Jephunneh woke to the flutter of bats returning from the hunt and the gurgle of water over rocks. He sat up and tapped his cousin on the shoulder.
Imri rubbed his eyes.
Jeph touched his finger to Imri’s lips and led him to the faint light at the mouth of the cave. They stood on the bank of the stream next to the wall which closed off the outside world. Only a narrow opening allowed stars to shine in and water to rush out.
Bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet, he puckered to whistle the psalm, “Why do the heathen rage.” But he glanced back into the dark. Better not wake them.
He whispered to Imri in Aramaic, the language of their village, “I’m leaving for a day or two. A message for the king. You can tell Zophal and the others.”
Imri’s eyes widened, and he sucked in a quick breath.
With a hand over Imri’s mouth, Jeph said, “Don’t wake the guys.”
Imri spread his feet, leaned in, and looked him straight in the eye. “Run off? Just like that?”
“Remember that thug who runs the Asherah temple in the market?” Jeph set his jaw. “Did you interrupt me from telling him what he needed?”
Imri smothered a laugh. “Oh, Jeph. You big bubbling lump. I couldn’t stop you if I tried. But the guys need to hear this from you.”
Jeph crossed his arms over his chest and let his heels settle to the ground. The Lord had seen fit to let them sleep. “We can’t. The Lord told me to go. He didn’t say to wake everybody in the cave.” He leaned away.
Imri chuckled and switched to Hebrew, the language of the group. “Jeph, you don’t want to walk away without a word. You really don’t.”
Jeph pressed his lips together. Imri grinned at him. The faint light turned the stream a liquid silver. Stars winked at him from the night sky beyond the cave. Imri’s grin held steady.
A slow answering smile spread over Jeph’s face, and he replied in Hebrew. “‘The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor.’ Let’s sing, ‘Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn.’”
“I don’t think so, Jeph. The guys love that one, but let’s tap them on the shoulders.”
The starlight at the cave entrance touched Nahum’s face. “Jeph will need food from the stash.”
Several moments later, men poked pitas, raisins, and figs into Jeph’s pack. Imri slung a small skin of red wine over Jeph’s shoulder.
“Think of it this way, guys.” Jeph stepped down into the stream and bent to fill his waterskin. “For two days, my whistling won’t bug you.” He straightened and jerked his head back.
The men had rearranged themselves by voice: basses, baritones, second tenors, and first tenors. Nahum raised both hands to cue their first note.
Jeph gasped. “Not here. Jezebel’s thugs will drag you out and slit your throats.”
Nahum shrugged. “One of your favorites. ‘The Lord bless you and keep you.’ But we don’t want to meet friends of Jezebel.”
Jeph stood in the icy flow and laughed and howled. How he loved doing that song with the guys, but way back in a deep branch of the cave. He bounced and splashed his way outside, waved back through the opening, and turned to go.
A little girl with tight black curls around her face and a heavy pack on her back stood in his way. “What are you doing outside your cave, Jephunneh?”
Oh, no. He should have snuck out before the first food delivery.
“I haven’t got time, Nefi.” Jeph stepped to the side.
She pounded her little fist into her hand and blocked his path. “Time is what you have lots of. I put you in that cave, and that’s where you belong.” She made a face with her bottom lip pressed into her teeth.
“You don’t understand. The Lord gave me a message for the king.”
Nefertiti snorted, tipped her head on one side, and did a high, nasal imitation. “You don’t understand.” She straightened her head and voice. “I understand Jezebel wants to kill you. I understand my mules keep you alive.”
Imri, Zophal, and Nahum splashed out of the cave and stood between her and Jeph.
Imri smiled down at her. “For real, Nefi. A message for the king.”
Zophal nodded. “Trust us, okay? Jeph needs to get out of here. We promise.”
Nahum blocked her line of sight. “Come on inside. It’s not safe out here. And my feet are frozen.”
Nefi pushed Nahum’s arm up and frowned at Jeph. “This better be good.”
While the three men shepherded their little queen into the cave, Jeph pushed through the water to the bed of gravel and crossed on the largest rocks. He kept the splash of the stream at a slight distance and thrust through the bushes toward the road, parallel to the stream.
Jeph shook river gravel out of his sandals. The wind ruffled leaves overhead, several stars winked, and an owl hooted. The fragrance of pine swirled around him. It had been too long. He danced and laughed and cried and let the tears run as he sucked in deep, deep breaths of clean air.
The guys should feel this freedom. He sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky shows the work of his hands.”
As he neared the valley road, he followed the aroma of overripe pomegranates fallen on the ground and then whistled as he felt the branches in the dark. He picked three large fruits from the trees and crammed them into his pack.
Jeph stepped onto the road, but when he turned toward the distant Megiddo cutoff, his whistle died. The hair raised on his neck.
A fire flickered, and someone stood by the fire. Smoke. Why didn’t he smell it when he pawed through the pomegranates?
He pressed his elbows into his sides and edged back into the bushes.
Toward Acre, another fire glowed beside the road. And beyond that a third. Only soldiers built fires by intersections or stood guard in the night. And platoons waited behind them.
Soldiers would ask questions. “A message for the king? Have a seat right over here, mister.”
If he snuck behind them, scouts would hear him break twigs and trip over rocks in the dark. But what if he crossed the road and circled out of sight? Bad idea. If he could see three sentry fires in this little stretch of the valley, several platoons must camp out of sight.
Secret paths. Imri had pulled out of Nefi that she and her mules lugged food to the cave by tracks well off the road. But she never mentioned soldiers. And Imri never asked how to find her hidden trails.
Old Gideon learned by listening. Jeph crouched low, felt with a foot forward for stones or sticks, and crept through the bushes toward the sentinel fire.
A second man stood at the fire and pointed up the road toward Acre.
Jeph froze. The two soldiers stared right at him. Did they see him move? Were troops coming up behind him? He didn’t dare look around. His shoulders tightened. Muscles cramped in his calf. He shifted his foot. A twig snapped.
“What? You’ve been out here too long. You’re jumpy.”
Aramaic, the language of Jeph’s village.
Ten chariots rolled past carrying men with swords, spears, and battle axes. On the side of each chariot, light from the fire showed a yellow-winged torch on a blood-red background, the flag of Syria.
Jeph opened his eyes wide. So, the Syrians invaded while he and Imri hid in Nefertiti’s cave. Such an invasion during his grandfather’s time deposited Syrian families across Israel. They put down roots and became neighbors. So, Jephunneh and Imri grew up like all the children of his village, speaking both Hebrew and Aramaic.
Yet, why wasn’t the king defending his country? Jeph scratched the side of his head. The king never sat in the palace and sent messages to his troops at the front. During battle, Ahab dressed in flamboyant robes, carried his sword and spear onto the royal war chariot, and fought in the first rank.
The king should be with his troops at Fort Jezreel, but the Lord said Samaria. Okay. But how to get past these Syrians?
He leaned down and massaged the cramp in his calf. Stars disappeared one by one. Rocks and trees formed outlines in the morning mist and then took shape. The sun washed the last bit of night from the sky.
A steady shaking in the ground came from Acre, multiple feet thumping in step. Jeph poked his head out of the bushes. Soldiers. Each wore a dark red tunic with a yellow-winged torch across his breast.
They marched toward the Jenin intersection, the route to Samaria City. The moment they passed, Jeph darted onto the road and fell in step behind the column.
Chin back and chest out, he marched. A warbler on a low-hanging oak limb flipped his long, tapered tail. “Zerlip, zerlip, zerlip.”
Sweat formed on Jeph’s brow, but he forced his eyes straight ahead, took shallow marching breaths, and willed his tunic to turn red. The breeze carried the smell of the sentry’s dead fire. Trees inside a slight bend in the road would soon hide him from the sentinel.
“Stop that platoon. Man out of uniform.”
Jeph’s pulse raced.
Jeph followed the sentry back to the fire. He pushed his heels to the ground and refused to let them bounce. He puckered but neither whistled nor hummed.
An officer curled his lip and paced around Jeph. “Where’s your uniform, soldier?”
“Sir. Gone, sir.” Jeph’s mouth went dry.
The officer opened his mouth and pushed his tongue forward. “Lost. Where?”
Jeph rolled his eyes. “Acre, sir.” He blinked rapidly.
“Waterfront patrol pull you out of the wine room? Money gone? Uniform gone? Draped you in this native rag. Couldn’t find your unit, so they tacked you onto the nearest one headed for Fort Jezreel”
“Yes, sir.” Jeph looked down, and his pulse slowed.
“You’re the third one this week. Can’t fight in that getup, son. Fall back in with this platoon, but report to the quartermaster in our camp outside Fort Jezreel. Get yourself into a proper tunic and find your unit.”
“Yes, sir.” Jeph smiled and again marched toward Fort Jezreel at the back of the row.
Next to the road, soldiers in red tunics sat or milled around. Small groups at intersections and larger groups between. At each site, the red flag of Syria waved in the morning sun.
Markets would soon open in Megiddo, but no farmers passed with donkeys carrying vegetables or chickens. The road belonged to Syria.
They passed the intersection to Jenin. Jeph waited until a boulder hid him from that sentry. He marched off into the bushes and climbed into the hills.
On the Ridge Road to Samaria, women led donkeys piled high with melons, pears, yams, or baskets of chickens. Little girls drove gaggles of geese and herds of sheep. No uniforms, chariots, sentries, or flags.
Jeph pulled out a pomegranate and broke the skin. As he hiked north, he broke out sections of the fruit. The juice stained his fingers red, and the seeds crunched between his teeth. He sang, “The meek shall inherit the earth and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”
He fell in beside an old man leading a donkey with clusters of pots, shovels, and axes tied to the packsaddle.
Jeph bent and inhaled the scent of the donkey’s fur, and his eyes filled with tears at the aroma of home. “The Lord be with you, sir. She’s a beautiful beast.”
The old man squinted at him and lowered his head. “The Lord be with you, young man. She’s that all right. Old Beor’s a beauty. Smart, too.”
“Got Syrians racing to take over the valley.”
“Hmpf! Won that race weeks ago. Not safe to move about.”
“Yup. Looks safe up here in the hills, though, eh?”
“Don’t you go believing it, young man. They’ll soon be surrounding the king in his palace.”
How did this old man know the king’s location?
“May the Lord give you a good day at the market, sir.”
“Good day to you, son. Want to survive in the new order, best be brushing up on your Aramaic.”
“I’ll do that, sir.” Jeph waved goodbye and strode on ahead. Long after dark he reached the outskirts of Samaria City. He believed the old man with the smart donkey. The Syrians would soon surround the king in his palace. But not tonight.
Jeph followed familiar paths into the olive groves and found Uncle Gera’s little hut. In the morning Gera would come to his hut and take him to Obadiah, the king’s right-hand man.
Jeph opened his pack. One pita, a handful of raisins, and two figs. Save it for breakfast. He refilled his water skin from the tiny spring that bubbled beside Gera’s hut, sat on the bench, and unlaced his sandals.
He rubbed his aching feet. A smile turned the corners of his mouth. Last night he slept under a stone roof with the brush of bat wings and the splash of a stream. Tonight he lay under shimmery stars with the songs of crickets and toads.