Chapter One – a preview of the next book prior to final edits
Goodness no longer made sense.
Death was here. Hidden in the hills of the Galil. Like a hand groping forward in the darkness toward its prey. Salome quivered as the sensation raced up her spine. Silence vibrated through the trees, interrupted only by her gasp.
The sprint along the deer trail halted beside the body of a black dog. The yelp had been short. A half-buried arrow lodged in the soggy mane. Two feathers poked out between the black lips. The heartbeat pounding in her ears quickened. A tremor passed through her hand.
There was little time to consider the charcoal grey clouds tumbling over each other like puppies eager for milk. The two feathers slipped out easily from between his teeth. So much for feeding the mutt. He’d eaten her chicken. Again.
The downy barbs of the plume on the arrow sprang back. Hawk. Shot by a Parthian archer. He couldn’t be far. Her father’s archery now paid benefits. The forested hills above the lake teemed with wildlife. Probably thought it was a leopard. It was good to give people the benefit of the doubt. She yanked the arrow free and stuffed it in her basket.
The bony ribs protruding from matted fur lay still. Amazingly thin and fragile when no longer part of a bouncing, barking, slobbering guardian. The birdsong continued unabated. No threat prowled nearby. A bent yellow camphorweed flower quivered under the animal’s front paw. A bee hovered over it. The owner would probably want the arrow back.
James, her oldest son, was ten. He loved the dog. The boy and his siblings played at their aunt Dana’s, knowing only that their mother hunted for mushrooms, tubers and berries. “Stay away from the lake and don’t fight,” she had warned. In truth, she needed space. Her slingshot proved to be a distraction as she hit tree after tree. Would she need it now? It wouldn’t do much against a skilled archer.
Rain drops pattered on the leaves. Dark spots dotted her olive tunic. Disposing of the dog would have to wait. She turned toward home in Capernaum. Smoke tendrils drifted up the hill from the lakeshore to mark the fishing community. Boats were beached and the nets stretched out on drying racks in preparation for the evening ahead. The shower didn’t last long and the sun burst forth. Breathing deep, she slowed her pace. Peace was a precious commodity in these days.
What was that? The slightest movement of shade against shadow flitted at the periphery of her vision. He was there! The Parthian scout lurked near the sheep pens before blending into the forest. The oily-dirty odor of wool and dung raised the memory of her birthplace in Nazareth. But this wasn’t Nazareth. What was a Parthian doing this far into Roman territory?
The leather-vested man, wearing the underdress of a horse archer and sporting a full red beard, stepped out from a copse of trees, his horse in tow. A girl, not much older than James, walked behind him. Who was she? His daughter? A slave? Certainly not his comforter. She held the bow like an experienced huntress. “Wait!” he ordered. The language was clear – Parthian.
The horse halted like a trained dog. Ears flickered as flies buzzed nearby. It looked in her direction.
The Parthian showed no sign that he had seen Salome. He watched the town below. The four-foot-long sword in his hand appeared heavy but he held it parallel to the ground as if weightless. The warrior tied his mount, motioned for the young girl to stay and then crouched, watching a group of tradesmen debating under a canopy around a small campfire below. Salome retreated into the bush and waited. The warrior crept down the hillside.
If I didn’t know better, he could be my cousin. Lighter skin, auburn hair.
A twig snap, off to her right, cracked like a whip. She ducked lower. Moments later, none other than the centurion from Sepphoris, Anthony Vasillius, appeared and hunched – twenty-five feet behind the Parthian.
So, you’ve recovered from your poisoning and you haven’t changed your appetites. I may not be sixteen any longer and I may not be chef in your kitchen but there is no way you’re catching me now. The centurion had removed his helmet and breastplate but that muscular frame and that grip on his dagger was all too familiar. Why was he so far from home?
The centurion moved toward the tied-up mount. The young girl hadn’t noticed him. Was she about to become a stolen girl? Stolen girls comforted the Roman officers in the fortress.
Salome pried a jagged pebble from the ground at her feet and fit it into her sling. Her right hand trembled. She stood and hurled the pebble at the Parthian. The missile hit him in the elbow and he pivoted – spotting Anthony. Without hesitation, the warrior whistled. The horse reared as Anthony drew close, slashing at the air with its hooves. The young girl blended into the bushes.
Run? Scream? Thoughts sprang up like spring wild flowers after the rain. Salome discarded the options as based on fear. Courage! Breathe! Anthony’s gone for now. Three deep breaths. Again. She stepped forward with her woven basket, filled with berries, and moved toward the warrior.
How will I communicate that his girl killed my son’s dog? With one hand she held up the arrow.
The man turned in her direction, raised his sword and scanned the bushes as if expecting an ambush. He does look like Ima’s younger brother.
“Hello, friend,” Salome called out. “You’ve come a long way on a beautiful day to our peaceful town.”
The warrior took a defensive posture with his sword held toward her but she marched right up to him as she held out the basket in a sign of peace. The girl appeared behind him. When Salome stood ten feet away, he grunted and gestured to the ground with his sword. She held out the basket and the arrow. The girl rushed forward and claimed the arrow. Finally, the warrior turned, mounted his horse, lifted the girl to ride behind him and trotted away into the trees.
What is it about these mysterious warriors who probe the tender underbelly of the Roman beast? Someone who lives here, like Zebedee, should know.
Instead of questioning her husband Zebedee, she hiked down the hill, past the traders at their campfire, and sought wisdom about the Parthians from the women emerging from their homes. The women hauled baskets of laundry to wash and pound out the stains from their men’s clothing on the rocks by the shore on the sea of Kinnereth.
A jeweler’s wife named Tamar had the most interesting news. “Thousands I tell you,” she said. “There were thousands of Parthians on camels and horses.” She held up a tunic for examination. “The whole of Yerushalayim was filled with the sound of their animals. They sang as they rode – an eerie chanting kind of song. King Herod was terrified – at least that’s what my Haime said when he got home.”
“Why was the king so frightened?” Salome asked. She knew he’d murdered his wife and sons. Paranoid, yes but frightened? It seemed unlikely.
Tamar threw the tunic into a woven basket. “These Parthian Magi were king-maker’s looking for a new sovereign. Haime said they had seen a prophesy and something in the stars to show them that a new king of the Jews was born.” She tossed another tunic into the water near the scrubbing rocks.
“Sounds crazy to me,” Salome said, looking back at her own empty wash line. Why was this always women’s work? “You’d think we would have been told if there was a new king in our land.”
“The way Haime explained it to me, Rome and Parthia now have a peace agreement and the border between them is somewhere near here.” The woman bent over the tunic on the rocks, scrubbing at a stain. “That’s why Rome is building Sepphoris and other fortresses. In the last battle between them the Parthians slaughtered 40,000 Romans and took over this whole land.” She stood and stretched her back. “Your father can tell you what it was like to live with Parthians in control of this land. They even installed their own high priest in the Temple at Jerusalem.”
“You’ve already told me more than I care to hear.” Salome skipped a stone across the lake surface. “What these nations do can’t really affect a fishermen’s wife like me. The Parthians look like young men dressed up in warrior’s garb – nothing more.” She turned to leave. “I hardly know what to believe about events so long ago. Maybe I should worry about the Parthians more than I am.”
“It’s not the Parthians I’m worried about,” Tamar said. “When Herod sent his men to kill off those babies, mine was one of them. Only one child got away and to this day I believe he’s the one Herod was after.”
Her sister, Mariam’s words stormed back to grapple with Salome’s thoughts. “Hashem (God) warned Yuseph in a dream that the king would come for my son. The Parthian Magi left and we went down to Egypt.” She shook her head vigorously and strolled away along the lake shore.
Why would Hashem take the legitimate child of one woman while sparing the illegitimate child of another? How could he call on people to trust him?
The rush of wind across her cheek lingered like the touch of a passing feather and she caressed the place with her fingers. The clouds skittered across the hills. Did Hashem know? Did he hear the unspoken prayers and questions of his own people? Even women?
Within a week after her second missed cycle she knew for sure. She sensed the fluttering. Of course, her husband was away. The sardines were at their prime and Zebedee was out with the men early catching, repairing nets and then trying to sell off the abundance when everyone else had their share as well. This meant traveling farther inland to find new markets. When the next full moon comes, I’ll make a special meal and congratulate him.
The first spotting on her undergarments two weeks later took her by surprise but she still persisted on her foray into the bush for mushrooms. The cramping started slow and took her breath away. Hashem, please! A gull swooshed by and it was as if that bird took the life within her as it passed. Tears streamed as she wrapped her arms around her abdomen and rocked herself toward comfort. Hashem, not now. No, no, no! A song, a moan. Nothing helped.
Mariam drops children like a rabbit, even after all she did, and now this. What did I ever do?
On her hands and knees, she crawled through the bush toward home but the cramping paralyzed her movement. In the end, she succumbed to the loss and lay like a wilted flower, unseen and uncared for.
Salome dug in the dirt with a stick and her fingers, buried the tiny form and the bloody issue without ceremony, then set a rock over the small grave. Hashem… Did you see this little one? Did this one count?
A heavy weight drizzled into her limbs and settled over her heart. Taking the steps home was like walking through deep mounds of clay. She passed Dana without a word and wilted onto her bed for a nap.
James stopped at the outside door to yell, “Ima, I’m going to my friend’s house for supper. Don’t wait up for me.” She heard him tip toe into his room sometime after sunset. It was the longest night she had ever known.
Days later, when Zebedee returned and expressed his desires, she feigned weariness and turned away. “The children … it’s late … not tonight.”
“You unfaithful wench!” He grabbed her shoulders roughly and turned her on her back. Being suffocated by a bear soaked in fish oil would have been less terrifying and revolting. Zebedee’s voice was a roar in her ears. “My sisters keep reminding me I got dumped with the trash of Nazareth. So be it! You’re my wife, now learn your place.” She fought back her gag.
He would not be denied and when he had spent his passion, she curled in place, tears streaming. While her body lay trapped, her mind roamed free.
Before the week ends, Nathaniel would know about this – the only man who understood her would save her.
Four days later, now on the run, Salome bent over a dying carpenter from Nazareth and compelled her courage through the plea in his last breaths. “Save my daughters – the centurion took them.”
“I’m no one’s Savior,” she said. The empty pathway mocked her plight. Where was help when you needed it? Where was Nathaniel?
“They’re all I have,” he gasped. The patch of blood spread into a small pool.
The rolling hills of the Galilean countryside displayed a splash of wildflowers undulating in the breeze. The Beit Netofa valley below vibrated with waves of wheat and the Via Maris streamed with ant-sized caravans of international traders leading camels, donkeys, horses and ox carts. The sails of Roman galleys shone bright on the Great Sea in the distance. The slightest tang of salt hung in the breeze.
“Benjamin!” she called. No response. “Benjamin!” She shook him. No breath. No pulse. Why me?
No one else traipsed this isolated path overlooking the fortress of Sepphoris. Hashem, are even the fathers in our nation of no value to you? She glanced back along the trail she had taken, then grasped the spear protruding from her former neighbor’s side and yanked it out.
“Sparrow!” a voice called.
She pivoted and tossed the spear into the tall grasses nearby. Blood! On her hand. She wiped it along the grass.
A lean warrior, bronzed by the sun, stepped out from the forest. One hand stroked his close-cropped beard and the other grasped a dagger tucked into the leather belt around his tunic. “There are more stolen girls to rescue.” He pointed toward Sepphoris. “Are you with us or not?”
“I’m not supposed to be here,” she responded, adjusting her mantle over her mouth. “Why are you following me?” The forest behind the warrior lay still and dark. He had grown muscular since she’d seen him last.
The man glanced toward the fortress. “We know you’re a woman on the run, looking for love.” He held out his hand and took a step toward her. “It’s been years since you played messenger for the warriors of the homeland but we need you now. The girls need help.”
She held out a sling, extracted from her simple beige tunic. “This is the only weapon I know how to use.” A red streak between her fingers needed attention. She rubbed it off on the grass until she was satisfied.
The zealot warrior crouched over the still form on the path. “Who was he?”
Salome wiped the corner of her eye with her mantle. “A neighbor when I was young. A carpenter.” The twisted mouth framed by a salt and pepper beard betrayed the legacy of a community pillar known for his laughter and generosity.
The zealot squinted at her. “We know you played chef to the centurion a dozen years ago. We know that his desires were not only for your food. You have other weapons.” A gentle finger closed the dead man’s eyelids.
The scar on the carpenter’s wrist turned greyer. “I have children now,” Salome said. She wiped away blood from curled fingers. “The centurion’s thirst is for untouched maidens.”
Grasping the dead man’s ankles, the zealot nodded toward the stiff hands and Salome took hold of the cooling flesh. Together, they dragged the hefty tradesman into the forest. “I’ll alert the gatekeeper in Nazareth,” he said.
“What do you expect me to do?” She wiped away the last of the blood stuck on her fingernail.
“Find out where he keeps the girls,” the zealot replied. He broke off two sections from a cedar branch and laid them over the body. “If you’re not going back to Capernaum soon, perhaps you can find work in the fortress and renew his acquaintance.”
The intensity of the shudder surprised her.
The warrior laid his hand gently on her shoulder. “Leave us messages in the usual places,” he said. “The girls need you. We need you.”
The zealot vanished into a crevice in the hills and Salome scanned the fortress again. A dozen years. So much had gone wrong since that first day she had chosen to pass on the message for her friend Thaddeus. The cross in the city plaza no longer stood but the memory lived strong. And along with it, her taste of a true love.
Had she really lived and loved on these streets during those heady days?