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Near En Gedi, Judah 835 BC
A ri's heart hammered in his chest as the horses thundered toward the groves. Instinct had him reaching for where his sword should have been, a sword he had discarded years ago when he'd traded his life of a warrior for that of a bond servant. He'd been a fool to leave his weapons hidden away when danger lurked close at hand, but he could not very well play the servant dressed as a soldier.
It would do no good to dwell on this lack of foresight, even if it had almost got him killed years ago. Instead, he picked up a curved lava stone and prepared for battle.
He peered around the corner. The queen's soldiers brought their mounts to a halt on the dusty pathway, their eyes trained in the distance. Ari followed their line of sight and inhaled a sharp breath.
Sh'mira, his master's daughter, stood at the edge of the grove. She cradled a white flower in her palm, her nose mere inches from the petals with her eyes closed.
He knew she was lost in the fragrance as she was wont to do and completely unaware of her audience.
Hefting an empty pot onto his shoulders, he straightened to his full height. With the lava stone firm in his palm, he stepped out of the shadows and made as if he were about his everyday chores.
Perhaps his presence would discourage the warriors from their wicked intent, for their arrival could result in nothing but evil. Ever since Queen Athaliah had killed most of the royal family near seven years ago-her sons, daughters and grandchildren-the royal guards had terrorized all of Judah. Stories of their infamous conquests had reached even this remote village, putting fear into the hearts and minds of all. A fear that rivaled the fear of the fabled Leviathan and other sea monsters.
A horse snorted. Ari's feet wobbled on the pebbles as he worked his way toward the grove. He'd never feared a battle before and although his warrior instincts thrummed through his veins, his years out of service shook his confidence. Perhaps, it was the crude scar on his thigh, a reminder of his last encounter with the queen's men.
"You should not be here alone."
Mira turned, her lips tight, gaze guarded. "Who are you to tell me such?"
He sat the clay pot to the ground and broke off a dying branch. "A servant looking after his master's interest."
"I am a grown woman, able to care for myself." She jerked a withered limb from its mooring. "Just because I am maimed,," she bit, "does not mean I'm helpless."
He dropped his hands to his sides. Her gaze a pool of desert water after a heavy rain. "I did not mean-"
This woman was far from helpless, he knew that.
"Did you not?" She tossed the branch into the pot. "You are forever following me around tending my duties. You would think Father bonded you to be my nurse."
"I only think to repay your kindness for tending my wounds when I first arrived."
"For seven years?" She let out a disgruntled sigh and walked farther down the lane.
"It has not been quite that long." Ari grabbed her arm, turning her back to him. Her cheeks flushed and his warmed at the contact. He released her. Crossing his arms over his chest, he stepped back. He was nearing the end of his sixth year and beginning his seventh with her family, and he'd never touched her. The contact caught him off guard. "If not for you, I would have died. I would not have you meet the same fate." He tilted his head toward the guards high on their mounts.
She leaned forward, peering around one of the trees, and then straightened. The length of her tresses brushed over his forearm like a feather. The flowery fragrance of henna blossoms tickled his nose. How had he not noticed this about her? Odd, one touch after all these years, and he was suddenly aware of how she smelled.
A whinny from the horse brought his head back to reality. He glanced over his shoulder and bit down on his tongue. The devastation left in the guards' wake, remained fresh in his mind even after all these years. The young king's mother had been badly used before they slit her throat. Fortunately, Jehosheba, the boy's aunt and Tama, Mira's cousin, who had been serving as a nurse in the palace, had the wits about them to take the babe from his dying mother, giving Judah hope for the future. A truth Mira did not know. "In their eyes, all women, young and old, are helpless."
Mira's gaze shifted toward the riders once again. "I will not cower before them."
Her lack of cowardice was worthy of any warrior. However, it was not courage that fueled her attitude. "Would your pride see your father brokenhearted?"
She sucked in a sharp breath. "I wonder how a man of your wisdom became destitute enough to become a servant."
The horses' hooves came closer. "As you know, I repay a debt of kindness. Your father offered me refuge when I was wounded. Come." He extended his hand toward the small village. "We must get you back within the walls of your home."
The sound of the muffled clops halted, replaced by the creaking of leather as the men dismounted. Ari's muscles tensed. He faced the pair of guards and forced his life's blood to an even rhythm. The men standing before him were the queen's own personal guards, which meant they were on a mission much higher than destroying altars to God and keeping peace. Had they discovered the child survived?
"Looks like we've interrupted two lovers."
She squeaked. "You dare-"
Ari pierced her with a dark look and shoved her behind his back. He bowed his head. "Forgive my mistress."
Words clung to the tip of her tongue. Self-control had never been one of her gifts. The blame could be tossed at Ari's feet for causing her lack of speech. His humility had been replaced with an uncharacteristic bold protec-tiveness leaving her confused. Not to mention the touch on her arm had caused her knees to turn to honey and her toes to curl. Something Esha, the man seeking her hand in marriage, had never caused.
Who was this man who often offended her with his kindness? This man who insisted she was weak and helpless by his actions?
"She's distraught over the immature crop." Ari picked a budding green fruit from the tree as if to prove his statement.
"Your mistress, you say?" The taller of the two soldiers stepped forward and pushed Ari aside. He lifted his fingers and touched her hair.
Bile churned in her stomach. It was squashed when Ari grasped the guard's wrist and stepped back in front of her. Protecting her like a shield. The shorter of the two soldiers placed his hand on the hilt of his sword even as he took a step back.
The man laughed. "You are bold, slave."
"Servant. I am a servant." He dropped the soldier's wrist. "It is my duty to protect my master's property. Including his daughter's virtue." Ari seemed to grow ten feet taller and two feet wider. His bronzed skin gleamed in the hot sun. His stance and bearing caused both guards to shrink. How had she not noticed how strong and handsome he was? Because he treats you like a crippled beggar.
"If this woman's virtue is a matter of importance to her father, why does he allow her to venture away from her home alone and without covering her head?"
Mira bit down on her tongue. Her virtue was hers alone, not her father's. Not any man's. However, the law said otherwise. A law the guard did not recognize. She arched onto her toes and tried to peer over Ari's shoulder. His silky black hair lifted on a breeze, tickling her nose and forcing her back to her feet.
Ari shifted, blocking more of her view. "Forgive me, we were under the belief God's Law no longer matters."
Laughter erupted from both the guards. "You are correct, slave. God is dead. The queen's law rules this land, along with the wooden idols she worships."
Hidden behind his back she couldn't see much, but she could see the tick in Ari's jaw, feel the heat emanating from his skin, the controlled anger exuding with each of his measured breaths. She knew he did not approve of Queen Athaliah's worship of idols made by men, knew he continued to worship God and keep His commands.
A low rumble vibrated from Ari. "Her-"
She fisted Ari's tunic in her hands, halting his words.
"Her father, my master is expecting us."
Mira relaxed her hold on his garment but kept her fingers pressed against his back. His solid presence brought her comfort in the midst of danger, and for once she was thankful for his interference.
"Your master can wait." The guard reached around Ari and grabbed ahold of her wrist.
Th e soldier yanked on Mira's arm, pulling her from behind Ari's back. Ari bit down on the inside of his cheek. He would not allow this man to harm her. However, if he fought the men with the training he'd received among the temple guards, they'd know he was not who he seemed to be. They'd wonder why a warrior priest pretended to be a servant among a simple farmer and his family and Athaliah's entire army would descend upon this tiny village with destruction. His years of servitude would be for naught if the rightful king of Judah met his death because Ari could not maintain control.
When the guard grabbed a handful of Mira's hair and buried his nose in the locks, every muscle in Ari's body vibrated with the need to kill him. He palmed the lava stone and shifted forward ready to die protecting his mistress as she had done for him when she'd fought off a pack of dogs ready to devour his battered body. That night, long ago, burned in his memory. The way she had fended off the dogs with no more than a firebrand. He had been beaten by men such as these, left barely alive only to be ravaged by wild animals. If it had not been for her and her courage, he would have died at the jaws of the hungry beasts. He would not allow her to be treated harshly by these men. Lord, I need Your help.
The wail of a ram's horn echoed across the rocky desert. A call Ari loved from his days as temple guard. The use of the shofar by the queen's soldiers was one of many abominations marring Judah. It often brought great sorrow to his heart. However, he could not be more thankful for the answer to his hasty prayer.
"I promise to return," the Queen's guard said as he released Mira before he and his companion mounted their horses and cantered away. Praise God the patrol obeyed the command, leaving Mira unharmed.
She touched his arm, rocking him on his feet. Without thinking, he traced his finger along her brow and the curve of her ear, tucking her hair behind her back until his hand rested on her shoulders. "Are you well?"
"I am. Thank you."
Her graciousness proved she'd had a fright. He'd been scared, too.
How close she had come to being used. Her chances for a good marriage near lost. He dropped his gaze to the finger imprints on her wrist and shoved his hand through his hair. Stepping away from her sweet innocence, he expelled the breath caught in his lungs. His pulse kicked.
He glanced toward where the soldiers had ridden. He refused to allow his pulse to settle until the dust cloud disappeared into the horizon.
"You should not leave the walls alone." He faced her, arms crossed.
She swallowed. A wounded look fluttered through her eyes as she knotted her hands into her tunic. "I have chores to attend."
Reaching out, he took her fingers in his. The tips warm in his palm. "Even so "
Mira pulled away from him and released a shuddering breath. All civility between them gone. "Even so I will not live no better than a slave in my father's house, being told when and where I can go." She stalked away.
Her words cut, but he knew she said them out of fear. Fear of what those men could have done to her. What they might do if they returned as promised.
Guilt stabbed him at the thought of the queen's cruel minions destroying the innocence of his master's daughter. The soldiers preyed on the weak, the helpless.
How was he going to keep her safe from another incident if she insisted on being stubborn? For he had no doubt the guards would return.
His first priority was to protect the child king. Just as it had been since he'd followed Tama and the child to this small village that awful night. They'd left Jerusalem because of the danger, and now it seemed to have followed them here.
He scrubbed his palm over his face. Tama, the boy's nurse, would no doubt miss her cousin, and Mira her, but perhaps it was time to take the child and leave. But to leave his master's family, defenseless? Leave Mira to the mercy of the soldiers? There had to be a way to protect them all.
He returned to his work, his mind heavy. Why had the soldiers even come? And why now, after almost seven years of absence? He jabbed the lava stone into the basin and scooped out the last bit of mud. He smoothed the clay texture over the stones, filling the gaps in the rock wall.
Ari spun on his heel, the tool cutting into his palm. His eyes focused on the hunched, graying man before him. Ari bowed low before his master, whom he wanted to please. "Shalom, adon."
His master gripped Ari's shoulder. The warmth of the aged hand reminded him of the man's waning strength.
"Come now, my son. There is no need to be startled. It is I, Caleb, your friend. Rise."
Ari scraped the lava rock clean before balancing it on the edge of the earthen bowl. He dipped his hands into a small basin of water, scrubbed away the clinging plaster and dried them on a cloth.
Straightening to his full height, he scanned the area for a sign of the queen's soldiers. "My forgiveness, Master Caleb. I had just seen the queen's soldiers."
"No forgiveness needed, Ariel. I saw them ride away in haste and wondered at their presence. Perhaps they are keeping peace."