2 Right behind us

Fort Jezreel, Jezreel Valley, Israel, 877 BC
1 Kings 18:3

Obadiah reined in his horse and tapped Prince Ahab on the arm. “Where’s our squad? The king will have my head if I let you escape the fort without guards.”

“They’re right behind us, Biah.”

Yet no guards followed.

Obadiah scanned the gray slopes of Mount Tabor. In the last nine months, Assyrian scouts had killed two farmers and a sentry in those foothills.

“Invisible bodyguards? As useless as a dry creek.” He turned his horse toward the gate.

Ahab rested his hand on Obadiah’s arm. “Let’s race just this once without Dad’s chaperones.”

Race without guards? Fly through the grass, the only hoof beats coming from Lavan and Shochar? Obadiah thrilled to the contest as if he were still a village boy.

Yet he shook his head. “No guards. No race.” The king trusted him with Ahab’s safety, and lookouts had reported enemy scouts in the valley three days ago. Obadiah murmured, “Lord, protect us.”

Ahab smirked. “Our protection is about to ride through the gate, Biah. Let them find us.” Ahab patted his stallion’s neck. “This big fellow needs to run.”

“Not without guards.” Obadiah scanned the hills again.

“Leave it to me, Biah.” Ahab wheeled his horse around and trotted through the gate. In a few moments he returned. “A horse threw a shoe, and that guard’s saddling up a fresh horse. The captain says they’ll be right behind us.”

Obadiah waggled an eyebrow at Ahab, tipped his head and shrugged. Dad had said, “If you want a job done right, do it yourself.” Yet he should trust his old friend, the prince.

Obadiah clicked his tongue, and the big white stallion under him clip-clopped down the grade with Ahab beside him. As they turned onto the road, Obadiah’s mount flipped his ears forward and back. Did he smell Assyrians?

As they trotted toward the Jordan River, Obadiah scanned the valley. He eased his hand through his hair and downplayed his jitters with a verbal jab. “Careful you don’t push tired old Shochar too hard, my prince. Shame to stress that weak old plug.”

“Stress?” Ahab snorted. “You sit on that sad excuse for a live animal and talk stress?”

Ahab glanced back at the fort and frowned. He slowed to a walk. “Guards are babysitters, Biah. Three little ones wrapped around my ankles and two more on the way, but Dad treats me like I’m a kid.”

“Not so, my prince. The king would like his heir to continue breathing.”

Ahab pulled Shochar up to a standstill. “Do your parents treat you like a child?”

Obadiah glanced behind them. Where were those guards? He stopped next to Ahab. “My mother.” Obadiah bent low to rub Lavan’s ribs. “She always stays wide awake until her children are in bed.”

He sat up. “So when we visit for a few days, if we go out to old friends in the village and return late, everybody’s sound asleep but Mother, right? She’s sitting there with a lamp lit, and she only blows it out after we pull the covers over us. Stubborn as an ox.”

Ahab nodded. “I want to meet your mother, Biah.”

“She’d like you.” Obadiah gave Lavan a light slap on the withers, and the stallion shook his big white head. Intruders in the valley?

Ahab collected the reins. “Is Lavan ready to run? He’ll have Shochar’s tail flapping in his face.”

Obadiah opened his mouth for a smart retort, but an image of the king’s eyes on the prince closed his lips.

Was that movement in the bushes Assyrians? “We’ve no guards, my prince. We should return.”

Ahab followed Obadiah’s gaze. “Just the wind pushing the juniper branches.” He nodded to a row of small stones. “Here’s our starting line. Race you back to the fort.”

Obadiah wiped Assyrian invaders from his mind, pulled the reins short, and tightened his legs. He thrilled to the ripple of Lavan’s muscles.

He aligned Lavan’s front hooves behind the stones and sucked in the sweet fragrance of the lilies and barley grass that covered this part of the valley. “My prince, this stallion is about to run the legs off that jackass under you.”

Ahab plucked a pine cone and stood his horse beside Obadiah, his feet tight around the flanks. He gathered the reins, stretched an arm forward, and dangled the cone.

Obadiah nodded, and the cone dropped. His heels hit Lavan’s flanks, and both stallions shot into a gallop. “Hi-ya! Go!” Obadiah faced straight ahead. A sideways look had cost him the race three weeks ago. “Fly, big fellow, fly.”

They thundered through the grass beside the road, kicking up the scent of fresh-turned dirt. As they rounded a boulder, a pair of acacia trees burst into view—the finish line.

Obadiah burrowed into the wind-snapping flow of Lavan’s mane. “You’ve got it. This one’s yours.”

Lavan lowered his head, pointed his ears toward the acacias, and thrust forward. A few more lunges would shoot them between the trees.

A troublesome black nose edged up on the right.

Obadiah yelled, “Punch it, Lavan. Now!”

The black nose moved even with the white one and then surged a nostril ahead.

The acacia trees flew past.

Obadiah relaxed the reins and braced his knees for the trot.

Ahab bobbed beside him, letting words bounce out to the beat of the trot. “You thought you had me.”

Obadiah waved at Shochar. “Where’d your old nag find that last bit?”

Ahab slapped the black neck. “When this big fellow sees those acacias, Biah, his great heart reaches inside and comes up with one more win for the prince.”

As Obadiah laughed at the old line, an arrow whistled past Ahab’s throat and thunked into a tree trunk.

Obadiah’s heart raced. “Out of here!” He slapped the prince’s horse on the rump.

Another arrow plunked in beside the first.

Ahab flattened on Shochar and kicked him into a dash for the fort.

Obadiah sprinted behind them on Lavan. A breath of air to the left, and that arrow would have sliced Ahab’s jugular. He pictured slinging the prince’s body over Shochar and leading him into the fort, but he could not imagine facing the king.

The gate guards stepped aside. Hoofs rattled the loose planks of the bridge and clip-clopped across the pavers. They were inside.

He closed his eyes and breathed. Miserable Assyrians couldn’t collect military intelligence and go home. Had to pick off a pair of wealthy-looking Hebrews.

Obadiah looked around. “A guard’s horse flung a shoe? You never talked to the captain.”

“And you fell for it.”

“Like an egg from a tall chicken. I’m as sharp as last year’s plow point.” Obadiah shook his head. “You almost got us killed, my friend.”

As the gate swung closed behind them, a stable boy loped out from the headquarters gate. “The king’s looking for”—His eyes flicked from Ahab to Obadiah and back again—“the prince. Sorry, sir.” He blushed.

“No worries.” Ahab grinned. “Plenty of people think this ugly guy looks like me.”

Obadiah pointed. “I even hung that medallion on his neck, so people could see who’s the prince, but it doesn’t help.” He pursed his lips. Like the prince, he stood half a head taller than most Hebrews and kept his beard trimmed. His white linen cloak and purple turban matched Ahab’s. Did he have the same bold black eyes and high cheekbones? People often mistook him for Ahab.

Obadiah jumped to the ground and handed the reins to the boy. “Wipe them down. I’ll be out to check on your work.”

Ahab led the jog to the far end of the street and nodded at the gate guards. Into the headquarters compound, and up the path.

Obadiah slowed his steps and touched Ahab’s arm. He wrinkled his brow. Had lookouts reported those arrows that flitted by them? Ahab spread his hands and shook his head.

At the entrance, the king paced in front of bodyguards, his sandals slapping the marble porch. He held his chin high and cracked his knuckles one by one. “You left fifty good men in the compound. You were racing in the valley alone. A mere scouting party from Cyprus or Assyria could have cut down my son and my right-hand man.”

Blood rushed into Obadiah’s cheeks, and he ducked his head. A proper show of humility never hurt. “My fault, your majesty.”

The king laughed. “Excuses later, Biah.”

Obadiah grinned and crowded inside with Ahab. The king had not heard about the arrows.

The king paused at the open door and spoke to his chief guard. “Those executions tomorrow. Make sure you have enough stakes.”

Chapter 3

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