Day of War (Lion of War Series #1)by Cliff Graham
In ancient Israel, at the crossroads of the great trading routes, a man named Benaiah is searching for a fresh start in life. He has joined a band of soldiers led by a warlord named David, seeking to bury the past that refuses to leave him. Their ragged army is disgruntled and full of reckless men. Some are loyal to David, but others are only with him for the… See more details below
In ancient Israel, at the crossroads of the great trading routes, a man named Benaiah is searching for a fresh start in life. He has joined a band of soldiers led by a warlord named David, seeking to bury the past that refuses to leave him. Their ragged army is disgruntled and full of reckless men. Some are loyal to David, but others are only with him for the promise of captured wealth. While the ruthless and increasingly mad King Saul marches hopelessly against the powerful Philistines, loyal son Jonathan in tow, the land of the Hebrew tribes has never been more despondent—and more in need of rescue. Over the course of ten days, from snowy mountain passes to sword-wracked battlefields, Benaiah and his fellow mercenaries must call upon every skill they have to survive and establish the throne for David—if they don’t kill each other first. Day of War brings to life the exploits of the Mighty Men of Israel, a rag-tag band of disgruntled warriors on the run with David, the soon-to-be King. Their legendary deeds are recorded in 2 Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 11
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Day of WarLion of War Series
By Cliff Graham
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Cliff Graham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBenaiah the son of Jehoiada had never seen a snowstorm, and now he wished it had remained that way.
It never snowed in the south, Benaiah's home. He had only heard legends of the freezing rain as a boy. Travelers from the east would speak of it when they stopped at his village to water their camels and replenish stores for the crossing to Egypt. They told of a powerful blanket of white that fell over the land and killed plants and livestock. At the time, he had yearned for it with a boy's enthusiasm for the unknown. But, as with many of life's youthful mysteries, it quickly lost appeal once he was in the thick of it.
Cold wind whipped across his face. Benaiah held his hands over his eyes, waiting for it to pass before continuing his climb. Snow covered the mountain trail and he was forced to pick his way among the ice-covered rocks.
In the south, the month of Aviv brought the land into full bloom under abundant sunshine. The barley would be ripening on the plains, signaling the approach of Passover and its reliably pleasant weather. But the tall mountain ridges of this northern country were crested with white, and the dreary gray sky promised more of it.
Crouching next to a large boulder, he adjusted his grip on the spear shaft and listened. The wind stirred up enough noise to prevent him from hearing around the bend ahead. He knew the creature could be hiding among the many boulders and clefts along the slope. He studied each one carefully for a flash of gold fur.
Frowning, he moved up the path again. They had said it was large. Three times the size of a man, maybe ten or eleven cubits — absurd, since no creature could be ten cubits. The village elders said the beast came late at night. Perhaps they were so afraid of it that every shadow in the torchlight became part of the lion.
Benaiah had hunted lions all of his life. He knew that it took only one kill for them to realize that man was easy prey. It was better to hunt them in groups, and since the other warriors in Benaiah's band were marching north at the moment, he'd had to recruit two men from the village to come along. They were stout enough, and accustomed to harsh living on the frontier, but one of them was elderly and the other was very young.
Most of the men in the land who were of fighting ability and age were preparing for war in the north, gathering equipment and training ahead of a rumored Philistine invasion. The king had summoned them all, farmer and herder alike, leaving a shortage of men in the villages capable of defending their homes or engaging in heavy labor. Philistines tended to cause trouble in the days leading up to Passover because they knew that some of the Hebrews still observed it. Saul, the king of the Israelites, had been using Passover as the reason to build his army, claiming that their holy lands were being overrun by pagans during their holiest month. Although Saul's true devotion to Passover was, at best, questionable, Benaiah thought as he crept his way up the path.
He had almost missed the village when he'd arrived that morning out of the forest. It was small and well away from the major trading routes, but the people took pride in their buildings. Family homes were surrounded by stone walls and built with sturdy mud brick roofs similar to the modern construction in the cities on the plains. There were buildings where farmers brought their supplies to work the reaping floor. Wheat would be harvested in another month or two, depending on the weather and the amount of runoff water that gathered in the valleys, and he saw reapers sharpening their flint blades for when the time came to trim the tops of the bundles.
Even though the olive harvest would not occur until much later in the season, men were already working on the village olive press. More than likely, it was the only one in the region and would see heavy use when the time came. A man was testing the beam press by filling baskets with rocks to simulate ripe olives. The beam extended over a notched stone that sat above a collection basin. The counterweights hanging from the lever would create enough pressure on the olives that an ample amount of oil would squeeze into the pan underneath.
Benaiah could tell that the small community was primarily a herding one. Since the time of shearing was just beginning, there were hundreds of sheep from the region being prepared. First, they were corralled into a series of pools where the shepherds would scrub them clean and then let them scamper out, bleating wildly, to dry out in the sun. The wool would be cleaned again after it was shorn and then stretched out in the sun to dry while it was raked. But that morning there was no sunshine, only the cold dreariness of early spring in this country, and the frustration of the shepherds had been evident as Benaiah passed them.
He paused to watch one shepherd struggling to hold down a thrashing, bleating sheep. The man struck it on the snout, but that had no effect. He struck it harder, and the sheep finally calmed down. With strength gained from years of chasing the stubborn and foolish creatures through the highlands, the shepherd pinned the sheep between his knees, tucked his robe back into his belt, and dunked the animal underwater. When it popped up again, he combed his fingers through the matted wool to clean it of mud, excrement, and dead insects.
When he was done, the man released the sheep. It charged through the water to find the herd, agitated but clean. The shepherd wiped his brow, noticed Benaiah watching him, and nodded warily. Benaiah returned the nod and continued walking.
Some of the workers he passed had paused from chiseling stones or preparing the harvest blades and were eating leben, the goat's-milk dish curdled into porridge. Tough loaves of bread were dipped in vinegar and passed from man to man. A few threw handfuls of parched grain into their mouths to chew on while they worked.
Despite their labor and willingness to stay busy, fear was apparent everywhere he looked. Mothers shouted at children for going near the edge of town. Farmers and herders, nearly all of them past the age at which men ceased such work, had streamed past him, almost hiding behind their mules. Oxen, possibly sensing the presence of the terrible predators lurking nearby, refused to depart the village with their carts to return through the forest to the trade roads. Their owners beat them with reed sticks, but they would not be budged.
Benaiah was wearing a dark traveling cloak, and he imagined that he must have looked like a phantom emerging from the mist to the children watching from the rooftops. His bulky, muscled frame made his cloak billow out even more, an effect he intended. He swept his eyes back and forth while he walked, always searching his surroundings for threats. His black hair and beard had been trimmed short because it was the start of the campaign season, the time when kings could finally lead their armies to the field after being in garrison all winter while the soldiers tended their herds and took care of other home matters.
Benaiah had expected warmer weather, but at the last moment he had grabbed the heavier cloak, since it provided more comfort while he slept on the ground. Now, climbing through the snow, he was grateful for it. Under the cloak he wore a short battle tunic that came only halfway down his thighs and was laced, out of tradition, with a pattern of blue string on the fringe. When fighting, the short tunic was much preferable to the cloak. Too much loose material was a liability.
He carried a spear, a bow with arrows, a sword, and in his belt a dagger, all forged from iron, which had drawn no shortage of stares from the people in the village. Iron was rare, especially in weapons. Straps from the shield on his back hung over his shoulders.
Benaiah had approached the town's common area near the well and knelt before the group of elders deep in discussion under an overhang nearby. He briefly told them who had sent him. When they asked why no more had come along, he informed them that his own army was marching north with the other soldiers in the land and he was all that could be spared.
The elders insisted that he take more men with him in search of the lion, but Benaiah resisted, insisting that too many would make noise and alert the creature. One of the elders, Jairas, wanted to come, and Benaiah consented, believing it would be good for the morale of the town to see one of their own come along. A young man named Haratha, one of the few physically strong men left in the village, demonstrated that he could sling proficiently, and Benaiah allowed him to come as well.
Benaiah handed Jairas his sickle sword. The man's momentary puzzlement showed that this was a different design from the swords Jairas had seen before, with a longer tip and less curvature — and it was iron. Several of the veterans among the elders wanted to question Benaiah about it, but he just shook his head. They had no time.
Benaiah kept the spear and bow and fastened his shield to his back. He gave Haratha a pouch of heavy copper pellets and told him to sling them at the animal's head to distract it after Benaiah shot the first arrow, giving Benaiah time to release another. Once the creature was wounded, it would likely charge, and Benaiah told them that he would take the charge with his spear while Haratha got a safe distance away and Jairas stabbed the sword into the hide between the ribs.
The animal had already killed several people, including a small boy who had wandered off by himself into the forest to find consolation when his siblings tormented him. The grief-stricken family had been standing nearby when Benaiah and the elders were talking, their clothes torn in mourning, their faces downcast. The body had not been found and likely would not. There would be no burial ceremony. No closure. Benaiah had tried to ignore the sinking feeling in his chest, the black memories in his mind.
Several hours had passed now since the three of them had climbed out of town on a game trail, following the faint spoor. Somewhere lower on the rocky slopes, they had crossed the snow line. What was simply a cold rain in the lower valleys was falling as snow on the high ridges, accumulating on the ground and making the spoor difficult to follow and progress on the hunt slow.
The sun peeked through the gray sky occasionally, only to be quickly shrouded again in the blanket of snow clouds. Benaiah kept the men moving, fearing they would lose their courage if too much rest was given. Even though they kept to a moderate pace, sweat was dampening their clothing anyway, bringing with it the danger of freezing to death. The icy terrain was hardest on Jairas, who struggled to keep up.
The lion was following the trail cut through the pass by the people in the village to reach the higher grazing grounds. Benaiah assumed that, with the late spring snowstorms, the animal had descended to search for food in the valleys.
Benaiah studied the spoor, glanced up and down the valley, and nodded to himself. The lion must have followed the scent of the sheep, encountered the first victim in the forest, and killed him out of fright. Then, because it had been an easy kill and the flesh was sweet and tender, the lion had decided to stay near the village and take more people, most recently the boy from the night before.
The approach Benaiah was taking was the worst possible way to hunt the deadliest animal alive. He had hunted them since childhood — but on organized hunts, with many skilled men working together. Were it not for his hurry to finish this mission and get back to his men currently marching north, he would have taken a day or two to prepare. But the chief had made it clear: get there, kill the lion, establish our goodwill, and get back fast.
They stopped to rest at the top of a steep climb in the trail. To their left was the dense forest of the upper mountain, growing darker in the gray late afternoon. On their right, the slope fell sharply before leveling out just before the forest near the village far below on the valley floor. Somewhere in the distance he heard water running and guessed there was a stream flowing under the blanket of snow.
"Lions are territorial and don't stray far from their hunting grounds," Benaiah whispered to the other two.
"I assume we are the bait," said Jairas quietly.
Benaiah nodded. They resumed their climb.
Most of the afternoon slipped away. The higher they climbed, the colder the air turned. Jairas and Haratha were huffing for breath, and Benaiah began to wonder how much longer they could hold out, especially considering what awaited them among the rocks of the mountains.
The trail led toward more snow-covered rocky outcroppings. The day would be ending soon. Benaiah debated with himself: Abandon the pursuit? Return tomorrow? He strained to hear any birds or hyraxes squealing a warning. He kicked the path every few steps and checked the swirl of powdery light snow to confirm the wind direction.
Just then, around the curve of the path ahead, he heard the sound of dogs bellowing. He had seen dogs in the company of several merchants he had passed on the road to town. The dogs must have scented the lion and chased it themselves.
Senses fully alert, the group trotted carefully forward. As they rounded an outcropping of stone, the saddle between the hills came into view. Across a small cleft in the hillside, crouched against a rock in front of the yowling dogs, was the cornered lion.
Its hide was a dusty yellow and matted with gore from a recent kill. Black tufts of hair formed its mane, dotting the area around its head and shoulders. Its muscles coiled and snapped with fearsome power. The roar was now constant, and so loud that it seemed as though the mountainside shook with each echo. The elder had been right about its size — it was the largest lion Benaiah had ever seen.
One of the dogs noticed them and turned. The lion snarled and swung a paw, knocking it senseless. The other dogs howled and nipped at its hindquarters. Though heavily outmatched, they were bravely staying with it.
Benaiah yanked an arrow from the quiver. They closed to within fifty cubits of the lion, watching it strike another dog with its paw, killing it instantly. Steam rushed from its mouth as it roared again.
Benaiah saw Haratha halt in terror.
"Keep moving! We have to get closer!" Benaiah called.
Haratha bobbled his sling, dropping the copper pellet. He glanced up at the lion, his eyes wide with fright.
The lion lowered its head and flattened its ears, signaling a charge. It roared again.
Within arrow range now, Benaiah lifted his bow up and pulled the notched end of the arrow to his mouth. The motion was so familiar that he had the lion within his sights instantly.
The lion struck the last of the dogs down, then sprang from its crouch toward the terrified Haratha. Benaiah's foot slipped on the snow and he lost his target. He yelled again for Haratha to release while he struggled to stand again.
Before the creature reached him, Haratha managed to launch a copper pellet that miraculously hit the charging animal in the head. A spurt of red mist erupted from the lion's face. It snarled and paused briefly to paw at its head where the pellet had struck it in or near the eye. By that time Benaiah had regained his balance and sent an arrow into its hide.
The lion winced at the arrow but leaped again, struck Haratha, and tumbled with him across the slope. The lion slashed and snarled, but abandoned Haratha and sprang up the slope toward Benaiah.
Benaiah felt his muscles tense. The animal moved faster than he'd thought it could on the snow, but he was ready. The arrow he sent would have caught the creature in the throat if it hadn't slipped on an icy rock and stumbled.
That was all he had time to do before, with a flash of golden fur and the hot stench of rotting flesh from the animal's jaws, he felt the animal's crushing weight and infinite strength, and then he was rolling, smashed against the frozen ground, his face grinding against the icy pebbles as the monster roared in his ear.
Benaiah managed to stop by shoving his hand into a snow bank and digging his fingers all the way to the ground. He winced, waiting for the next strike, but the lion had turned away from him, lowering its head and flattening its ears. Then it charged back toward Haratha — but Jairas had stepped between them, sword in hand.
Excerpted from Day of War by Cliff Graham Copyright © 2011 by Cliff Graham. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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