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33 Grumps and boasts

In Samaria, Obadiah pushed through the front door of the palace and onto the veranda. “Good morning, my king.” He stood with arms crossed on his chest and surveyed the plaza below them. “You got us both trapped up here in the hills a day’s march from the fort. I haven’t seen my wife in ten days.” He heaved a sigh and sat in a low marble chair next to Ahab.

Ahab shrugged. “You, sir, descend in a direct line from the miserable comforters of Job.”

Biah tried a glib response. “My mother’s family would agree. They often talk about a miserable Uncle Hiram.” But he gritted his teeth. Right now his Didi was peeking over the wall at thousands of Syrians. “From the way Ben-hadad has flooded the valley with troops, do you think he realizes you are up here?”

Not yet.” Ahab turned toward a mourning dove flying across the rooftops. “And I’d love to surprise him with a dash down to the fort. But his scouts are all over the roads.”

Well if you go… Didi’s worried sick without me there beside her.”

Yeah?” Ahab stood but sat back down. “I’ve got problems to think about right now other than your Didi’s peace of mind.”

Far below them, Gera, the manager of the district olive groves, pressed through the swarm of soldiers on the square.

Biah shot up from the chair and strode over to the banister. He and Gera discussed olive oil issues at Gera’s home, not at the palace. He leaned with his hands on the banister. “Did you invite Gera up here?”

Ahab snapped. “You know me better than that, Biah. I leave that business in your hands.” Ahab joined him at the rail. “The hundred thousand Syrian troops at my door concern me more than how much olive oil old Gera produces. But who did he bring with him?”

A young man with messy brown hair bobbed along beside Gera, a slight lift on every step. His lips puckered as if he whistled. The chatter of the troops around him buried any sound, yet he moved to a beat.

Biah elbowed Ahab. “I’ve seen that pucker. That walk. Probably at Gera’s house.” Lord, why do I feel hope for the first time in days?

Gera and the young man climbed the several marble steps and stopped at the entry to the veranda. Gera rested his hand on the banister post. “Good morning, my king. Biah. This young man is a friend of our family. Jephunneh. He brings a message for the king.” He placed his calloused hand in the small of Jephunneh’s back and pushed him forward half a step.

Ahab shook each man’s hand. “Gera, Jephunneh.” He swept his arm around toward the center of the veranda. A table displayed apples, grapes, pomegranates, cheeses, red wine, spring water, and warm pitas. “Biah tells me the food tastes better at your house, Gera. But please make yourself comfortable with our humble fare.”

Biah rolled his eyes at Ahab’s lame humor.

You can call me Jeph, Mr. King, Mr. Biah. Everybody does.”

Gera!” Biah grasped him by the hand. “Good morning, my friend.” He rounded to Jeph with a smile. “I recognize your face.” He took another look. Ah, yes. He had seen this young fellow at Gera’s house during the days of mourning for Baruch and Ulam. “You have a message for the king?”

Ahab pointed. “Look!”

Down on the plaza, chatter hushed.

Ahab stared at the plaza entrance. His forehead wrinkled. “My scout.”

Biah’s shoulders stiffened. Ahab posted scouts on the periphery of his activities. But he hoped never to hear from them. “Your scout brings a visitor.”

The scout’s spear and shield caught the sun as he strode into the crowded plaza. The man beside him wore a dark red tunic with the yellow-winged torch of Syria across the breast. The crowd had ignored Gera and Jeph, letting them push through. But the troops stepped back from the Syrian and stared at him in silence.

Ahab shook his head and muttered, “Ben-hadad wants to talk. Grove messages can wait.”

Jephunneh bounced up on the balls of his feet. “Oh, not olive groves, sir. The Lord woke me and—.”

Get this kid out of my hair.” Ahab whirled on Biah. “The Syrians have found me.”

Biah faced Ahab and opened his mouth, but Ahab held up his hand. “Not now, Biah.”

Biah pulled Jeph to Gera’s side. Did the Lord wake this boy? Gera knew that Biah protected bubblers in caves. Yet he brought this one to the king. With a message.

Ahab turned his back on Biah and followed the progress of his scout and the Syrian through the crowded plaza.

This bouncing messenger would have to wait. Biah raised an eyebrow at Gera, who led Jeph by the elbow to the farthest corner of the veranda. They stood by a vase of lilies which brightened the banister.

The scout mounted the stairs in easy strides, while the Syrian climbed beside him with halting steps. The scout bowed to the king. “Sir.” He then stood aside and eyed the Syrian.

The Syrian looked at the king’s feet and then out at the plaza entrance. Biah chuckled. The man seemed nervous, but not afraid.

Ahab leaned back, wrinkled his nose, and spoke in Aramaic, “What does Ben-hadad have to say for himself?”

The Syrian straightened and addressed the king as if from a memorized script. “Ben-hadad says, ‘Your silver and your gold are mine. Your wives, too. And your children, even the most handsome. All mine.’”

Biah stifled a snort. Grand words. Lousy timing. Did Ben-hadad think he was bidding for livestock?

Ahab rolled his eyes at Biah and then turned a solemn face to the Syrian. “Please inform my lord, Ben-hadad, ‘Whatever you say, my king. I am happy to oblige.’”

Biah rolled his eyes. Ahab played the gracious host like a Bedouin prince. Perhaps he played the role too well.

The Syrian bowed, and the scout ushered him down the stairs, through the crowd, and across the plaza.

Ahab’s smile wavered.

Jeph pulled loose from Gera and bounced over to Ahab. “The Lord says—”

Ahab wheeled around. “I told you, Biah, get rid of him. I’ve got a fight on my hands, and my army’s in Jezreel.”

Biah turned to Ahab. “With all due respect, my king, you’ll want to hear this boy.”

Ahab’s face reddened. His body stiffened. “Out.”

Biah cocked his head, and Gera steered Jeph into the palace. Biah followed as far as the entry and planted himself in front of Jeph. “Young man, who did you say woke you?”

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The sun moved beyond the meridian, and a messenger brought new words from Ben-hadad. “I’m sending my men tomorrow to pick through your things and bring me the best of the lot.”

A vein popped out on Ahab’s forehead. He gestured to his scout. “Hide this fellow, so I don’t hurt him.” He opened his hands toward Biah. “Pick through my things?” He cracked his knuckles.

Biah shuddered. Ben-hadad’s clumsy compositions foretold his crude desires. They made him no friends, but they made enemies listen. Biah raised his eyebrows. “Are the elders still in their council meeting?”

Ahab shrugged. “Come.” He led Biah to the meeting room and addressed the council. “Esteemed elders of our land. See how this young Ben-hadad is looking for trouble. He asked for my wives and children, my silver and gold, so I gave him the polite answer due any guest. But now he wants to sort force his way in and take whatever he wants.”

The elders eyed each other and shook their heads. The chief elder frowned. “Tell him to shove off.”

Biah grinned. Ah, the language of diplomacy.

Out on the veranda, Ahab translated the chief elder’s message for Ben-hadad. “Please tell my lord the king, ‘I cannot meet this new demand.’”

The Syrian barely left when he returned with Ben-hadad’s reply. “We will chop Samaria into pieces too fine to pick up in your hand.”

A thin smile played at the edges of Ahab’s mouth. “Tell your king the one who straps on armor should not boast like the one who takes it off.”

The messenger left.

Ahab slumped on the banister. His chin hit his chest. “‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you’ll be just like him.’ I heard your thoughts, and you were right. I’ve talked myself into a fight while my troops sit in Jezreel.”

The water gurgled in the veranda fountain.

Biah cocked his head to one side. “There’s somebody I’d like you to meet.”

Ahab parted his lips. “Please. No more Syrians.”

Biah looked over at Gera. “Where did you stash Jeph?”

Gera ducked into the palace and came out, Jeph’s messy head of hair bobbing beside him.

Jeph turned to Ahab, planted his feet, and stretched out his hand. “A song for our king.” He belted out, “Why do the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing? … He who sits in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.”

Ahab straightened and let his mouth go slack. “Who is this, Biah?”

He’s a bubbler. I’ve been hiding him in a cave. I don’t talk with you about it because they’re safer that way. But your spies keep you informed, so don’t pretend ignorance. We don’t have time for games.” He seized Ahab by the shoulders. “Do I have your attention? The Lord sent this boy to you with a message.”

Ahab squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “Games. Right. The Lord? A message?” He stared at Jeph.

The Lord says: ‘Those enemy troops out there? They are my gift into your hand. I am the Lord.’”

Ahab snarled. Oh, he’s cute, Biah. And he could play a zither while he sings. But my army is in Fort Jezreel. Who will fight those thousands of enemy troops? Not this tiny cluster of soldiers you see below us.”

Jeph bounced. “The best part. The Lord says, ‘The young commandos of the provinces who guard the council of elders. These are your fighters.’”

Ahab jerked his head back. “Of course, Biah. The young commandos. He leaned toward Jeph. “But who will lead them?”

Biah’s eyes sparkled.

Jeph beamed. His heels settled on the marble tiles. “You will, sir.”

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