding the boys.

“Thank you again for your hospitality.”

Jonathan, Eli, and Tavor all stood and offered their thanks. Tavor stepped to his wife and kissed her.

“You’re welcome. Where are you all going this morning?” Sarah asked.

“We’re meeting General Amon at the city gates,” Tavor replied. “Some unfinished business-and then we’ll be back for Sabbath worship services.”

“Unfinished business?”

“A party is being sent into the mountains tomorrow to seek out Rezon and those who escaped with him,” Eli responded.

Sarah threw Eli a chastising look. “Surely you and Jonathan are not joining them? What of your own wounds? You both need rest.”

“Thank you for your concern, Sarah,” Jonathan replied. “But my leg is well enough that I can travel by horseback.”

Eli shrugged his shoulders. His left forearm was still thickly bandaged, but Jonathan knew his stubbornness would not allow him to sit idly by.

“Go on, then!” Sarah said, scowling at Tavor as if she expected him to intervene and make them stay.

After a futile attempt to avoid her glaring eyes, Tavor said, “You’re right, my dear. But do you honestly think they’ll listen to me?”

“No, I suppose not.” Sarah sighed. She frowned at each of them, causing them all to drop their gaze. Having made her point, she waved them out of the house.

Once outside, Jonathan put a hand on Tavor’s shoulder. “Thank you!”

Tavor only winked.

Chapter 33

Duty

J onathan followed Eli as he and the others descended the steep, enclosed street where Tavor’s home crowded against other two-story stone residences. A few balconies above them were enshrouded with laundry hung out to dry. Sunlight bathed the men in warmth once again when they passed onto the wider streets below the temple, bordered on every side by tents. Normally filled with hawking vendors of all kinds, today the tents were devoid of sales activity. The few citizens who did walk the street waved cheerfully or gave friendly greetings pertaining to the holy day, each exuding a palpable feeling of relief from escaping the fears of the day before. The smiles and pleasant exchanges warmed Jonathan’s heart.

After arriving at the entrance to the city, they passed through the outer gate house to walk between the fallen archway stones. Jonathan could see the army of Amon in the distance. Making their way down to the grid of burial mounds that scarred the grassy field, they turned to avoid them and followed the road. As they neared the place where the army had assembled, Jonathan could see that the Gideonite captains were in the process of sending thousands of soldiers home-those who had abandoned Rezon.

Riding in the direction of the southern mountains of Gideon, Captain Mehida rode at their head. Jonathan could see him wave back to Amon before he rounded a bend and disappeared behind one of the many hills hugging the road. The ground still trembled from the many hundreds bringing up the rear as Jonathan and his friends approached the general, who was standing by the roadside. They all saluted.

“Good morning!” Amon greeted them with vigor, his deep voice booming.

“Good morning, General,” Jonathan said. Eli echoed his reply.

“Peace be to you, General,” Pekah said, in Uzzahite fashion.

“And to you,” Amon returned.

Pekah straightened. “I am here to report for duty, sir. What do you desire of me?”

Amon seemed surprised by the question. “Duty?” he asked. He stepped back as if to study the young Gideonite captain.

Jonathan’s eyes followed Amon’s-he also saw Pekah’s wavy black hair, dark eyes, light skin, and thin smile. They were all the same as before, and yet Pekah wasn’t. Jonathan now saw before him a man who carried himself differently. This Gideonite soldier has grown in wisdom, he thought.

Straightening, Amon looked squarely at Pekah. “Your duty, Captain, was fulfilled. If you desire it, you are released from service. We serve until death, do we not?”

Pekah blinked.

“Not what you expected?”

“Released, sir?”

“Yes, you are. When you joined the Host of Gideon-mind you, I did not say the army of the emperor-the oath of service you gave to Gideon was to last until you were released by a general of the Host, or until you can no longer serve because of injury or death. On account of your recent death,” Amon said, winking, “I certainly consider your oath fulfilled.”

Eli laughed.

Amon grinned, apparently amused. “Do you know what the troops are saying now? The rumors are rampant! You have become far, far more than just mere legend!”

Pekah’s eyes were wide, but he did not ask.

Jonathan asked for him. “What are they saying?”

“Many of them were present on the morning when Pekah and I first met.” Amon’s eyes danced. “Now they are saying, ‘Captain Pekah cannot be killed. Three times has it been attempted, and he either will not die, or he will not stay dead’. ” Amon chuckled.

At first, Pekah acted as though he didn’t know what to say. But then the humor of the moment took him, and his wit jumped out. “Apparently my enemies have not used the right weapon-before yesterday, the casual glance of a beautiful girl has always struck my heart much deeper.”

Jonathan and Eli both snickered.

Amon raised his hands. “The troops are serious about it, though,” he said, still chuckling. “They call you Azmaveth- strength in death.”

Now serious, Pekah shrugged it off. “I am nothing.”

“Choose to be nothing if you want,” Eli teased. “I still like you as Pekah.”

Pekah kicked at a rock, sending it skittering down the road in the direction of the last marching troops, now far away. Humor gone from Pekah’s face, Jonathan could see that something still troubled the Gideonite captain. Pekah looked up at Amon.

“I need some time to weigh things in my mind, General. The oath I made to Gideon remains important to me. I gave it upon my honor.” Pekah glanced at Jonathan. “I have also promised my service to the heir of Daniel. Thank you for the official release from service, but at this time I still wish to ride with these men.”

“So be it,” Amon replied. “I understand that your oath to Jonathan of Daniel still remains. They are leaving tomorrow to find Rezon. I assume you are well enough to travel with them?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Pekah,” Jonathan said.

“I plan to remain here for at least two days,” Amon said. “I’m meeting with the Council of Ramathaim tomorrow. Uzziel invited me to attend. I will then return to Gideon before Rezon can, should he attempt to do so. I’m taking documents of treaty from Uzzah and Daniel, and once I have presented them before a newly formed Council of Gideon-and forming this council will surely need to be done, now that Manasseh does not lead-then, I hope to return to witness the Anointing.”

“Anointing?” Pekah asked, appearing confused.

Eli looked at Jonathan, checking for his permission. Jonathan gave a nod.

“Pekah,” Eli said, “now that this conflict is over, Daniel remains without a judge and king. Samuel is dead, and Jonathan is the heir. He will be made king and judge over Daniel.”

“And my desire,” Amon added, “is that when I return to Gideon with the hopes of The Brothers in my heart, they will side with me, and war will cease between us forever. Gideon will remain a free people, just as Uzzah and Daniel, but…” Amon trailed off, folding his arms. With emotion, he finished. “I want Gideon to join with Daniel, just as Uzzah has done. Separate, yet supporting. To counsel with, and to assist. I want the pains and prejudices to be no more. I have seen how Uzzah and Daniel live in peace. I want nothing less for Gideon.”

Jonathan’s chest tightened, deeply touched by Amon’s statement. “General, thank you,” he said. “I wish for the same peace between our peoples. But somehow-this time-it must be different. I don’t think it’s possible to keep this good feeling between The Brothers unless we are more involved with each other. For how many years have there been suspicions, tensions, unfounded rumors, and accusations between our peoples?”

Amon was thoughtful, but then he agreed. “There must be change, but I don’t know how to change it.”

“I do,” Jonathan said without hesitation, greatly excited by the opportunity to change the course of his kingdom. “Amon, you will surely sit on the Council of Gideon as General of the Host. I would expect nothing less. But will you also sit on my council? My father always had both Uzzah and Daniel in the twelve council seats of Hasor, six from each tribe-and they all shared their wisdom with a humble judge. But this arrangement is no longer sufficient. Would you join me by sitting on that council, one of four from Gideon, that all tribes might be represented equally?”

Amon’s face flushed. “Yes, I would be honored!”

“Also, I would like Captain Mehida to sit on the Council,” Jonathan said. “He has greatly impressed me. Do you think he would accept?”

“Of course I do. Mehida believes in the work that has been done to unite us. He’ll accept the charge with gladness.”

“The fourth seat, however, I cannot fill on my own. I don’t know who among Gideon is like unto Amon, and Mehida, and…” Jonathan then looked directly at his Gideonite friend, the one who had saved his life on the road to Ain. Being an only child, Jonathan never had a brother-Eli had been the closest thing to it. Jonathan now felt similar feelings growing for Pekah. “… and like unto Pekah,” Jonathan continued. “Pekah, will you sit with the Council? Your presence there would honor us all.”

Pekah’s face reddened. “ Me? I have no experience with these types of matters.”

“Experience can be both good and bad,” Jonathan said. “Isn’t Rezon experienced? He’s experienced in deception, ambition, and warfare. What I desire is an honest and true heart, one I can trust with my life. There is none better qualified.”

Pekah’s eyes were low. He did not answer at first. “I will serve, as requested,” he finally said, looking up.

Jonathan shook Pekah’s hand with vigorous congratulations and thanks.

Turning to Amon, Jonathan made one more request. “General, as I said before, I cannot choose the fourth. Please do me the favor-will you sit in council with Mehida and Pekah, and make an invitation to one you trust? Will you fill the seat for me?”

“We will,” Amon replied as he glanced at Pekah.

Now satisfied, Jonathan remembered there was still much to be done before the next day.

“Amon,” Jonathan began, “we’ll ride at the first hour of light in the morning, with as many riders as you can spare. I need some of Gideon’s faithful to identify those who escaped. Tavor’s men and Ezra’s men ride with me also.”

“I’ll attach a company of fifty to your contingent. Will that suffice? There cannot be more than twenty who escaped.”

“I believe you’re right. Although Rezon’s men have great skill riding in mountainous terrain, they should not be able to get far on foot. And I have the best archers of Uzzah with me.”

“Very well then, prepare your men, and fifty riders of Gideon will join you. They’ll meet you in front of the city gates at dawn.”

“Thank you, General.”

“No, thank you,” Amon answered. “Thank you for living this wonderful dream of a new day with me and my people. I’ve never had so much hope for the future.”

Jonathan shook the general’s hand as a friend, and they parted.

Chapter 34

Matched

P ekah wandered through the market, paying very little attention to the street vendors around him. Instead, he watched customers as they went about their business of choosing and haggling. Weary from spending eight days in the Hara Mountains with the cold ground for a bed and rations they rarely had time to warm up, he looked forward to a hot meal and a proper place to sleep. Once again he had been invited to stay with Eli’s family while in Ramathaim-and recent experience had taught him never to turn down the hospitality of Uzziel’s wife. Miriam was a fabulous cook.

I should bring something with me, he thought. He spotted a fruit and vegetable stand nearby that looked promising. After weaving between customers, he intended to survey the two well-organized racks, but his gaze locked on a large bin next to them, filled to overflowing with what looked to be fresh almonds.

Picking one up, he got the attention of the vendor, who brushed off his hands on a white apron. “Are the almonds from last year’s harvest?”

“No, these are the first fruits, just brought in from Karmel. They’re wonderful. Would you like a sample?”

“Please.”

The vendor dropped an almond into a slot between four sticks that had been banded together on one end, then gave the bundle a twist. The shell cracked easily. He tapped out a perfect, undamaged nut, handing it to Pekah.

Still chewing on the delicious almond, Pekah covered his mouth and said, “I’ll take two solars’ worth, please.” As he handed the man his coins, Pekah looked up to see Abigail across the street, her back to him. “Thank you, but could I have one more solar’s worth, please?”

The man obliged, and Pekah thanked him as he gripped his treasures, hurrying to be sure he wouldn’t lose Abigail in the crowd. He approached her from the side, giving her the opportunity to see him coming. Pekah didn’t want to surprise her. Although they had talked several times since the day Jonathan and Eli had literally raised him from the dead, he still felt a little uneasy around her, and expected her feelings were much the same.

“Hello, Abigail,” he said, catching her attention.

“Captain Pekah. Good afternoon.”

Pekah wished she wouldn’t be so formal with him. But he glanced down at his chest and realized he was still wearing armor, and his sword was strapped to his belt, both of which made him look very official. A dusty spot on his sleeve caught his eye, and he brushed it off. Then he remembered that it had been two days since he had been able to bathe, and he suddenly felt very self-conscious, even wishing he hadn’t approached her. He looked back to see she held a bulky reed basket on her shoulder, balancing it with both hands. It appeared to be heavy.

“Could I help you with that?”

“I can manage,” she said flatly.

“I didn’t mean to insinuate that you couldn’t,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry.”

She held his gaze for a moment, her eyes searching his. She smiled. “Actually, it would be a help.”

Pekah grinned, handing her the two bags of almonds in trade for the basket. It was heavier than it looked. “Shopping for rocks?” he teased as he followed her down the street.

“Iron shot from the catapults. Mementos. I wanted a few for doorstops.”

Taken aback, Pekah looked sideways at the Gideonite woman, studying her expression. At first she appeared to be serious, but then her lip quivered in an effort to suppress a grin. She broke out into a wide smile.

Pekah laughed. “You had me believing you.”

“I did?”

“Yes. Because of the weight of the basket, I wasn’t about to doubt you.”

“It’s only peaches. And some bread. The bread doesn’t weigh much.”

“Maybe I’m just weak.”

Abigail smiled at him again, but didn’t say anything. Now out of the market, they continued to walk down the sloping street toward the residential areas. Pekah wondered where they were going, suspecting that they were headed to Uzziel’s place. But when they came to the first intersection, Abigail turned, and Pekah followed.

“Tavor and Sarah’s home?” he asked.

“Yes. Rachel and I are going to help Sarah prepare the fruit. She has a large drying rack and plenty of storage. Besides, with you and Eli returning today, I didn’t want to be underfoot.”

Pekah suddenly felt uncomfortable, wondering if Abigail was avoiding him. He could feel his face turn red, and was glad she didn’t seem to notice. He chose to change the subject. “How do you like it here in Ramathaim?”

Abigail looked around as if admiring the architecture. “It’s very beautiful here. And the weather is nice.”

Pekah nodded. “I agree. It feels like home, but still has its own character.” He paused to move the basket to his other shoulder, then increased his pace to keep up. Rounding a corner, they arrived at Tavor’s home. Sarah peeked out from a window as they approached. Before they even passed under the simple arch that linked two sides of the low, stone wall around the modest property, Sarah opened the front door to greet them.

“Here, let me take that, Pekah,” she said.

Pekah didn’t argue. He helped Sarah to shoulder the basket. She then scurried into the house. Abigail turned and handed the two bags of almonds to him. As she did, he caught the faint scent of lavender on her hands.

“Thank you,” she said.

“It was my pleasure. Besides, it’s not every day I get the chance to walk with a beautiful lady of Gideon.” As soon as the words slipped out of his mouth, he regretted them. She’s going to be offended by my forwardness, he thought. He could still smell the perfume.

Her reaction surprised him. She smiled, kindness in her eyes. He gulped, quite uncomfortable. “Oh, I almost forgot! These are for you.” Pekah extended his arm, the small bag of almonds in his hand.

“Thank you, Pekah.” She took the bag and held it close to her chest. She held his eyes for a moment, her expression far more pleasant than the feeling in Pekah’s stomach-as though he had just been kicked by his horse. He felt a sudden urge to be on his way.

Abigail turned as if to head into the house, but paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Jasher was right to have liked you.” She then hurried in and shut the door.

Pekah stood there for a moment, amazed. Why did she say that? Replaying the words in his mind, hearing again the tone of her voice, and visualizing the friendly expression on her face-he realized her statement was a hint that she liked him too.

Leaving, Pekah’s step was light, his body full of energy. As he walked, he whistled.

***

Cool morning breezes fluttered down upon the broad canopy that had been erected next to the garden fount, ready to be the focal point of the marriage celebration. The fountain jumped and gurgled, and some of the spray drifted into the orchids that were lined up behind it, giving them an occasional wind-blown sip. Jonathan’s gaze lifted to just behind the beautiful flowers, and he saw the courtyard wall of the Temple of Sacrifice: tall, white, and brilliant in the morning suns-light.

Rachel placed her hand on Jonathan’s arm affectionately as they sat together on a bench enjoying the fresh air together. Jonathan held her hand tight.

“Look!” Rachel said, pointing to a songbird that settled into an almond tree nearby. Moving to a higher perch, it started to sing.

Utter contentment radiated from Rachel’s face, drawing Jonathan in. His gaze remained affixed to the lines of her face and her soft, brown eyes, rendering him almost breathless at her beauty. Feeling peaceful, he kissed her softly on the forehead and put an arm around her shoulder, watching the orchids sway in the breeze.

His mind drifted for a moment to dwell on the taxing and unsuccessful excursions to find Rezon and his men. They had spent days in the mountains of Hara. His troops had gone not once, but three times in the last month. Signs of the fugitives had been sparse, and Rezon’s followers-most of them from Gideon-were well acquainted with mountaineering. Jonathan wondered if they would ever be found. Catching himself, he put thoughts of disappointment away. He just had to believe that Rezon would eventually be found and brought to justice.

Thinking of more positive things, he mentally reviewed reports from Amon and Mehida, who just had returned to Ramathaim from the mountains of Gideon, bearing tidings of the successful creation of their new council. They had brought with them an old man, a goatherd named Eder. When Jonathan was introduced to him at the home of Uzziel, all four of them, including Pekah, were in complete agreement. Eder was undoubtedly the right man to fill the final council seat being offered to Gideon-unpretentious, never in a hurry to speak his mind, and rarely eloquent when he did so, but full of proper respect for all the tribes. Prejudice did not exist in any fiber of his makeup.

Instantly drawn to the man, Jonathan marveled at Eder’s optimism. Eder was blind, and yet, he had immense vision. It only took five minutes of conversation for Jonathan to see there was no guile in this simple goatherd.

When Jonathan found out that Eder was a widower, his invitation became more than just a seat around the council table of Hasor. Eder had no living children to care for, and his meager existence was hardly sufficient to allow him to travel to and from Hasor as needs would arise, especially since an escort would be needed each time.

Therefore, Jonathan offered the old man a room in his own home, the palace of Hasor, and complete freedom to come and go as he pleased. Eder graciously accepted. The best part of Jonathan’s kind offer was Rachel’s reaction-she was thrilled with the arrangement.

Jonathan smiled at the memory. Her compassion for others had always warmed his heart, and this part of her personality was one of the many reasons he looked forward to spending a lifetime with her at his side. No man would ever have a brighter jewel for his treasure than this woman would be for him. Everything felt so perfect. Peace. Friends. Rachel.

“Where are you?” Rachel asked.

“I’m sorry. Just thinking about things.”

“Our marriage tomorrow?” Rachel asked, teasing.

“Yes,” Jonathan said with a smile. “Of course. And reflecting on everything that has been accomplished in such a short time. I’m pleased that Amon and Mehida have returned to share our joyful occasion. And the Council Hall of Hasor will, for the first time, be honored by the presence of Gideon within its walls. All these things give me peace-I think they will allow me to truly enjoy our day to its fullest.”

Rachel laid her head on Jonathan’s shoulder. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

The sound of sandals upon the cobbled garden path caught their attention. Rachel ran to greet Abigail as she approached.

“Abigail! Good morning!” The two women embraced warmly.

Now standing next to Rachel, Jonathan dipped his head toward Abigail. “Peace to you, daughter of Gideon.”

“And to you, Jonathan.” Abigail hesitated. “I’m looking for Pekah. Have you seen him?”

“Not this morning. Have you checked with the guards of the gatehouse? He has spent a lot of time out in the hills lately.”

“I have…” Abigail replied in a distracted manner. She glanced over her shoulder as if expecting Pekah to be there.

Rachel’s brow furrowed. “Is something wrong?”

Abigail looked away again. Jonathan sensed she wished he wasn’t there. “No. I just need to talk to him. I’ll keep looking, thank you.”

“If we see him, where can he find you?” Jonathan asked.

“Sarah’s home. Or at Miriam’s home.” Abigail then wandered off, staring up into the sky.

Jonathan touched Rachel’s arm. “Abigail had more to say, but didn’t because I was here. Right?”

Rachel’s smile confirmed Jonathan’s suspicion. “You are quite observant. Last night, Abigail and I talked for quite a while. She told me that Pekah has spent some time with her during the last few weeks. Each time you boys have come down out of the mountains, he has sought her out so they could talk. But he has never mentioned what happened on the night Jasher died. Abigail’s concerned. What if he feels duty bound to honor Jasher’s request, and yet doesn’t want to fulfill it?”

“How does Abigail feel about it?”

Rachel turned to face him, looking up into his eyes. “I believe Abigail is going to tell Pekah she doesn’t expect him to honor Jasher’s dying wish. Did you know Pekah talked a lot about your journey together?”

Jonathan shook his head.

“Abigail was very touched by his tale. She told me of her desire to obtain the same peace Pekah told her about-the peace he found standing in the river.”

“Really?”

“Yes. And by the look on her face a minute ago, I think I know what else she decided to do.”

Rachel was teasing him. He crossed his arms, pretending to be frustrated. Rachel laughed.

“She will tell him that if he so desires, she wants him to fulfill Jasher’s wish.”

Jonathan leaned forward. “That’s wonderful!”

Rachel stepped back, as if surprised by the revelation borne in his excitement. “You mean, Pekah desires this?”

“He has anguished over this for weeks. He’s very attracted to Abigail, but didn’t dare let her know it. He told me he didn’t want to pressure her to accept Jasher’s will. He wants nothing less than Abigail’s independent decision on the matter. If she is not comfortable with remarriage, he will release her.”

Rachel now had tears in her eyes. “Jonathan,” she said as she wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, “I am so happy for Abigail! She feels the same way about Pekah. Her days of mourning are past, and now she’ll be able to choose. From the very moment Jasher placed her hand in Pekah’s, she has struggled with what he requested. But now, after getting to know Pekah, she feels that she will do it.”

“Out of duty? Or out of respect for Jasher?”

“Abigail loved Jasher, but they were still newlyweds of only a few months. With all the travel Jasher had done among the provinces of Gideon, she’d hardly seen him. And she has no other living family. She feels alone. She told me she feels that her chances of marrying again will be slim. If she’s worried that men will look down upon her, as being someone ‘less desirable,’ what more could she hope for?”

“Did Abigail use that term?”

“Yes. That’s how she feels.”

Jonathan put his arm around Rachel and squeezed her. “She deserves to be happy. Maybe you should go find the young lady and tell her what we talked about. Perhaps it will help her confidently approach Pekah to discuss the matter.”

“I love you.” Rachel gave Jonathan a quick peck on the cheek. Her long auburn hair flowed behind her as she ran.

Chapter 35

Joy

The next morning, the day before the Sabbath, dawned as beautiful as the last-nearly cloudless skies, and a slight breeze tugging at the hem of Jonathan’s priestly robe. He held Rachel’s hand tightly, drawing strength from her touch. But today, more than ever, he felt the void left by his absent parents deep within his heart. I’m getting married today-they should be here. He took a long breath. Perhaps they will be. Self-conscious of his distracted thoughts, he tried to refocus on the present. After all, wasn’t this supposed to be a happy day?

He snapped back into the moment, once again aware of those circled around the octagonal font in the temple court-Pekah, Uzziel, Miriam, Tavor, and Sarah, all dressed in white. The beauty of the scene struck him. These were his friends. They were his family. He realized he actually was surrounded by those whom he loved, and he smiled. And I am about to witness a miracle, he thought

Less than a day had passed since he sat with Rachel, watching songbirds and enjoying the sweet scent of orchids in the gardens when Abigail had come looking for Pekah. By the end of the day, Pekah had proposed marriage to her, and she had accepted. Since Abigail had previously been married, and neither of them had any living family to participate in the celebrations, they decided, at Rachel’s insistence, to share her day and formalize their own union.

And much like the Gideonite captain, who had been taught in his youth about a King and Creator, Abigail had been prepared by her own parents. Spending time with Pekah, she had learned more about The One Who Would Suffer and had decided to follow Pekah’s example.

She now stood in the waist-deep baptismal font with Eli, a temple priest, his hand gently on her arm. Eli committed her into the care of the Great King of Heaven, then lowered her into the water and brought her up again.

Jonathan’s gaze rested on Uzziel, watching for his approval. Presiding, Uzziel looked down at Eli and nodded, indicating that the covenant was acceptable and complete. Eli supported Abigail as he guided her toward the steps.

Rachel let go of Jonathan’s hand and moved past Pekah so she could be closer to the top step. She offered a dry towel. Dripping wet, Abigail took the towel and pulled it fully around her soaked white dress. With a free hand she wrung out her hair. The gazes of the two women met again, tears of joy trickled down their faces, and they embraced.

“Thank you, Rachel.” Abigail said, her voice full of joy.

Rachel hugged her again. “I’m so happy for you. How do you feel?”

“Wonderful. Like fresh rain on a summer morning.”

Starting with Uzziel and his wife, each guest approached in turn and offered heartfelt congratulations and well-wishes. The last to greet her, Pekah stretched out his hand. Abigail reached forward, and Pekah clasped her palm gently between his own. He stared into her eyes, making her blush like a suns-set. She trembled, shivering.

Rachel threw a teasing look at Pekah. “I need to get her into dry clothing,” she said, then led her off to the vestments house.

Jonathan assisted Eli in climbing the last of the font’s steps. “Pekah and I will wait here for you.”

“I’ll hurry!” Eli said, sloshing his way toward another chamber to don dry clothing.

After promising to meet Jonathan at the pavilion in the gardens, Tavor, Sarah, Uzziel, and Miriam excused themselves.

Jonathan studied Pekah. Even with his new short beard, as dark as midnight, the young Gideonite’s face glowed. “This will be a memorable day. Are you pleased?”

“Yes. Immensely.”

Jonathan snickered. “You know, she’s smitten.”

Pekah’s face reddened. “Do you think so?”

“I’ve never seen such a case. What have you done to her?”

Pekah grinned. “Nothing. She likes the beard, I guess.”

“Well, if that’s the reason, you’d better keep it.”

Seeming preoccupied, Pekah only nodded. Jonathan stretched, letting out a yawn. Even though he had tried his best to avoid getting involved in the wedding plans, all the excitement of the past week had made him tired. Now that the day had arrived, he hoped to be able to relax on the morrow.

When Eli returned in his dry temple robes, the three of them left the courts together. They walked out under the graceful, white granite archway into the gardens, where a massive crowd of people thronged between flowerbeds and fruit trees of all kinds. Jonathan was startled to see so many gathered.

As if on cue, the crowd shouted, “Hail to Jonathan, Heir of Daniel, King and Judge!”

Jonathan paused mid-step, somewhat embarrassed by the unexpected attention. Eli urged him to continue. He gathered his composure and strode forward, noticing he was flanked on his right by Eli, friend of his youth and priest of Uzzah, and on the left by Pekah, brave protector, captain of the Host of Gideon. He mused over the fact that using the important titles made him more comfortable-and much less conspicuous.

They marched in perfect synchronization down the cobbled pathway between rows of orchids and under a canvas canopy that had been placed there the previous day. They turned smartly on their heels before they reached the carved stone chair at the center and faced the greeting crowd, composed of Uzzahites, Danielites, and Gideonites of all ages. At a wave from Uzziel, the crowd stilled. Those who had seats took them, while the others stood in respectful silence.

Jonathan noticed that two seats right at the front of the open pavilion remained empty. One of them was next to Miriam. Uzziel motioned to the chairs as if he needed to explain. “Those are for the brides. Can we have two more seats brought forward?”

A couple of men in the back lifted chairs high above their heads and walked through the crowd.

“Here,” Uzziel said, pointing. “And here. I want the honored witnesses to sit on either side.” He invited Pekah to sit on Jonathan’s left and Eli on his right. Jonathan took his place in the stone chair at the center. Uzziel remained standing.

Jonathan wished he hadn’t sat down. He craned his neck upwards, searching the garden path and the white granite archway leading to the temple court. Taking notice of the excited whispers floating through the crowd, he heard that most of the comments centered on the exceptional weather for the occasion. He had to agree. Bright and hot in the sky, Aqua and Azure now neared their weekly eclipse, but cool breezes in the garden provided a welcome relief from the past few days of heat. A perfect day-Jonathan was grateful.

All chatter suddenly stopped when the two long-awaited women appeared under the granite archway. Everyone stood up. Rachel and Abigail walked forward, arm-in-arm, drawing the adoring gazes of many and the envious looks of some. Small, white Queen’s Flowers from the mountains had been woven into a few thin plaits of their hair. The woolly, starred leaflets and tiny, golden flower-heads set off the women’s delicate braids like jewels seated in shining crowns. Both ladies were dressed in simple, strikingly brilliant dresses. The women were stunning.

When they finally reached the special seats reserved for them right at the front of the ceremonial canopy, Jonathan could hardly take his eyes off Rachel. He had never seen her more beautiful. She smiled shyly back at him. Uzziel had to try twice to get his attention.

“Jonathan and Pekah, please be seated.” Uzziel chuckled.

Jonathan noticed they were the last two people standing. Pekah fumbled to find his own seat. Jonathan sat down quickly and apologized, but still held Rachel’s gaze.

Uzziel lifted his hands high. “My dear brothers of Uzzah, your wives, our brothers of Daniel, and your wives, and of course our most welcome brothers of Gideon, and your wives. We are here today to witness the anointing of the heir of Daniel, as a king and judge over his people, until He to Whom the right truly belongs comes to rule among us. And may that day be soon-I have prayed for His appearing. I know many of you have done the same.”

Voices from Daniel and Uzzah rumbled their approval. Even many of the Gideonites joined in, but Uzziel seemed oblivious to their reactions.

“We are also here to celebrate the joining of Jonathan’s heart to that of my precious daughter, Rachel…” Uzziel’s voice choked with emotion.

Jonathan saw the way Uzziel looked down upon Rachel. He wondered what it would be like to give away a daughter of his own.

Uzziel wiped a tear that ran down his cheek. Rachel whispered, “I love you,” to her father. Miriam also nodded her encouragement. Finally, the old priest was able to continue.

“We are also here to celebrate another union. Jonathan’s friend of Gideon-a man who saved his life-has asked to take a promised bride unto himself on this very same day. Pekah and Lady Abigail of Gideon will also be joined together in the holy bond of marriage. What a joyous day this is!” Uzziel smiled largely and laughed.

“But I do not care for pomp. And neither does Jonathan of Daniel. Boaz, would you bring me the horn?”

Boaz marched up to Uzziel, bearing the horn of oil, his white and blue temple robes flowing around him. Uzziel accepted the horn and took his place behind the stone chair where Jonathan sat.

Jonathan peered over his shoulder. Without flourish, Uzziel unstopped the large, silver-capped end of the horn, opposite the polished point. When Uzziel smiled at him, Jonathan turned back to the assemblage. He could feel Uzziel lean down, the horn above his head.

In a vibrant tone full of authority, Uzziel declared, “Jonathan, Son of Samuel, Heir of the Tribe of Daniel, I anoint you with this oil as a king and a judge, a priest and a counselor, to stay in this stead until the end of your days and through the eternities. May your life be long, your wisdom deep, your charity unbounded. May your kingdom be unified and never divided from your brothers, Uzzah and Gideon. And may you have peace.”

The crowd remained silent. Uzziel stepped back and handed the oil horn to Boaz, then signaled for Rachel to step forward. Eli also stood, but disappeared somewhere behind the stone chair where Jonathan could not see him. When he returned to stand next to Rachel, he held a purple and white cloth embroidered with the symbol of a serpent, draped in a manner to hide something in his large hands.

“Jonathan,” Uzziel said, “Eli has something for you, which I believe is appropriate for the occasion. Eli?”

Eli smiled, not in his usual jovial manner, but in a way which warmed Jonathan’s very soul. The big red-headed man rocked nervously back and forth on his feet as if unsure whether Jonathan would like what he had brought as a gift. Jonathan reassured him with a supportive nod, and Eli cleared his throat to make an announcement.

“Jonathan, I had some of my men accompany me on an errand two days ago. I rode to Hasor, and I brought something back with me. Rachel helped me make it. It came from your favorite.”

Jonathan was confused until Eli removed the cloth covering. There in his hands lay a simple wreath of olive leaves, painstakingly woven, and unadorned by anything else. Next to it lay The Thorn. Jonathan glanced up at Eli and Rachel in surprise. Rachel winked at him, then took the crown of leaves and placed it on his head with a kiss.

“I love you,” she whispered as she stepped back next to her brother.

Eli then dropped to a knee, handing the newly anointed king the scepter of The Thorn.

Jonathan was deeply touched. He rose from his chair and took both Eli and Rachel into his arms, kissing them both on the cheek. He released them and wanted to say something more about the joy he felt in his heart, but could not. Words would not come.

A cheer of “Hosanna!” from the crowd, now on their feet, broke the awkward silence. Again the cry came, and yet again a third time.

Uzziel turned to face the throng again, waving them back into their seats.

“We have another matter to attend to before we celebrate. Those who would like to wait here until the wedding party returns, may. Others may proceed to the pavilion in the eastern corner of the temple garden. Rachel and Jonathan, Abigail and Pekah, would you follow me?”

Jonathan hesitated, searching the crowd. Finding General Amon and Captain Mehida, he motioned for them to approach. He then removed the olive wreath from his head and handed it to Mehida, and The Thorn to Amon.

“Would you take these for me until I return? I don’t need them within the confines of the temple.”

Both leaders graciously accepted their assignment. The general promised they would wait with the other guests until the men and their brides returned to the pavilion.

Leading Rachel gently by the arm, Jonathan followed Uzziel under the white granite archway-Pekah and Abigail, Miriam, Uzziel, Boaz, and Eli all in tow. Small by most standards, the size of the wedding party felt comfortable to Jonathan, and it was just what Rachel had wanted. Jonathan agreed with her. The sacredness of the event about to take place would be held close to their own hearts.

All in white, they strolled across the temple courtyard, near the font, past the thin, lingering smoke of an early morning offering upon the Rock of Sacrifice, and up onto the stone porch which protected the oak doors of the temple itself. Other priests there greeted them warmly and opened the doors wide so all could enter.

Pekah and Abigail gasped as they stepped into the brilliantly lit foyer, suns-light streaming from glow-stone skylights high above, and some of the finest craftsmanship ever worked in wood, stone, or cloth before their eyes. Although familiar to Jonathan, he remarked on the finely woven carpeting with patterns of wheat as a border, and then on the sculpted handrails adorning twin, spiral, marble staircases ascending on their right and on their left. Chairs with matching desks of cherry wood sat in the corners. Jonathan understood Pekah’s and Abigail’s reactions.

Uzziel directed the group to remove their sandals and shoes, then gave them a quiet moment of reflection before leading them through another oak door. Partway down a carpeted hall, they rounded a corner to enter a small room decorated with nothing more than luxuriously upholstered mahogany chairs and a short stone altar in the center of the floor. Light poured in from above, just like in the foyer. A feeling of reverence and holiness permeated the room.

At the altar, Jonathan and Rachel knelt together before the High Priest of Uzzah and received at his hand blessings of eternity. Eli and Boaz, official witnesses, looked on. Although the ceremony was simple, the profound beauty of it impressed Jonathan. He and Rachel both accepted the binding covenant, then Uzziel pronounced the associated promised blessings. As he did so, Jonathan felt the peculiar sensation of the presence of his own parents. He recognized traits familiar to him-the wisdom of his father, the cheerfulness of his mother.

Thrilled in the moment, he focused on Rachel. Her eyes sparkled. As if she had heard his thoughts, she nodded. Jonathan squeezed her hand tighter, intent on memorizing her expression.

At Uzziel’s direction, they stood and embraced, then held hands as they witnessed the same ceremony once more, this time for Pekah and Abigail. Once the two of them had made the same marital covenant, congratulatory hugs were shared by all. Arm-in-arm, the wedding party then left the temple, walking out into the blazing light of the sister suns. As they entered the gardens, they were greeted by a cheering crowd, the wedding feast already set before them.

Eager guests waited for both couples to take seats at the heads of their tables. Eli, the guest of honor to both couples, offered a prayer of thanks. Then the celebration began. Food was abundant, and wine was served in moderation. There was dancing and story telling, juggling, and short comedic skits. More musicians than Jonathan could count performed their very best. As the afternoon turned into evening, food appeared again.

Not long afterward, the low suns cast shadows throughout the entire city. Glow-stone lanterns were charged and hung all around. When the festivities started to lag, Eli took pity on the tired newlyweds, announcing that it was time to escort them to their accommodations for the night before the Sabbath began. A parade of celebrants formed behind the two couples, and Eli led the way to the home of Uzziel and Miriam.

Humble, yet sufficient, Uzziel’s home had two spacious rooms separated by a loft within the second story, all above the kitchen and main living space. Miriam had suggested the arrangements to Rachel, insisting that she and Uzziel had already planned to stay with friends for a few days. Knowing that Pekah and Abigail would then also have a private place to spend their first nights together, Rachel had consented.

The singing and celebrating parade stopped at the door. Variations on blessings of peace and posterity offered by the well-wishers drew humble appreciation from both brides. Allowing Uzziel’s family some privacy, the crowd dispersed. Eli offered his own private well wishes, as did Rachel’s parents, who gave hugs of congratulation and love to all four of them. The couples then waved to their friends and family, turning to walk into Uzziel’s home together.

Chapter 36

Light

Seven days after the coronation and the weddings of Jonathan and Pekah to their lovely brides, the family celebrations came to a close. Both couples had decided they would return to Hasor after the Sabbath. As a wedding gift, Jonathan offered Pekah and Abigail a small family property within the village walls of Hasor. It would be their first home together.

The newly wedded Gideonites were very grateful for it. Between them, they did not have a possession in the world except the funds that had been delivered to Abigail, partial proceeds from the liquidation of Jasher’s estate. The majority of the funds were given, at Abigail’s request, to Jasher’s ailing mother, Dinah, for her care. Dinah had been invited to come and live with Pekah and Abigail in Hasor, but she declined, saying she preferred to stay in Gideon for the rest of her short days. Abigail relented, yet promised to visit her soon.

Jonathan sat with his bride and all their friends, enjoying one last celebratory meal before the Sabbath. Their gathering was small-only close friends and family, all resting under the sycamore trees behind Uzziel’s home: Tavor and Sarah were there with the boys, Miriam’s sister Deborah, a few of Eli’s cousins, Jeremy and Josiah of Uzzah, Abram’s widow Esther with her boy, and Eder of Gideon, who was quickly becoming like a member of the family.

“Where’s your father?” Jonathan asked Rachel as he ran his fingers through her hair.

“I’m not sure. Mother?”

Miriam shook her head with slight irritation and threw a dish cloth over her shoulder as she started grabbing up empty platters and bowls. “A message from Boaz was delivered this morning. Uzziel read it and left earlier than I expected. I assume he’s at the temple, but he didn’t say how long he would be. It has been about nine hours, and now the meal is cold-I wish he’d told me. I just cannot seem to get it through that thick head of his that it’s rude to be late to dinner, especially with all these people…”

Miriam’s voice trailed off as she disappeared into the house with an armload of dishes. Sarah and Deborah followed her, bearing plates and cups needing to be washed. Some of the guests cleared their own place settings and filed into the house. Still finishing up with his sons, Tavor sat nearby and fed them. Esther rested in a rocker with her own infant son asleep in her arms.

Jonathan heard a shout.

“Uzziel!” Miriam cried.

Chatter erupted in the house. At first, Jonathan thought they were all just excited to see Rachel’s father. But the tone was different. There were gasps, exclamations, and whispers. It sounded like something was wrong. Jonathan stood up as Uzziel almost stumbled to the threshold of the back door, Miriam on his arm. Her eyes were wide, misty. Uzziel bubbled with excitement, saying over and over, “Come! Come, all of you!”

“Father, what’s the matter?” Rachel asked, rising to greet him.

“Come to the patio, please. Come outside, all of you. There you are! Eli, Jonathan. Are the others still here?”

“What’s the matter?” Rachel again asked.

Uzziel turned around, frantically waving to those in the house. “Just come outside. I want to tell everybody. Please come! ” He stepped aside to let everyone exit, then lead an almost-resistant Miriam out to her chair. He asked her to sit down before taking his own seat, gasping.

“Father, are you well?” Rachel asked.

“I’m fine. I ran from the temple. I just need some air.” While the old high priest took a few moments to compose himself, all patiently waited, some of them gaping.

“Is he ill?” Jonathan whispered.

Rachel shook her head. “Excited, I think. I have no idea what got him so flustered.”

Uzziel cleared his throat and surveyed the faces around him. “This morning I got a note. Oh, what a blessed day!” he broke off, grinning.

“Yes, dear,” Miriam said. “We know about the note. Where did you go?”

Uzziel looked like he was about to cry, not the kind of tears one would have under duress or pain, but the kind one would have when a thoughtful gift was received from a very close friend. Miriam reached out and touched his arm.

“Dear?”

Uzziel came back from the visions that seemed to be playing in his mind and cleared his throat again. “I was called to the temple early. Boaz wanted to talk to me right away. He had seen… he heard… Boaz told me everything. We prayed together by the Rock of Sacrifice, we went into the temple, directly to… and then… we both saw

… I saw him myself… I heard the messenger myself, with mine own two ears!”

“Uzziel,” Miriam said tenderly. “You are not making any sense.”

He frowned, thanked her while patting her hand, and then changed the direction of his telling. “I’m sorry. I cannot describe it. Maybe another time… but this I can tell you. Please listen! Please understand!”

Every soul was as quiet as a falling feather, all gazing earnestly upon the priest. Jonathan noticed his own excitement. Could it be? Why else would Uzziel be so passionate? Now nervous, a lump formed in his throat.

Suddenly, Uzziel stood. “ This is the night! Boaz was told. I was told. I heard it with my own ears… Tonight, the sign will be given! ” He nearly collapsed back into his chair.

Rachel gasped. A whispered murmur flowed through the gathering.

It’s true! Jonathan thought. All these years. Nobody knew when it would be. And now, the promised sign is at hand. In my day, I will see the sign.

Gazing around him, Jonathan saw that everyone seemed to understand the significance of what had been said-all except Pekah and Abigail, who exchanged blank expressions, glancing about, as if hoping for someone to explain.

“Pekah,” Jonathan said after he smiled at Abigail. “Do you remember the day we walked the road to Ain, the same day that you made your covenant? We talked about the promised King. The same who is called ‘The One Who Would Suffer’?”

Pekah’s eyes lit up with recognition. “Yes,” he said. “You explained that the Holy King was not of this world, and that He would not be born here on Gan, but elsewhere.”

“Yes, Pekah. And there would be a sign-a sign in the heavens, pointing us to Him.”

Abigail placed her hand over her mouth.

“Jonathan?” she asked meekly. “Pekah taught me about the Holy One. He is about to be born?”

“Yes. When the sign appears.”

Uzziel had been listening. Now able to speak again, he nearly shouted, “And the sign is at hand! It will be given tonight! ”

***

Hours later, Pekah heard a chatter like the buzzing of bees hanging over the entire city of Ramathaim. News had traveled like a tidal wave. Every edifice in the city that had roof-top access was now filled to capacity with families and their friends. Other homes with patios or gardens were no less crowded. Mothers and fathers and children of every age, the old and infirm, the infants born on that very day, and every other soul, it seemed, had been gathered in by loved ones. All looked to the heavens, eagerly watching the sister suns as they dipped closer and closer to the horizon. A few wispy clouds provided an exquisite show of blues, purples, reds, and pinks as the last crescent edges of Azure and Aqua fell below the mountain tops of the east.

Then, just as the last beams disappeared over the lowest point, Pekah expected the light to wane, but the sky actually began to get brighter. Turning toward the west with all the other anxious observers in Ramathaim, he watched as a suns-rise took place, similar to every suns-rising he had ever witnessed, except for one significant difference. There was not a burning celestial orb present. Nothing was there. It appeared as if a great, invisible glow-stone grew in the west, getting brighter and brighter until the entire sky was filled with a light equal to the sister suns at mid-day.

With an arm around his dear wife, Pekah continued to watch with awe and wonder. Jade, Ebony, and Sienna, the three moons of Gan, all rose close together, three days short of a full cycle when the three of them would actually cross and the expected characteristic face would then appear. Even the moons appeared different. They seemed to absorb the glowing light in the sky, and yet, at the same time, reflect that light, their coloring a brilliant green-gray, a superb reflective coal, and a deep, shiny, scarlet-brown. And the sky all around the moons was blue-bluer than Pekah had ever seen before.

Then, from the southwest, Pekah heard a very faint noise-almost like the slow ripping of paper or the hiss of sizzling bacon. A small celestial object coursed through the sky like a lazy meteor. Trailing a cloudy tail of light, the comet spewed hundreds of falling particles, each of them burning fire-red lines across the sky. It disappeared in the direction of the sister suns.

Gasps, cheers, and shouts echoed all around. Uzziel clapped his hands together and held them fast, as if he had just seen a fantastic production at the city amphitheater. Jonathan and Rachel kissed, holding each other tight. Abigail put her arm through Pekah’s and pulled him close. He kissed her gently on the forehead and told her that he loved her dearly.

As he gazed upward at the celestial display unfolding before his eyes, Pekah suddenly wondered why nobody was afraid. The comet had been eerily close. The source of the heavenly glow was invisible to his eyes. Yet there was not a single cry of fear, nor a comment of worry by anyone around him.

And then it all made sense. He heard the most sublime sounds of music… music and trumpets! He hadn’t noticed it until that moment. It came from the heavens above him, filling him like water into a vase until it overflowed. Unique and pleasant, the music and singing felt familiar, reminding Pekah of a field of flowers or a mountain stream.

And then… Pekah saw them. Angels. Angels descending from the heavens, all declaring the tidings that worlds away, the Holy One had been born.