58 Stick Fighter

Nathan picked up the figs, leaned in, and whispered to Milkah, “Too many blows to the head.”

Tishbe, Gilead, Israel, 871? BC

1 Kings 17:1?

Elijah twisted away. What was wrong with Nathan?

Nathan touched Elijah’s temple. He took so many hits he can’t recall where we were. He remembers only Milkah.”

The two extra shepherds rubbed their chins and shifted their gaze from Elijah to Nathan.

What are you talking about?” Elijah blinked.

Slavers.” Nathan draped an arm around Elijah and patted his shoulder. “They captured us on the King’s Highway and sold us in Egypt.” He thrust his chest out. “To a circus.”

Hold this.” Nathan slapped the brick of figs into Elijah’s belly. “The ringmaster assigned us to the stick fighting team.” He spread his feet, crouched with his hands open, and gave a crisp nod.

The extra shepherds opened their eyes wide and faded three steps back.

He took Elijah by the wrist and stretched his arm. “With our lengthy appendages, we whooshed great nabboots through the air.”

Elijah shook Nathan’s arm off.

Nathan grinned, replaced his arm on Elijah’s shoulders and snugged him up close. “I lack the coordination, but my little brother became the best tahtib fighter in Egypt.”

Elijah lifted one naked eyebrow. Unbelievable. His bashful brother had disappeared, and an extrovert jabbered in his place.

Nathan nodded at Milkah while he patted Elijah on the shoulder. “Every tahtib fighter from the Delta to Lake Victoria trembled at the name Ilyās. He won our freedom by defeating the great Kofi of Ethiopia.” Nathan pulled his lips back in an enormous smile that showed most of his teeth. “But all those impacts to this skull?” Nathan sighed. “He talks only of Mother and Milkah.”

Milkah tipped her head to one side and stepped over to Elijah. She sighed and touched the tips of her fingers to his cheeks. “You’re hurt.”

Elijah’s lips trembled.

Hurt?” Nathan raised an eyebrow at the extra shepherds. “His reflexes are still sharp. He can knock two powerful men to the ground before the bettors have opened their purses. There’s one stick fighter in Memphis we’re not sure if he’ll walk again.

Elijah shot a fierce scowl at Nathan then melted in Milkah’s gaze. Analyze his brother later.

Nathan turned his back on the extra shepherds and shook his head at Milkah. “His memory of Egypt is foggy. But he’s clear about you. When that Ethiopian hit the ground, Elijah’s first words were, ‘Now I can go home to Milkah.’”

Milkah moaned and leaned her brow against Elijah’s chest. “Lijah, my Lijah. You’ve come back.”

Elijah held the figs behind Milkah’s shoulders and touched his lips to the top of her head. “Mmm…”

Nathan advanced on the extra shepherds. “So, tell me how you come to be in Milkah’s pasture.” He backed them around to the other side of the boulder a step at a time. “By whose permission do you feed your flocks on her father’s grass?”

Elijah murmured into Milkah’s hair. “The day I left, Mother said, ‘Milkah.’ Then every day, a hundred times a day, I wished I had come over the ridge to tell you where I was going.”

“But you thought you’d be right back.” She breathed into his cloak. “Then the black tunics came, and we hid.”

Nathan had pushed the extra shepherds out of hearing.

Elijah whispered, “The queen’s men have ears, so I can tell only you, dear. The Lord sent us to Zarephath in Sidon. Nathan’s going back to… to our friends.” He tipped her chin up and held her eyes with his. “But I’m staying. For you.”

Milkah’s eyes twinkled. “And the great Kofi?”

“My brother is a man of surprising talents, but he’s a terrible liar.”

“The way he’s pushing my cousins across the pasture they think he’s a wild ox.”

“They’ll be fine.” Elijah grasped her shoulders. “Milkah, we’re not kids anymore. I’ve come home to marry you, and I know where to quarry the blocks for our house.”

She nodded. “Will it hold our children?”

“I’ll add rooms.”

She glanced at the extra shepherds. “My cousins will watch Daddy’s sheep.”

Elijah grinned. “Will they know whether to name the new lambs chops or roast?”

She grasped his waist and leaned back at arms length. “We may have to prompt them.”

Elijah tensed. “Where can I find your father?”

“With the new lambs, but he’s upset that we never heard from you.”

Elijah straightened. “I need to speak with him man-to-man.” He called. “Nate, I’m going to talk with Milkah’s father.”

“Wait. Wait, Little brother.” He jogged over. “Let me prepare the way.”

Milkah grinned at him. “Thanks, Nathan, but the great Kofi does not approve.”

Nathan frowned. “Let’s leave Kofi out of this. Elijah needs my help.”

“You’ve told enough tall tales for one morning.” Elijah patted the brick of figs. “I’m taking these.”

Milkah hooked her arm in Nathan’s. “I need you to stay and help my cousins watch the sheep. Please?”

Nathan swept his free arm toward Milkah’s house. “For the girl who stole my brother’s heart when we were still learning to walk.”

Elijah ambled across the pasture arm in arm with Milkah. “I don’t think Nathan could say ‘stick fighter’ again with a straight face.”

She reached up and crushed his thick black beard in her fist. “This was tiny blond fuzz.” Milkah drifted her fingers over his naked eyebrows. “What happened here?”

“That story I hope to tell you and our children during long evenings by the fire.”

At Milkah’s house, he pushed open the door on the ground floor and led her between the lambing stalls.

Her father raised his head in the dim light. “Milkah?” In one firm stride, he stepped into the aisle. “Who’s that with you?”

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