Idol Smashers Number Thirteen

“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.

tabernacle

(Previously in “Idol Smashers:” Judge Deborah’s operatives were rescued from imprisonment in the Philistine city of Joppa and race to Shiloh, where the Tabernacle, the meeting-place with God was erected.)

Day Seven – Shiloh

            The remainder of the journey went quickly enough, but when they arrived, the sun hung low in the sky.  The Sabbath was nearly over.  A sliver of doubt lodged in Caleb’s resolve.  Had they misunderstood the portents?  Had they misinterpreted the signs?  Had the Philistines lied or changed their plans?

They were met on the road by the captain of the guard, known to Jethro as Gershon.  He looked wearied.

“The day is nearly closed,” Gershon said.  The last day had apparently allowed him no rest and he was ready for the threat to be over.  “We’ve seen no Moabites, no cart as was reported to us.”  He gestured to the tailings of worshipers who were lined up on the road to the tabernacle hill.  At the close of the Sabbath, the evening sacrifices were beginning and the last of the day’s worshipers served.  All around the hillside, encampments were set up as the worshipers planned to spend the night before journeying home at dawn.  The familiar smells of the sacrifices burning on the altar offered some reassurance, a smell of normalcy.

In all, it was a scene that belied their panicked escape from Joppa and hurried journey here.  Ammihud looked around anxiously, concerned that all may have been for naught.

“Has there been no trouble at all, none coming to the tent that look suspicious?” Maaz asked Gershon.

“None,” came the wearied reply.  “It has been a Sabbath as all others.”

Members of the group reluctantly dismounted.  They looked at one another with puzzlement.  Perhaps their concern had been misplaced.  Could the enemy have been alerted somehow that their plans had been betrayed?

“I don’t…” Micah started to say but was interrupted by a disturbance in the line of worshipers near the tabernacle.  A donkey attached to a small wagon was braying loudly.  It made hoarse cries, as if in pain.  A man tried vainly to calm the animal, but somehow it broke free of its tack and began to jump and kick.  All around, people hurried to either get out of its way or help corral it.  The path was suddenly thick with people shouting and some cursing.  A fistfight broke out, and then others were shouting angrily at one another.  The ruckus seemed to spread like a sudden fire.

Gershon called to his men, “Come!  Let us put an end to this!  Call out the guard!”  He and the four tabernacle guardsmen ran from the adventurers and toward the growing melee.

“This must be the distraction they planned!” Samuel said excitedly, remounting and drawing the short sword he’d been given by Deborah.

A horn sounded.  Gershon had blown on it as he ran toward the sudden riot.

“Look!  The guards and Levites are pouring out of their tents!” Ruth yelled, pointing to the structures next to the Tabernacle.  In her excitement, she forgot to use her “man voice.”

Maaz squinted, following her gaze.  “Guards.  Guards?  They are not coming from within the tents, but from behind it!” he shouted.  “There is the enemy!”

“We ride!” Micah ordered.  He scrambled back on his horse and the rest quickly followed suit.  Spurring their mounts on, they left the road and skirted the melee, riding around the riot to the opposite side of the Tent of Meeting.  There they saw men dressed like tabernacle guardians slashing at the outer curtain of the tabernacle with curved swords in one hand and attempting to set it ablaze with torches in the other hand!

Caleb dismounted on the run as he distrusted his skill to shoot effectively from horseback.  Nocking an arrow, he prepared to fire.

At a corner of the tabernacle one of the false guardians set his torch at the bottom of one of the posts supporting the rods from which hung the curtains that boundaried the court of the Tent of Meeting.  Clearly, he hoped to set it on fire.

But Samuel attacked the nearest enemy.  From his mounted position he held the advantage.  The sword flashed true, striking the man’s left arm and the torch he carried.  The torch went flying and the man cried out as blood blossomed from the wound Samuel inflicted.

One of the would-be saboteurs swerved to go around to the north side of the tabernacle, out of sight from the oncoming horsemen who had suddenly appeared.  Jezreel rode north following the man, but he did not dismount.  Instead, to inspire and assist his mates, he raised himself as much as possible on the horse’s back and started to sing a psalm of victory.  Exerting himself to be heard about the din of the distraction and the battle, the psalmist’s voice nevertheless rang clear.

The north side of the tabernacle was opposite the opening at the other end of the rectangle.  There other treacherous enemies were already wielding their torches to set the curtain on fire.

Having had to resort to thievery on more than one occasion, Ruth preferred to meet an opponent from behind, or at least sideways.  Head-on combat was for persons more powerful and experienced than her.  Therefore, she rode to the west side of the tent to attack the enemies that she had seen turn to the north side of the sacred Tent.

Riding around to the west side of the Tent, Ruth surprised a pair of enemy combatants who were about to slash holes in the curtain of the Tabernacle.  They looked up at her, eyes wide with maniacal intent.  “HOLD!” she cried out in her most commanding voice.  The man closest to her advanced, holding sword and torch out before him.  His companion returned his attention to the curtain and used his torch to set it afire!

“How I wish I had a man’s voice!” Ruth muttered as she drew the sickle from her belt.  She pointed her horse at the oncoming attacker and slipped off the side of the animal opposite her opponent.  She let the beast come between them briefly, then struck out with the sickle as soon as the horse had passed her.  The sickle blow struck the distracted man on his helmeted head.  The blade did him no harm, but the impact stunned him a bit.  Ruth gave no quarter and followed her slash with a kick Joseph had taught her; he’d called it a “roundhouse.”  Her heel caught him in the neck and temporarily took his wind.  The man staggered backward and dropped his torch to clutch at his throat.

While he recovered from her kick to his throat, Ruth had her best chance to vanquish her opponent. She slashed hurriedly at him with her sickle just as soon as both her feet were under her.  The edge of her weapon caught his right forearm with sufficient force to create a deep and long wound, flinging his arm and his weapon away.  Out the corner of her eye, Ruth saw the other man go through the curtain and set it afire from within.  She stepped around her opponent to run after the other man, the one who was, for the moment, the greater threat to the Tabernacle.

Barek, Maaz and Micah spurred their mounts and rode around to confront the biggest group of the enemy, saboteurs in disguise who flowed between the barracks.  They were quick to put the false guards on the defensive.  Maaz rode straight at an enemy and the iron tip of the goad flashed, striking the enemy’s left hand.  A shout of surprise escaped the man’s lips as the torch he’d held there flew away from him.

Barek dipped low in his saddle to swing the two-handed axe with his powerful right hand only.  The blade turned a bit upon impact, but the handle still hit solidly on a man’s leg, staggering him.  His momentum carried him into Balek’s horse’s flank and the false guard bounced off the large animal and was thrown to the ground.

Riding around the melee involving his brothers, Micah achieved the north end of the tabernacle in time to see an enemy slash a hole in the curtain from the rod to the ground.  He disappeared through the slit, entering the sacred space inside.  Micah drew the horse in to a sudden stop and quickly dismounted, drawing his sword.  Without regard for his own safety, Micah stepped through the hole in the curtain created by his enemy, who was sprinting south, presumably to go to the open end of the Tent of Meeting.  Every footfall of this pagan infuriated Micah more and he ran after the man.  Upon reaching the corner, the man hesitated enough to turn.  That was the instant Micah overtook him.  Bull-rushing his hated enemy, Micah eschewed the weapon in his hand and slammed bodily into the man, driving him into the ground and knocking the air out of him.

Scarcely aware that he held a sword, not a club in his hand, Micah instinctively sought to bash his opponent’s head in with it, but the short stroke had too little power or leverage behind it, and the blow merely glanced off the man’s helmet, the blade burying angling off to bury itself in the turf.  For his part, the would-be destroyer of the Tabernacle pushed and turned to try to get Micah off him, to no avail.  Micah had an advantage of strength and mass to match his fury and he used it to keep his opponent pinned.

Letting go of his sword, Micah grabbed both sides of his opponent’s head with his hands and slammed it into the ground.  He did this repeatedly until his enemy was dazed.  When he felt his adversary’s strength slacken just a bit, Micah jerked the man’s head around suddenly until he heard his enemy’s neck snap.  It was a sickening noise, but Maaz had it heard before; when his brother-in-law had done something similar to dispatch a dying animal.

After taking a moment to catch his breath, Micah shambled to his feet and tugged his sword from the earth.  He carefully put the point underneath the layers of the prone man’s armor, just over his heart, and leaned on it to thrust it into the man’s chest.  Every remaining sign of life pooled with the blood collecting under the body.

Micah sighed as he pulled his sword from the body of his enemy.  He looked around and saw Ulla standing not too far off.

“That was disgusting,” the high priest commented, using both hands to hold up what was left of his ephod.

Letting out a long breath Micah replied, “There’s gratitude.”

Having wounded his opponent, Samuel chose to dismount and swung at him again.  This time, his momentum took him a bit too far away and the slash missed.  Though wounded, the man was a soldier and he kept his wits about him enough to lunge and strike at Samuel.  His aim was better than Samuel’s but the blow glanced off Samuel’s shield.

Caleb chose as his target an enemy who ran forward to flank Samuel.  His bow ready, Caleb let the arrow fly.  It flew true, an unseen hand directing its flight.  The arrow suddenly appeared in the middle of the running man’s chest.  He broke stride and fell forward, bowling over his mate who had been entirely occupied with Samuel.  The young fighter snapped off a kind of salute to Caleb in thanks for his timely assistance.   Samuel delivered a coup de grace, nearly separated the man’s head from his body.

Ammihud huffed as Caleb had shot the very man he’d intended to shoot.  Switching targets, his arrow also found its mark in the right shoulder another opponent.  The man cried out and dropped his sword.  Ammihud dropped his bow and drew a knife from his belt.  He intended to finish the man he’d shot, but as he stabbed at him, the enemy managed to roll away and Ammihud’s blade only grazed his right side.

Sensing the battle going the way of his Israelite companions, Jezreel sang more loudly and passionately.  He sang to the LORD, but fervently hoped the words of his psalm were inspiring his countrymen.

For his part, Caleb nocked another arrow and cautiously moved from the melee which Samuel and Ammihud seemed to have in hand.  His bowstring as taut as his nerves, he moved cautiously toward the south end of the Tabernacle.  There he saw men engaged in deadly battle, swinging weapons and limbs, grappling, fighting to attack or defend Israel’s most sacred object.  From within, he heard a cry of “NO!” that sounded like Ulla’s voice.  When he’d rounded the corner and saw into courtyard, Caleb beheld the high priest and an enemy fighting for possession of the ephod Ulla wore, the ceremonial breastplate that held twelve stones that symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel.  He raised his bow but had no shot that safely took the enemy and spared the priest.  Caleb hesitated.

Jumping off his horse looked deceptively slow because of the big man’s size, but Barek quickly crossed to his prone foe and with an overhead strike, buried the axe blade in his enemy’s chest.  In spite of the man’s armor, the blade went deep.  Blood gurgled out the man’s mouth instead of a scream.  Putting a foot on his foe’s chest, Barek tugged his axe free from the body of his mortally wounded enemy and looked around for other opponents.  To the north, he saw a youth holding a horse’s reins.

“Hold!” Balek roared, pointing his axe at the young man.  The youth was understandably startled by  the giant before him.  So much so, his eyes grew wide with fright and he turned to leap atop the horse!

“I wish I could command people like Sara,” Balek complained.  He whistled at his horse, with only a vain hope it would respond.  Balek reasoned that the youth might be a messenger, charged with delivering a report of the battle to someone.  The giant man of God resolved to capture the youth and find out what he knew.  The horse did not exactly come to Balek, but it came near enough he could gather up the reins and throw his long legs over its sides.  He heard someone call his name and wheeled the horse around to face them.

Ammihud and Samuel stood astride one another over a fallen enemy.  “Where do you think you’re going?” Samuel called.  “Yes,” Ammihud added, “there’s plenty of fight right here.”

Balek nodded in the direction of the young man who’d fled on horseback.  “One got away,” he said, and spurred his horse in that direction.

Maaz brought his horse around and adroitly leapt off its back, pointing the iron-shod tip of his goad at his opponent.  “You shall now die, defiler!” he said as he advanced on the enemy soldier.  The man looked from Maaz to the tabernacle and swinging his sword, pierced the veil and tumbled through it.  A sigh escaped Maaz’s lips then he shouted, “YOU CANNOT THAT EASILY ESCAPE JUSTICE!”

Stepping through the breach created by his enemy, Maaz saw his opponent desperately hacking at the hide-covered wall of the Holy Place.  AS the herdsman stepped through, the man turned suddenly and swung at Maaz instead!  The hurried attack missed Maaz but caused him to smash the iron tip of his short staff into the ground instead of his opponent.  The two men circled each other for a moment, then the saboteur swung his sword over his head and attempted to cleave Maaz in two, but the herdsman dodged the blow as easily as he might’ve avoided a butting ram.  Side-steppeding his adversary’s slash, Maaz brought the goad down hard, smashing both the swordsman’s arms.

A surprised look crossed the man’s face just before Maaz’s goad slammed into his abdomen on the upswing of a second blow.  He fell to his hands and knees, vomited, and fell face forward into it, groaning piteously.  Maaz had no pity for him however, and he brought his weapon down on the man’s head with a fury, splitting both helmet and skull.  Pausing for a moment to collect himself, Maaz smelled smoke and looked up to see a spit of flame atop the Tent itself!

As he could see no opponents at hand, Maaz’s lust for battle suddenly left him and the survival of the Tent took precedence.  Dropping his goad. he leapt to find purchase for both hands and hauled himself atop the tent, which swayed precariously under his weight.  He saw a torch in the midst of a section of the hide roof that was smoldering and threatening to burst into flame.  Heedless of any danger except to the Holy of Holies beneath his feet, Maaz snatched at the torch and threw it over his shoulder and far away from the Tabernacle.  With his own hands he beat at the coverings to the sacred space, putting out the embers by swatting away glowing embers.  In his single-minded devotion to the task of saving the structure, the big man did not see the place where the skins had parted until he fell through it.  With a thud, Maaz landed in the middle of the Most Holy Place!

Having made quick work of dispatching the two men at his feet, Samuel looked up in time to see another enemy hacking off the rods attached to the corner post of the Tabernacle enclosure.  One panel of curtain fluttered to the ground.  Samuel’s feet found purchase as he raced to prevent further blasphemous damage.

Somehow Samuel’s enemy sensed his coming and turned to throw his torch at the young Israelite.  Samuel swatted the flaming projectile aside and rushed his opponent.  Samuel’s sword stabbed out from behind his shield, but his enemy was ready and side-stepped the attack.  He delivered a blow of his own but the strike was not strong enough to part the hardened leather of the wristband Samuel wore on his sword hand; it merely parted some of the strings holding it on, and the wristband flopped about on Samuel’s sword arm.

Several more thrusts were made but parried or dodged.  Samuel had the advantage having both shield and sword, but the advantage of arms was negated by the youth’s comparative inexperience in martial arts.

The two stood apart a moment to catch their breath.  Seeing his opportunity, Ammihud, standing some paces away and with his bow readied, let the arrow fly.  The shaft buried itself in the swordsman’s middle, finding a mark just underneath his leather cuirass.  He dropped his sword, then dropped to his knees, attempting to break the shaft.  A heartbeat later, Samuel relieved him of all worldly concerns by plunging his blade through the stricken man’s neck.

Caleb made his decision.  He carefully aimed and shot his arrow.  The shaft struck with lethal effect, piercing his enemy’s chest.  His grip on the high priest relaxed instantly and he turned to face Caleb.  When he bent over to retrieve his sword and attack the archer, he fell to his knees, then to his face, where he laid still as breath and life abandoned him.

Ulla was furious.  He advanced on Caleb even as he held the damaged ephod to his chest.  “You FOOL!” he cried.  “How could you take such a shot?!  You might’ve hit ME!!”

Startled out of watching the man die, Caleb replied off-handedly, “Oh, I had that all figured out,” he said.  “I aimed at his legs.”  A confused, angry look crossed Ulla’s face.  “I figured if I missed, neither of you would be badly hurt.”

While his companion dealt with Ruth, a pagan soldier slashed through the outside curtain of the Tabernacle.  He paused only a moment to set the breach on fire and then turned to hurl his torch atop the Tent itself.  Steeling himself to stop anyone from extinguishing the fire he sought to start, he gripped his sword all the tighter and looked around, waiting for an Israelite to come.

He would not wait long.  Ruth launched her slight form through the slash in the curtain that formed the court around the Tabernacle.  She stumbled a bit as her foot caught on the torn curtain and she fell to one knee.  Ahead of her was the infidel who dared step through the veil.  He was a big man.  Too big, for Ruth’s taste.

With a sneer, he set the torch down where the flame licked at the fabric wall of the Tabernacle.  “Come save your sacred tent,” the dog growled.  “Sacrifice yourself, man of Israel!”

Inspired, Ruth stood slowly and removed her helmet, dropping it to the turf.  She loosed her hair and let the long tresses fall around her neck.  “In Israel, we sacrifice animals, not people” she said, taunting her enemy.  She shouted, “Know that today the LORD has strengthened a woman’s arm to spill your blood and defend His holy tent!!”

As she’d hoped, the enemy soldier was temporarily stunned by the sight of a combatant suddenly becoming a beautiful woman.  She charged the big man, swinging her sickle with both hands, throwing her entire person at him.  It was an attack of faith, what to an experienced soldier might seem a fool’s hope.  Her slashing scythe found it’s mark as the big man’s left arm came up too late to intercept blow.  The blade bit deeply into the base of his neck, the curve of the scythe completely disappearing in the place where throat and shoulder met.

Behind the blade was Ruth’s flying body; she had to leave her feet to even strike the blow.  The impact sent them both sprawling.  Scrambling to her feet, Ruth reached for the torch, the flames threatening to set the curtain afire.

Before she could reach it, a powerful hand grasped her ankle and hauled her away from the torch.  Though blood spouted from the wound Ruth had inflicted, the pagan’s massive hand held her ankle like an iron manacle.  Struggling to his knees, the man drug Ruth toward him as easily as anyone might tug a child.  Breath was knocked from Ruth’s lungs when she’d landed bodily on the ground, her feet yanked from beneath her.  Ruth’s attempts to get away seemed especially pitiful and she felt his hands virtually climb up her body.  He hauled her close and clasped her throat in one of his incredibly large hands.

Her airway closed, Ruth struggled vainly, failing with hands and feet.  Terror made her blows even less effective.  Every thought was focused on dying at this monster’s hands.

His breath reeked of some food or spice Ruth did not know.  “Molech take your soul!” the man rasped.  “I will not be killed by any mere woman!”  His blood flowed over Ruth as he muttered what must have been curses in a pagan tongue.

A long dark tunnel appeared before Ruth.  A wan light illuminated its end.  She wondered how this might be, what the vision might mean, but she was not prepared to die.

Suddenly, his eyes fluttered and his last breath escaped his lips.

Somebody shouted, “LET HER GO!”

The man’s hands went slack and with a violent twist, Ruth pushed herself away, falling down and gasping for air.

When she was able to get her wits about her again, Ruth looked to see Caleb running to get the torch away from the veil.  He quickly slashed at the curtain, cutting away the part that had caught fire during the melee.

Ruth’s body shook uncontrollably and part of her mind wondered why men loved war so much when it was so vile and brutal a thing.  After a bit, her vision cleared and so did her mind.  She looked up and saw Caleb above her.  He held her head on his lap, kneeling beside her.  Something nearby smelled like vomit and smoke.

He stroked the hair from her face tenderly, and said, “Here now.  We can’t have you running about with your hair down, can we?”

Samuel turned to Ammihud.  “Let’s go check the tents,” he said.  “In case there are reinforcements.”  Ammihud took a moment to ready his bow and said, “After you.”

Day Eight – Mount Gerazim

            The next day the heroes stood at the summit of Mount Gerazim.  A man of Israel had discovered that an Asherah pole had been recently erected and there were signs of a recent encampment.  He’d reported this offense against the land to the high priest.  He had passed the information along to the group.

“They made prayers and sacrifices here,” Maaz said, poking the remains of a fire pit with his goad.

Caleb’s eyes darted over the scene, an angry look upon his face.  “They no doubt sought a boon from their gods before infiltrating the camp and setting their scheme into motion.”

The youthful Samuel threw himself against the idolatrous pole, exclaiming, “This cannot be allowed to stand a moment longer.”  Righteous anger was not enough to augment his slight frame and he was unable to pull it out of the ground.

Balek made a theatrical sigh.  “You cannot use a twig to remove a log,” he said, and pushed Samuel aside.  Contrary to his verbal objections, Samuel stood aside.  The giant knelt and wrapped his big hands around the base of the Asherah.  Using his shoulders and legs to lift, he drew it out of the hole and dropped it to the ground.

Ruth, once again in her masculine garb, cleared her throat and spit on the carved pole.  Her friends watched for a moment, mild surprise on their faces.

Micah broke the silence when he clapped Ruth on the back, nearly knocking her off her feet.  “Well done, Joseph,” he said mirthfully.

“Here is the same craftsman’s mark we discovered under the idols of Heshonib,” Ammihud observed.  “It is the mark of Kanab, the Philistine idol-maker whose shop we visited in Joppa.”

The captain of the temple guard scratched a curse sign in the loose soil.  “It is an appalling desecration of the sacred site of Mount Gerazim,” he opined, “the place where the division of the Promised Land between the twelve tribes was accomplished by Joshua by casting lots.”

“We must destroy it with fire” Jezreel said slowly, his voice conveying a solemnity they had not heard from the young psalmist before.  “We must scatter the ashes and bury all the bones.  This mountain must be made holy again.”

“Yes,” Samuel agreed.  “As he said.”

A feast was arranged to celebrate the victory of the Lord and His people, with Deborah’s Eight (as the heroes of Shiloh had come to be known) the guests of honor.  A tent had been erected and savory smells infused the camp as several ovens were set to work.

Ruth had to be persuaded to remain.  On the road, she had learned attention and scrutiny were unwelcome as they threatened to expose her.  Her dread of being drug back to be stuck in a loveless marriage was so strong, she wanted to forsake her new companions and return to her vagabond ways.

Everyone was shocked when Micah offered an alternative.  “You could be my daughter.  For a night,” he suggested, his usual gruff appearance gone and a tender countenance in its place.  “Joseph may leave to reappear elsewhere.  Tonight you could be Dinah.”  As the gathering was a feast and not a “holy convocation” even Maaz gave his approval to this deception.

Some appropriately feminine festal robes were obtained and Ruth shed her disguise in private.  When she appeared again in clothes appropriate to her heaven-bestowed gender, Micah explained, “You look like a Dinah!”

Their tent fairly roared with laughter as “Dinah” was welcomed to their fellowship.  They roared again when Samuel offered to act as her husband.  Their laughter had barely died off when the tent flap was thrown aside and the high priest Ulla stormed inside.

“It’s Deborah” he cried in genuine panic, “she’s gone!”

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!

Idol Smashers #11

assassin

“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.

(Previously in “Idol Smashers,” the group had no choice but to take Ruth with them.  They found the shop of the man who had constructed the idols at Heshonib.  His name was Kanab, and he was instantly suspicious of persons speaking Hebrew interested in that city.  When Kanab attempted to escape, he was instantly captured outside his shop and drug him away to a nearby stable.)

Day Three – Joppa

            When next he poured something on Kanab, Micah did not waste even the poor wine they’d purchased at the bazaar.  Instead, it was with water that Micah doused him.

“Utter not a warning, or cry aloud, on pain of your life,” Barek breathed into Kanab’s ear after he awoke with a start.  His massive hand was clenched over the Philistine’s mouth.  The giant’s grip was sufficiently tight to back up his threat.

Kanab’s eyes darted around the stable.  He saw six other figures huddled around him.  He flexed his hands, only to find they were bound behind him, his arms wrapped around a stout timber.  Though thoroughly evil, Kanab’s mind worked quickly.  He saw he was helpless and nodded as best he could with the giant man’s hand nearly crushing his jaw.

One of them stepped forward, holding the flickering light of an olive oil lamp in Kanab’s face.  The man’s face was also illuminated in the pool of light as he regarded Kanab.

“You can let him go,” the man said.  “He knows his life hangs by a thread.”

Kanab smelled wine but didn’t remember getting drunk.  He remembered a man and a woman in his shop.  They were Israelite spies!

Joseph saw Kanab’s eyes flicker with awareness.  He nodded at Barek, who slowly withdrew his hand and placed a cold dagger-point at Kanab’s throat instead.  Kanab’s eyes hardened and Joseph knew that this man would be hard to intimidate.  He decided to try to imbalance him rather than threaten him directly.

“By now the Black Cat is at your shop,” Joseph said evenly.  “How do you think he will interpret your absence and the signs of wine and broken shelves?”

Kanab said nothing, but he was clearly steeling himself against Joseph.

“Will he think you’ve gone off on another drunken binge?  Will he be angry because you have summoned him without cause?”

“Heh,” Kanab sputtered.  “You know nothing.  You grope in the darkness for pearls of truth but you will find only pebbles!”

In response to the defiant look on Kanab’s face, Joseph nodded to Barek, who increased the pressure of the sharp blade against Kanab’s exposed skin.  A trickle of blood flowed from the parted flesh.

“We know the Black Cat moves against the tabernacle of Israel!”  Joseph snarled.  He was pleased to see Kanab’s defiance fade as his eyes widened.  That had been a stab in the dark in more ways than one.

“Impossible!” Kanab started, then caught himself.  “You know nothing about the Cat.”

As planned, the others kept silent.  In the darkness of the stable adjoining the inn, only Kanab’s face and Joseph’s were well-illuminated.  Barek’s face was barely lit, but he maintained a fierce expression, his eyes devoted entirely to Kanab.

“I know he plans to move before the next Sabbath!” Joseph said in a rage that was not entirely a pretense.  That broke another piece of Kanab’s defiance away.  “The LORD has revealed to us your plans, idolater!  We have seen your deceit at Heshonib!”

A bit of worry crept into Kanab’s expression, then he considered something.

“If you know so much, why do you need me?”  Emboldened by his realization of Joseph’s bluff, Kanab pushed back.  “Why threaten me?  What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

Joseph pressed in so close that there was a danger the flame of the lamp would light Kanab’s turban or beard.

“We want your fellow conspirators.  We want the surviving Heshonibites.  You – will –  deliver them to us!”

“You know nothing.  You are bluffing.”  Kanab’s clever face was resolute again.  “I will tell you nothing.  Nothing.”

Kanab’s cheeks puffed only a bit before he blew out the lamp.

In the darkness, the other six heard the blows of the giant’s massive hands on Kanab’s body.  While Joseph felt his way back to the door to find a light, he heard the breath driven from Kanab’s lungs.  He heard the ribs break.  When the latch was finally in his hand, he heard the Philistine cry out in pain.

“Enough!  Mercy!”

 

Barek said nothing as they sat in a circle not far from the idol-maker.  Kanab was seated on the floor but leaning forward, held up only by the ropes the bound him to the beam.  Ruth reached out and put her hand on his.

“You did what you had to to do.”

The giant Israelite regarded Ruth with a blank stare for a few moments, then moved his hand away from Ruth and continued eating.

“I didn’t think he was gonna talk,” Caleb said, putting down his bowl.

“It wasn’t courage that stayed his voice,” Jezreel said, “but fear.  When his fear of Barek outweighed the fear of his fellows, he found his voice soon enough.”

For his part, Joseph was still a bit sickened by the interrogation.  This was a new and unwelcome experience for him.  He was familiar enough with violence; it was the way of the world, after all.  But violence against a bound foe with nothing more to be won than information, that was new.

“Let’s review what we found out,” he said.  “Heshonib was used as a staging area to prepare a covert force that would strike a target deep in Israel.  This force is to be disguised, probably as a caravan of Phoenecian merchants bound for Shiloh.  Once there, they will destroy the Tabernacle and all its contents.  They will leave clues to make it look like Moabites have committed this sacrilege and retreat into Moab.”

Maaz threw down his bowl in disgust.  “By means of this – cowardly artifice – they hope to cripple the worship of our God and also cause a war between Israel and Moab.  Then, when Israel’s strength is focused on her eastern border, the kings of Philistia will marshal their armies and attack on the west.  In fact, this strike team left Heshonib the very day the idols were destroyed.  It is likely that they are already in position to attack the tabernacle and destroy it.  Kanab’s idols were placed in the village to give the power of the Philistine gods Baal and Zebub to the strike force.”

“We don’t know where the invaders are now, Kanab wasn’t told that,” Caleb pointed out.

“But we know where they will be,” Ruth answered.

“We can’t chance them getting to the Tabernacle and causing any damage to the holy site,” Maaz countered, clearly frustrated.

“We have four days to find them,” Jezreel said, “and the LORD is with us.”

Before anyone could add anything more, the stable door parted slightly, and the stable boy slipped in.  He ran quickly into the circle of light.

“Masters,” he said quietly, his eyes wide with a fright.  “You paid me to tell you if someone came looking for you.  There is a man in the inn, asking after a man and woman seen with Kanab!”

Someone started pounding on the stable door.

 

“You were supposed to give us a warning, boy!” Maaz spat the words at the youth as if they were darts.  He rose to his feet, the stout ox-goad in his hands.

When the door flew open, Maaz was ready to meet any threat.  But no threat presented itself.  Instead, the doorway was vacant – no one was to be seen.

At Maaz’s side in the next heartbeat, his ax unslung, Micah wondered aloud, “What’s this?”

Cautiously, the head of the innkeeper appeared on one side of the door.  The rest of his stout, short frame slowly joined the head.

“P-pardon,” the head uttered in Hebrew.  “Some men from the – an unintelligible word or two in Philistine – are here for you.  Go you must.”

“P-please.”

Joseph sighed as he stood.  “I agree.  We want no trouble here in the middle of the enemy.”

“What about our prisoner”” Caleb hissed, striving to keep his voice low.  “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble here and have little to show for it!”

Barek got to his feet.  “I’ll carry him,” he volunteered resignedly.  Clearly the role of interrogator troubled his conscience.  Though he had no love lost for Kanab, treating any human being in the way they had treated the idol-maker went against the giant’s strict moral code.  They were simply too desperate for information about the Philistine plan.

Troubled by his own thoughts. Jezreel shared Barek’s offense.  So when worked at loosing Kanab’s bonds, he did so gently, determined to inflict no more injury on the man.

Jezreel had scarcely begun pulling at the knots when the side door of the stable burst open and dark-clad armed men sprinted through it.

Samuel immediately burst into action.  With a shout, he drew his scimitar and ran toward the first intruder.  Samuel had to step between the center post that supported the roof of the stable and their own wagon, but he went nimbly, without a misstep.

With sword raised over his head, the intruder charged at Samuel. In an instant, the distance between them was lost.  The man loosed his own war cry and swung his weapon at Samuel.  The young Israelite parried the sword stroke easily enough with his shield, but the intruder was nearly twice his size and the man followed the sword strike with a shoulder block that sent Samuel sprawling backward.

The youth flew several feet until Samuel’s head struck the wooden door of the cattle stall behind him.  His vision blurred and the wind was driven from him as another Philistine landed on top of him.  Part of Samuel’s mind observed his scimitar flying from his grasp and skittering across the straw-strewn floor.

This was more fierce combat than Samuel had ever known; panic welled up, distracting his already sundered awareness.  He saw a huge fist flying at his face and narrowly avoided it.  He pushed against his assailant’s seemingly immense weight, but to no avail.  Too late he saw the edge of the soldier’s shield rise toward him.  Samuel ben Abram felt as if his head must have surely been sundered by the edge of the round wooden shield, but darkness overtook him too quickly to be certain.

Whirling to his left, Maaz saw the men shouldering their way through the narrow side door.  “WE ARE BETRAYED!” he shouted.  Their cart stood between Maaz and his enemy.  In an instant, he was around it and confronted a Philistine attacker.  Battle was at hand and it was in the midst of battle that this divine warrior felt most keenly the presence of his Lord.

Maaz’s adversary was a man of considerable size himself.  He was also apparently a tested soldier, for the sight of the Israelite bearing down on him did not deter the man at all.  In fact, the opposite.  He raised both shield and sword and charged ahead.

When he reached Maaz, the intruder concealed a sword-thrust with his shield.  Maaz was not caught completely unaware by the tactic, but he only succeeded in parrying part of the blow; the sharp blade cut deeply across his left bicep.

The ox-goad swung and clattered harmlessly against the shield.  Anticipating this block, Maaz let the long stout wooden pole rise over the shield.  Then he pivoted, throwing his weight and full strength behind a strike that arced across three hundred sixty degrees until it impacted explosively against the Philistine’s left knee.  The joint broke with a loud crack!  With a cry of agony, the unbeliever went down.

Micah was on his brother-in-law’s heels, but had fought with him often enough to know to give the ox-goad a wide berth.  Micah and the third intruder through the side door faced each other more warily.  Neither man committed to a full-blown charge, but stepped cautiously, looking for signs of weakness, calculating a plan of attack.

Wearying quickly of the standoff, Micah brought his ax into an overhead strike while stepping into the intruder.  This strike was blocked by the Philistine’s shield, followed by a sword slash behind the shield.  Stepping nimbly back from the sword’s point, Micah grinned at his enemy.

“This will be fun,” he said with wild joy and drew his dagger with his left hand.

Maaz assumed his brother-in-law was holding his own when the other of the two main doors flew open.  Then inkeeper fled the melee to make room for two similarly-armed and garbed men who moved into the six-foot wide opening.

“SURRENDER OR DIE!” the one of them shouted in Hebrew.

Maaz described several circles in the air, executing a series of intricate steps, blocks and thrusts.  In his hands, the stout goad was a blur.

“I will do neither” Maaz growled, and then motioned for the hated Philistines to come and meet his goad.

Joseph whirled to see Samuel dashed to the ground by a black-clad soldier and then beaten with a shield edge as the two grappled on the floor.  He did not, however, wait to see the outcome of the melee, but instead ran to the younger man’s aid.

By the time he got there, the deciding blow had been landed, but Joseph summoned his own training and concentration, focusing it into a single blow.  His right heel impacted Samuel’s assailant beside his left ear.  It connected with such force that, in spite of the man’s size, his body spun around to try to stay connected with his head.

The big man turned two and a half times across the floor of the stable before coming to rest in a supine position, mostly covering Samuel’s scimitar.  He did not stir from that spot.

Realizing they were under attack, Jezreel stepped back from the post and left Kanab’s bonds tied. He paused a few heartbeats to calm himself, then sought out his staff and began singing a psalm of battle.  When he found it leaning against a nearby stall door, the psalmist walked deliberately to the place and picked it up.  Holding it aloft and thinking a quick prayer, he sung more loudly and rushed after Joseph toward the dark-clad men still rushing from the side door.

Time slowed for Caleb when he heard the noise of battle being joined.  He turned to his right to see Ruth concealing herself in the stall to his right.  He heard himself tell her to stay down.

Bending over to pick his bow up off the floor, Caleb straightened up and nocked an arrow as quickly as he could.  He stepped forward to look for a target and saw the boy who had come to warn them.  He told the boy to stay down.

Caleb saw Maaz in a melee in front of the main door and Micah locked in battle further away.  A black figure stormed through the doorway, and Caleb loosed his arrow.  The Philistine would not know in this life what hit him as Caleb’s shot pierced his right eye.  Then penetrating shot drove his already-dead body spinning to the ground.

Barek was struggling with himself when the sounds of the struggle in the stable finally penetrated his consciousness.  Like a man awakening from a dream, he tore his gaze from Kanab and looked up to see Caleb’s back.  He was loosing an arrow at an unseen target, then grunted with satisfaction.

Swiftly, the soldier’s mind took over the giant’s body and Barek reached for his immense sword.  It was in his hand and raised when he stepped up next to Caleb, who was reaching for another arrow.  Barek’s trained eye took in the situation in an instant.  He saw to his right and a half-dozen paces away that Maaz was engaged with two of the enemy and more were pouring through the wide-open stable doors.

Barek knew where he needed.  He paused a few seconds while Caleb loosed another shaft, then raced around him.  The big man’s strides ate up the distance between himself and his first target.

Joseph did not hesitate to appreciate the results of his well-aimed kick, but ran forward to the next foe.  Meeting a night-clad man almost at the feet of his prone comrade, Joseph launched a flurry of punches at the Philistine soldier.  What blows the man did not dodge, he blocked with his shield.  Joseph felt no pain from the blows that impacted on the wooden shield; his training and the red haze of combat kept him from the sensation.

Joseph saw the sword strike before the intruder attempted it and easily stepped out of the way.  He threw more punches and stepped into a kick.  A feint diverted his attention before the sword took Joseph’s leg out from under the kick.

He hit the ground hard.  Breath driven from him, agony from his stricken limb, Joseph struggled to get to his feet when the second blow struck him in his right side and knocked him down for good.

Jezreel watched in horror to see his fellow Israelite struck savagely by the Philistine’s sword strikes.  Enraged, the psalm fell from his lips but the staff in his hands did deadly work.  Intent on Joseph, the swordsman did not see Jezreel coming.  The psalmist’s staff caught him on the left temple.  The sickening sound of his skull shattering did not deter Jezreel nor stir his heart to any feeling except the righteous zeal for more battle.

As he watched the dead attacker fall in his peripheral vision, Jezreel was aware that another night-black figure rushed at him.  He barely had time to right his footing, put his staff in the ready position, and recommence the song when the Philistine fell on him.

Jezreel’s blow clattered off the man’s shield but did succeed in knocking it into the path of the man’s stabbing sword, making him deflect his own blow.  Jezreel managed to turn a second vicious blow at the cost of severing his staff.  The shield then swung around and over the sundered staff and caught Jezreel on the side of his head.  For a heartbeat or two he felt his feet leave the floor.  When he hit the stable wall behind him, the bricks did not yield, but Jezreel did.  To unconsciousness.

The Philistine who had loudly commanded surrender pretended not to be intimidated by Maaz’s bold reply.  The challenge of the Israelite’s summons was irresistible to one with a warrior’s heart.  After nodding to his companion to enter with him, the dark-clad pair stepped across the threshold, advancing on the tall Israelite.

Maaz waited them out, baiting the two intruders into rash action.  He was fearless, utterly convinced his God would deliver him.  So, when the commander’s companion, the one on the right, struck first, Maaz easily parried the sword strike with the butt of his goad, keeping the metal-shod tip pointed right at the commander.  The commander’s stabbing attack was more subtle than his companion’s but just as ineffective.

“My turn,” Maaz breathed, and jabbed a two-handed thrust of his polearm around the commander’s shield, bashing in his windpipe with the heavy metal tip.  Dropping both his sword and shield, the commander fell backward, clutching at his throat, desperate for air.

With a curse, the other black-garbed Philistine launched a series of slashing sword strikes, driving Maaz backward until he was up against their cart.  To be pinned thus was a disadvantage for a man trying to swing a reach weapon.  Even though it was behind him, the cart prevented some of the uses of his staff.  To purchase some room, Maaz swung savagely at his adversary.  The blow crashed against his opponent’s wooden shield.  It caused him no harm, but gave Maaz an opening to side-step to his left, away from the cart.

As he executed this maneuver, Maaz spared a momentary glance at the open doorway.  A third intruder pulled the commander out of the stable while a fourth entered, with more men behind him.

Of course, the possibility of retreat never even occurred to Maaz.

Both Micah and his night-clad opponent were fiercely enjoying squaring off against an opponent of mettle.  Leading with his shield, the intruder raised his sword and charged forward, putting his weight, muscle and hope into one overpowering strike.  Micah shifted his feet and his grip on his ax-haft.  Holding it loosely, he used the weight of the ax-head to direct the force of the blow away.

His attack carried the man to Micah’s right, across his path, so Micah struck at his relatively exposed right flank.  The tactic was sound, but the Philistine’s leather cuirass turned the blade in Micah’s hand and he dropped it.

Now he was angry – at himself and the Philistine.  Micah threw himself at his attacker, whose footing was still a little uncertain from the powerful attack he’d attempted.  The two sprawled on the floor and Micah resorted to punching the man with his now-freed left hand.

The Philistine struggled against the Israelite, the two of them rolling on the floor, each striking indifferent blows, the combatants too close to effectively wield the weapons they carried.  So the Philistine dropped his sword and shield and sought purchase with this hands around Micah’s throat.  Micah lost his axe when his hand smashed against the wall. Neither man was able to hurt the other, flailing limbs and armor getting in the way.

The two men were so intent on smashing or choking one another that Micah did not see the other intruder’s dark-colored form against the shadows of the stable’s uncertain lighting.  When the sword strike pierced his side, pain surged through him.  When he arced his back, the Philistine beneath him lashed out with a blow to Micah’s face that knocked him into darkness.

Barek had barely stepped over the wagon tongues and around the central timber when he was confronted by the Philistine who’d dispatched young Samuel.  Their swords clashed in mid-swing, but Barek’s sheer size gave him a slight edge over his smaller opponent, and Barek forced him to backstep.

The Philistine gave him no quarter however, and lithely stepped into a short sword-thrust that skittered off the side of Barek’s blade, then was knocked away by the guard on Barek’s sword hilt.  Barek turned the parry into a thrust that scraped the top of the intruder’s shield.  But the size and weight of the giant-sized weapon worked to it’s advantage as the point was driven home deep into the throat of the intruder.

With a choking sound, the man dropped to his knees.  Barek drove the sword home the rest of the way, nearly severing the man’s head.  Barek pulled his weapon free of the body before it hit the floor.

One of the intruders avoided the melee in the middle of the room as he searched the rest of the stable.  His eye came to rest on Caleb, standing twelve paces away, just after Caleb loosed an arrow at him.  The shaft was wide of the mark, however, and buried itself in the lintel of the door.

The Philistine launched himself at Caleb, closing the distance between the two of them, roaring something in his heathen tongue.  Watching the man rush toward him, Caleb knew there was no chance of getting off another shot, so he dropped the bow and grasped the handle of his dagger with his right hand.  When he got close enough, both hand and dagger flashed at the Philistine, but Caleb’s slash was premature and the warrior was in no danger.

Caleb was, however, in more danger than he knew.  The night-black warrior’s sword struck underneath Caleb’s slash, the blade sinking deeply into his right shoulder.  Caleb felt the dagger fly from his now-useless right arm.  When the Philistine shield-bashed his right side, the smaller Israelite went flying.  With a thud, Caleb landed bodily at the feet of Kanab, who was still bound to the post.

Struggling just to breathe, Caleb lay his head down on Kanab’s legs and was still.  He knew the fight was no longer his.

Maaz had no opportunity to make use of his unobstructed location when two intruders set upon him in concert.  The two warriors fought together flawlessly and Maaz’s ox-goad could simply not defend against two attackers flanking him.  Where the stout wooden staff flashed to defend against one slash, it simply could not defend against the other.  The point of the Philistine’s blade struck home between the overlapping layers of Maaz’s armor.

Forced to lean against his weapon to remain standing, Maaz folded under the assault of multiple stab and slash wounds.  The fierce Israelite did not surrender even to unconsciousness.  He merely lost his grip on the staff as the darkness claimed him.

Barek saw Maaz go down.  He raced at the nearest Philistine and with a divine oath and swung the massive blade with both hands.  He very nearly succeeded at hewing the man in half.

Confronted by the sight of the giant man and his deadly effect, the dead intruder’s partner hesitated, fixed by his horror.  The look of surprise remained on the man’s face when Barek separated his head from his shoulders.

In the next instant, two more black-armored figures raced through the doorway and set themselves upon Barek.  The big blade deflected both strikes before coming ’round again to draw blood on one attacker’s leg.

When a third soldier entered the fray and they had him surrounded.  Three more of the hated heathens poured through the stable door.  Within seconds, Barek was completely disadvantaged.  He looked around the stable quickly and saw none of his companions still standing.

With a savage motion that made his six assailants flinch, Barek buried his sword in the floor of the stable.  A weary sigh escaped his lips and a wary look crossed his face as he knelt and clasped his hands on the hilt of his sword.  Oddly, Barek’s mind was on Maaz, wondered what the herdsman would think of his surrendering.

Idol Smashers #10

wineskin

“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.

Day Three – Aphek

 (A group of armed men appeared at the gates of Aphek, claiming to be blood relatives of the slain Heshonibites and demanding their right to vengeance.  The elders of Aphek offered Deborah’s men little in the way of protection, legal or otherwise, and a battle quickly ensued.   The avengers of blood retreated in the face of determined opposition, the men of Aphek drawn in when the avengers foolishly included them in the battle.)

Later, back at Mattan’s home, the healer finished her ministrations on Ammihud.  She had cleaned the freshly-stitched wound and was now putting away her instruments.  As she washed her hands with the water Mattan’s boy servant supplied, she pronounced, “This one cannot be moved.  His wound is not deep, but it is long.  He will tarry here and heal or bleed to death if he travels.”

There was no strength left in Ammihud to protest.  He didn’t know which was worse, the stark pain of being slashed or the lingering ache of the woman’s needle and thread.  Staying here was fine for now, if only they’d let him sleep.

From his pillow Mattan quickly offered, “I will stay with him, my masters!  Mattan will keep your friend safe!”  Given the carnage at the cave yesterday and again at the city gates today, the merchant had evidently had his fill of violence.  This job had fully tested his stomach’s resistance to gore as well as his loyalty to Deborah.

“Will the elders allow him to stay, given the trouble we’ve caused them?” Joseph inquired evenly.  His own heart was getting weighed down by the ephahs of blood spilt.

Mattan did not need long to consider his answer.  “Most of the men of Aphek are loyal Israelites,” he directed at Maaz, not Joseph.  Then he added, a bit more quietly, “A few coins will ease the concerns of the few who are less loyal.”

Casting a dark look at Mattan, Maaz’s impatience surged again.  “Then we waste daylight.  Mattan has our mounts.  Let us away!”

Barek crossed the room to pat Ammihud’s shoulder, but the small man was already asleep.  He left silently and the others followed him out the back door and into the courtyard/stable.

Day Three – Joppa

Travel and trade between Israelite and Philistine cities was not uncommon, but a group of armed men thundering down the road would attract attention in any circumstance.  Joseph urged a cautious pace of travel and an intemperate Maaz only agreed with him after he cited the fact that seven was a good number for a stealthy incursion but wholly inadequate for laying siege to a walled city.

“Yes,” Caleb had agreed.  “We need a reason to go into the city, he added, “for casual visitors and travelers without a particular purpose will be immediately suspected as spies.”

“We need to concoct some kind of story that will explain our presence in Joppa,” Micah announced.  When Maaz gave him a challenging look and opened his mouth, Micah continued, “I believe it is called a ‘cover story’.”  It was not exactly what he said, but the way he said it, that stifled any rebuttal from Maaz.

The party traveled in silence for a few paces, considering what fiction might cover their sudden appearance at the gates of the city.  It would take an elaborate fiction indeed to cover the appearance of six fighting men and a woman.

Ruth spoke first.  “I would say…” she started, weighing her words, “that some of you could ride in as slavers and the rest as slaves.  There’s a brisk trade in slaves on the docks of Joppa.”

Micah’s eyes narrowed as he turned to Ruth, “And just how would you know what happens in Joppa?”

Her chin jutted out defiantly as Ruth answered, “I’ve been there before, of course.”

Maaz snorted.  “Yet another reason not to trust this one.”

But Joseph waved him off, saying, “Hold on now.  If none of the rest of us have been in the city, a guide would be a valuable asset.”  Drawing his horse back to walk next to her, Joseph asked Ruth, “Tell me directly.  Can you guide us around Joppa?”

“Directly?” she mimicked.  “I tell you truthfully, I have spent several days in Joppa.  In spite of their suspicious natures, Joppans are easily… parted from their money.”

“I do not care for this one’s attitude,” Maaz said flatly.  He glared over his shoulder at Ruth.

“Nor do I,” agreed Joseph.  “But if she has seen the city, then both Ruth and her attitude may yet serve the LORD.”  Seeing himself in her eyes, Joseph became suddenly aware that he’d been staring at Ruth.  She was beautiful.  Too beautiful for him to behold for long.

For her part, Ruth was aware of the discomfiture she caused Joseph.  She understood it as a tool she would use to bend his will and one day make her escape from these men and their divine mission.  Ruth knew the best way to defend her freedom was to keep on the move.  It was also her passion.  An arranged marriage drove her from her father’s house to a life on the road, but it was her passion for travel, to see the world, to experience it firsthand, that kept her on the road.

“What would you suggest?”

Barek’s voice drew Ruth out of her reverie.

“What?” she replied.

“What would you suggest we do?” Barek patiently repeated.

Ruth turned to look at him.  She regarded the giant only for a heartbeat and replied.  “A slaver.  One or two of you should pose as slavers who bought our servitude for debts.  It’s a common enough occurrence.”

“I will be no slave,” Maaz muttered.  “Nor will I pretend to be one.”

Smiling quietly, Ruth decided to press her luck.  “No one would believe you to be a slaver, noble man of Israel, so a slave you must be.  But Joseph here, he could pass himself off as a slaver.  And I shall pose as his beautiful wife?  A pretty face distracts the guard’s eye, don’t you think, Joseph?”  Ruth could play a coquette when the occasion warranted.

Joseph’s face reddened.  “No…” he objected.  “That role is not for me.  Perhaps… Jezreel.”

The psalmist was startled by this and nearly dropped his lyre.  “What?”  Jezreel’s face took on a coloring similar to Joseph’s.  “No, I could not…”

“I will play at being your husband,” Micah declared.  “That way I can keep my eye on you, girl.”

That was settled immediately.  No one challenged Micah for a role they didn’t want anyway.

“This is stupid,” Maaz said in a surly tone.  “Who’s going to believe you two are leading a set of armed slaves into the city?  Even Philistines aren’t that dense.”

“Your weapons and armor will be stowed in the wagon,” Ruth said.  She met Maaz’s eye when he turned suddenly to glare at her.  “You are right, of course.  You should look like road-weary and helpless slaves.”

The conversation had to be ended abruptly as another party appeared ahead of them on the road.  There had been little traffic that day, but as they neared the city it would naturally increase.  A caravan was apparently leaving Joppa.  After the travelers passed by them, the company fell into the conversation again.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I think she’s onto something,” Caleb pronounced.

Jezreel nodded his agreement, relieved to have Micah take the role of Ruth’s husband.  “As the proverb says, ‘Leave duplicity to those who practice it’.”

“It is too much to bear,” Maaz said resignedly.  “But if the rest of you agree with this mad plan, I ask only that I be bound to my goad and then loosely.  I want my weapon in hand when trouble starts.”

“Done rightly, this duplicity should steer us clear of trouble,” Ruth averred.

“We are agreed, then?” Joseph asked, his eyes searching all the members of the company.  Only Maaz did not consent.  “It is decided then.”

“Do we want to enter the city this late in the day?” Barek asked.  “I do not fancy being in Joppa after dark.”

“Joppa is but a little ways off,” Ruth said, surveying their surroundings.  “Just ahead and to the right is a gully that is nearly invisible from the road.  We can stop their to prepare our disguise or spend the night.”

“How…?” Micah began to ask, then stoppered the question behind his lips.  He’d decided the less he knew about Ruth and her travels the less he was discomfited by her.

“It is enough that I must endure this humiliation; must I also spend the entire night dreading it?” Maaz asked.  “No.  I will accept no more delays.  We have the tabernacle to consider.”

“Hmmm,” Ruth said, considering their options.  “Arriving late in the day will seem more… natural than showing up at first light.  And the gate guardians will be wearied by their day’s work, less sharp of eye, more impatient.”

“That seems reasonable,” Jezreel said, agreeing with Ruth.

“Then let us depart the road for a bit,” she said, goading her mount into a trot with her heels.  She passed Maaz, then veered off the dirt-packed road, angling off the right side.

 

Moments later they returned to the thoroughfare, with most of the horses tethered in the gully and the “slaves’” weapons and armor concealed under their goods in the wagon.  Everyone but Micah and Ruth were bound with a rope.  At his urging, Maaz had been bound with his staff across his shoulders, his hands tied to it.  The position was uncomfortable, but a fair trade for having his weapon at hand.  Their robes had been dirtied, their hair and beards disheveled.

Before she mounted her horse, Ruth instructed the “slaves” tied to the back of the cart.  “Now remember.  Look no one in the eye.  Endure all insult.  You’ve just been marched miles with no food and little water.  You’ve been mistreated and have no hope.  Act your parts as Micah and I act ours.”

Maaz rolled his eyes and grunted.  He had never seen the inside of a hated Philistine city and had only seen Philistines shortly before he killed them.  The herdsman and warrior was not about to accept too many limits to his right to defend himself.

It was about the level of cooperation Ruth had expected from Maaz.  She inspected the group of faux slaves.  The five men, even the giant Balak, had a haggard look.  Perhaps this might work.

Micah helped Ruth back atop her horse.

“The LORD forgive us this deception.  Adonai give us victory!” Joseph prayed.

All the men uttered prayers and Micah mounted his own horse.  “Let’s be at it, then” he said quietly and urged his mount forward.  Taking the lead of the horse pulling the cart, he watched as Ruth took a comb from her sack and worked it repeatedly through her long, lustrous hair.

She had scarcely completed her ministrations and rebraided her hair when Joppa appeared below them.  Beyond the large walled city lay the blue waters of the Great Sea.  Even now the wind carried the scents of the ocean up to them.  Ships crawled along the water’s surface, staying in sight of the shore.  The heathen Philistines knew their sailing.  Joppa was a busy port.

At their feet, the road snaked down the hillside to the North Gate of the city.

“I won’t have to pretend to be thirsty, my throat is bone dry,” Caleb complained.

 

The company approached the gate alone.  Normally, this late in the afternoon, only a few would arrive and fewer would leave.  Most prefer the security of the city walls to the uncertainties of the wilderness outside them.  Ruth had expected the gate’s guardians to be made indolent in the heat of the day and this close to the closing of the gates.  Instead, the whole squad of guards rose to meet them.  Three advanced to meet the company in the road.  Three remained near the gate, spears in hand.  To her eyes, they seem to be at a heightened state of alert.

“What’s your business here?” one of the guards demanded of Micah.  He spoke in Philistine and the tongue was foreign to Micah’s ear.

“We bring slaves to sell,” Ruth replied.  She’d picked up a bit of the language on her visit to the city.  It was not her place to speak, being only a woman, but she didn’t want the guard to be irritated by Micah’s lack of response.

“Israelite?” the guard said in Hebrew.

“Yes,” Micah replied, casting a big smile, pretending to be delighted to hear his language on the tongue of the Philistine.

“We are here to sell slaves.  We bought them from a debtor’s prison.”

The guard grunted.  “You Israelites.  You sell your mothers for bronze.”

Though Maaz was several paces behind him, Micah practically felt his brother-in-law stiffen with rage.  He kept his face downcast.

“We cannot sell them in Israel, so we come here,” Ruth said in the Philistine’s own tongue.

He scowled at her.  “You talk too much.”  He looked at one of his companions, then tipped his head toward the cart.  The man knew from constant repetition what this simple gesture meant, and he walked around to the back of the cart.  Jostling the “slaves” out of his way, he lifted the tarp and looked under the cart.

“You’ve got provisions for a long trip,” he said, eyeing the contents.

“We have a long way to go back,” Ruth offered.

The leader of the guards addressed Micah in Hebrew, “How long do you plan to be here?”

“Overnight,” Micah said.  “We will sell them in the morning and then leave.”

The third guard regarded Ruth with an obviously lecherous interest.  She returned his gaze for a brief moment, then dropped her eyes demurely.

At a signal from Ruth, Micah took from his belt the purse they’d prepared.  He held that out to the leader of the guards.  The purse was accepted, and then the lead guard looked back to his commander who lounged in the shade of a lean-to at the base of the wall.  He conferred with a civilian sitting next to him, then indicated his decision with an upraised thumb.

Turning back, the guard said to Micah, “Leave at this gate tomorrow morning.  Do you understand?”

Micah appeared to be entirely cowed and nodded without a word.

The guard shook his head and muttered, “Former slaves sellin’ slaves.”  He regarded Micah intently, looking for any sign of provocation.  Seeing none, he bore a look of disappointment and then stepped aside.  When he growled something in the Philistine tongue, the third guard was started and tore his gaze away from Ruth.  He stepped off the road, too.

Micah and Ruth urged the horses forward.

The spearmen parted for them to pass, but only barely.  One of them flashed the butt end of the spear and nearly succeeded in tripping Balek.  They laughed at the big man’s apparent clumsiness and swore at him in their tongue.

A few steps later, the party was inside Joppa.

 

“I don’t like the way they’re looking at us,” Maaz said in a voice that was, for him, a whisper.

“They do seem a little more edgy than when I was here last,” Ruth said, looking discreetly around her.  “But these people are more suspicious than most.  They need to be, for this city is full of cutthroats and is run by cutthroats.”

“I don’t like depending on this woman,” Maaz complained.

“Aha!” Micah cried, and for a moment, Maaz thought his brother-in-law might be agreeing with him.  Instead, the reason for Micah’s satisfied cry became apparent as he lead the party over to a vintner’s tent at the edge of the market street.

When Maaz started to utter a warning to Micah, Caleb silenced him by turning the larger man’s goad and thereby his head.  “We’re supposed to be slaves, y’know,” Caleb breathed.

Maaz grunted his assent but turned back to watch Micah anyway.  Micah was too weak-willed where drink was concerned; this encounter looked dangerous to Maaz.

Respectfully picking up a wineskin, Micah tried to gauge the vintage by the condition of the skin.  The vintner eyed him suspiciously and said something in the Philistine tongue.

But Micah only nodded.  He held up two of the Philistine silver coins they had taken among loot.

The vintner looked offended.

Wordlessly, Micah placed the two coins and added four more, one at a time.  The vintner finally nodded.  But when he reached out for the coins, Micah put his hand over them.

The vintner looked confused and then cross.  Micah drew in the dirt between them with the toe of his sandal.  He’d scratched the figure they’d found on the bottom of the terraphim at Heshonib.

The vintner regarded him with a newly suspicious look.  Micah added six more coins and a single word, spoken in Egyptian: “Where?”

Whether the money was speaking a universal language or the vintner possessed some Egyptian of his own, he seemed to understand Micah’s question well enough.  He pointed to his left and held up six fingers.

Micah looked around.  The six fingers certainly didn’t mean six paces, for there was no sign of the dancing figure anywhere in sight.  He may have meant six stalls or six doors down.  They’d have to find out as they walked that way.

When Micah turned back, the coins had already disappeared.  He gave the vintner a little bow and then kicked dirty over the drawing Micah had made.  Taking up the wineskin, he turned back to the party.

The first face he saw was Maaz’s and it bore a look of disapproval.  Micah knew why.  He shrugged.  “You didn’t want to spend the afternoon wandering around, did you?”  When Maaz did not return his smile, Micah shrugged again and headed back to the front of their column where Ruth awaited him, the picture of a patient wife.

Pulling the plug on the wineskin, Micah handed it up to Ruth, who still rode her horse.  She took it gratefully, parched from the dust of the road and the heat of the afternoon sun.  She took an unladylike long pull of the wine within.

“Is it any good?” Micah inquired.  “I wouldn’t trust these heathen to make a decent wine or even a beer worth drinking.”

Ruth shrugged her shoulders, “It’s wet.”

Micah laughed and took the wineskin from her.  Taking a long pull, he agreed with her opinion.  He’d paid a good deal for wine and simple information, so he carefully stowed it in the wagon, hoping to avoid any more cross looks from his brother-in-law.   Taking the reins of his mount and the donkey pulling the wagon, Micah lead the company in the direction indicated by the vintner.  They had passed five stalls when they edged out of the tented marketplace and into a section of respectable shops.  Above the door of the first shop on their right was a wooden sign with the dancing man carved into it.  Micah could not read the Philistine script across the top of the sign.  This did not surprise him, for there were few Hebrew words he could make out.  There was simply too much to do in life to bother with frappery like letters.

Lowering his voice to speak to the company, Micah said, “Ruth and I will go inside.  You five stay out here and keep a good watch.”  All five looked like they’d already had all they wanted of the life of a slave, but made no complaint.

Micah helped Ruth down and lead her into the shop.

Several aromas greeted them.  Hot metal, burning wood, stone dust, and wood shavings all hung in the air, undercurrents to a layer of incense burning as an offering to a large teraphim that took up all of the space in one corner.  The shop was probably a half-dozen paces long and wide.  It was lined with shelves and the shelves adorned with household gods of various kinds.  This idolater was a craftsman in varied materials and didn’t seem to care which gods he crafted.  Micah and Ruth examined a few of the idols, turning them over.  Each showed the other that the mark of the dancing man was underneath every idol they turned over.

The curtains at the opposite side of the room parted and a short, stout, dark-colored man entered.  He executed a broad, practiced smile and he made a bow in the Philistine fashion.  He greeted them with a string of Philistine words.  When he saw Micah’s confused expression, he stopped and regarded them with curiosity.

“We are Israelites from Tanaach,” Micah said in Hebrew.  “We don’t speak your tongue.”

The little man nodded, and holding up his hands for a moment, started over – this time in Hebrew. “Greetings, friends!  Welcome to the shop of Kanab, finest maker of teraphim in all of Joppa!  What gods do you serve and how may I help you serve them?”

Anger flared briefly in Micah.  This man knew their language, but apparently nothing about their faith.  The one true god was not represented in this shop, nor could He be.  Setting aside an angry retort, Micah  turned his attention to the man himself.  To Micah’s eyes he seemed rather young to be endowed with such skill and reputation.  But he was eager to help – or at least to make a sale.

Thinking quickly, Micah drew on his admittedly limited knowledge of idols.  “We have been told that you, Kanab, are most gifted by the gods.  We would like to… pay you… to make an Asherah pole for us.  A big one.  To put on a high place near our home.”

“Ah,” the little man began, searching for words.  “You are mistake.  I am not Kanab, but his brother Chenith.  Kanab is away and has left me to watch the shop.”

Micah stole a glance at Ruth.  She made a circular motion with her hand, encouraging him to keep the conversation going.

“That is too bad,” Micah said.  “When will… Kanab return?”

“No worry,” Chenith said, patting Micah on the shoulder.  “Kanab leave me in charge.  I show you little Ashorehs, you tell me which you like.  Kanab make big.”

When Micah looked at Ruth, she nodded discreetly.  Evidently she thought it best to keep the little man talking.  Well, perhaps this Kanab would show up while they were striking a deal.

Micah merely nodded, eager to avoid saying the wrong thing.  He let Chenith lead him from one idol to another.  They all looked alike to him, but Micah made a display of showing them to Ruth.  She disapproved of each one, pointing out something she’d prefer to be different.

After several minutes of this, Chenith’s stores of patience and Hebrew were beginning to run low.

Ruth turned the latest idol over and made a show of discovering the mark on the bottom.  “The dancing man,” she said, showing it to Micah.  “This is the man we are looking for.  He crafted the teraphim in our friend’s house.”

“Friend?” Chenith asked, sensing an opening.  “Who is this friend and where does he live?” he inquired eagerly.

“Heshonib” Micah blurted out.  When he saw the look on Ruth’s face he immediately wished he could take it back.  Apparently telling the truth was not always a good strategy.

For his part, Chenith looked disappointed.  “Heshonib?  Heshonib.  This place I do not hear of.”

Before Chenith could add another word, the door to the street flew open and someone called out Chenith’s name and, in an angry tone, asked what must have been a question, couched in the heathen tongue.

“Ah.  Kanab,” Chenith said to Micah and Ruth.  He gestured to the man who stepped into the shop and shut the door.  Noticing Chenith first, the man’s eyes narrowed a bit as he turned to take in Micah and Ruth with a practiced eye.  Micah felt surely that his gaze penetrated their feeble disguise.

“Chenith,” the man said, then more Philistine rolled off his tongue.

Chenith responded in kind, his tone of voice eager.  Kanab nodded as his brother described the conversation to date, his eyes never leaving the couple. When Chenith said the name “Heshonib” in the midst of some guttural rumblings, Kanab’s eyes narrowed further.  Then a thought passed and his countenance softened considerably.  With an annoyed wave, Kanab dismissed Chenith.  The younger man sighed loudly and disappeared behind the curtain, going into the back room.

Kanab’s smile was clearly disingenuous, as wary and off-putting as a snake’s grin. “So,” he began in halting Hebrew, “You have friends in Heshonib, do you?  Been there, have you?  Recently?”

Before Micah could answer, Kanab thrust another question at him.” Who do you know there?”

Ruth’s eyes were on Kanab and Micah looked for some assistance.  A plain man and a man of God, lying did not come naturally to him.

“Husband,” she said to Micah, “Shall I go to the wagon and fetch the idols of our…friends?  To show Kanab what happened to his handiwork?”

“Ah..” was all Micah could blurt out, glancing from Kanab to Ruth and back again.

“I’ll bring them all in, shall I?” she said sweetly.

Micah was still uncertain of what her tone implied, but nodded and said, “Sure,” smiling at her.  Ruth bowed and regarded Kanab with a fetching smile.  She left the room, returning to the street.

When the door closed after her, Micah turned back to Kanab.  The idol-maker’s eyes had apparently never left him.  “I don’t believe Chenith told me your name,” Kanab said as he moved closer to Micah.  His words were deferential, but his tone dripped menace somehow.

“Ah… I am… Micah,” the Israelite blurted out, then chastised himself inwardly for using his own name.

“Micah,” Kanab repeated.  “Such a typical Israelite name.  So many of you Micahs aren’t there?”  Without allowing Micah a moment to answer his rhetorical question, Kanab pressed on verbally and stepped closer.  “And the name of your friend in Heshonib?”

“Shunnam,” Micah blurted.  It was the first name that came to mind.

“Shunnam,” Kanab repeated.  “I know no such man.  Heshonib is such a small village.  I know all persons in Heshonib!”

With a throaty cry, Kanab produced a curved dagger from his sash and slashed at Micah!  The blade cut through Micah’s cloak easily enough, but was turned by leather cuirass he wore beneath it.

Micah grabbed Kanab’s knife hand as the arc of his slash passed, and the two men grappled momentarily over the weapon.  They were about equal in size, but Micah possessed the greater strength and girth.  On a sudden inspiration, he swung Kanab around, and pushed him toward the door.

“What are you doing?” Micah demanded.  “Are you mad?”

“Not so mad as to believe you know anyone in Heshonib, Israelite dog!” Kanab spat the Hebrew words out and them added a string of Philistine words, probably curses.  “You have come here seeking information, but you shall only find death!”

Kanab threw himself at Micah.  In mid-stride, the blade switched hands as the idol-maker hoped to catch Micah off-guard.  But Micah knew a treacherous knife-fighter when he saw one, and he grabbed for Kanab’s left wrist.  This only succeeded in deflecting Kanab’s blow, and he stepped away again.

“You made those idols in Heshonib,” Micah said flatly.  “Why?  What happened there?  Who are those people?”

Switching the blade back to his right hand Kanab sneered.  “May you die in ignorance.”

Folding his arms across his chest, Micah said in a calm that belied his racing heart, “Tell me what I want to know, and I may persuade the man behind you to spare your miserable life.”

Kanab’s eyes narrowed to slits as he held the knife point out to Micah.  “I am not so easily deceived,” he muttered.

The blow from Maaz’s ox-goad knocked the idolater across the room, smashing into a shelf of small teraphim, sending them flying in all directions.  Kanab slid down the wall, unconscious before he settled onto the floor.

Maaz grunted at the inert form of the idol-maker.  “I hope I didn’t hit him too hard,” he said.

Ruth was through the door right behind Maaz, her own dagger drawn.  When she saw that Kanab was already out of the fight, she shut the door behind her.

“You made enough noise to bring the whole city down upon us,” she said, chastising Maaz.  Crossing to Micah, she sheathed her dagger and then reached out to finger the slash in his cloak.

“Are you all right?” she asked, genuine concern touching her voice with gentleness.

It was as if Micah had not heard her question.  “What just happened here?”

“When Kanab arrived, Chenith told him we had friends in Heshoib.  Kanab was immediately suspicious.  He sent Chenith out, telling him to summon the ‘Black Cat,’ whoever that is,” she hurriedly explained.

“Well… the sneak,” Micah said disgustedly, eyeing Kanab’s crumpled form.

“He was trying to detain you until help arrived.  It’s a good thing he took no notice of me.  I brought Maaz in to help you, but I should’ve known the big lug would make a racket.”

“Listen here, woman…” Maaz started, but Ruth silenced him with a gesture.  “We must get out of here,” she said.  “This Black Cat will probably be more trouble that we can handle and certainly more attention than we can afford!”

Micah held up his open-palmed hands and said, “She is right, brother.  We must get out of this place soon.”  He slapped his hands together and said, “Wait here a moment!”  Over Maaz’s protest, Micah hustled out of the shop and moved out of sight as he moved away from the open door.

Maaz turned back to Ruth.  “You presume too much, girl.  You may have these others bewitched, but your charms do not hide your black heart from me.”

Laughing, Ruth put her hands on her hips and a defiant smirk on her lips.  “You are too wise for me,” she said mockingly.

The butt of the ox-goad came down hard on the floor.  “I do not yet know your tale, but what I do know reeks of a child-woman who has not learned her place!”

Ruth shook her head.  If only she had a shekel for ever time a man told her that.

Micah burst back into the room before the exchange could go any further.  Without a word, he sped around the two of them and went to Kanab.  He unstopped the wineskin and turning Kanab over, poured away the blood on the man’s right temple.  Micah poured a bit of the wine down the Philistine’s throat.  Kanab coughed a bit, but did not otherwise stir.  Pouring the remainder on Kanab’s hands and feet, Micah dropped the wineskin on the dirt floor and stood.

Making a hurried gesture to Maaz, he said, “Brother, carry him out the back door.  Ruth, guide Maaz to the closest inn.  If anyone asks, tell him Kanab is drunk.  We will follow you at a distance.  Get a private room if you can, or the common room for all of us.”

For a moment, both Maaz and Ruth stood there in silence, looking a Micah, then one another.  It was stunning that Micah had concocted this device on his own – and so quickly!

“Why are you just standing there?!” Micah demanded.  He hurried to them and pulled Maaz toward Kanab.  “Go, go!”

Maaz glared at Ruth.  “You have corrupted him.”

Thrusting his goad at Micah to hold, Maaz picked up Kanab, who now reeked of wine, and threw Kanab’s right arm over his shoulder.  Holding the slight and limp man upright with his left arm, Maaz took his goad back from Micah.  Striding toward the curtained exit, he paused only long enough to glance over his shoulder and say, “Come on then, woman.  Show me to an inn.”

Smiling at Micah, Ruth turned and sprinted through the curtain, Maaz dragging Kanab, close behind her.

Idol Smashers #9

bible battlers

“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.

Day Two – Aphek

 (Previously, in Idol Smashers: The unexpected appearance of an idol animated by demon allowed some of the Heshonibites to temporarily escape their fate.  The men of Israel quit the cave and return to Aphek to rest and recover.)

The sun was in descent by the time the weary and wounded trudged into Aphek.  Maaz’s waterskin had been slashed during the battle; he didn’t remember when.  But it didn’t matter as everyone shared freely of their supply of water.  The remainder of Micah’s wine had been poured on wounds, in spite of his sputtering about “waste.”  The city did not come into view soon enough to suit them.

Upon their return to his home, Mattan plopped himself down on cushions and reached for a little golden bell.  He rang it and waited.  Nothing happened.  He rang it again, more forcefully.  Still nothing.  He rang it loudly until Joseph sat down next to him and gently put his hand on Mattan’s, stopping the peals.

“It appears your servant is elsewhere,” he said slowly.  “I’d appreciate it if you would not ring that anymore.  It resounds like a gong in my aching head.”  He reclined against a wall and closed his eyes.

“What am I to do, master?” Mattan asked, almost pleadingly.  “Who will go to get the healer?”

Barek offered to help Micah sink into a cushion, but was rebuffed by the proud man.  He turned to Mattan.  “I will go.  My stride is long and he will be here all the sooner.”

Mattan bowed his head in response, obviously relieved.  “Very well, my master.  I regret that little dog of mine has run off.  He will be punished; I assure you of that.”

Waving away his concerns, Barek said, “Never mind.  Where is the healer?”

“Simply go to the market and ask anyone there for Sharon.  She is well known.  Anyone can direct you.”

Caleb approached Barek slowly, a little cautious of the giant who had performed so ferociously in battle.  “I’ll go with you,” he offered.

Barek merely nodded in response and the two men went out the front door.

After a pause, everyone else sat down and made themselves as comfortable as they could. Mattan spoke to Samuel in a brusque voice, “Samuel, you had better get back home.  Your parents will be looking for you.”

The youth’s face bore a conflicted, thoughtful expression.  “No, sir.  I want to stay and hear about these men and Deborah.  I am one of you, now.  I believe I have earned the right.”

Mattan’s face became more florid.  “Earned…?  Now listen, boy…”

Maaz’s eyes snapped open and he fixed Mattan with a look that would have melted bronze.  “You will not address this man as you would a servant,” Maaz said in a low voice.  “He fought beside us this day.  The LORD used his arm to vanquish many idolators.  I say he has become one of us!”  Maaz looked around the room at each of his comrades.  Joseph’s eyes were closed and he appeared asleep.  Ammihud looked for a moment as if he might offer argument, then shrugged.  The others gave their agreement.

“There you are, Samuel ben Abram.  You are a man of Israel and no longer Mattan’s lackey.  You are now one of us.”

Rebuffed, Mattan folded his arms across his chest and appeared as if he might actually pout.  It had not been his day.  For once, he kept his tongue still.

Mattan’s discomfiture prompted one of Maaz’s rare laughs.  “As Ammihud is a man of many words, he will now tell you the tale. “

Though a cubit or two smaller than Maaz, Ammihud showed him he was capable of delivering a withering look too.

He heard his own voice begin almost independent of his thoughts as he turned his gaze to Samuel.

“It began yesterday, at Yom Hakkipurim…” Ammihud said.

 

After a lengthy conversation, Mattan’s back door burst open suddenly.  The dozing merchant was startled and cried, “My masters!”

The men looked with some surprise on Barek, who strode into the room carrying a struggling form.

“Let go of me, you big bully!” a shrill, young voice cried.

Joseph opened one eye.

“Barek, what have you got there?” he asked wearily.  “It makes much noise.”

The giant Israelite shook the small person he carried as easily as others might carry a sack of bread.  “Stop squirming and squealing,” he said.  Then he nodded to Caleb who took the hint and shut the door.

“If I let you go, will you not try to run?”

The form went limp, then the hooded head nodded.

As soon as its feet touched the floor, it broke out in a sprint for the door but found Caleb waiting there.  Although Caleb was half Barek’s size, he had a few pounds on the stranger and threw him away from the door and into Mattan’s lap.

The merchant chuffed as the air was knocked out of him, but the Barek’s prisoner was soon off him and on his feet again in the middle of the room.  A knife appeared in his hand.

“This dog has teeth,” Maaz said indolently.

“Why bring it here?” Micah asked.  “This isn’t the healer, is it?”  Under his breath, he whispered to Maaz, “I thought the fop said the healer was a woman.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Barek said.

Mattan wondered who “the fop” was supposed to be.

Jezreel sighed.  “This would be entertaining if my head didn’t hurt so.  What’s going on, Barek?”

The big man laughed.  “Took Caleb’s purse,” he said, tipping his head at his prisoner.

“Tried to…” Caleb corrected.  “I’d have gotten it back in a moment.”

This prompted another chuckle from Barek.  “Got a very light touch this one.  When I got ‘im and yanked off this,” he said, untying a bronze helmet from his sash.  “I found out why he’s got light fingers.”

The small figure still crouched, still looking anxiously around the room for some means of escape. Barek said, “Put away that toy.  You’re in a room of warriors.”  When the dagger reluctantly disappeared, the form straightened.

“Pull back your hood.”

A sigh emanated from under the hood before a pair of hands came from underneath the robe and lifted the hood.

Thus unveiled was the face of a woman!  A very beautiful woman indeed!  She had the prettiest, most innocent face Barek believed he had ever seen.

Both of Joseph’s eyes popped open.  And widened.  It was as if he’d awakened to a dream.  Here was a woman of great beauty, all the more beautiful for the wild, hunted look in her eyes.  She was more comely even than Rizpah, whose love and loss had first driven him into the desert.

The boy now exposed to be a woman looked all around the room.  When she saw how Joseph stared at her, the two lace-like brows above her dark eyes furrowed.

“Have you never seen a woman before?” she sneered.  “You gaze upon me as if I were made of gold!”

The rebuke startled Joseph from his reverie.  Looking at the amused expressions on the faces around the room, Joseph’s face reddened.

“Ah.  You startled me is all.”

“The only thing wrong with her teeth are the hard words that pour forth from them,” Caleb said.  He had become wary of the creature after she landed a swift kick when he’d gotten too close.

Joseph quickly gathered his wits.  “I… I did not expect Barek to bring us a woman in a man’s guise.”

Ammihud was not above seeing the humor in Joseph’s discomfiture.  “Yes, Barek.  Tell us how you left to find a healer and bring back a heel-biter?”

Barek joined in the laughter about the room.  “I said she had a light touch.   From across the market I saw her lift Caleb’s purse without disturbing the folds of his robe.”

“I was just about to take care of it,” Caleb said, trying to defend himself.  He was regaled with hoots of derision.

“I picked the struggling boy… I thought she was a boy wearing his father’s helmet…when I picked her up off the ground, the helm came untied and out spilled a woman and all her hair besides.”

Caleb strode into the middle of the room and continued the tale.  “After I retrieved my money, I searched her own sack and found this…”  He dumped the contents of a rucksack onto Mattan’s floor.  Out spilled a sickle, a sling and bag of stones, a waterskin, some bits of food, a red robe, and four purses!

The woman fell to the floor and scrambled to get all these possessions back into the rucksack which she snatched from Caleb’s hand.  “These are MY THINGS!” she cried.  “They are all that stand between me and Sheol!  You have no right to them!”

“A red robe,” Maaz observed thoughtfully.  “You wish to appear as a man but you have a woman’s  robe to wear when the bloody days of the month come.”

Her fiery gaze tore into Maaz.  “I wear that when I want to be left alone.  Men will not try to have me or even touch me when I wear that robe,” she explained.

Maaz suddenly snapped his fingers and then pointed at her.  He did not find this amusing and now he knew why.  “The Law says, ‘A woman must not wear man’s clothing, nor a man wear woman’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this’.  She has violated the LAW!”

Joseph exhaled slowly.  He searched his own memory of the Scriptures.  Having memorized the Torah as a youth and studied it as a man, his mind went quickly to the scroll and the passage Maaz quoted.

“True,” he said, “but there is no specific punishment stipulated for this sin.”

Now Ammihud’s academic side went to work.  “That’s so, but other things that the LORD detests call for stoning.”

A sigh escaped the woman’s lips and she seemed to fold upon herself.  She sat on the floor with a thump and slowly gathered her rucksack to her chest.  “Men of Israel.  Always so eager to solve their problems with a stone.”

This sobered the men in the room and they thought silently.

Finally, Jezreel spoke.  “It is almost sundown.  There can be no stoning, for the elders at the gate have gone to their homes.  This seems to me to be a point of concern, both for the Law and the woman.  Perhaps we should think…and pray about it this evening.”

“We can’t just let her go!” Caleb protested.  “Whatever she’s pretended to be, she is a thief!”

“Would you cry for justice as loudly if it was my purse she lifted?”  Barek reproached his brother Israelite gently.

“Of course,” Caleb said definitively, but with slightly less enthusiasm.

“My masters,” Mattan said slowly.  “You cannot consider keeping her here.  A woman alone among all these men.  In my home!  The scandal…”

“I’m not concerned about the niceties of your reputation, Mattan!”  Maaz said as he stood to his feet.  He reached down and gathered up a bit of the woman’s cloak.  The cloth felt rough and was dirtied by the dust of the road.  “This one is a wanderer and a thief and the LORD alone knows what else.  She must remain in our custody until morning.  Let the elders of this city decide her fate.”

Looking around the room, Maaz saw agreement on each face.  He turned to Mattan last of all and said to him, “You will arrange a suitable chaperone.  None of us will be stained by association with this unclean thing!”

Mattan opened his mouth as if to protest these unfair demands, but thought the better of it, and shut his mouth.  He nodded, then began to think about who might be available and could trusted to protect his reputation.

Maaz returned to his seat and attempted to melt the offending woman with his gaze.

He was surprised when Micah leaned forward and with tenderness asked her, “What is your name, child?”

A defiant look returned to her perfect face.  “Ruth,” she replied, then began to plait and braid her hair.

The men looked away, as this was a private act and a woman with her hair down in the middle of all these men not her family was unseemly enough.

“Ruth.  I had a sister by that name,” Micah said wistfully.  Maaz was flummoxed.  He knew Micah well and knew of no such sister.  But Maaz did not know everything about Micah.  “She died shortly after birth,” Micah explained.  “No one is going to stone you.  But you understand why we can’t just let you go.”

“If you won’t let me go, then feed me!  I’m hungry!”

“Ha!” Barek laughed.  “So am I!  Mattan, have you nothing to eat around here?”

Startled from his thoughts, Mattan jumped to his feet, then had to be steadied by Caleb.  “Fie on that boy!” he exclaimed.  “I shall get us a supper, my masters!  I am a good cook myself and need no help to prepare us a strengthening repast!”  He gestured to the cushion he’d vacated and to the remaining place in the circle.  “Please, please be seated,” he said, suddenly eager to please.

The back door exploded and Mattan’s servant sped into the room, then stopping in an equal hurry when Mattan lashed out, clutching the collar of his tunic.  “There you are, boy!  Where have you been?” he hissed.

“The healer comes!” the boy uttered between gasps.  He pointed to Balek.  “The giant found me with friends in the marketplace and told me to fetch her!”

As if on cue, there came a knock at the door.  Mattan’s eyes narrowed.  “Go answer the door, then.”  He half-released, half-threw the boy toward the door.  He winced at the discomfort this angry action caused his wounded side.

Scrambling around Caleb and Barek, the boy ran nimbly to the door and opened it.

A crone occupied the space, attended by a young man.  “May the house of Mattan be blessed,” she said, entering.  “I am told there is need of a healer.”  Her gaze fell upon Ruth, seated demurely in the circle of men.  “Who is it that needs me?” she said.

 

Day Three – Aphek

 

Breakfast centered around a debate about Ruth’s helmet – whether on not it should be returned to her before they took her to the gates of the city.  It was decided that it would be given back to her, as the evidence was more damming in the possession of the accused.

A couple of meals and a good night’s sleep had tempered Maaz’ insistence that she be stoned immediately, and he even agreed to let Jezreel present the whole matter to the elders.  Jezreel was gifted with words; he could even read and write them!

Last night the healer had vowed her silence to Mattan after he graced her palm with some shekels.  She’d stayed the night with Ruth as chaperone and after breakfasting to an extent that rivaled even Barek’s voluminous appetite, she bid them the blessing and departed.

Though his provisions and pocket were thus lightened, Mattan was confident his reputation would survive this ordeal intact and was generous in his good humor.

“Soon the elders will arrive at the gates, my masters,” he cooed.  “Then we can dispense with this matter and return to rest and let our wounds heal.”

“Rest?” Maaz growled.  “There will be no rest.  We have but today and tomorrow before we must resolve this matter else the tabernacle itself will be threatened.

Joseph tore his gaze away from a surreptitious look at Ruth.  He arched an eyebrow.  “What?” he said.  “I thought you gave no heed to dreams.”

“I didn’t.  Until I had one myself.  Last night.”

“You had a dream?” Ammihud asked, not quite trusting his ears.

“Yes, I had a dream.  Is that so difficult for you two to accept?”

Ruth looked confused.  This was a strange topic of conversation, but she’d learned by listening there was something going on with these men.  Her ears were as sharp as her eyes and curiosity had long been a failing of hers.

“I dreamed that the figure – the stick man on the idols – became alive.  He danced about me and taunted me.  He told me I was too dull-witted to divine his purpose, and then he ran off to Joppa.”

Thoughtful faces and silence were their response to Maaz’s dream.

“So we go to Joppa.  Today.  Though our cuts may run crimson again, we cannot delay.”

“You will not be taunted, brother,” Micah said, smiling.

“No, I will not.”

 

They had scarcely prepared to leave – Joseph’s hand was on the latch – when someone banged on the door from the other side.

“Who is there?” Joseph said without opening the door.

“I am Seth.  I am here for Mattan.  Is he at home?” said a young voice from the other side of the door.

Bowing to everyone that he jostled his way past, Mattan took Joseph’s place at the door and opened it.  Outside there stood a boy who quickly touched his lips and then the mezzuzah on the door post.  “Shalom,” he said, a little breathless.

“Seth?” Mattan asked cautiously.  “Why are you here?”

“The elders at the gate have sent me.  They are calling for you… and your… guests.  There is a war band of men at the gate.  They were denied entrance and then challenged the elders with their right to blood vengeance.  They said their kin from Heshonib have been massacred and their village destroyed.”  He looked at the men standing behind Mattan.  “They say all of you did it.”

Maaz was about to growl a reply but was cut off by a gesture from Mattan, of all people.  Mattan turned back to Seth; “Tell the elders we will be there shortly.  Shalom, Seth.”

Mattan quickly shut the door and leaned against it.  “This is a disaster!  We are found out!  What will we do?  How did they know it was us?”

Caleb quickly responded, “The escaped villagers.  They must’ve quickly found someone.  Some friends.  They may have even come here to Aphek while we were still walking.”

Still scowling at Mattan, Maaz opined, “It matters not.  We have been called out before the city.  Any hope of secrecy is gone.  Let us go out and face these pigs.  Perhaps we can find out where the survivors have fled.”

Ruth stepped into the middle of the group of men, her curiosity ablaze.  “Survivors?  What have you done?  What’s going on?”  Her own troubles were momentarily forgotten.

“None of your…”

“Brother,” Micah said, gently chiding his brother-in-law, “don’t forget Ruth is a woman.  Don’t be so rough.”

Maaz was stunned by this remonstrance, so rare from his brother-in-law.

Micah turned to Ruth.  “We’ve no time for tale-bearing,” he said patronizingly.  “These men are here to kill us.”

“We must face them, of course,” Ammihud said, thinking out loud.

“I was thinking about riding out the opposite end of the city,” Mattan offered with a weak smile.

“You will get us horses,” Maaz said slowly, punctuating his instructions with a prodding finger in Mattan’s chest.  You will have them brought to the gate of the city, along with our cart and belongings.  We will deal with these avengers of blood, if that’s what they really are.  Then we will leave for Joppa.”

Ammihud grabbed Ruth by the arm.  “We were going to take this one to the elders anyway.”

Ruth was about to protest, but saw steel in the gaze of every man save Micah and Mattan.  Nevertheless, she yanked her arm from Ammihud’s small hand.

“I would be happy to go in Micah’s company!” she said, taking the older man’s arm in hers.

In spite of the occasion, Micah had to smile.  “Just like my Ruth would’ve been,” he muttered and smiling, escorted Ruth past Mattan and out the front door.

 

As a group, they walked warily up to the gates of the city of Aphek.  So intent were they on the looming threat that only Micah noticed Ruth had put on her helmet, stuffing her braided hair up into it.  “This is not her fight, but she intends to survive it,” Micah thought.

A crowd had gathered.  People gather in much the same places vultures do.  The difference between the two being, where one hopes for a meal, the other for a spectacle.

A spectacle was unfolding here.

Thirteen heavily armed men stood before their mounts outside the city gates.  This band of thugs were inadequately met by a trio of guards and a half-dozen elders.  Four slingers had mounted the walls and kept a nervous eye on the proceedings.

The self-proclaimed “avengers of blood” were obviously professional soldiers or brigands, desperate men who made their living by works of violence.  If they really were kin to the Heshonibites, it was a remarkable coincidence that they were all professional killers too.

Worried looks crossed the faces of the elders as the group strode out of the gates, the crowd parting before them as the waters parted before Moses’ upraised rod.  Deborah’s men were no strangers to battle and strode into this arena with weapons at the ready.  Arms lost in yesterday’s battle were resupplied from their cart.

“Where is Mattan?” one of the elders asked.

Before anyone else could frame a reply, Joseph spoke in a confident voice, “Mattan is of no account here.  He is merely our host in Aphek.  We are the men you seek.”

Ammihud and Maaz looked at one another with mild surprise, as if to say, “Who put him in charge?”

“Ah,” the man said and gave way to an older man who stepped around him.  “These men came this morning demanding the right to face and accuse you of murder.  They say the nearby village of Heshonib has been razed and its people killed… by you.”

“That’s right” a rough voice spoke from the middle of the line of the avengers.  A tall man with dark hair and a weather-beaten, scarred face strode forward.  “You lot have blood on your hands.  The blood of my people.  I claim yours.”  It was plain by the look on his face that he didn’t care whether anyone believed his claims or not.  He was primed for a fight and would broach no disappointment.

Maaz was, as ever, ready to meet him nose to nose.

But the elders were in the way.

“Yes.  Well.  That’s what he’s said right along.  In fact, that’s all that he’s said.  Over and over again.”  This man saw through the avenger’s subterfuge, but had the safety of the city to think about.  “We have impressed upon him that though Aphek is not a city of refuge – no place to escape legitimate vengeance – we are not prepared to just hand people over on an accusation.  You may only be guests in our city, but you are in our city.  And we have rules.”

The avenger’s spokesman showed what he thought about Aphek’s rules by spitting a bilious brown stream on the ground.

The elder sighed.  “So.  Here you are to tell us your side of this story.”

Joseph took a moment to physically insert himself between Maaz and the avenger.  Interrupting Ammihud, he said, “We are only passing through Aphek.  We have no business with a village called Heshonib nor with these idolators.  Very soon we will be prepared to leave and will take our business elsewhere.”

“But what about these men – their charges?”

“Have they any proof?”

The avenger grunted and raised two fingers.  Another member of his party came forward, pushing along a boy child, one not ten years of age.

“Tell ‘em, boy,” the ringleader grunted.

Wide-eyed, the boy child regarded Deborah’s men and told a halting, confused tale of the events at the cave.  Upon their escape, they fled to Heshonib, only to find it burned to the ground.  These men, the avengers, were poking about the ruins.

“That’s enough, boy,” the spokesman said, roughly grabbing the child and pushing him back to the man who’d brought him forward.  Giving him equally rough treatment, the man hustled the boy back behind their line and directed him to hold their horses.

“You don’t seem very tender-hearted toward this survivor,” Maaz observed drily.

The avenger was losing the little patience he possessed.  “That’s all the proof you need.  Elder, tell your men to not interfere.  This lot can try to defend themselves and let blood decide.”

The oldest of the ruling elders looked into the eyes of each of his fellows.  Without speaking, they came to a decision that let them off the hook.

“If you intend to leave Aphek,” he said to Joseph, “you may leave peaceably.  What you do afterward is none of our concern.”

“So you would leave your Israelite brothers to be hounded by these curs,” Ammihud said stepping forward.  The courage in his voice exceeded the menace of his stature.

“We who live here on the borders learn to get along.  We don’t have the privilege of choosing our neighbors as some of our other tribes do.  You who do not live on the borders do not understand.”

The warrior spoke quickly, barely restraining himself from reaching out and shaking the old city leader into submission.  “We will not stand by and let this lot just ride off.  We demand the right to combat now.  The blood of our people demands satisfaction.”

Joseph looked to his fellows.  “I think we’ve learned all we can here.  Why don’t we go get our mounts and leave?”  Cautious nods of assent were the only reply he got.

The chief elder looked from man to man and nodded too.  “It is the best way.”

“I told them being civil wouldn’t work,” the avenger’s spokesman said.  He raised four fingers and immediately in the line behind him, four men twirled slings over their heads and loosed stones.  Heads turned just in time to see a couple puffs of dust appear near the top of the stone wall and one of the guards fall just before the “Thump!” of the stone hitting flesh reached their ears.

The avengers’ leader pushed the elder into Joseph and stepped back to draw his sword.

Joseph caught the man and gently pushed him aside.  In that instant, people were scattering everywhere.

The spokesman lunged for Joseph, following the point of his sword with his massive bulk.  Joseph adroitly sidestepped his attack and delivered an ineffectual blow to the man’s armored midsection.  The leader of the avengers reared back and lunged again at the prophet, counting on the speed and mass of his body to carry the day if his sword did not.  He learned too late of Joseph’s deftness and this second assault was rendered as ineffective as the first.

Another avenger barreled through the elders and guards, scattering them.  He swung a curved sword at Maaz, who blocked the strike with one end of his goad and brought the other end smashing into the man’s throat.  He fell to his knees, gasping for air.  Seconds later, the big Isrealite’s goad swung again and knocked the man’s helmet off, crushing his skull in the process.

With a cry, Ammihud dashed around a fleeing elder and confronted another of the avengers.  His bravado made no impression whatsoever on the seasoned warrior who merely grinned evilly.  The bladed polearm the man wielded was only a blur in the corner of Ammihud’s eye as something slammed into him, knocking him to the ground.  His side felt wet and tears filled his eyes before the world went dark.

A guard stepped over Ammihud, to strike at the fallen Israelite’s attacker, but his sword strike was easily parried.

Micah drew his axe with one hand and pulled Ruth behind him with the other.  “Stay behind me,” he cautioned.

On the wall behind the melee, one of the slingers summoned his courage and his sling and let a stone loose back at one of the enemy slingers.   Unfortunately, the enemy’s aim was better and he felt the impact of a stone smash his shoulder.  He nearly tumbled off the wall, but managed to steady himself enough to see a red welt already forming.  He felt his right arm going numb and dropped his sling.

Another stone zipped over the melee.  This one struck home with a loud smack on the leading leg of one of the enemy slingers.  He managed to loose a stone himself, but his aim was spoiled and the shot struck the city wall.

His fellow prepared a sling, but before he could wield it, something struck him on the side of the head and drove him to the ground.

The third guard caught in the melee had opportunity to draw his weapon before one of the avengers was upon him.  The black-armored warrior’s blade sliced the air, missing by the narrowest of margins.

Seeing Ammihud fall, Barek let cry an angry roar.  Rushing forward, he drew his sword and charged into the melee, determined to save his diminutive friend.

Most men would have at least hesitated when beholding the giant Barek bearing down on them.  But this avenger felt only a cold resolve as he strode forward to meet the immense Israelite’s charge.  It would be his last act of bravado.  Barek’s blade had hewn him in half even as the man was congratulating himself on his bravery.

One of the city gate guardians let out a cry, clutching at his back.  An avenger of blood withdrew his sword from the guard’s back, the blade stained with life-blood.  The stricken guard slumped forward and did not stir.

The chief elder had been flung behind the lines of battling warriors.  Caleb reached out to steady the old man and with two hands full of his robe, pulled him close and yelled, “GO GET HELP!  SEND MEN TO FIGHT!”  When the chief elder nodded his assent, Caleb turned and pushed him toward the city gate.

Caleb watched him go, then turned back to the battle before him.  He reached first for the dagger, then thought the better of joining in close combat so ill-equipped and drew his bow instead.  He waited for a clear shot.

At the southernmost end of the line of avengers, a man ran forward, brandishing his spear.  Samuel’s scimitar was in his hand, and he answered the avenger’s charge with a battle cry and charge of his own.  In spite of his opponent having the advantage of reach, Samuel’s blade tasted blood first, being buried deep within the “avenger’s” abdomen.

Though relatively inexperienced in actual battle, Samuel was well-practiced in martial arts and held keen senses.  Samuel knew that an avenger rushing at him from behind.  The pagan thug’s face bore a look of surprise when Samuel spun around suddenly, the arc of his scimitar a blur that arrived first.  The thug ran into Samuel’s attack and folded in half upon his weapon.  A spray of blood came from between his wordless lips.

Jezreel’s sling was in his hand.  Faster than conscious thought, the leather strap whistled over his head and the stone flew from it.  The missile struck the man at the north end of the line of avengers.  It caught him in an armored upper chest, and nearly spun him around.  However, the powerful warrior quickly recovered.  He cracked his neck and grimaced at Jezreel.  He strode forward, drawing both a sword and dagger.

In spite of the menace of this figure, Jezreel calmly stepped backward and reached for another stone.  He hummed the tune of his favorite psalm.  With a supernatural calm settling like dew on his soul, Jezreel stepped back and prepared another shot.

His opponent was running now, and Jezreel would be blessed indeed to get off another stone before the avenger was close enough to strike.  A blessing came in the form of a slingshot that came from behind Jezreel, striking his onrushing assailant in the side.  This forced the man to break stride, stumbling a bit.  Jezreel blessed the slinger on the wall behind him, and quickly let his own stone fly.

He had hurried too much and the shot sailed over the head of the avenger.  All he had succeeded in doing was getting the entirety of the man’s angry attention.  He lurched toward Jezreel, closing the gap between them.

The murderous look in the eyes of the avenger closing upon Jezreel changed to indecision as he stopped in his tracks.  Behind the psalmist he saw armed men pouring out of the gates of Aphek.  Though they were but simple peasants armed only with tools and daggers, their numbers were a threat.  With a grunt at Jezreel, he turned to run, but his injured leg gave way when he attempted to pivot on it.

Jezreel watched him sprawl in the dirt and blinked.  Not knowing the cause of his good fortune, the psalmist was a bit stunned and undecided as to what to do next.  Moments later, several men of Aphek swarmed on the avenger.  Their enthusiastic, if inexpert, attacks soon finished the man.

Trapped in the middle of a sudden conflagration of flashing weapons, the third elder dropped to the ground and held his hands over his heads.  Prayer was his best defense, and he pursued it with all his heart.

At the other end of the line of battling men, one of the pagan thugs attacked a gate guardian who was already set upon by another of the avengers.  But the guard proved his mettle by parrying this second attack.  Confronted by two attackers, the guard acquitted himself well.  He deflected all but a slash that caught his shoulder above the round shield that he carried.

Seeing out of the corner of his eye that one of the gate guardians was beset by two attackers, Samuel rushed to his aid.  Catching the nearest avenger unprepared, Samuel hewed him down with a single slash.

From the relative safety of her position behind Micah, Ruth watched the bloody combat with wide eyes.  Where seconds earlier she had foolishly considered joining the battle, she now thought the better of it and began to back away.

Fumbling in her rucksack, Ruth’s fingers closed about the handle of her sickle.  She withdrew the farm implement-turned-weapon and continued to back slowly away from the horrifying sight of men slaughtering one another.

Micah glanced over his shoulder to see that Ruth was indeed behind him.  She was and getting further behind him by the minute!  “I didn’t say that far behind,” he muttered.  With an oath, Micah turned and rushed forward, intent on attacking one of the enemy slingers before him.  The slinger was a taller, thinner, man and he deftly avoided the Israelite’s strike.

The leader of the avengers summed up the battle field in a glance.  Half his party was already down and even the spineless fish in Aphek would overwhelm them.

“MEN!  WE ARE AWAY!” he yelled.  He backed away from Joseph, just avoiding the roundhouse kick the Israelite launched at his head.  He turned and sprinted toward the horses a few paces behind him.

One of the avengers ducked under Barek’s sword slash.  Backing away, he turned to run toward the safety of the horses.  But Barek’s giant strides covered a greater expanse of turf and his second swing took the man at the place where neck meets shoulder.  The back of the fleeing avenger’s armor was rent in two and he was driven to the ground, face first.

Caleb would have loosed his arrow into the back of the retreating leader of the avengers of blood, but Joseph was interposed between them.  Sighing, Caleb tried to step around Joseph, to a clear field of fire, but only succeeded in bumping into Maaz.

Wide-eyed, Maaz turned on Caleb, brandishing his goad.  At the last moment, he recognized his comrade and aborted his attack.  “Caleb!” he said through gritted teeth.  “Watch where you tread!”

Hearing the leader’s command, the northernmost avenger slinger turned on his heel and sprinted toward the horses.  A pair of stones slung from the wall behind him slammed into the man.  One shattered his ankle, dropping him in mid-stride.  The second stone clattered against his helmet before he hit the ground.

One of the avengers ignored the behest of his commander and sank his spear into the throat of a gate guardian.  Dropping his own weapon and clutching ineffectually at the shaft of the spear, the guardian was driven down by the force of the dark avenger’s attack.

Joseph sprinted to catch the retreating commander of the avengers.  He leapt at the man, snatching at his billowing robe, but fell short of the mark as the avenger leapt onto the waiting horse.

“TAKE ME!” the Heshonibite boy wailed, but the leader of the avengers of blood merely spurred his horse over the top of the youth, crushing him beneath pounding hooves.

When one of the dark-clad avengers turned his head to see his commander galloping away, Micah pressed his sudden advantage and stabbed at him with his sword.  The avenger recovered in time, however, to deflect the force of Micah’s blow away with his shield.  They traded swings and parries before Micah’s blade bit flesh twice and his opponent fell backward.   He cast aside both weapon and shield and pleaded for mercy as his blood stained the soil.

Maaz spun away from Caleb and sprinted into the melee.  The thick goad in his hands described a wide arc that came to a sudden end when it struck the head of the avenger.  He crumpled against a man of Aphek, who stabbed him for good measure.

The last of the avengers discarded all pretense of bravery and sprinted toward the horses.  Maaz ran up and cried, “Let us give chase!” but Barek restrained him.

“Rather let him deliver a warning to his keepers that men of Israel are not idle while their enemies spin dark webs,” Barek said quietly, a little winded from his exertions.

Maaz relaxed in the giant’s grip, glaring at the retreating rider as if a look could kill.

Caleb considered shooting the rider, but weighing the distance and his expertise against the expense of arrows, decided against it.  He grunted and relaxed, replacing the arrow in his quiver.

Picking himself up off the ground, Joseph drew in a sharp breath and said to Maaz and Barek, “Let’s see who holds the leash of these dogs.”  He strode toward one of the fallen avengers, then knelt to search the man.  Maaz had joined him when he found the avenger’s purse and withdrew it from his sash.   Shaking the contents into his hand, Joseph showed Maaz the coins.

“Philistine,” Joseph said.

Maaz spit on the inert form and muttered, “Philistines, sure.”

Behind them, Barek cried out, “Ammihud!”  A few giant strides took Barek to his fallen comrade.  He knelt beside Ammihud and roughly hauled his fallen friend’s head and shoulders onto his lap.

“Ammihud!” he cried, “Do you live?”

Ammihud groaned.  “Only in this life could a clumsy, ham-handed oaf like you cause me such pain!”

Barek saw that the left side of Ammihud’s robe was stained with blood.

“MATTAN!” the giant thundered.  “BRING THE HEALER!”

Ammihud winced.  “You are so loud,” he said weakly.

Micah turned from his felled opponent and looked for Ruth.  He saw her kneeling next to the unmoving form of one of the avengers.  With hands that were adept and obviously experienced, she quickly found the man’s purse, cut it loose with her sickle, and hid it beneath her own robe.

Standing, Ruth turned to see Micah staring at her, agape.  She saw no shame in the dead providing for the living.  Spoils of war, she would call it.

She avoided Micah’s eye and moved on to the next slain adversary.  She had to reach around the gore of the man’s insides out to try to find his purse.  She nearly had it when something strong pulled her away from the corpse and to her feet.

The next thing she saw was Micah’s steely gaze beneath furrowed brows.

“Have you no shame?!” he growled.

Idol Smashers (Number Eight)

asherah

“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.

Day Two – The Cave

 (Previously, in Idol Smashers: Though they are idolators, liars, and pagans, the Heshonibites put up more of a fight than expected.  Two of our heroes are out of the fight.  Those still standing struggle to execute God’s will.)

A moment of clarity intruded upon the fog of war that dominated Maaz’s conscious thoughts.  He was aware, in that moment, that the battle was going in their favor.  Wounded and frightened villagers were retreating to the opposite side of the cave.  For the first time, he heard their screams, the cries of their children.  His assessment of the situation was interrupted by Barek bellowing from behind him.

“THEY HAVE MADE AN IDOL!!”

He pointed to an unfinished Asherah pole hastily erected in the middle of the cave.

Samuel would have turned to look at it, but two of the villagers were moving to flank him.  They were about his age and in another circumstance, might have been competitors in an athletic contest.  Now they intended to attack Samuel from both sides, trying to gain an advantage in a contest with a more deadly outcome.

Waiting, Samuel bade his time.  They attacked, rushing the Israelite from both sides simultaneously.  Samuel fell to one knee and swung his scimitar at the one on his right.  The arcing slash caught the onrushing youth diagonally across his side.  The fighter’s momentum and sudden wound made him stumble away from Samuel.

He’d hoped that by dodging and attacking, Samuel could make his attackers miss him and run into one another.  However, the villager coming from his left was more adroit than that.  He side-stepped to avoid his falling comrade, and slammed into Samuel’s back.  The two tumbled to the ground.  There they grappled, each holding aside the blade of the other in his off hand.

It was in rough form to be sure, but the wooden column before Maaz was surely an Asherah pole.  Righteous indignation stirred within Maaz, adding more heat to the flame that battle had already ignited.  Any pity he might have felt was now replaced with an implacable rage.  These people, even in their captivity, had constructed another foul idolatrous image.  The grotesque multi-breasted female figure was lewd and foul, the very antithesis of all that was right.

Maaz hefted his staff and turned toward the remaining villagers.

A man fled before Micah, retreating from the flashing arc of the Isrealite’s sword.  The fight was clearly gone from him and he instinctively sought the imagined safety of numbers.  He would never know safety again, as Micah’s sword swung and cut the villager nearly in half.

Caleb rushed forward.  He gaped at the idol, then shook his head in disbelief.  “Where did they even get a tree trunk that size?” he wondered aloud.

Seeing no nearby opponents, Ammihud knelt to check on Jezreel.  The psalmist was unconscious, but seemed to be breathing.  Ammihud prayed.  His experiences in life had not prepared him for this kind of melee and his mind was awhirl.  He earnestly prayed that the younger man would be fine.

Barek tore his gaze from the idol, noticing Samuel grappling with one of the villagers on the cavern floor.  Barek strode over to them.  After only a moment’s hesitation, he reached out with his free hand and plucked Samuel’s attacker off him.  A swift stab with his sword dispatched the young man.  He let the body fall.

Samuel hustled to his feet, the excitement of the battle boiling his blood.  “What’d you do that for?” he queried Barek angrily.  “I had him!  I had him.”

Barek smiled and said, “It looked to me like you had each other.”

The big man’s friendly banter stood in contrast to the bloody, furious action they’d just seen.  Samuel sighed, a sudden weariness in his shoulders.  He returned Barek’s smile.  “That’s so.”

Barek put his free hand on the younger Israelite’s shoulder and said, “Well done, then.”  He cocked his head in Maaz’s direction.  “Have you seen the idol?”

Samuel turned to look where Barek was indicating.  The two men warily beheld the idol as they walked toward Caleb.

Caleb turned his attention turned to Maaz.  “Brother!” he called out to the older Israelite.  “Hold!”

Maaz continued his slow advance on the Heshonibites, apparently oblivious.

“MAAZ!” Caleb called out.

Stopping and then turning to him, Maaz said with irritation, “What?!”

“A moment, brother.  We have them in retreat, most of their fighting men dead.  Let us finish this in a coordinated attack.  Again, archers first.”  Caleb held up his bow, as if Maaz needed reminding what archers attacked with.

He considered Caleb’s advice briefly, then breathed, “Fine!”  He turned back to face the enemy, but did not advance.  The staff was a restless thing in his hands, turning slowly.

Ammihud turned Jezreel over and lightly slapped his hands.  “Awake, Jezreel.  Awaken.”

The psalmist’s eyes fluttered, then blinked once and snapped open.  Jezreel sat up much too suddenly and felt the pain the pot left behind.

“My head!” he groaned, running a hand over the back of his head.  “Is it still of a piece?”

Ammihud steadied Jezreel.

“You’ll be all right, I suppose,” he offered uncertainly.

“Is the battle over?”

“No,” Ammihud replied, looking around.  “There’s a lull.  The rest of the village is huddled as far away from us as they can get.  You have a moment to get your wits about you again.”

“Not too many moments,” a voice behind them said.

Jezreel and Ammihud turned their heads to see that Joseph had sat up.  He was in some sort of meditative pose.  His eyes closed and he was breathing deeply, marshaling some inner strength.  Or praying.  Maybe both.

“Heh,” Jezreel laughed, “for all your art, you fared no better against the pot-boy than I!”

Joseph opened one eye and regarded the psalmist solemnly.

“How’s a man to meditate with a strutting crow cawing at him?”

A sigh escaped Ammihud.  He failed to see how this was a time for levity, and was about to say so when Joseph stood.

“No matter.  The rest of this task remains undone.  May the LORD deliver us from any more pots until we are concluded.”

Jezreel would have nodded in agreement if his head weren’t already swimming.  Ammihud helped him stand, then retrieved his bow.

“Now you two,” he said.  “Let’s go see what the plan is.”

The three men strode purposefully to the middle of the cavern and regarded the unfinished idol.  Ammihud made a hand sign against evil.

It was Barek who spoke first.  “I count barely a dozen remaining.  They are cowed with fear.”

“Let’s have a couple volleys of arrows,” offered Caleb.  “Then the rest can move in to finish…”  His suggestion went unfinished as he stared at the surviving villagers.

Fewer than thirty paces away, each man saw something so horrible they would take the memory to their graves.  The Heshonibites were praying before their rough-hewn idol.   The two men who survived the initial melee wrested babies and children from the grip of distraught mothers and spilled their blood, offering their own children as sacrifices to Ashoreh.  They killed their children in a desperate gambit to save their own skins!

Fighting bile rising in his throat, Micah said in a low voice.  “Archers, then.  We kill these pigs.  These vile pigs.”

Caleb, Barek and Ammihud quietly nocked arrows while the others prepared their weapons.  When the three archers raised their bows and sighted targets, their aim was disrupted by a loud, unearthly screech from behind them.

“NO!  NOT MY CHILDREN!  YOU WILL SLAY NO MORE!”

As one, the men of Israel turned to see who it was that screamed at them.  The Asherah pole was no longer leaning against the pillar.  Instead, it was standing on two stout wooden legs!  With a cracking sound, two pairs of arms separated themselves from the body of the now-animate idol!  With a shrill shout that sounded like a thousand tortured souls, the immense head twisted and pulled itself up from the body.

Wooden lips issued a bone-chilling scream and vowed, “MEN OF ISRAEL!  YOU SHALL NOT LEAVE THIS PLACE ALIVE!!”

With that oath, the idol flung itself at the fighting men of God, wooden arms flailing, wooden claws slashing.

Out of reflex, Ammihud loosed his arrow at the onrushing idol, but his shot flew wide.  Guessing that the giant strides would gobble up the distance between them in seconds, he threw down his bow and reached for his dagger.  Though only God knew what good either weapon would do against such an adversary.

Indeed, with only a couple strides of it’s legs, the false god was upon Samuel.  The youth had the presence of mind to duck under the assault of wooden claws and they scratched the air harmlessly above his head.

A sulphurous odor assaulted Jezreel’s nostrils as he moved in to attack the creature’s flank.  His staff struck the formerly inert object in its side.  But instead of merely striking the idol, his staff stuck to it!  More amazingly, his wooden weapon seemed to melt into the wooden body of the idol.  As Jezreel watched in horror, his staff became an extra limb on the idol’s body!

Charging from the other side of the creature, Maaz did not see the result of Jezreel’s attack.  He only knew that an unholy foe was waging war on them and he must strike!  He gouged the wooden giant with the metal tip of his staff and it let loose an unearthly cry, turning on him.

With the bow and arrow in his hands, a thought came to Barek.  He ran to a nearby torch stuck in the wall of the cave.  Setting the bow and arrow down, he cut a strip off his cloak with his dagger and bound it around the tip of the arrow.  Setting it aflame in the torch, he nocked the arrow in his bow and turned to face the idol.  It was leering at him.

Standing apart from the melee, Joseph looked at the scene differently than the rest of his comrades.  Somehow he knew that this immense adversary was not really made of wood.  It’s true nature was spiritual evil.  A demonic host animated the idol.

So Joseph knelt to pray.

The idol turned and screamed at him, but Joseph did not waver.  He knew that prayer to the Almighty One was the best weapon to wield against such a foe.

Micah saw what Joseph was doing but it did not occur to him to battle with prayer.  He was too experienced a warrior to think of any solution that did not first test his sword.  Swinging above Samuel, his blow did little to parry the creature’s own savage strike, which sent Micah sprawling.

He stood and threw his sword into the ground, burying the point and standing it up.  Micah took the axe from the leather strap looped over his shoulder and readied it saying, “I guess chopping down a tree requires an AXE!”

The idol’s attention to Joseph indicated it saw him as the greatest threat.  It turned and reached for him.  Sweeping him off the floor in its claws, it shook Joseph like a child playing with a cloth doll.  Years of training in concentration paid much-needed fruit and Joseph continued to speak aloud his petition to the God of Israel.

The wooden claws closed about him like an iron vise, nearly cutting off his breath.

Joseph still prayed.

Now free from the idol’s onslaught, Samuel stood and attacked the creature’s flank.  His scimitar bit deeply in its wooden body, but the idol seemed oblivious to all else save crushing the life out of Joseph.

When the creature turned on Joseph, Jezreel had to move quickly to avoid being knocked over by what had just been his staff.  A grin spread across his face as he realized what Joseph was doing.  Summoning from memory a psalm of victory, Jezreel’s strong, clear voice competed with the screams of the idol.

Maaz saw Samuel’s blade slash a furrow across the body of the creature, but it had little apparent effect.  Undeterred, he ran forward to wield his staff again.  This time his blow landed just below the iron-shod tip of his staff.  The wooden part of his weapon stuck to his hellish adversary’s wooden frame.  Maaz tugged vainly at his staff and saw, to his horror, that his weapon was becoming part of the creature!

Ammihud realized that he held a more potent weapon than the puny dagger clutched in his hand.  He was aware of Joseph’s fervent prayers and Jezreel’s psalmistry.  His voice joined with his fellow Israelites.  Dropping the dagger, he lifted his hands and head in prayer.

The creature bellowed.

It raged and shook Joseph violently.

Joseph did not waver.  He petitioned the Almighty for deliverance from this evil, for the power to smite it, for the defeat of all the enemies of God.

The words of his prayer reached Caleb’s soul and he shook slightly as he was suddenly aware of something other than the terror of that creature.  The bow and arrow, which had slackened in his hands, was now an instrument of divine power.  He prayed aloud as he sighted in on the evil thing’s immense head.  His arrow flew true and buried itself in the side of the horrible hate-gripped visage.  It howled in pain and terror.

Ammihud wanted to shout to his brothers that prayer was needed to defeat this foe, but he dared not stop praying.  “Let the others inflict damage on the thing’s body,” he thought.  “I will strike at its dark soul.”

The creature flung Joseph to the ground with all its might.  He hit the floor, tumbled into a heap as if a discarded rag.  No more prayers issued from him and the creature turned on Samuel and Maaz.

Like branches whipped by a fierce wind, the wooden limbs flailed at Maaz, but he rolled underneath them.

Samuel took advantage of the opportunity to strike at the limbs that had once held Joseph in a crushing grip then flung him to the ground.  The scimitar struck the lower limb and severed it.  Once it fell to the ground, it became an inanimate stick.

Emboldened by this success, Samuel shouted, “Go for the arms!”.

Jezreel sang with all his might.  Faith swelled in his heart and he directed his powerful voice at the creature, wielding it as a spiritual weapon.

He succeeded in getting its attention.

Growling in rage, Micah only half-heard Samuel’s advice as he rushed up beside the youth and swung at the idol.  His axe struck one of the stout legs supporting the idol, driving the blade deep into the wood.

The creature tottered on its injured leg.  It reached down and swept Micah away, knocking him back a dozen paces.  Micah sat up, but the cavern swung around him and he felt blood running down his eyebrow and into his left eye.

The idol snatched up Maaz and held him in a crushing grip.  Rearing back, it threw Maaz across its body, with Micah the intended target.  The big man smashed into his brother-in-law, knocking him to the ground.  Maaz tumbled in the dirt, finally coming to rest, laying on his face.

Looking down, the idol reached down with its remaining right arm and yanked the axe from its leg.  The wooden handle of Micah’s weapon melded with the fingers of the hand and it became part of the giant limb.

Seeing all this over the end of his flaming arrow, Barek prayed, “Adonai, guide my hand.”

The flaming missile embedded itself in the middle of the idol.  Its flailing limb actually helped spread the flames and it was becoming engulfed in the fire.

Ammihud strode toward his demonic adversary, seeing by faith its true nature.  “BY THE LORD OF HOSTS, YOU MUST FALL!” he shouted.

The spreading flames instantly engulfed the entire apparition.

With a final spirit-rending scream, the idol fell to its knees and then face forward to the ground.  The thump of its impact resounded in the cavern.

Something black and viscuous seemed to drain from it into the earth, receding down a crack in the ground, and then was gone.  What remained was a brightly burning, roughly carved log with branches sticking out of it at odd angles.

Jezreel began a song of praise as the men of Israel moved to examine the thing.

“Is it dead?” Caleb asked.

“It was never really alive,” Barek answered, striding over to the burning remains.  “I would guess a demon animated it.”

“I concur,” Ammihud added.  He sheathed his dagger.  “I saw the thing in it.  It was an evil creature, sent from the Abyss.”

Samuel was bent over Joseph’s still form.

“I think he’s alive.”

“That is well,” Barek said.  “It was his quick thinking that saved us.  He was the first to pray.”

Ammihud nodded his agreement and joined Samuel in caring for Joseph.  They turned the man over and Ammihud poured some water from his flask on his face and into his mouth.

Joseph sputtered, spraying water.  His eyes came open and then closed again.  “Leave me alone,” he said in a small voice.

Near the far wall of the cavern, Maaz shouted, a cry of frustration.

Everyone but Joseph turned to look at him.  Jezreel even stopped singing.  Maaz knelt above the unmoving form of Micah, cradling his brother-in-law’s bloodied head on his lap.

Caleb spoke first, but low, “Is he…?”

Maaz’s gaze focused on Caleb.  “What?”

“Is he dead?  Did it kill Micah?”

Maaz was annoyed.  “What?  No.  Micah will be fine.  I’ve seen him hurt worse.”

Ammihud shrugged.  “Then what are you…?”

“THE VILLAGERS!”  Maaz yelled in frustration.  “The idolators have got away!”

Like a sudden blow, it hit them.  They were alone in the cavern!

“They ran while we were fighting the demon!”  Ammihud exclaimed.

“Maybe Mattan…” Jezreel said.  He turned on his heel and ran for the corridor that led out of the cavern.

Maaz snorted at the psalmist’s retreating figure.  “Mattan.  I doubt it.”

“He’s right.  Mattan is no warrior,” Samuel said.  “Chances are, they overran him and have fled to the horizon.”

Ammihud told him, “It doesn’t matter where they run.  They cannot hide from the Lord’s vengeance.”

“Yes,” Barek agreed.  “Besides, I have a pretty good idea where they’re headed.”

Caleb looked at him quizzically.

“Joppa.  There is a trail of guilt that leads from Heshonib to Joppa.”

Caleb thought about that, but said nothing.

Moments of silent consideration of the day’s events was interrupted by Micah, who moaned softly.  Maaz withdrew Micah’s “secret” wineskin from his sash and measured out a few drops into his mouth.

“You deserve this, warrior.”

Micah coughed on the liquid, then licked his lips.

“I deserve that and more.”

Maaz laughed, a short, forceful bark.  He sat Micah up and handed him the wineskin.  “Follow your own conscience,” he said.

Micah took a long draw on the skin and then rubbed his forehead.

“What hit me?”

“I did.”

“You?” he said slowly, looking up at his brother-in-law.  He sighed heavily.  “Not again.”

“It was not my fault,” Maaz protested.  “The… thing… the cursed idol flung me at you!”

Jezreel entered the cavern suddenly, half-carrying Mattan.  He guided the dazed trader to the rest of the group and unceremoniously dumped him near the burning idol.

“Guess who let the Heshonibites run over him in their haste to escape.”

“I need no guess,” Maaz said derisively.

“This is a nice fire,” Mattan said, sounding a little distracted.  “What is it that…?”  He recoiled from the fire and jumped to his feet.  He pointed to it with a fluttering finger.  “My masters!  Is that what I think it is?”

“Yes, it is an idol,” Ammihud said.  “Where would they get a log this size here in a cavern?”

“Ah,” Samuel said remorsefully.  “The LORD forgive me.  They said they needed wood for making braces to shore up the caves.  And fires against the cool of the cave.  I gave them the wood…”

“And I gave them the tools,” Mattan added.  “Ah me.  My masters, a thousand pardons.”  Looking again at the idol aflame, Mattan asked, “What… what did happen here?  The villagers surprised and overwhelmed me.”

“We’ll tell you about it on the way back to Aphek,” Barek said without facial or tonal expression.

“There will be plenty of time for explanations on that trip,” Jezreel said, his arms crossing his chest.  His gaze was directed at Mattan.

“Ah.”

“What do you mean?” Caleb queried.

Jezreel only cocked an eyebrow at Mattan.

“They took the horses,” Mattan said.  “A thousand pardons on my humble head.  I am bruised,” he said, pointing to his disheveled pate.  “I am bruised, to be sure.  I bear the marks of their vicious assault.”  Opening his cloak, Mattan was as surprised as anyone to find the side of his robe stained with blood.  “There…” he squeaked.  “You see?”

Jezreel reached out to steady him.  “We need to give thanks for our victory, pray that it will be completed, then return to Aphek to get a proper healer for our… warriors,” he said, giving Mattan a doubtful look.

“Yes,” Joseph said, sitting up.  “That is what we must do.”

Idol Smashers (Number Seven)

“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.

Soldiers

Day Two – The Cave

 (Previously, in Idol Smashers: Our heroes destroyed the abandoned village Heshonib, attempting to erase all signs of the idolatry that had taken place in Israel.  That night, through a set of dreams given to some of the men, it became clear that the threat to Israel was greater than a single remote village; the Tabernacle itself was the object of some evil plot that merely included the idolatry of the Heshonibites.)

Before leaving his home, Mattan counseled them to lift their countenances.  “You have the look of deadly business on your faces,” he said.  “And though we are among countrymen, it is not always good to cast the lot on the table where all may see it.”

Jezreel nodded and made a sign against evil with his hands.

Joseph managed half a smile and said, “Let us be iron on the inside but lamb’s wool on the outside.”

 

As they had done the day before, the party was led sharply off the road by Mattan at a point only his eye could discern.  For the most part, the only sound the travelers made was intermittent conversation and a travel psalm sung by Jezreel.  The LORD used the words of the song to fortify their spirits, preparing them for the difficult and brutal task that lay ahead.

After a few miles, a ravine appeared on the horizon, one that had been invisible to their eyes before.

“It is an ideal hiding place, is it not?” Mattan queried.  “Along the sides of the ravine there are natural caves, some of them quite large.”

“How did you find this place?” Maaz asked, a little edge to his voice.  Like Barek, he suspected Mattan was more than the effete merchant he seemed.  What tempered Maaz’s suspicions was that Mattan was Deborah’s man and she was not likely to be easily fooled.

If he noticed Maaz’s tone, Mattan betrayed no reaction.  “It has been used by my family for generations, my masters.  A prosperous merchant sometimes needs a safe place to store his goods while awaiting a better price.”

Maaz wondered if Mattan’s ancestors had engaged in smuggling or banditry in addition to trade, but kept his suspicions to himself.  He merely grunted and nodded a kind of approval.

The party stopped at the edge of the trail down into the ravine.  There were several children playing out in the sun, being patiently watched by a young man wearing armor.  The scene was both typical and surreal – children playing under the care of an armed guard – this was not something seen in Israel.

Joseph asked, “Shall we leave some bowmen or a slinger here at the top in case some escape when the melee starts?”  Joseph himself carried neither bow nor sling, nor weapon of any kind.  This was a curiosity and Micah wondered how he had not noticed it before.  Before he could ask Joseph about it, Maaz spoke.

“I have considered this,” he said slowly.  “But my heart tells me that all of us should enter the cave, all of us sharing the responsibility for what we must do.”

Joseph considered the herdsman’s reply and said, “So be it.”  He urged his mount down the path with Mattan close behind.

“Mind your footing, for this path is narrow,” Mattan instructed, fussing because Joseph went before him.

At the sound of approaching hooves, the guard leapt to his feet.  He put his helmet on and picked up his shield, standing at something resembling a stiff military posture.  The children stopped playing and chattering at one another in a tongue bearing bits of Philistine and Hebrew, then hurried around the guard and into the mouth of the cave.

“Samuel ben Abram,” Mattan called, “have you kept your guard?”

The young man’s soldier-like deference to Mattan would have been comical under less serious circumstances.

“Yes, sir!”

“Good, good.  These men of Israel have come to finally resolve this matter and relieve you of your lonely duty.”

He had been playing at soldier, Ammihud thought, studying Samuel.  “And now he does not want to stop,” he thought, considering Samuel’s disappointed expression.

Micah noted that Samuel’s hand sat upon the handle of a scimitar, an unusual choice of weapons in Israel.  More common in Egypt.  Micah hated Egyptians.  Yet there was no sign of the pagan race in the young man’s features.  Micah would keep an eye on him anyway.

Caleb was the first to dismount.  He hurried to the mouth of the cave and peered into the darkness.  “Are they all in there?” he quizzed Samuel.

“Yes sir,” Samuel replied slowly, looking to Mattan for a cue as to how much he should say before these strangers.

Nervously fingering his dagger, Caleb muttered, “I suppose we’d better get at it, then.”

Dismounting, Joseph said, “A moment, brother.  Remember, we decided to speak to them first, getting what information we can out of them.”

Caleb nodded his assent.  “Shall we speak with the elders, then?”

“I shall fetch them for you, my masters,” Mattan said.  But before he could reach the mouth of the cave, three white-haired but rough-looking men emerged from the darkness.

“Mattan,” one of them said, squinting against the sunlight, “what is this?  Who are they?”

“These are the men whose coming I have been promising.”  There was no deferential manner in Mattan’s tone now.  His voice and face took on the inscrutable look of a master trader, betraying nothing.  “They have been sent by Deborah.  They are to judge in her stead and bring an end to your… confinement.”

A second Heshonibite elder, shorter in stature than the first, snorted derisively and said, “’Bout time.”

“We would parley with you a moment,” Joseph said, stepping forward.  “Before meeting the rest of the village, we have a few questions.”

“Speak then,” said the first elder.  “We long to get out of the darkness and stench of that cave.  It is most unnatural for a man to live thus.”

Ammihud impatiently stepped before the smallest of the elders, someone he could almost look in the eye.  “What happened in your village?”

The elder, undaunted, pointed to Mattan.  “Has not that one told you our tale?”

“We wish to hear it from you.”

The elder sighed.  “One night, just before sunrise, we were each of us awakened by a clap of thunder.  We were startled to see our… our…”

“Terraphim,” the first elder finished.  “We were stunned to see our household gods had been suddenly destroyed.  We each ran from our houses.  In a fright, we abandoned our village, afraid it had been cursed by the gods we worshiped.”

“Then what?” Ammihud urged.

“We decided to head to Aphek to seek shelter and answers there.  Though after many days in this hole, I wish we’d have gone elsewhere.”

“It was there on the road, at first light, that we came upon this man,” the second elder said, giving Mattan a disparaging look.  “We let him sweet-talk us into coming here.”

Maaz held his tongue for the moment and made a signal to the other men.  They slowly moved to encircle the three elders.  This strategy was not lost on the silent elder, who looked around nervously.

Joseph gave Mattan a knowing look.

Mattan understood immediately Joseph’s thought.  “That is the essence of what happened, though it was later in the day, according to my recollection.  My masters know that I am not an early riser.”

“Why were you near Heshonib that morning?” Micah asked Mattan.

“To conduct business.  It is my habit to stop at the village on the way to Joppa to trade.”

These words were launched like sling stones by Micah; “You trade at Joppa?  With Philistines?”

Mattan paused a moment to frame his answer to Micah’s unstated accusation.  Many Israelites felt that to have any dealings at all with pagan peoples was something akin to treason and blasphemy.  Usually they dwelt in the interior of Israel – as Micah did – and not on the borders as Mattan did.

“I trade with those who have goods or coins and a mind to barter,” Mattan said flatly.  It was a rare moment of candor.

Maaz ignored this exchange, his attention fixed on the villagers.  “Why do you have idols in your homes in the first place?” Maaz demanded, his indignation flaring both his temper and his nostrils.  He had fought and killed too many Philistines to consider trading with them, but Mattan was not the object of this interrogation.  The Heshonbites were.

The first elder sighed.  “We are – were – of the tribe of Dan.  Our kinsman had your attitude and disowned us when first we took the gods into our homes.  Forced out, we made a new home for ourselves in that little valley and called it Heshonib, after the consort of Marduk.”

Everyone knew that Heshonib was located just north of the territory allotted to Dan.  And they knew that the city of Joppa lay within those borders.  There had been too much intermarriage between the Danites and the Philistines over the years.  On the face of it, the story was at least plausible.

“Even the name of your village is an act of idolatry” Maaz breathed.  He felt Micah’s hand on his arm, steadying his fury as Micah had done on occasions previous to this.

The silent elder eyed Maaz with an expression between wariness and fear.  His counterpart continued, “We meant no one any harm.  We believe in all the gods and give our worship to those who give us prosperity.  In this way, we were able to start a new life and are in the fourth generation.  We would like to return to our village, but if it is cursed, then we shall have been made homeless once again.”

Caleb spoke, and as they turned to look at him, all three elders became aware they had been encircled by these strangers and Samuel.  “None of us are of the tribe of Dan, so we cannot corroborate your story.  But do tell us – of what clan were you?”

“Shupham” replied the second elder, slowly pronouncing the word as if to make it sound right.

The men around the circle looked at one another.

“Shupham,” Caleb repeated.

The three elders looked at one another.

“Yes.  Shupham,” the elder repeated.

Reaching under his belt, Micah withdrew a small wineskin.  Smiling a predator’s smile, he offered it to the elder who spoke.  “You look like a man who has not had a proper drink in quite a while.  Here.”

The Heshonibite was taken aback by this offering, but greed overtook caution and he accepted it.  He tasted it hesitatingly, then, smiling, took a long draught.

The first elder jostled him and with a complaint about his selfishness, took a drink of his own.  “This is a fine wine.  Thank you.”

Micah bowed slightly.  “I am an amateur vintner.  Enjoy.”  To his comrades, Micah said, “Brothers, let us stand off a few paces and confer.”

When they had huddled a few steps away from the Heshonibites, Joseph said, “That was well-played, Micah.”

“Thanks,” Micah said.

“I wonder how you had the foresight to bring along a skin of wine, brother-in-law?” Maaz said, his eyebrows clenched in a suspicious look.

“I gave it away, didn’t I?” Micah retorted.

“Enough about the wine,” Ammihud said impatiently.  Are we agreed?  These men are guilty of idolatry and lying.  Shupham is a clan of Benjamin – Shuham is a clan of Dan.  Whoever these men are, they have never been men of Israel.”

Balek’s massive arms crossed on his chest.  “I say it’s time to pronounce judgment and do the deed.”

Joseph raised a hand to quiet the voices of assent.  “Hold on a moment.  Don’t you think we should give any who will a chance to turn to God and repent?  The LORD is gracious and kind – surely he will forgive idolatry and lying if they will turn to Him.”

Maaz turned his attention away from suspicions about his brother-in-law to respond to Joseph.  “How could you trust any sign of repentance?  These people are heathen swineherds.”

Micah was quick to agree.  “Yes, and besides that, the message from the LORD was very explicit – ‘All must die’ is what it said, wasn’t it?”

Samuel was confused.  “What message?  Who must die?”

Standing next to Samuel, Jezreel explained, “Pardon us, brother.  Through miraculous means, the LORD God Almighty left us a message in the village of these people.  It instructed us to kill them for their idolatry.  And I’m afraid Micah is right.  The message left no latitude for mercy.”

“I can tell you this,” Samuel offered, “having watched these people for several days.  They will scorn any offer of mercy.  They would rather cling to their idolatry than follow the LORD.  Why, just the other day, they put up such a fuss I had to fell a tree and bring it to them.”

“A whole tree?” Ammihud asked.  “What did they want that for?”

“I presumed firewood.”

“Have they been worshiping idols while they are here?” Mattan queried Samuel.

“Yes, the whole time, near as I can tell,”

“There – you see?” Maaz said, his eyes on Joseph.  “Pleas to the one true God when the blade is at their throat could hardly be good reason for showing these dogs mercy.”

Balek nodded.  “I agree.”

Caleb looked at the three elders finishing the last of Micah’s wine.  “How is it to be done, then?  We should kill these three without raising an alarm, then go inside and dispatch the rest as quickly as possible.”

“Agreed,” Ammihud said, his hand going to his dagger.

“Barek, Micah and I will take these three,” growled Maaz.  “Then we will all go inside.  Samuel will guard the entrance and take care of any who get away.”

The youth objected immediately.  “Let it not be so!  May the LORD judge me severely if I do not take up my arms in this holy act of vengeance!  I am a man of Israel and faithful!  I will…”

Mattan had heard such speeches from Samuel before.  He held out both hands to interrupt and silence him.  “Enough, Samuel.  You raise your voice and alarm those three.”  To the seven who came from Deborah he said, “Let me guard the entrance, my masters.  Alas, I am not a warrior and would only be in the way.”

Maaz’s eyes narrowed as he regarded Mattan.  “Fine.”

Caleb turned to Joseph and said, “I notice you are unarmed, brother.  May I loan you a weapon?”

Joseph cupped one hand in another and answered, “I already have all the weapons I need, surely as the LORD lives.  I will do my share.”

“Let us pray,” Jezreel said.  Each man lifted his face and hands toward heaven as Jezreel prayed, “LORD, give us strength this day to do all your will.  Give us wisdom to know it is right.”

The other eight men agreed.  Then, putting hand to weapon, they once more encircled the Heshonibite elders.

“We represent Deborah, judge over Israel, and we exercise her authority,” Ammihud intoned as Barek, Maaz and Micah readied their weapons.  “Do you wish to confess before we pronounce judgment?”

The silent elder bolted.

With a blur of motion, Joseph did something that none of these men of Israel had witnessed before.  He struck with his foot.  The Heshonibite was knocked backward by a sweeping kick that connected with this forehead.  Before any of them fully realized what was happening, Joseph dropped to one knee and dealt a second blow to the man’s head with the heel of his hand.  The Heshonib elder’s head slammed violently into the earth.

Maaz was the first to recover from surprise at Joseph’s melee.  But he hurried his blow and the metal-shod staff swung wide of the mark.  His intended target turned away from Maaz, attempting to break out of the circle, but he found Micah waiting, sword in hand.  He backpedaled just enough to avoid Micah’s slashing sword, but the dirt gave way beneath his feet, and he fell backward with a thud.

Turning his staff over his head in a whistling circle, Maaz dealt a deadly blow to the prone Heshonibite.  He crushed the man’s skull with a single, powerful downward stroke of the iron-shod end of his staff.

Barek’s long dagger was already in his hand and in an eyeblink was stuck in the folds of the second elder’s robe.  The man grunted with surprise, and attempted to push Barek away, but the much bigger man did not budge.  He held the dying man tightly so he could not pull himself away from Barek’s blade.  Blood came between the two men.

The elder felled by Joseph muttered an oath to the gods of Philistia and drew a dagger as he spun to his feet.

Samuel’s scimitar appeared in his hand and with it, he slashed at the man.  The curved blade cut deeply across the small of his back and loosened a gout of blood as the idol-worshipper fell face forward to the ground.

From not far away, the men heard a startled cry.  They looked up to see a boy standing in the entrance of the cave.

Eyes wide with terror, he turned on his heel and disappeared into the darkness.

 

Samuel shouted after the boy and was about to sprint after him when Mattan laid a lightly restraining hand across his arm.  “There is nowhere they can go.  You know this, Samuel.”

“But now they will be ready for us!” he protested.  “We cannot surprise and subdue them as easily as these,” he said, pointing to the three inert figures at their feet.

“Without surprise, we need strategy,” Maaz said.  “My concern is that they shall block the entrance.  Fighting in the corridor will be cramped – not at all to our advantage.”

“We shall alternate bowmen and swordsmen.  The bowmen shall fire into Heshonibites who may be in the way, then step aside to let the swordsman pass into the cavern,” Micah offered this stratagem, looking into each of their faces as they spoke.

Barek put his dagger into its sheath and replaced it with bow and arrow, which he hastily nocked.  “Let me be the first,” he spoke with his usual quiet intensity.  The tallest among them, Barek would have to stoop to enter the cave.

Maaz stepped into line behind him without saying a word.

Ammihud rushed into line behind Maaz and then put away his dagger.  Drawing his smallish bow and arrow, he readied himself to rush into the cavern.

Micah took his place behind Ammihud, his sword readied for the gory task.

Caleb drew an arrow and took a deep breath as he nocked it.  He took a place in the line behind Micah.

Joseph stopped Jezreel from taking the next spot in line.  He tipped his head toward Samuel.  “Let Samuel’s scimitar speak next.”

Samuel eagerly took his place behind Caleb.  His eyes flashed with the youthful excitement of combat, the heady eagerness that swordplay brings to a man.

“After you,” Joseph said with a bow.  Jezreel’s staff was not a ranged weapon, but it did have a longer reach than Joseph’s fists and feet, so he stood behind Samuel.

After they had assumed their places at the end of the line, Joseph instructed Mattan, “Draw your dagger, brother.  All the fish who escape this net are yours to hook.”

Mattan swallowed the dry knot in his throat.  “As you command, my master.”  The look of determination in his soft face gave Joseph no confidence he would perform his rearguard duty adequately.  It was then that Joseph decided to stay as near the cavern exit as possible.

Seeing that the line behind him was fully formed, Barek plunged into the mouth of the cavern.  His steps were guided by the torchlight issuing from within the cavern.  The big man’s normally large stride was moderated by the confines of the passage to the cavern, so it took him a little longer to speed inside than he would’ve liked.

Stepping inside the interior of the cavern, his training as a warrior took over.  Barek ignored the surroundings and focused on the most immediate threat.  The boy who’d witnessed their attack on the elders stood next to a man, explaining in earnest tones what he’d just seen.   Though forewarned, the man was still startled to see Barek’s giant form burst out of the corridor.  The bow in Barek’s hands was leveled at him and faster than the Heshonibite could react, Barek’s arrow flew.  But the arrow merely grazed his left arm.  Barek quickly shuffled aside to allow Maaz to enter.

With a shout, the man of Israel who’d fought with Judge Ehud surged into the cavern and chose the same man as his opponent.  The metal-shod staff swung down and the man’s skull exploded in a splash of gore.  The boy who’d attempted to raise the alarm fell down in fright.

Ammihud entered next, and where Barek had sidled left, he went to the right.  A young man some thirty paces away had risen from a mat and drawn his dagger.  Ammihud’s arrow flew and then bit into the teen’s thigh.  He fell to one knee, clutching at the wound which stained his robe a dark crimson.

Though with not quite the same intensity as Maaz, Micah’s roared an oath no less intimidating.  His sword struck down the nearest enemy; a woman who happened to be close to the entrance.

Rushing through the opening, Caleb followed Barek and moved to his left.  He’d decided long ago that if it came to battle, he wanted to be near the giant.  It seemed to him a safer place to be.  Aiming, he let his arrow fly at a man who was striding toward them, long dagger drawn.  His shot, however, was wide of the mark.  He heard a crack as the arrowhead harmlessly struck the ceiling of the cavern, well above and behind his target.

Samuel, however, was right behind him and he met Caleb’s onrushing Heshonibite head on.  The man expertly deflected the worst of Samuel’s blow, but the weight of the scimitar and the headstrong power behind it knocked the dagger from his grasp.

Thus disarmed, the man rushed at Samuel, hoping to wrestle the young man’s weapon away from him.   Samuel was too fast for him, however, and instead of grabbing his sword arm, the Heshonibite assailant’s last sight was the curved blade coming around and cutting his throat with a backhanded stroke.

When he ran into the room, Jezreel found the little informant lying on the dirt before him.  He swung wildly with his staff and smashed the child’s chest.

To his right, Jezreel saw an older boy rushing at him.  The whole scene slowed to a crawl in the prophet’s perceptions.  The world now included only him and the young man with the angry expression who was shouting and attacking him with a dagger.

Hours of practice took over.  Jezreel reacted reflexively and drew his staff back in time to deflect the knife and then shoulder the youth away from him.  His thrust parried, the young man found himself stumbling into the path of Joseph.  A blur, Joseph reached out and grabbed the youth, throwing him forcefully against the wall of the cavern.  Joseph knew at least a half-dozen ways to take the assailant out of the fight.  He had decided upon which one to use when something the size of a mountain smashed unexpectedly into the back of his head.  A mountain fell on him and blotted out the world.  He saw lights, then blackness and fell into the darkness.

Jezreel was alarmed to see Joseph felled by a sneaky swing of an iron pot.  Waiting not a moment, Jezreel breathed a wordless prayer and bore down on Joseph’s assailant.  The staff smashed against the youth’s back and drove him down to the ground.  The pot flew from his hand, landing harmlessly at Ammihud’s feet.

To his right, Barek saw a man advancing on him.  He answered the man’s stealthy approach with a menacing growl.  Thus discovered, the assailant decided the better of it and threw his knife rather than advance any further.  His aim was poor and Barek easily deflected the missile with his bow.  The blade clattered against the wall of the cave and fell to the ground.

On Barek’s right, Caleb quickly drew another arrow and shot the dagger-thrower.  This time his aim was true and the arrow took the young man in the shoulder.  He spun on the axis of the impact, falling down.

A villager threw down a small child he’d been holding and drew a long dagger.  He was large and scarred, obviously a man who’d seen some fighting.  Maaz spotted the threat and rushed to meet it.  With the longer reach of his staff he had an advantage and pressed it.  The staff met the man before he could close to strike with the dagger.  Maaz’s blow to his shoulder staggered the big man, but he shrugged off the pain and smiled at Maaz.

“The defiant dog!” Maaz thought, and his rage increased.  Maaz now saw and heard nothing but the enemy before him.  The blade switched hands as the idolater charged, but the attempt at deception did not avail him as Maaz sidestepped, burying one end of his staff in the ground.  The Heshonibite fighter tumbled over this immovable, unexpected obstacle.  Before he had a chance to rise from the dirt, Maaz whipped the iron-shod end of his staff down with implacable force.  Crashing on the back of his head, the deadly instrument bade the man to fall and rise no more.

Ammihud sidled as far to his right as the wall of the cave allowed, in order to get a better shot around Micah.  He saw someone getting to their feet and let the arrow fly in that direction.  It struck home in the back of the retreating person and knocked them down.  A part of Ammihud’s mind may have noted that he did not know the age or gender of his target, but it was a part that was very far from his consciousness.  He was merely aware that the bow was in his hands, the arrows in his quiver, and that various targets presented themselves.

Micah fell upon a Heshobite who was struggling to free a knife from the loose folds of his robe.  It tore free when Micah’s sword cut deeply across his chest, but fell from the man’s limp fingers as he hit the ground.

Someone grabbed the fallen knife and used it to stab Micah.  He struck with the swiftness of a snake and Micah was bitten, the blade striking his right shoulder just beside the leather armor he wore.

Emboldened by this youth’s success, another rushed forward to try to wrest Micah’s sword from his grasp.  A rage of blood now clouded the vision of the soldier of God and he backhanded the boy with his free hand, sending him sprawling backward.

Ammihud saw that Micah was being assailed on both sides.  The arrow was in the bow and away before he judged whether or not his comrade in arms needed assistance.  The arrow appeared again in a Heshonibite’s right hip.  The blow of the weapon caused his leg to fold beneath him and the villager dropped to the cavern floor.

Micah’s remaining opponent had drawn blood.  Eager for more, he stabbed again at Micah, but the Israelite parried the attack with his sword.  Wheeling upon his opponent in the same motion, Micah’s sword whistled through the air until it cut a line across the young man’s chest.  His face bore a startled expression but no sound came from his lips.  The knife fell from his hands.  The villager dropped to his knees and then to the floor, making gurgling sounds all the while.

Sighting down his arrow, Caleb let fly at someone rising from a mat near the wall to his left.  The arrow struck the cave wall above the person, but made such a clatter they let out a cry and fell forward, their hands covering their hooded head.

Staggering under a sudden weight of flailing youth on his back, Samuel twisted forcefully to dislodge his small attacker.  He did not hesitate to cleave the small form that fell on the ground before him.  Such was his certainty that the LORD’s will must be carried out.

Barek strode deeper into the semidarkness of the cavern.  Loosing his sword at the nearest villager, Barek slashed across his attacker at chest height.  The edge bit into his opponent’s left shoulder.  While the wound itself was not bad, the strength behind the strike drove the thin young man into the wall of the cave, where he slid to the floor, whimpering and grasping at the wound with his right hand.

Another stroke finished the job.

His opponent thus dispatched, Barek turned and for the first time, assessed their surroundings.  The cavern was dimly lit by torches, lamps and cooking fires, but he could see that it was a sizeable place.  The shadowed roof was supported by a massive column of stone in the center.  What might be other passages leading further into the earth were open on the wall opposite him.  There was something leaning against the pillar…Barek peered at it, indredulous.

Panic replaced surprise among the villagers as they realized that these intruders were taking out their defenders with deadly efficacy.  Ammihud’s arrow missed one of these frightened women, but it was effective at increasing her terror.  She clutched at an awestruck child and drug him away from the melee.

Someone else picked up the pot that had been wielded so effectively against Joseph and came at Ammihud from the left, swinging his improvised but effective weapon.  The pot struck Ammihud’s left shoulder with sufficient force that he dropped his bow and staggered away.  Fortunately, the cave wall was there to support him and the prophet stayed on his feet.

That particular cooking implement had caused quite enough trouble, Jezreel decided.  He intended to hurdle both Joseph and his unconscious assailant and then strike this new pot-wielding punk with his staff.  The psalmist was not exactly lithe, however, and caught his toes on the robe of the fallen villager.  Seconds after he sprawled on the ground, Jezreel’s mind noted the musical tone the pot made as it struck something solid and then his world went black.

A village man near the pillar of stone in the center of the cavern left something he’d been working on and rushed at Maaz.  The mallet in his right hand swung with great force, but the warrior of God easily parried the swing and directed the blow harmlessly away.

Caleb’s heart rose to his throat as he watched the miserable melee unfold on the other side of the cavern.  Joseph was gone, and Ammihud and Jezreel were being dealt with by a young man armed only with a pot!  Caleb vowed that this insult would be met with a greater force.  He nocked an arrow and shot, but the shaft buried itself in the ground away from the Heshonibite.

Samuel charged at the next opponent he saw, a man who was trying to shield himself with a woman and child.  The task they were commanded to do made no allowance for pity, so Samuel swung his scimitar.  The deadly curved blade tore mother and child from the grasp of the cowardly man, and he fell backward, scrambling to avoid the Israelite’s next attack.

Wearing a savage grin, the young man wielding the cooking pot turned back to Ammihud.  “The goddess gives me victory, though I am armed only with this!” he taunted, brandishing the pot.

To his credit, Ammihud did not flinch.  He dropped his bow and withdrew his dagger.  “Let us see, boy, whose god shall triumph this day!”

Caleb’s second arrow found a more worthy mark, burying itself in between the pot-wielder’s shoulder blades.  He dropped the pot, then fell face forward before Ammihud.

“I guess that settles it, then,” Ammihud said.