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02 Bareback – 877

Jezreel Valley, Israel, 877 BC

Obadiah reined his horse up beside Prince Ahab. “The king will have my head if he learns I let you roam the valley without guards.” His shoulders tensed. Syrians often scouted the green hills that faded in from the north. If they saw two young men in white linen tunics and purple turbans riding these sleek stallions, scouts would think they had found King Omri’s twin sons.

Can’t have fun with Dad’s chaperons breathing in my neck, Biah.” Ahab leaned up and patted his stallion’s neck. “And this big fellow needs to run free, without fifty guards at his flanks.” Shochar’s ears flipped forward and back. Did the horse smell Syrians?

Biah glanced up the valley toward Megiddo. He tipped his chin up and scanned the gray-green slopes of Mount Tabor. In the last nine months, Syrians who snaked through those foothills to survey Israel’s troop movements had killed seven citizens.

He scanned the valley road to Beitshan. He eased his hand through his hair and downplayed his jitters with a jab at Ahab. “Careful you don’t push that tired beast too hard, my prince. Shame to stress such a weak old thing.”

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

Ahab glanced back toward the fort and frowned. “The king still thinks I’m a teenager. Three kids wrapped around my ankles and two more on the way. Do your parents still treat you like a child?”

Mom.” Biah bent low and rubbed his horse’s ribs. Lavan stamped a foot in response. “She won’t go to bed until her children are in the house—even if we’ve only come for a few days. So when Didi and I visit the village…” Biah sat up. “… if we go out to see old friends, no matter how late we get in, Mom’s up with a lamp lit. She only blows it out after we’re under the covers.” He gave Lavan a familiar slap on the withers, and the stallion shook his big white head. Did he sense an intruder in the valley?

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

Biah opened his mouth, but no smart comeback popped from his throat. Lookouts had reported enemy scouts only three days ago. Did gray figures crouch in those shadows? Or was the wind shoving juniper branches together?

The trust in King Omri’s eyes pushed at the back of Biah’s mind. First the king had moved him into headquarters. “I need somebody I can count on to purchase supplies.” A month later, he ordered him to manage the stables. Then to supervise the cleaning staff. And the cooks. The tasks came without title, yet Didi had overheard cooks and cleaners call him “the king’s right hand man.” King Omri ordered Biah to sit in on strategy discussions with his generals. When cleaners or chariot drivers met him on the path, they stepped to the edge and looked at the ground. The way the king often glanced from Biah to Ahab and back again, Biah’s unspoken yet most important task was the safety of the prince.

Ahab held a pine cone over his horse’s ears. “Shochar wants to get moving.”

Biah pulled the reins short and crouched at Lavan’s withers. Bareback. The only way to race. He gripped the barrel chest with his legs and thrilled to the ripple of Lavan’s muscles. He wiped Syrian invaders from his mind, placed Lavan’s front feet behind the row of small stones they used for a starting line, and sucked in the sweet fragrance of the lilies and barley grass that covered this part of the valley. “My stallion is ready to run the feet off your burro, my prince.”

Ahab pulled Shochar up beside Biah, his sandals tight around the bare flanks. He gathered the reins, stretched an arm forward, and dangled the pine cone between them.

Biah nodded, and the cone dropped. His heels hit Lavan’s flanks, and the horse shot into a gallop. “Go, go, go.” Biah did not turn to see if Ahab rode behind him. That look had cost him the race three weeks ago. “Go, Lavan, go.”

They thundered west through the grass beside the Beitshan-Megiddo road. As they rounded a boulder, a pair of acacia trees burst into view—the finish line.

Biah burrowed into the wind-snapping flow of Lavan’s mane and whispered in his ear, “You’ve got it, big guy. This one’s yours.”

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

A troublesome black nose edged up on the right.

Biah yelled, “Go, Lavan. Go, go, go.”

The black nose moved even with Lavan’s white and then surged a nostril’s width ahead.

The acacia trees flew by.

Biah relaxed and braced his knees against Lavan’s trot.

As Prince Ahab bobbed beside them, his laughs bounced out with Shochar’s trot. “You thought you had me.”

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

Ahab slapped the black neck. “You’ll never know, Biah, the way you limp along on that sorry old scarecrow. But when Shochar sees those acacias, his great heart reaches inside and comes up with one more win for the prince.”

They laughed together.

An arrow whistled past Ahab’s ear and thunked into a tree trunk.

Biah flattened on Lavan and kicked him into a dash for the fort. “My prince, you blithering idiot. We’re out of here!”

Ahab sprinted beside him on Shochar.

Behind them another arrow plunked in beside the first.

Miserable Syrians. Couldn’t be content to collect military intelligence. Had to pick off a pair of wealthy-looking Hebrews.

A breath of air to the left, and that first arrow would have sliced Ahab’s jugular. Biah pictured himself 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 plaza pavers. They were inside.

Biah would not have to hide from the king. He closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.

As the gate swung closed behind them, a stable boy loped out from the headquarters compound and across the plaza. “The king sent me to find you two. He wants to see you. I’ll take Shochar and Lavan.”

Biah wrinkled his brow at Ahab, who spread his hands at him. No way had the king heard those arrows.

They jumped to the ground.

As the stable boy faced him, Biah held the reins of the sweating horses. “Let them drink from the tank. The spring is too cold, understand? Wipe their sweat off and sprinkle them with water. Then wipe that. I’ll be out to check on both horses.”

They jogged to the far end of the street and nodded at the gate guards. Into the headquarters compound, and up the path.

Biah slowed his steps.

King Omri paced at the headquarters entrance, his sandals slapping the marble floor. He held his chin high and cracked his knuckles one by one. “You were racing in the valley alone. You left fifty good men in the compound who could have protected you. A mere scouting party from Cyprus or Syria could have cut down my son and my right hand man.”

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

King Omri laughed. “Excuses later, Biah.” As he pushed through the door, he spoke to his chief guard. “Those execution stakes for tomorrow? Make sure you have enough for the children.”

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