Idol Smashers #12

 “Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons mentioned in the Bible, it is entirely fiction and presented here in serial form strictly for the entertainment of my readers.  “Idol Smashers” is an original work, copyright Brett Best, 2011.

israelite soldiers

(Previously in “Idol Smashers,” the Israelite adventurers were betrayed and captured while in the Philistine city of Joppa.)

Day Four – Joppa

 

As it turned out, Barek had only to wait for Maaz to awaken to find out exactly what he thought about Barek’s surrender.

“You did WHAT?!” Maaz thundered.  Then he winced.  Then he coughed up some blood.  That bit of bluster cost him dearly in pain.  He shut his eyes until it subsided.  When he opened them again, he threw visual daggers at Barek.

At usual, the over-sized Israelite was unmoved.  At least on the exterior.

“There was no point in all of us ending up like you – or him,” Barek turned and gestured to the far wall of his cell.  There lay a body, partially covered with a sheet.

The sight sobered Maaz instantly.  When he tried to sit up, Barek restrained him.

“Do not exert yourself.  Joseph is in Abraham’s Bosom.  There’s nothing you or I can do for him now,” Barek said.  Grief had removed all animation from his face.

Angrily, Maaz batted away the giant hand and slowly sat up, holding his head the entire time.  He looked around the small room in which they were held.  Caleb, Micah, Samuel and Jezreel were looking back at him, each of them lying in a similar position.  All of them were bandaged, bloodied, bruised and broken in some way.

The room, presumably a dungeon cell, was not much wider than the men who were stretched out along its length.  A feeble, flickering illumination shone around the door.  The odors of human waste and blood assaulted Maaz’s nostrils.

His head throbbed and seeing nothing better to do at the moment, he lay back down again.  Maaz felt a little relief when Barek swabbed his head with a wet cloth.  The water had an odor all it’s own, but it felt cool on Maaz’s brow.

There was a long period of silence where the only sound was their own breathing and the cries or groans of other prisoners.

Suddenly, Micah’s eyes popped open and he turned to face Barek.  “Ruth!” he exclaimed.  “Did she…”

“No,” Barek answered quietly.  “She escaped.”

With a grateful sigh, Micah laid down on his back.  “That is good.  Then we have hope.”

Samuel coughed.  “Hope?  What hope is she?  A mere woman and a thief beside!”

“She will come for us, get us out of here,” Micah said flatly.

It was Maaz’s turn to be skeptical.  He snorted derisively.  “What foolish talk, brother.  She abandoned us, made good her escape.”

“No.  She will return with help.”

“What help?” Maaz argued, though the pain in his head bade him to silence.  “Who will she bring?  Ammihud?  He is short and fat and wounded!  Mattan?  We have seen his prowess in battle!”

“Mattan is no warrior,” Samuel said, agreeing.

“We made a mistake coming here,” Caleb said weakly.  His ribs ached, but he couldn’t remember getting hit in the ribs.  The whole scene in the stable was lost to his memory, somehow.  He only knew the aches at different places in his body.  “We have no weapons, no money for a bribe…Hopeless.”

The company fell silent.

Unable to think about anything else, Jezreel began a psalm of worship.  One by one, the men of Israel joined him in praising God.  In contrast to the desperate nature of their predicament, they availed themselves of an opportunity to thank the Lord of Life for their lives.

Before the psalm had been completely sung, the door to their cell banged suddenly and violently.  A face appeared in the upper slot of the door, a pair of feet behind the lower one.

“Do you SING?” a voice on the other side of the door shouted.  In Hebrew.

The men of Israel stopped and looked to the door.

The eyes peering back at them bore an expression of utter malice, but were otherwise dead.

“You people astound me.  The world will be a better place when you’re dead or enslaved.”

Barek stood and moved slowly to the door, never taking his eyes from those looking through the slot.  When he got close enough, he smacked the door with a mighty punch.

He grinned when the man on the other side flinched and jumped back.

The eyes reappeared and narrowed.

“You weren’t this feisty back in the stable,” the voice sneered.

The low ceiling of the cell prevented Barek from straightening up his full height, but his bearing was proud nonetheless.  He chose not to dignify that insult with a reply.

“Speechless before me,” the voice dripped with irony.  Then the man outside the door sighed.  “No matter.  I am the man you sought.  I am the Black Cat.”

At this, Maaz emitted a low growl and turned on his side to face the door.  Looking into the lively gray eyes of the Black Cat, he said, “Open that door and I will skin you, Cat.”

The Black Cat laughed at this futile display of bluster.

“You are too ridiculous,” he said lightly.  After a few moments, he added, “You must wonder why I’ve asked the king to spare your lives.  Well, that’s simple enough.  I want you to live until your precious tabernacle is destroyed.  I want to see the look on your faces when I give you the news that your Most Holy Place has been desecrated, then burned.”

Jezreel groaned.  The thought of the Sanctuary being lost to the Philistines was too much.

The Black Cat picked up on his reaction and seemed energized by it.  “Yes, I may even let you live until the day Israel marches to war against Moab.  We’re going to make them think the Moabites did it, you see.  I may even be so kind as to let you go on until the day we mount our attack against Israel.  With their forces thrown against Moab, Israel will be exposed and I will… ravage her.”

Tears flowed from Caleb’s eyes and Maaz pounded the floor in frustration.

“But not a moment longer than that!  I will lead the invasion alongside my king, and you will be dead before that happens.  I assure you of that.  By then, you will undoubtedly plead for death.”

“The LORD will deliver us from you, you filthy heathen!” Micah said with a vehemence that surprised both his brother-in-law and even himself.

“Now you’re being stupid.  Your god, deliver you, here within our borders?”

The Black Cat waited for a rebuttal.  When he got none, he sniffed dismissively.  “All this bluster.  I’d think you’d be more worried about how you’ll die.  Why don’t you ask me about that?”

Samuel rolled away, turning his back to their tormentor.  “Spare us,” he said with no small amount of irony.  Who knew the youth was capable of such subtlety?

This amused the Black Cat.  “No, I believe I will tell you.  It’s just too delicious.  You will be hung on ropes and dipped in garbage.  Then rats will be released to crawl down the ropes to eat the garbage – and you along with it.  That was my idea.  The king loved it, of course.  Will you be strangled before you’re eaten?  An interesting question.  In either case, your deaths will make a pretty effective demonstration of the futility and folly of opposing Philistia, the rightful rulers of Canaan!”

The Black Cat’s laugh was a very unpleasant thing to experience.

Day ? – Joppa

Barek’s eyes were glazed; he was either deep in thought or buried under the combined weight of despair, boredom and malnutrition.  Caleb could not tell which.  Time had become meaningless to all of them, with disorienting effect.  In the dungeon, without any sign of sun or moon, or regular meals there were none of the usual markers of the passing hours.  The men of God did not even know for certain what day it was.  Sleep came and went in fits and starts, but it brought neither rest nor solace.

Worry was a physical presence in their crowded cell and it harried all of them.  It nagged at each heart, the unspoken thought on each of their minds.  They knew time was passing.  They were all aware the danger to the tabernacle and to themselves had grown every time they awoke.  But, as everyone but Barek was recovering from the wounds suffered in the ambush back at the stable, falling and rising out of consciousness was the only way to know for certain that some time had passed.

Barek cared for them with tender hands but few words.  None of them felt much like speaking.  Failure dogged them when they were awake and aware.  Thoughts accused them, inflicted wounds of doubt that were no less severe than their physical ones.  In sleep, nightmares assailed them, Deborah and other accusing them of failure.

And the body of Joseph lay among them.  Stilled, discolored, and the source of a rising stench, the body was a weight on their souls.

Everything about this place was nightmarish, out of proportion, utterly alien.  But a strange apathy also gripped their hearts.  Where zeal or anger had previously burned and fueled their actions, a cloying sense of defeat smothered them like a wet cloth.  If they entertained any thoughts about escape, those thoughts soon disappeared under a tide-less wave of despair.

Their resignation was layered so deeply, that when their captors, even the Black Cat, came to taunt them, the men of Israel offered no reply, no resistance.  Eventually, the Philistines tired of their cruel sport and merely shoved bowls of gruel through the slot at the bottom of the door with half-hearted insults and no patience to wait for a reply that would not come.

Caleb slipped back to sleep while he looked on Barek’s pensive face.  Sleep was no refuge, but it was marginally better than wakefulness.

Day ? – Joppa

It was the clattering of the wooden gruel bowls that woke Caleb.  Barek was hastily sweeping them out of the way of the door, which was opening!

“Shhh!  Not so much noise,” said a dark-cloaked small figure that stepped around the door.  “Do you want to bring the whole place down on us?”

Hands reached out from beneath the folds of dirty black cloth and flipped back a concealing hood, revealing the face of Ammihud!

“You said we were to hurry,” Barek protested.

Ammihud sighed.  He turned his attention to Caleb and said, “Caleb, can you help Barek awaken the rest?  We have but a few breaths before someone comes down here and discovers the slain guards.  We must get everyone up and moving!”

But Caleb was too stunned.  To his benumbed mind, it seemed Ammihud was a dream, like the figments of the fevered nightmares he’d seen during their imprisonment.  He did not move, but stared at his comrade, wide-eyed.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Ammihud breathed.  “Are you not awake?  Must I do all myself?”

Caleb watched as the Barek and Ammihud figments set about waking the others.  Like him, they were stunned at the sudden appearance of their comrade and at the prospect of escape, a thing that had seemed so impossible when last they were aware of any sensation.

Maaz recovered more quickly than the rest, and he was indignant.  “How is it YOU, of all people, come to our rescue?”

Ruth stuck her head through the door.

“Because he had my help, that’s why!  Can’t you big strong men more any faster?!” she added in a garrulous tone.

This was too much.  Maaz’s yaw dropped open, agape at the sight of the beautiful thief.  He’d given up on her entirely, and now here she was, the instrument of their deliverance?  It was too much.  A groan escaped his lips.  “I will never forget this.  Nor live it down.”

Micah pushed past his brother-in-law and embraced Ruth, though the greeting was very improper.  His despair turned to delight at the sight of her pretty face.  With great relish, he turned back to Maaz and said, “I told you she’d come for us.”

“You are a bigger fool than I,” Maaz growled.

At last Caleb struggled to his feet.  “What day is it?” he asked Ammihud as he clapped him on the back.

“That’s why I’m trying to get you fools moving!  It’s nearly dawn of the Sabbath morning!”

Micah only just managed to clap a hand over Maaz’s mouth before he roared, “WHAT?!!”

“How can it..?” Jezreel said wearily.  “Have we passed only a few days in this place?  It felt like years.”

Samuel gathered himself up and drew a look of iron on his wearied, stubbled face.  “Then there is still hope.  We can yet triumph!”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Ammihud said, frustration evident on his face.  “We must leave this place and ride for Shiloh.  This no time for talk!  Only moving!”

Nodding silently, Maaz took Micah’s hand gently from his face.  Turning to Ruth, he said, “Lead the way.”

The men began to warily shoulder their way out the narrow doorway.  Caleb turned to see Barek bend low and pick up the stiff, inert body of Joseph.  “Hadn’t you better… leave him?  Hauling a body around will only slow us down.”

Barek hauled the cumbersome, unclean burden to his chest.  “We will not leave one of our own to a people and place such as this.  He will go with us and receive a hero’s burial.”

This was more words than Caleb had heard Barek string together in the entire time he’d know him.  And the determined look on the giant’s face silenced the reply in Caleb’s throat.  He merely nodded and patted Barek’s forearm.

Ducking, the giant and his burden were out the door and down the corridor to the right.

Caleb hesitated for a moment, he looked around the room that had been such a miserable place.  He called down a particularly virulent curse and shut the door.

Ruth lead the party of prisoners down narrow halls until they came to a stinking pit.  “Down here,” she said, but her voice sounded odd, as she was holding her nose.  “We’ve got to go down here.”

Before anyone could protest, Ammihud surged forward and added, “This is a refuse chute.  It leads to a dung pile, a dump on street level.  Mattan is waiting down there for us.”

“This is your escape plan?” Samuel protested.  “What about fighting our way out?  I want my family’s scimitar back!”

“You young hothead!” Micah snapped.  “We’ve no time to fight and the tabernacle to save!  We’ll take our escape and be thankful!”  Shoving Samuel toward the hole, he added, “You go first!”

Weary resignation crossed the youth’s face, making Samuel look older than his years.  Without any further comment, he sat on the floor, dropped his legs in the hole, and said, “The LORD be praised!”  Pushing off the floor, Samuel disappeared down the chute.

Barek lowered Joseph’s body and followed closely behind, trying not to let their comrade’s seemingly fragile body crash at the bottom.  He himself barely fit the opening.  It was a good thing the sides were slick with filth or he might’ve gotten stuck.

One by one, the Israelites dropped through the hole.  Ammihud went last, doing what he could to restore the metal grate before he fell the way down.  Given his considerable girth, he feared getting trapped in the stone chute, but slid down almost as quickly as the rest.

As promised, Mattan waited for them at the bottom.  But not only Mattan.  There was also a grizzled, bent, form of an old man dressed in rags and holding the reins of the donkey at the head of an empty cart.  He regarded the Israelite prisoners with one wary eye – the other eye was completely white, scarred and lifeless.

“Ah, masters.  The Almighty be praised,” Mattan said quietly.  “This is Arrut… an… associate of mine,” Mattan said, choosing his words with greater care than usual.  “He is the man who is known in Joppa as the ‘King of Muck.’  It has been his unhappy duty for these many years to be the one to cart the… refuse… from the city.  His familiar face will allow you to pass safely out the gates of the city.”

“How so?” Maaz asked, clearly suspicious and dreading the answer he supposed Mattan would give.

“Ah.  Well, it is… unpleasant, but necessary… for you to be covered with the refuse of this place.  You will lie face down on the cart and we will… cover you with the straw… and other things.  You will breathe through the slats of the cart’s bottom.  We will head for the dump… and once there, you will be… uncovered, and we will…”

Arrut spoke, interrupting Mattan’s instructions.  His voice was low and gravelly.  His speech was halting and his tongue Philistine.  What he said was, for all these reasons, incomprehensible to anyone but Mattan, who listened intently.

The merchant’s fat face took on an unhappy cast and he looked at Joseph’s body.  “He… Arrut, that is… says that if we put… the body, that is, on top, the soldiers are even less likely to stop and search the cart.”

Barek growled.

“He means no disrespect,” Mattan explained anxiously.  “I’ve paid him well, but he has no more desire to be caught at this than we do.”

Ammihud moved next to Barek and looked up at the giant’s eyes.  “Let it be so,” he said quietly.  “Please.”

Setting Joseph’s body gently down on the cobblestones, Barek climbed onto the wagon without a word.  He laid himself face down and found a place between the rough boards where his nose and mouth had room enough to breathe, more or less freely.

The cart was not over-large; the party had to alternate head and toes to find room for all of them to lie prone on the floor and find a breathing-space.  When it was done, the rest quickly piled on the straw and refuse.  The smell and the weight and the dust all challenged the prisoners to simply breathe.  But they did breathe, they inhaled lungs full of putrid air and exhaled in ragged gasps.

The old man muttered something else indecipherable.  Mattan bent to the bottom of the cart and said slowly, “He says, ‘Don’t be so noisy.’  The Holy One be with you, my masters.”

Mattan, Ammihud, and Ruth hurried out the narrow alleyway.  They retrieved their mounts and a string of goats Mattan had purchased at a king’s ransom to make their disguise as simple traders more convincing.  As she’d done on the way into Joppa, Ruth was there to distract the guards with her beautiful face.  Despite her masculine disguise, Ruth knew very well how to strike a pretty pose.  In fact, her life on the road had taught her how to play both masculine and feminine roles to effect.

The three of them passed through the gate with not much more notice than they had received going in.  They rode down the road at the relaxed pace appropriate for traders with a long journey ahead of them.  When the gate to the city was out of sight, they veered off the well-traveled road and turned south to circle around to the city’s massive dump.

As expected, when they arrived they found the poorest of the poor there, scavenging the city’s leftovers for scraps of food or clothing – anything useful.  The city’s lepers were also turned out here.  They managed to eke out a semblance of life until the dreaded disease took them away.

With a heavy heart at such a loss of revenue, Mattan turned the goats over to the wretched folk of the dump.  The animals would only slow the party down and… well… Mattan knew well that God looked favorably on those who were generous to the poor.  This group needed all the divine favor they could curry to succeed on this desperate day.

The people of the dump were elated and carried the goats off to their caves, a feast to prepare.  Their cheers and thanks had long died away as the trio of divine adventurers awaited Arrut and his dung wagon.

Finally they spied the “King of Muck” making his way on the hard-scrabbled path, coming toward them.  They were relieved to see Arrut’s cart was piled just as high now as it was when they’d parted company within Joppa!

Arrut mumbled something to Mattan and a small sack of what must be coins changed hands.  Mattan mentally tallied the cost of this little adventure, adding the bribe to the total.

Untying some leather thongs on the tongue of the wagon, Arrut stepped back suddenly as the cart tipped backward.  Straw, garbage and waste tumbled off the cart, revealing the men underneath.  Miraculously, all five of them still alive, though gasping for breath.  They were covered in filth, but alive and free!

Ammihud helped each man to their feet, but Ruth stayed on her donkey, fanning away the smell and covering her look of displeasure with a fold of her cloak.

“On your feet,” Ammihud said impatiently.  “We’ve got mounts hidden nearby, but we must hurry!  Remember the Tabernacle is in danger!   War may be already upon us!  We must move!”

Barek waved Ammihud off and searched amid the refuse for the body of Joseph, which he quickly retrieved.  Shouldering the burden, he said, “Now we can go.”

 

It seemed that Mattan, Ammihud, and Ruth had thought of nearly everything.  While they hurried their mounts, there was water for drinking and washing off at least some of the filth that covered the escapees.  There was food to eat and golden amulets that bore Deborah’s palm tree symbol.  These had been provided by the judge’s other servants, the ones Deborah had sent to Aphek with supplies and an urgent request for a report.

With the help of these men and Mattan’s connections in Joppa, the plan to free them had been forged.  Deborah’s men returned to report and to raise the level of wariness among those guarding the tabernacle.  It appeared that the plans of the enemy would be thwarted.

The only thing missing was a shroud for Joseph’s body.

But still, a feeling of dread hung over the party.  Without saying it in so many words, they were all convinced that the preparations to defend the tabernacle were for naught if they were not there to defend it.  It was clear that the Almighty had chosen them as His champions.  This sense of destiny somehow grew more real as they slipped Deborah’s amulets over their heads.  They had to hurry.

At Aphek they traded their tired donkeys for fresh horses.  Even Mattan insisted on riding with them.  Maaz openly suspected it was to see to the safe return of the horses he’d hired, but Mattan said only that he must “see it through.”

Barek had reluctantly conceded to allow the body of Joseph to be taken to Mattan’s house.  It had slowed them down enough on the trip from Joppa to Aphek, and no more delays could be broached.  “When we get to the tabernacle,” Barek said tiredly, “We cannot enter.  For we five are unclean, having been with the body.”

Micah glared at the big man.  “If I have to defile the tabernacle to save it, I will,” he vowed.  They mounted up and rode for a distance in silence.  Although Micah preferred things he could see, touch, taste; things he could control, the tabernacle was part of his nation’s identity.  He would sooner sacrifice a limb than let it be destroyed.  As usual, he was as good as his words.  Micah abruptly mounted and rode on ahead, not even looking back to see if the others were following.

Day Seven – Between Aphek and Shiloh

Dark clouds crept across the sky, as if the Almighty Himself judged this to be a dark day, a moment for evil to have its malicious way.  The clouds, however, bore no rain and nothing appeared to impede the progress of Deborah’s warriors until they neared Shiloh.  At the last crossroads before the road divided, the east branch leading to the tabernacle, a small party of men awaited people on the road.  When the nine riders approached, the five men stood.

“What’s this?” Maaz growled, speaking low enough to be heard only by Micah.

“Be on your guard, brother,” Micah replied.

“Hail, Jethro,” Mattan said, urging his mount between Maaz and Micah to take the lead.  He reigned his horse to a stop before the leader of the dismounted group.

“The LORD be with you, Mattan,” the man now known to them as Jethro replied.  “And to you all.  “Guardians of Israel!” he said, in greeting.  Jethro looked around the group as he spoke, making unseen assessments as he delivered a practiced message; “As I see from the amulets you wear, you are in service to Deborah, Judge over Israel.  The Lord told her that you will soon be His instruments against the Philistines.  He told His servants to bring you items that you will need for the remainder of this conflict.”

Jethro turned and gestured to a small cart that sat just off the road.  When the adventurers seemed wary, he added, “Come and receive these implements of judgment.”

Balek, of all people, was impatient.  “We don’t have time for presents,” he said.

Jethro did not answer, but went to the cart and loosed the covering.  Pulling it away, he said, “Not presents, large one, but armor and weapons.  You must go into battle prepared.”

Caleb was the first to dismount and attend to the cart.  He picked up and ran his fingers over leather armor that had been boiled to a stiff hardness and reinforced with metal scales and rings.

“Such fine workmanship,” he said admiringly.  Caleb quickly found a cuirass, gauntlets and helmet that fit him snugly and put them on, presumably to give Deborah’s men no chance to change their minds.  Sacred symbols had been tooled into the metal and leather, which Caleb supposed offered spiritual as well as physical protection.  “These are generous gifts,” Caleb practically purred.  He picked up a bow and quiver of arrows.  “Ha!” he shouted, fully equipped to make battle for the tabernacle.

The others wasted no further time dismounting and searching through the martial equipment.  Except for Barek.  “There will be none there in my size,” he muttered.

Micah threw him a helmet.  Laughing, he said, “I believe that will cover even your big head, Barek!”

Not yet convinced, Barek slowly fitted the leather helm on his head.  It fit easily.

“Just a helmet won’t do much good,” Barek said disconsolately, but he dismounted and moved to the cart.

Jethro eyed Ruth, who had already donned her masculine disguise.  “Are you Joseph?” he queried.  Jethro’s instructions were to provide arms for only seven of the eight men because Joseph eschewed any weapons save fist and foot.  But this little one, surely more a boy than a man, already had a helm and a sickle hung from his belt.

Ruth wanted none of this man’s scrutiny and recognized suspicion when she saw it.  “I need no more,” she growled in a gruff voice.  “Let’s hurry,” she added, and rode down the road to escape Jethro’s frankly curious gaze.

Jethro conferred with one of his fellows briefly in a whisper, then gave up on it.  When he turned back to the cart, he saw that the seven had sorted their equipment out.  Mattan, of course, was not provided for.  His presence in the rescue party might have surprised even Deborah.  Instead, Mattan looked on and silently calculated the value of all these implements of war.  A bounty of generosity indeed.

Maaz swung the great iron-shod goad tentatively.  “Not as good as mine, but it will do,” he said.

Deborah’s messengers helped the seven suit up, as most of them were not warriors and the way to don armor was not immediately clear to them.  With help, all of them were ready to go.  As the men of God mounted up, Jethro and his partners gathered their donkeys and mounted them.  “We are to accompany you and offer introductions to the captain of the guard.”

“Then ride on,” Ammihud said, “May Adonai go on before us!”

Jezreel started a travel psalm and the group felt their hearts rise, lifted on the wings of praise to their God.  Surely He strengthened their arms and girded them for battle!

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