The King’s Highway, Gilead, 877 B.C.
1 Kings 16:32-33
Elijah loosened the laces on his donkey’s packsaddle, freeing the skins of Tishbe wine. He gripped one end of a skin.
Nathan grasped the other. “Ready?”
Elijah grunted, bent his knees, and helped Nathan swing the heavy load up toward the pannier on the hump of their customer’s camel.
A shrill scream rang through the oaks.
Elijah’s head recoiled. The goatskin slipped from his fingers, bounced off Nathan’s knees, and burst at their feet.
As the wine puddled in the grass, their client spluttered. “S’posed to last me into the Sinai.”
Elijah shushed him with a raised finger. He shielded his eyes from the sun and pivoted to the cry.
Thin clouds dusted the top of a light blue sky. Where the path climbed onto the plateau, next to a cluster of acacias, a young girl crawled toward him. Bees and grasshoppers stirred around her from the flowers of the turf. Behind her, a long line of little girls hunched over the path with their faces raised, watching the child edge along on her knees. What were they doing out here?
A thick man with red hair sauntered next to the acacias and leered at the girl crawling away.
“Nathan,” Elijah whispered.
“A slaver.” Nathan laid a hand on Elijah’s arm. “Dad will be right back.”
Their father had collected silver from three camel pullers and left his sons to load the wineskins. He had crossed the meadow to buy roast mutton and flatbreads with pickled cabbage for Nathan and hot peppers for Elijah.
The thick man left the line of girls and strolled into the grass on the trail of the child.
Nathan murmured, “The guy’s got a knife.”
He glanced at them and touched the weapon at his waist.
Elijah finger tingled where he had once picked up a blade from beside the blacksmith’s forge and run a curious finger across its bright edge.
His father had frowned. “Not for my son.” The set of Dad’s jaw was weapon enough to force most men to back off. But Dad was on the other side of the meadow.
The child struggled to her feet and staggered away from the thick man.
Twenty paces behind her he smirked.
She glanced at him then lurched toward Elijah, her eyes wide. Dirt caked her face—thicker than the normal dust of the road—and red mud matted her hair. She couldn’t be ten years old. Elijah had been thirteen for several months, so he could take care of himself. But this child shouldn’t be alone.
Elijah took a step toward her. “Run, little girl. Run.”
The thick man’s muscles bulged like a knot on an oak limb.
Elijah flexed his own thin, pale arm.
Nathan wrapped his fingers around Elijah’s wrist.
Elijah’s breath caught in his throat, and he glanced across the meadow. He drew himself up to full height. “She needs Dad.”
Nathan tightened his hold on Elijah and pulled him back half a step.
The child clutched her throat, fell to her knees ahead of the man and reached her frail hand toward Elijah’s little grove of oak trees.
Elijah twisted out of Nathan’s grip and dashed to her, his feet rousing the scent of chamomile from the grass.
“Stay back, boy!”
Although Elijah understood Aramaic, he lowered his head and pulled the girl to him.
Her stench overpowered the fragrance of chamomile. Excrement tangled her hair.
Heavy feet rustled closer in the grass, and the dark voice boomed. “Leave the girl alone.”
Yet Elijah circled her shoulders with his arm and steered her into the shade of the oaks. He glanced back at the line of girls by the acacia trees gawking at him open-mouthed.
“Do you see them, Lord? Do you see them?”
The girl toppled limp against him and turned her coal-black eyes to his face. Scratches and bruises covered her. A newborn goat had more meat on its bones. This child needed food.
Mother. We’ll take her to Mother.
The thick man strode into the oaks. He shoved Elijah to the ground and struck the girl in the face. She fell to her knees, wrapped herself in her scrawny arms, and whimpered.
The man jerked Elijah up, slammed him into the customer’s camel, and flashed his knife. The edge looked as sharp as the tiny blade Mother loaned Elijah to open the vein of a goat.
Elijah gulped. “Careful with that thing, mister—unh!” A prick stung his throat. The knife. He tried to back away, but the camel didn’t budge. Foul breath invaded his nostrils. A fist jabbed his chest.
“Hands off, kid.”
Kid? His cheeks were still smooth, and he didn’t have Dad’s muscles, but if that tickler wasn’t at his throat, he’d see what these skinny arms could do. Why was Dad taking so long? The slightest pressure with that fine edge, and Elijah’s life would drain out under this camel like the wine from the broken goatskin.
Nathan stepped out from behind their donkey. “Sir… um. P-please… uh… my brother… um…”
Elijah winced. Nathan. Tall as a cedar and with a year’s growth of whiskers, but he couldn’t scare a weasel off a hen’s nest.
The thick man shoved Nathan to the ground behind the donkey.
Sweat beaded Elijah’s brow. To escape the point of the blade, he jammed his head back against the camel’s ribs.
The beast roared and emitted a cloud of gas followed by the plop-plop of pungent balls landing in a pile.
The thick man thumped Elijah’s head back against the camel and loomed over him. “The girl’s mine.”
From near Elijah’s feet, the little girl moaned.
Dad would take care of this stinking heathen when he got back with the mutton and flatbreads, but how long did Dad need to plan his attack?
Behind the man with the knife, the camel puller slid into view and eyed the one full wineskin remaining on the packsaddle. The puller opened a lopsided grin of orange teeth. “These Kasran slavers don’t talk much, boy.” His woolly black beard wiggled with his words and he winked at the thick man. “Last time I see one pull a shiv, he slit that Egyptian’s throat ’fore he could put a hand on his sword. That boy just lay down and gurgled.”
The puller poked the thick man in the arm. “The kid’s father’ll be back soon.”
Father? Elijah rolled his eyes from side to side.
Are you out there, Dad?
At his feet, the girl sobbed.