Warrior Prophets 2 Chapter 18
Mahlon balanced himself on the edge of the palace wall. It was a two story drop to the training grounds below, but the danger did not trouble the eight year-old redhead. Mahlon enjoyed watching the Moabite soldiers train in the summer afternoon, but today he had another purpose. Ever since his father Elimelech had sent him as hostage to Eglon, together with the firstborns of the eleven other princes of Israel, Mahlon had taken every opportunity to disobey and tease his captors. His favorite prank had been placing the dung beetle on Eglon’s throne. Eglon still looked cautiously now when sitting down on his throne, remembering the sharp pincers of the beetle. Mahlon had a great new plan. He would place some oil on the step leading up to the throne. He only wished he could be there to see Eglon fall hard on his fat face.
Mahlon climbed down the brickwork of the palace and jumped into the Emperor’s empty audience chamber. Ever since the beetle prank, guards had been posted at the room’s entrance, even when Emperor Eglon was not present. But the guards were outside the closed door. They did not expect a diminutive intruder to climb in through the open window on the second story. The room was pleasantly cool despite the heat of the Jordan plain.
The audience chamber was a large room, dominated at its end by a large marble throne, with soft velvet cushions and two marble steps to reach the throne. There was a wooden chair on either side of the throne where the Empress and Dirthamus would often sit.
Rich silken drapes were spread throughout the room, creating a pleasant contrast of colors and shadows. Elaborate frescoes with historic scenes filled the walls. One fresco depicted Eglon’s conquest of Amalek with Galkak and Empress Neema facing the entire Moabite army. Another showed the wedding of Eglon and Neema in the great city of Rabbath Ammon. A third fresco illustrated the twelve princes of Israel bowing to Emperor Eglon. A fourth had an Israelite city in flames, the flames a bright orange that seemed to leap from the wall. Mahlon hated that fresco. It was a constant reminder of the punishment Eglon would inflict for disobedience. And he had.
In the year since his conquest of Canaan, he had burned three cities with all their inhabitants. Only one survivor was left from each city to recount the horror of watching friends and family burned alive. Two cities had been burned for their refusal to place a statue of Baal at the entrance. One city had been burned for a brawl that broke out between a Moabite soldier and a bridegroom, after the soldier had grabbed the prospective bride. Now every city and village of Israel had Baal at its entrance and no one resisted the Moabite soldiers.
Mahlon crept slowly to the throne. He heard a soft snoring from the side of the throne. Before he realized someone was there, a bony hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. Mahlon had not noticed the cadaverous figure sleeping in the shadow.
“What mischief are you up to, Judean brat?” Dirthamus hissed.
“Oh, nothing, sir. I must’ve gotten lost in the corridors,” Mahlon squeaked.
“You lie, son of Elimelech. How did you get past the guards? By one-eyed Bilaam! Your mind is closed to me. Curious, as your sire’s mind was quite open to me. Speak the truth or your punishment shall be severe.”
“Will you take me from my home and family? Will you whip me? Will you burn Bethlehem to the ground? What further punishment will you give me for entering here by accident?”
“Let me see what devices you bring with you.” Dirthamus searched Mahlon’s body roughly, not finding anything. Mahlon thanked the Hebrew God he had not brought a flask of oil as he had initially planned.
“You see? I told you it was an innocent mistake. Can I go now?”
“Not so fast. I shall escort you out to make sure you do not make any further mischief here. I will just get my staff and shall go to the guards.”
Dirthamus reached for the staff leaning against the chair. Mahlon kicked it, sending it clattering to the ground.
“I’m sorry!” Mahlon said. “I meant to get it for you. Let me fetch it.”
“No, you little runt! Do not move. I shall get it.”
Dirthamus hobbled off the chair and walked slowly to his staff behind the throne. Without moving from his location, Mahlon retrieved a damp cloth from his tunic. He raised it above the second step of the throne and squeezed. Several drops of clear oil fell upon the marble stair. Mahlon quickly tucked the cloth back in his tunic as Dirthamus came back with his staff.
“Now young Mahlon, let us make sure you do not cause any trouble on this important day.”
Eglon paced back and forth outside the birthing room.
“Why does it take so long?” Eglon asked Galkak who lounged on a marble bench in the hallway.
“I hear the babies like to stay in as long as they can, Boss. I don’t blame ‘em.” Galkak took a swig from his ever-present wine skin.
“I’m not sure if I should be nervous, excited or happy. My heir. He will insure the continuation of my empire. I will make him great. Eglon the Second. My name will last unto eternity, just like the Pharaohs. I will train him in all the arts. I will advise him. I shall make treaties for him. He shall be the greatest ruler after me. I’m glad you’re here to share this with me, Galkak. I’ve missed your company. Dirthamus is so stark and no one else understands me.”
“Yeah. Well things haven’t been fun at home for me either, Boss. I have assassination attempts every month now. The Amalekites aren’t happy with my rule. I have to kill ‘em to quiet ‘em down. They’re troubled by all this peace.”
“I understand. You and I are warriors, Galkak. The peace has been terrible for my weight.” Eglon held his growing belly. “Why, I’m larger than Neema has been with a baby in her stomach. And I’ve noticed you’re drinking more than ever before. We need another good war just for our sanity.”
“Who you goin’ to fight?”
“I don’t know. The Midianites perhaps. Though there is no good reason to do so. Our army is large enough. We’re up to five thousand men, with another hundred arriving every month. And why shouldn’t it grow? I pay well and the conditions are good. Though the Israelites are keeping my hands full. What with insuring the collections, taxes and tariffs. It takes much manpower to ensure that the Baals remain in every city and are properly cared for.”
A woman’s screaming and cursing burst from the birthing room.
“Is that good?” Eglon asked.
“I think so. The baby’s gettin’ ready to come out and it’s punishin’ the mother for bringin’ ‘im into this world.”
“That doesn’t sound very equitable.”
“Since when is anythin’ equitable in this world?”
“Galkak, you’re sounding more bitter than usual. Be happy for me. This is a momentous day. I’ve invited our friend, the Benjaminite blacksmith, to join us as well. I’d like the prophet of the Hebrew god to bless my heir and his future master.”
“Yes, I expect him to arrive any moment.”
Mahlon had never met his grandfather, Nachshon the Brave, though he had grown up hearing stories about him. He knew his own father, Elimelech, was a great fighter and prince of his tribe. He had heard dark rumors about his father going berserk during the last and decisive battle of Givaah. But it was his cousin Boaz whom Mahlon had always admired. Boaz, with the easy smile and the inner peace. The stories of his superhuman speed and uncanny senses. How he was instrumental during Joshua’s time when he was just a young boy. Mahlon had loved those stories and always sought out Boaz in his bakery in their city of Bethlehem.
Boaz had come to Mahlon before he was sent as a noble hostage.
“They will try to change who you are, who you are meant to be.” Boaz knelt on one knee so he could look straight into Mahlon’s eyes.
“How will they change me?” Mahlon trembled.
“They will teach you their ways, their customs, their values. It will be hard for you to remember your roots.”
“What will I do?” Mahlon asked.
“You must remember. You must remember who you are and where you come from. You must remember that there is a place inside yourself that no one can touch, that no one can change. You must not forget. You must find that place inside yourself. It is a quiet place. It is a calm place. That is you. You must protect it. You must visit it. You must nurture it and it will protect you.”
“I will remember,” Mahlon said.
“You will. And you will be brave. You are descended of the bravest men in all of Israel. The spirit of your grandfather will watch over you and help you. Never fear. The blood of princes is in our veins and it will take much more than an overfed Moabite to quash our spirit. Be strong and of good courage, Mahlon.” Boaz hugged his little cousin, wondering when he would see the boy again and in what condition.
Mahlon remembered all of this as Dirthamus dragged him to the training ground.
“Sergeant!” Dirthamus called. One of the soldiers approached the skeletal old man.
“We are not due to train the princelings until this afternoon,” the sergeant said.
“This one requires some additional training. And I would prefer that he not forget this training session. Painful, but not permanent. Am I understood, sergeant?” Dirthamus hissed.
Dirthamus released Mahlon’s arm and hobbled back into the palace.
“What did you do this time, Mahlon?” the sergeant asked.
“Nothing. Dirthamus is just a crabby old man. I think I interrupted one of his naps.”
“Well that would explain it. I guess it’s the whip for you then, boy. Grab a shield and a short sword from the armory and we’ll see how long you last. I’ll only leave a mark or two to satisfy the sorcerer.”
“Thank you, sergeant.” Mahlon ran off to the armory.
“Ehud, my dear fellow!” Eglon embraced the squat blacksmith in a bear hug, lifting him off the floor. “It is so wonderful for you to join us on such a propitious day.”
“It is my duty to obey your commands, your Majesty,” Ehud said.
“Yes, yes, of course. But today is special. My heir is about to be born. Your future liege. And I would have my friend, the great prophet of the Hebrew god, bless him on his birth.
“I shall do as you wish,” Ehud bowed.
“Ah, Ehud, so formal. You are amongst friends. Why, Galkak is the least formal man in my empire. Isn’t that so, Galkak?”
Galkak burped in reply as one of his legs swung beside the bench he was reclining on.
“See!” Eglon said cheerily. “This is a cause for celebration.”
Another scream escaped from the birthing room.
“They’re coming much closer,” Eglon noted.
“Yeah. I think it’ll come out any moment now,” Galkak confirmed.
Mahlon sat hunched over on his bed. The two whip marks on his back hurt horribly. He refused to cry. He refused to give any Moabite the satisfaction of seeing his tears. His fellow princelings knew to leave him alone. He did not want pity or sympathy. The children of the princes of Israel understood him. They each had rebelled and suffered in their own way. They left him alone as he wanted.
Mahlon rocked back and forth on his bed as he tried to ignore the pain. He sought that inward space Boaz had spoken to him of. He blocked out the talking of his companions. He ignored the sounds of the soldiers training. He drove his consciousness deeper and deeper within himself. He remembered his father with his big red beard that he had suddenly cut short during the war. He remembered his mother, beautiful Naomi. Sweet and kind and gentle. He remembered his younger brother, Kilyon – the one most pained by their separation. He thought of Boaz and his inner peace. He thought about the stories of his grandfather Nachshon and how he jumped into the Sea of Reeds, ahead of its parting, allowing the Children of Israel to escape the Egyptian army. And then he thought of himself. His breathing slowed down. The pain receded. He felt a certain lightness and comfort. Then he heard a whisper. He wasn’t sure where it came from, or if he had imagined it, or if he was talking to himself.
“I will not leave you,” the whisper said.
“Thank you,” Mahlon thought back to the whisper.
“Today is a special day,” the whisper said.
“Why?” Mahlon asked in his mind.
“Your intended has been born.”
The wail of a newborn broke the anticipating silence.
“This is it!” Eglon giggled and approached the door to the birthing room on tiptoes.
“Congratulations, Boss!” Galkak offered from his bench.
“May this be a day of joy for all your subjects,” Ehud said.
“Yes. We must celebrate this momentous day somehow. We must let all of our people know of the birth of Eglon the Second and share in our happiness.”
A woman exited the birthing room and announced:
“You may come in now, sire.”
“Come Galkak, Ehud. I would have you with me at this moment,” Eglon called.
The trio entered the room quietly. Neema, sweat-drenched and exhausted, lay on a large bed looking content and holding a wrapped bundle to her bosom.
“My Empress!” Eglon announced. “Mother of my heir! Congratulations! Well done! Well done, indeed! Let me look upon my son.”
“Oh, do look at her, Eglon. She’s beautiful,” Neema said, not taking her eyes off the baby.
“Her? What do you mean her?” Eglon asked, confused.
“Why, silly, it’s a girl.” Neema gently lifted the bundle, offering the baby to Eglon.
Eglon took the baby awkwardly. The baby cried lustily in her father’s hands. Eglon unwrapped the cloth around the baby to peer between its legs.
“It is a girl,” he concluded.
“It’s not something I would have mistaken,” Neema said. “Give her back to me. We need to teach you how to hold a baby.”
Eglon gingerly handed the baby to Neema. Neema discretely lifted her robe and held the baby to her breast, letting the hungry infant suckle.
“But what about a boy?” Eglon asked, still dazed.
“We’ll just have to keep trying,” Neema answered.
“I wanted a boy,” Eglon said, irritation creeping into his voice.
“Well, the gods apparently had other plans. Go talk to them if you’re disappointed,” Neema responded icily.
Eglon looked at Neema as if for the first time. He then looked closely at the baby.
“No, no, my dearest. I am quite pleased. True, a boy would have been marvelous, but you are right. The gods have other plans. And look at her. She is beautiful. Those lustrous red curls. Those bright blue eyes. Perhaps she shall be a bride worthy of a Pharaoh – that would make for a mighty alliance! I foresee great things for her!”
Eglon closed his eyes. The room filled with an eerie silence. A new presence pervaded the room. Ehud and Galkak shifted where they stood, sensing something different.
“She shall be a matriarch of kings,” Eglon said quietly and opened his eyes. “Her name will be remembered for eternity. She shall be numbered amongst the great of the world. That is my blessing to her. Ehud, now you bless her. Call down your Hebrew god, that he may think kindly of this child of mine.”
“He is already here,” Ehud whispered and looked around the room in confusion. He approached Neema and held out his hands. Neema lifted the baby and gave her to Ehud. Ehud held the baby with a gentle, experienced rocking. The baby opened its eyes and stared into Ehud’s. Ehud closed his own eyes and searched for the spirit of God. He stood still for a few moments, nodded to the unseen force, opened his eyes, and spoke.
“You are a daughter of greatness, and greatness you will achieve. Your line will never die and will ever flourish in the harshest of places. Kindness shall be your bastion and strength your inheritance. In the footsteps of goodness you will traverse and courage shall never leave you. Sorrow and anguish shall not detain you, rather honor and glory shall be your reward. May God’s wings always protect you, child of Moab.”
Ehud handed the baby back to a joyfully tearful Neema. Eglon embraced Ehud strongly.
“That was beautiful,” Eglon said with tears. “Absolutely beautiful. Thank you, Ehud. I appreciate it most deeply.”
“What shall we call her, dear?” Neema asked.
“Ruth,” Eglon answered without thinking. “Her name is Ruth.”
Mahlon lay on his bed, flat on his stomach so as not to aggravate his whip wounds. He had been excused from his lessons. He hated learning Egyptian hieroglyphics, so was relieved to miss it. What an inefficient way of communicating, he thought. He repeated to himself the list of the ten plagues, to keep his mind busy, to remember the lessons from his father: Blood, Frogs, Lice, Animals, Pestilence, Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness, Death of the Firstborns. May they all fall upon Eglon. Blood, Frogs…
A soldier entered his room where seven other beds lay empty. The soldier commanded Mahlon to report to the palace entrance. Mahlon put on a fresh tunic that irritated his back and marched out of his quarters.
Dirthamus waited with the other Hebrew princelings at the entrance to the palace. The children of the Israelite princes consisted of eight boys and four girls between the ages of four and eighteen. Dirthamus made sure Mahlon’s tunic covered his whip marks and smiled thinly at the obvious discomfort Mahlon was feeling. He then escorted the children up the main palace stairs and into the audience chamber. Four guards stood at the chamber doors. Two of them entered with Dirthamus and the children and placed themselves at either side of the doors. Dirthamus made the Israelites stand at attention as he sat down on his wooden chair to the right of the marble throne. Why are we being brought here? Mahlon wondered. He noticed a shiny spot on the marble step to Eglon’s throne. It would be a dream come true if I could actually witness him fall, Mahlon prayed.
Shortly thereafter Eglon entered the chamber followed by Ehud and Galkak.
“You see, Ehud.” Eglon gestured towards the children. “They are well cared-for and in wonderful condition. We see to their education and training. They will be models. Examples of what a citizen of our empire will look like.”
“I am glad to see they are whole,” Ehud said. “When will you let them see their families?”
“I think once a year is sufficient.” Eglon walked towards his throne. “I do want there to be a connection between the children and their families. If they were strangers to each other that would defeat the purpose of these noble hostages. We want to pull on the strings of the heart without severing them. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“It will certainly be a unique experience. Only time will tell the consequences of their incarceration.” Ehud gazed into the eyes of each child. He looked into Mahlon’s eyes and read his pain and anticipation. Mahlon looked down, embarrassed by Ehud’s ability to see through him.
Let Eglon trip. Let him fall, Mahlon thought to himself.
“Incarceration?!” Eglon climbed the first step to the throne and stopped. “They live as princes! They eat at my table. They are free to roam throughout our compound. I have provided them with the best teachers in the empire. Every Israelite family must be jealous of the treatment these twelve are receiving here. Perhaps we should open more spots and let the wealthy of Israel pay for the privilege of such an education?”
One more step. Just one more step you evil, pompous glutton, Mahlon commanded Eglon with his mind.
Dirthamus turned his head around as if looking for some hidden enemy. Ehud and Galkak both looked at Mahlon, their faces impassive. Eglon placed one sandaled foot on the second step. This is it! Mahlon thought as he felt his heart leap. Eglon raised his second foot and then time seemed to slow down.
Eglon’s foot slipped on the marble step. His arms flailed like a bird trying to take flight. His heavy bulk threw him off balance. He toppled off the second step, face first, and slammed loudly onto the polished stone floor.
Yes! Mahlon wanted to jump for joy, but some instinct kept him in place with the impassive face he had just seen on Ehud and Galkak.
A crunching noise emanated from Eglon’s face as his nose moved into an unnatural position. Blood spurted out of Eglon’s fleshy nose as he moaned loudly. Ehud and Galkak rushed to Eglon’s side and quickly lifted the dazed monarch. Blood flowed freely down Eglon’s face and robe, creating a large red stain on his pristine white garment. Dirthamus stood up, shocked and spluttering.
“My liege!” Dirthamus croaked.
“My nose!” Eglon moaned as he brought his hand to his broken nose, trying to stem the flow of blood.
The Israelite children stood very quietly, except for two of the younger ones who giggled until the older ones stared them into silence.
“Call for some cloths and the healer!” Galkak commanded the guards. One of them ran out of the chamber.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” Eglon claimed as Ehud and Galkak helped him onto the throne. “I don’t know why I lost my balance like that. Very strange.”
Eglon looked at the assembled Israelites who stood quietly.
“Did I hear laughter at my fall?” Eglon accused them. “I should have your eyes blinded for having witnessed my disgrace. I will think of some suitable punishment.”
Eglon looked at each child in turn. When he reached Mahlon, he sat back and drew his breath in. An irrational fear tightened Eglon’s throat.
The eight year old smiled back, giving a name to his newfound feeling. Power.
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