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29 Stopover at the fort

Elijah clutched the bridle of the king’s lead horse and jogged from Mt. Carmel toward Fort Jezreel. What an honor to make this symbolic run to headquarters with the king. The Lord sent the fire, and things would be different now.

Let Nathan mutter about hornets’ nests. Old Nate needed a little time, but he would come unstuck from the past. Elijah was showing the way, and he would help King Ahab explain the new order of things to Queen Jezebel.

He thrust his shoulders back and stuck his chest out. No going back to Baal worship. No false gods of any kind. Not anymore. The people asked, and the Lord sent the proof. Everyone could see the Lord was the one true God. Knees high, like a horse on parade, Elijah let his laugh boom out ahead.

When they cleared the trees and hit the open road, a blast of wind knocked him into the horse. “Oh, sorry, boy. You okay?” The horse took the jolt in stride, and the next gust blew sheets of rain against them. Cold. He never should have tucked Dad’s goatskin back into his bag. Maybe he could fish it out while he jogged and… Nope. Bad idea. Okay, so he’d been cold before. He put his head down, kept his hand on the bridle and jogged for God and country.

At the first crossing of the Kishon, they splashed through ankle-deep water. But when they hit the Megiddo turnoff, the road crossed another bend in the river, and Elijah found himself pushing through fast, frigid water at his thighs.

He raised his chin and tried to picture that ball of fire as it fell from the sky a couple of hours ago. This had to be right. He was in the center of the Lord’s will, wasn’t he? But maybe they all could have taken rooms for the night in Jokneam, right there at the foot of Mt. Carmel.

His teeth chattered. He shivered. The rain fell like slabs of ice. A wind burst knocked him off his feet, and he lost his grip on the bridle. He stumbled ahead and found the strap again, but his knees lowered. His shoulders sagged.

When the king’s seven chariots turned up the hill to the fort, Elijah could not climb as fast as Ahab’s horses. He grasped the bridle for support, but the horse jerked its head away and let him wobble to the side. He slowed from a jog to a walk and then stood panting at the gate with his head down and his hands on his knees.

Ahab’s chariot, and then the guards’ chariots, rattled over the plank bridge. Elijah gasped for breath and staggered after them. The giant doors slammed shut so close to his tail end that the jolt shook his spine straight.

Of course, if the guards who pushed the gate closed had known the importance of his mission, they would have waited a few moments for him to clear the gate. No big deal. They would have plenty of time to get to know him as he came and went on the king’s business. Dad’s old phrase—“Small matter, Pal.”—covered it.

On the dark plaza, the wind howled past pillars and sheets of rain pounded the pavers. But no farmers gossiped. No geese gabbled. No little girls giggled, and no crowd mocked Elijah’s elbows. The market would not open again for another two days.

At the far end, torchlight flickered on guards as they stepped out of chariots and formed an oval around the king. They seemed to hug themselves in the rain and bounce on the balls of their feet, willing the headquarters gate to open faster.

Elijah wrapped his arms around himself as he hobbled up the street to join them.

Out in the vines of Zarephath, little Zim said, “Tell it to rain,” and Zim’s mother countered, “that’s not how it works.” Well, here’s how it worked. Bursts of wind knocked him, and it rained just as cold inside the fort as out.

While Elijah trailed halfway across the plaza, the gate to the compound opened, and the king and his guards hustled up the path and into headquarters. The gate closed behind them. He walked faster. He would get to the gate a few moments late, but surely the guards would open for the man who ran at the head of the king’s horses.

Yet when Elijah neared the gate, the guards straightened and crossed spears in front of him. He looked from one guard to the other. “Um… the king. We, ah…” Not even Nathan sounded so timid.

He peered over their spears and up the path at the door of the headquarters building. The king must have hurried in ahead of Elijah to explain the new situation to the queen. Maybe she waited up for him. Or maybe the king prized the mission and woke her. Regardless, Elijah should help, but these gate guards had not been informed.

The king would come out any moment now. “Elijah! Come in out of the rain. You men, this is Mr. Dew-nor-Rain. He made the fire fall. From now on, this man is my personal assistant.”

A guard stepped out of the dark. “Son, don’t hang around the gate. One of these young studs might think you’re dangerous. And if they don’t slice you open, this rain will freeze your gut shut. Come over by the fire, boy.”

Elijah followed him and rubbed his hands in the flames and rotated his back to the heat. He held each foot in the fire for a moment and then dug Dad’s goatskin out of his bag and slid into its protection.

Cup of hot soup is what we need now, eh?” The voice came from across the fire, from fingers stretched toward the flames, from a face. Several faces circled the fire behind arms and hands that shifted in and out of the heat.

Takes a night like this for old cousin Esau to make sense, don’t it? ‘I’m dying. What do I want with a birthright?’” Chuckles came from all around.

“‘Just give me a hot cup of those red lentils, Jake.’” Eyes opened and teeth flashed with the laughs that followed.

And the inside of a tent with a large dry towel.”

One end of Elijah’s mouth curled up, but he hid the laugh.

The gate to the headquarters compound creaked open. Elijah held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut tight. The king stood at the gate and would call his name.

Mr. Dew-nor-Rain! Message from the queen for Mr. Dew-nor-Rain.” The accent came from Jabesh in Gilead.

Elijah opened his eyes wide. The torchlight showed a black tunic and a face not at all like the king. Sakkar. Baby Omar screamed again from the flames of Kronos. Elijah held his jaw and squirmed. He ran his fingers over the scar on his forehead. How had that snake wiggled his way into headquarters?

Faces around the fire went from smiles to snarls. Conversation ceased.

Elijah tucked his arms in, hunkered down, and hid his face from the gate.

Sakkar spoke into the night. “Anyhow, Dew-nor-Rain’s a dead man. Queen says by this time tomorrow if his throat’s not laid as wide open as them Baal officials at the Kishon, she’ll let her gods do their worst on her.” The gate creaked closed.

Blood rushed from Elijah’s face. His hands turned clammy. A boulder sat on his chest. He focused on the coals at the base of the fire and pulled his elbows tight against his sides. There must be some mistake. He may have failed to help the king understand his mission. But a dead man?

If he could explain to Jezebel what the Lord was doing, she would understand. Fat chance with Sakkar in the way.

The eyes around the fire looked down. One pair shot a quick glance through the flames at Elijah. Then another. But no one held his gaze. No one spoke. The faces focused at their owners’ feet and gave their visitor permission to leave.

Elijah padded softly across the plaza and crouched behind a pillar, out of sight of the guards who controlled the fort’s heavy gate.

At the noise of an oncoming chariot, a guard spun around. He pressed against the gate and put his eye to the peephole. “Obadiah.”

Elijah tensed. Obadiah hid people from the queen. Maybe Nathan was with him. The moment the gate swung, Elijah squeezed through like a cat and raised his arms to halt the chariot. “Nathan! We’ve got to get out of here.”

But the chariot horses trotted straight at him. “Nathan?” He jumped aside as they shook the planks and clattered through the gate. “No. Please, Lord, no.” But the chariot disappeared with Nathan into the dark plaza, into the belly of the fort with Sakkar.

Then the chariot wheels clunked to a stop on the paving stones, and a wet, shivering form strode out of the dark, between the heavy doors, and out to Elijah. “Lijah?”

Elijah whimpered and fell against him. “Nathan. Nathan.”

Nathan stood him up and turned him down the hill. “Old Shillem. Our customer in Rehov.” He cupped Elijah’s elbow in his hand and steered him through the cold rain. “Come on, Lij.” He pushed. “At this rate, we’ll freeze to death before we get to Shillem’s shop.”

Elijah did his best to jog with Nathan, but after several strides, he slowed to a walk.

Nathan put his arm around Elijah’s ribs and took some of his weight. They walked and jogged and slogged through the storm. In Rehov, the stars still hid above the clouds. Elijah and Nathan could not see the shop signs, so they ran their fingers over doors. Nathan found a carving of grapes and a wheel of cheese. “Here it is. Shillem’s Wine and Cheese.”

Shillem’s family slept above the shop, but how to wake them, instead of the neighbors? If Jezebel heard that Mr. Dew-nor-Rain stopped at Shillem’s, she would butcher the whole family.

Look.” Nathan pointed to a narrow alley. They followed it back and squeezed into a shed. Nathan moved six stacks of baskets onto a small cart, and they lay shivering in their wet clothes, too cold to sleep. But before first light a noise came from the shop.

Let’s go see.” Nathan pushed open the shop door, and Elijah peered over his shoulder.

A candle stood on the counter, showing a wizened, weather-beaten man with a long brown beard hunched over a broom. Old Shillem.

Nathan cleared his throat.

For several seconds, old Shillem stared hard at them.

Elijah sent a weak smile over Nathan’s shoulder.

Old Shillem grabbed Elijah and Nathan by the hands and pulled them toward the stairs. “We all know what you did at the Kishon,” he whispered. “Quiet now. No one needs to know you’re in Rehov. Get up there and lie down in the second room. Go now. Quiet.”

He tossed in an armload of dry clothes with two big soft towels, and Elijah and Nathan rubbed off the cold rain. They slid into the dry tunics and huddled in the fluffy cotton bedding, still shivering.

Old Shillem came right back with hot bread smelling of yeast, two wedges of sharp cheese, a small skin of Tishbe red wine, and a jug of spring water. “Give me those wet clothes, boys. We’ll dry them with our things. Now I want you boys to sleep. Only my wife knows anyone is up here. Eat and sleep all day. By tonight I’ll know what to do with you.”

Elijah shook. He quivered inside, and not from the cold. Yesterday he shouted to the crowd and directed the show. Last night he ran at the head of the king’s horses. But this morning, if Mother were to walk in, he would sob in her arms. “I don’t understand, Nate. I don’t understand.”

Nathan gnawed on a fragrant wedge of cheese and let crumbs of warm bread spray from his mouth. “Don’t try to understand, Lijah. Just do what old Shillem says. Sleep.”

That evening they sat and listened to old Shillem. “You can’t stay here so close to Jezreel. You need to go south. And you need to start before the queen’s scouts get down into the Jordan Valley.”

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