Warrior Prophets II: Assassin
Chapter 1: Copper Threat
“Remember to keep your peace in Eglon’s palace,” Ehud warned Ashtom as they rode the rickety carriage east towards the Jordan River, facing the rising sun. Hawks high above cried greetings to the approaching dawn.
Ehud, the stout Benjaminite blacksmith, with his apprentice, tall Ashtom, entered the narrow part of the Jordan River at the height of the summer. The River had lost its former power. The pair of strong donkeys carrying Ehud’s carriage were able to navigate the crossing easily. The only fear was that the light carriage would be tossed by the river’s current.
“Sit on the back of the carriage to stabilize it,” Ehud commanded Ashtom as he navigated the donkeys over the slippery stones of the river. Ehud’s calloused and scarred hands held the reigns confidently. Ashtom scrambled onto the carriage to spread himself over the back of the wagon. His simple linen robe fluttered with the breeze.
“Why can’t I speak my mind if I wish?” the thin youth asked from behind, holding tightly onto the edges of the wooden carriage.
“Because your mind is still ill-formed and I fear that what may come out of your mouth will be at best nonsense and at worst highly offensive. You would disgrace me and our tribe. Shall I leave you outside the palace with the donkeys?”
“No, no. I’ll behave.”
“Promise that you will not say a word within the confines of the palace.”
“I promise, by God Almighty, that not a word will pass my lips.”
“Good. Eglon has been gaining power of late and we would be best served to keep our friendly relations.” Ehud ran his hand through his short dark beard. The brown of his beard matched his thick brown curls and his deep brown eyes. They contrasted with the white linen robe he saved for formal occasions. There was nothing he could do though to clean his darkened hands or soot stained fingernails.
“Are you afraid of him?” Ashtom asked.
“He has not given us cause to fear him and our militia is unrivaled amongst the tribes of Israel. Nevertheless, it is wise to be cautious with allies, and I’m sure he has not forgotten the ignominy his grandfather suffered at our hands.”
“You mean Balak? The one who tried to curse us in the desert? That’s ancient history.”
“The memory of a monarchy lasts longer than that of mere plebes, especially regarding injury. You can sit up front again.”
The carriage left the river behind and scaled up the slope towards the plains of Moav. Ashtom climbed back to sit next to Ehud. They rode on the well trodden path southward, the King’s Road, parallel to the glistening Sea of Salt, towards the capital of Moav.
“If you are so suspicious, why do we do business with him?”
“He is the best source of copper and we need copper to work.”
“Are there no friendlier sources of copper?”
“Friendlier perhaps, but more expensive as well. In any case, Eglon is friendly enough. We need not seek enemies where they do not exist. The days are tense enough as it is.”
“You mean with the other tribes?”
“Yes. Whatever we do or say seems to upset them.”
“Why should we care? The tribe of Benjamin is strong enough without the other tribes. We are the strongest!” Ashtom pounded his chest.
“Perhaps, but they are still our brothers.”
“If they don’t feel the same way, what’s the use of our ‘brotherhood’?”
“The problem is they wish for a stronger brotherhood, while our tribe is happy to remain independent, the way Joshua left us.”
“That is their problem, isn’t it?”
“For now. But their problems may become our problems.”
Ehud and Ashtom trotted down the long road through the Tribe of Reuben as the sun reached its zenith. Wide, sparsely vegetated pastures accompanied them to the left and right. They crossed the Israelite boundary, the Arnon River, and entered the dusty dominion of Moav. Israelite and Moavite merchants traveled both north and south on the King’s Road. The King’s Road was an ancient roadway that had been in continuous use for centuries. It started from the Kingdom of Edom in the south, passed through Kir Moav, Eglon’s capital, and continued north all the way to Damascus.
By late afternoon, Ehud could see Kir Moav in the distance. The fortress city was carved into the mountain. It sat perched on a massive cliff, at least a league high, overlooking the deep valley to the west. Vultures spiraled over some dead prey below. The thick tall walls of pinkish stone surrounding Kir Moav appeared as is if they had grown out of the mountain itself. Except for the King’s Road that ran north-south through the heavy gates of the city, there was no other access to the city. To the southwest was a treacherous ascent and to the east, miles of endless desert. On each visit, Ehud, the seasoned tactician, always contemplated how one might take the city by force, and always concluded it could only be done from the inside. No army could long lay siege in this unforgiving desert. The city’s weakest point, always the gate, was made of three reinforced layers of hardened copper. Ehud always marveled at the workmanship, his blacksmith fingers eager to touch the metal. Since the founding of the people of Moav, none had succeeded in conquering their stronghold. They had lost the plains to the north generations before to the Amorites, a people that Moses subsequently destroyed. The land, now twice conquered, was bestowed by Moses to the tribes of Gad and Reuben. Ehud suspected that the offense remained in Eglon’s memory as well.
Two armored guards at the gate waved Ehud in. Ehud led his donkeys through the busy sandstone streets of Kir Moav. Men and women in light robes with cotton head scarves walked purposely through the open marketplace of the main road. Stalls were filled with radishes, carrots, turnips, dried figs, dates, almonds, cinnamon and a colorful variety of fruits, vegetables and spices. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the streets, together with grilled meat. Ashtom eyed the fresh produce hungrily.
“We will eat from our own rations,” Ehud said, noticing Ashtom’s gaze.
“Their stuff looks so good,” Ashtom said longingly.
“Half of it is imported from our own fields and costs three times the price here. We will eat after we finish our business in the palace.”
Eglon’s palace commanded the southwest quadrant of the city. Large pink sandstone structures of previous generations made up the palace complex. Eglon’s addition was distinctly taller and grander, a testament to Eglon’s rise in fortune. Ehud was shocked to see over one thousand troops camped outside Eglon’s palace.
“He has never had so many troops before,” Ehud stated.
“Is this trouble for us?” Ashtom asked.
“He would be mad to attack us and he knows it. He is most likely preparing for an attack upon Amon.”
“Then we are not in trouble.”
“No. Not yet. Let us see if he is as welcoming as in previous years.”
Two guards recognized Ehud and waved him through the palace gates. They rode to the entrance of the palace undisturbed and stopped their wagon in the shade of the palace stables. A royal stableman rushed out of the stables and quickly grabbed hold of the reigns.
“How long do you expect to stay, sir?” the young stableman bowed.
“Just long enough to conduct our business and collect our yearly copper,” Ehud responded. He removed the sword with its sheath from his side and placed it in the back of the cart.
“You too, Ashtom,” Ehud pointed at the boy’s short sword. “Leave your weapon behind.”
“Why? I thought we needed them to protect ourselves from brigands.”
“That was on the road. Now we are in the King’s palace where we are under his protection. A lone sword will do little good if we are threatened. Besides, it is insulting for those not of his guard to bring a weapon into his chambers. Now stop arguing and take it off!”
“Fine,” Ashtom pouted as he removed the sheath and short sword from his belt.
Ehud grabbed a small copper vessel from the back of the cart together with a clay jug. He opened the jug and poured oil into the copper vessel and gave the copper vessel to Ashtom.
“Hold this carefully and don’t spill it,” Ehud commanded.
Ehud and Ashtom walked up the stone stairs to the palace.
Guards with spears stood on either side of the entrance. They allowed the visitors through, into a large antechamber. Tall marble pillars supported a high vaulted roof. High windows let a desert breeze into the room.
A short wizened old man stood erect next to the doors of the King’s audience chamber.
“Greetings, Benjaminite,” the usher welcomed Ehud.
“Greetings, Tramon.” Ehud bowed lightly.
“Is your station the same? Shall I announce you as in the past?” Tramon asked.
“My status has not changed. You may announce me as usual.”
Tramon opened the heavy door to the chamber, faced the king on his throne and with a voice that belied his size announced to the roomful of court attendants:
“Ehud son of Gera, of the Tribe of Benjamin! Blacksmith, Captain of Thousands, Representative of the Elders of Benjamin for matters of Trade to the Kingdom of Moav!”
Ehud walked past more marble columns. Woven tapestries adorned the walls. One depicted a scene of the Patriarch Abraham looking in anguish over the city of Sodom. A second tapestry showed the destruction of Sodom with bright red flames and hailstones reducing the city to ashes. A third scene was an immodest couple in a cave, Lot and his daughter in one of the more famous incestuous stories from the Book of Moses. Lot was both the father and the grandfather of Moav, the founder of this powerful nation. For some reason Moav’s descendents relished the lurid story of their ancestor. The fourth tapestry showed Balak, King of Moav, Eglon’s grandfather, on a mountaintop together with Bilaam the Sorcerer, overlooking the desert camp of the Tribes of Israel. Ehud stared in appreciation of the fine workmanship as he slowly walked towards Eglon.
“Is it not magnificent, Ehud?” Eglon asked rising from his throne to Ehud.
“Beautiful work, your Majesty. Your taste in adornment is inspiring.”
“Ehud of Benjamin!” Eglon grabbed Ehud in a bear hug. “It is absolutely delectable seeing you. You are by far my favorite delegate.” Eglon let the shorter man go. Eglon was a full head taller than Ehud. Eglon was large and muscular though pale despite the desert sun. His head was shaved bald, except for a tuft of crimson hair that he wore in a tail Egyptian-style. He was swathed in a white cotton robe, with a heavy belt and necklace of solid gold.
“It is wonderful to see you as well, your Majesty. Putting on some weight?”
“Ah, Ehud. That is what I love about you. You will not fawn upon me as do these sycophants that surround me and visit me.” Eglon motioned with both hands at the crowds of attendants hugging the stone walls. “Yes. I have put on some weight. My mother always said I was too thin. I think the extra weight sits well on me, regally even.”
“It is certainly royal weight.”
“Ah, Ehud. I love it. What is that trinket I see in your servant’s hand?”
Ehud motioned for Ashtom to hand him the copper vessel.
“Your Majesty.” Ehud held the copper vessel with a flourish. “What can we present to a king so wealthy and generous? Knowing your fondness for things of high quality, we humbly present you with a small gift, of one precious item within another. Note this copper vessel. It is copper of the highest quality, from your very own mines, worked and polished until it almost shines like gold. However, this is no typical vessel for holding oil. Note two innovations. The first is the cover. No longer must you worry about insects flying or crawling into your dish. See how perfectly it fits over the dish. The second innovation, and this I have not seen by any other blacksmith, is that the cover is attached to the dish. You see how this hinge keeps the cover in place, yet allows the cover to be easily removed and replaced? This cover can never go missing. The two are joined forever in wholesome and complementary partnership. Within is the finest virgin olive oil, the first pressing, from the choicest grove in Benjamin, from my father’s own estate.”
Ehud handed the vessel to Eglon. Eglon played with the cover, opening and closing the vessel. He looked carefully at the workmanship, noting the lines of the engravings, the curve of the metal, the smoothness of the polish. He dipped his pinky into the oil and tasted it. His eyes lit up. He placed the vessel on his throne and with tears moistening his eyes gave Ehud another bear-hug.
“Ehud, this is the most precious, meaningful gift I have ever received. Your hands and mind made this vessel. Absolutely ingenious. I have always said you are the greatest blacksmith between Egypt and Aram. I am honored by your gift. And the oil is truly pristine. I shall savor every drop.”
Eglon sat back on his throne, placing the vessel in his lap. He snapped his fingers and a white-robed attendant was at his side. A moment later the attendant returned with a plate carrying freshly baked pita. He placed the plate on a low table next to the throne. The King of Moav grabbed the pita, ripped it in half, dipped the pita into the oil and stuffed a handful into his mouth. A beatific smile graced his face.
“Behold!” Eglon bellowed to the chamber as he chewed. “This is a true friend! A gift from the heart! What need I for gold or silver or poems about myself. A gift of intelligence, a gift of understanding – that is a true gift. Come Ehud, let us do our business. I know you have come on a long road. State your request.”
“Your Majesty, we merely seek the normal allotment of copper, as in previous years.”
“Of course, of course. Most reasonable, my dear friend. There is unfortunately a small complication.”
“Yes. The demand for copper has increased significantly this past year and the supply has not kept up, with obvious results.”
“The price has gone up.”
“And the amount we can sell is reduced.”
“We can only provide you with half the allotment of last year.”
“Half!? Where has all the copper gone?”
“You might have noticed my troops outside.”
“I was going to ask about them. I presume you are realizing your ambitions over Amon.”
“Ambitions? No, no. I am the least ambitious of people. I merely seek to quell some disturbances with our unruly neighbors. There is nothing like several hundred copper swords to quiet a border. Of course it is not as good as the Philistine iron, but the Amonites will understand our message.”
“That is quite a force to send a message. It is a force that would even give a Tribe of Israel pause.”
“Israel? That is the furthest thought from my mind. Why do you say such thing? Are the Benjaminites finally tired of their brothers’ unification efforts? Do you suggest an alliance against them?”
“No. Though we do not see eye to eye with our brothers, I would never dream of fighting them. The council of Elders will eventually sort out our disagreements. I, for one, merely have pity for the Amonites that will face your force. But please, let us return to the matter of the copper. How much will it cost?”
“The same amount as in previous years.”
“The same price for half the copper? That is robbery!”
“Come now, Ehud. You are a man of the world. You understand very well the mechanics of supply and demand. You are of course free to seek elsewhere. I understand the Egyptian supply at Timna remains strong, or perhaps the Philistines would be willing to part with some of their precious iron.”
“You know very well that the Tribe of Simeon has the exclusive concession from the Egyptians to sell to the other tribes of Israel – and they are charging a hefty price. And the Philistines that are ready to sell iron are charging extravagant sums. You know I have limited choices.”
“My dear Ehud, I do like you so. Because of our friendship, because of your exquisite gift, I shall grant you a boon. I will spare some more copper than I would have normally allowed. We shall make it three quarters of the usual shipment. Am I not generous? For the normal price in gold that I am certain you carry in your pouch there.”
A servant entered the chamber hurriedly and nodded at Eglon.
“See, the copper has already been loaded onto your transport.” Eglon smiled. “Let us conclude our exchange and end it in a friendly manner.”
“Your Majesty, I see you have seen the matter through. You are generous in your extortion. Here is my tribe’s gold, though I will have much to answer for upon my return.” Ehud handed Eglon a heavy sack with gold. Eglon weighed the sack in his hands.
“Exact as always, Ehud.” Eglon smiled. “Now will you eat with us to celebrate the successful conclusion of our negotiations?”
“I am honored, but first with your permission, I will see to the quality and amount of the copper. Your servants in the past have not always been so exact or careful. Three years ago some foolish servant thought to convince me that ingots of lead were merely rusted copper.”
“Yes, I remember the ignoble fellow. I assigned him to the mine itself to teach him the difference. When you are done with your arrangements, please return for the evening meal.”
“Yakshal of Benjamin!” the old usher at the door announced. “Courier of the Benjaminite Elders!”
Ehud turned to see a tall muscular man in sweat-drenched robes approach. Yakshal bowed towards Eglon.
“Your Majesty,” Yakshal said breathlessly, “I carry a message for Ehud son of Gera from the tribal elders. I beg your pardon that I may deliver it, as it is of the utmost urgency.”
“Speak,” Eglon commanded.
“Ehud,” Yakshal faced him. “You must return immediately. There is talk of war.”
“War!? Against who?”
“The tribes of Israel.”
“What? What madness is this? I just left this morning and all was quiet.”
“We received word at noon that the tribes were assembling against us. Our elders have decided to repel these invaders. I was sent with our fastest horse to call you home.”
“What pray tell,” Eglon asked, hiding a smile, “has caused this threat of violence?”
“There was terrible incident in one of our cities, Givaah. A concubine was raped and subsequently died. Her master, a man of Ephraim, a troublemaker if there ever was one, cut her corpse into pieces and sent one to each tribe. The tribes assembled and vowed vengeance against us unless we give up the men of Givaah. Our elders refuse, claiming it’s an internal matter. As we speak, the combined armies of the rest of the tribes are gathering against us. Ehud, there is no time to waste.”
“Ehud, you will ride in the dark?” Eglon nodded at the setting sun outside the windows.
“I have no choice. Yakshal, I will take your horse. You and Ashtom return with the donkeys and the copper in the morning. Ashtom, make sure there are no errors with the amount. Your Majesty, with your permission, I shall answer to the call of my elders.”
“Of course, Ehud. May I offer some assistance? An alliance? We joked about it earlier, but the gods seem to have a wicked sense of humor.”
“I shall convey your generous offer to our elders, though my hope is that we can resolve this madness before coming to bloodshed. That I shall attempt, even if I stand alone.”
“Good fortune then, Ehud. I shall await with bated breath word of developments.”
“I am certain your spies will keep you well appraised. Goodbye your Majesty.”
“Goodbye my friend.”
Eglon hugged Ehud one last time, a single tear moistening his eye.
Ehud, Yakshal and Ashtom departed the audience chamber.
Eglon sat back on his throne and called for his chief-of-staff.
“Ritka, what are your thoughts on this development?”
“Truly. We shall move up our attack on Amon. We march in the morning.”
“Yes, my liege.”
“Ehud is naïve to think they’ll avoid war. It’s been building up for years and that dead concubine is the spark that will light the fire. The Benjaminites have been too arrogant and their brothers will cut them down to size.”
“What role do you expect we shall play, my liege?”
“If we time our campaign correctly, we will pick up all the pieces. Benjamin and all the other tribes shall be mine!”
A hawk outside the city walls squawked in agreement as it swooped upon its prey. The unlucky desert rat squirmed in the hawk’s claws as the setting sun turned the world red.
* * * * * *