“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.