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Circa 835 BC
Th e sound of horses' hooves thundered into camp. Abigail's pulse hammered in her chest at the commotion outside her tent. She tucked her hands into her sleeves and paced. Had the warrior priests who had attacked the palace and killed her mother found them?
"What is happening, Bilhah?"
Her cousin sat on a pile of furs, her knees drawn to her chest. Black kohl trailed down her cheeks. Abigail knelt in front of her and tried to imitate the strength she had seen her mother exude. "Bilhah, now is not the time for weakness. What if we must make haste?"
Soulless amber eyes stared at her. "There will be no mercy."
A chorused bellow startled Abigail, sending a tremor racing through her blood, until she realized what she'd heard had been a cheer of victory among her men. Uncertain of her new role as future queen, she forced a smile and rose. "Of course, there will be none. Jehoiada and the usurpers will pay for killing my mother." She inhaled a shaky breath. "And my brothers all those years ago."
Bilhah's brow furrowed as if she was confused. Many such looks had tainted her cousin's beautiful face since their flight from the palace and Jerusalem. She tilted her head and scanned Abigail from head to toe. "You misunderstand me, Abigail. The God of the priests, the God of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will not grant us mercy, not if we continue in our rebellion."
The hot desert wind rippled the canvas around them. Gooseflesh rose on Abigail's arms and she hugged herself to ward off the omen. She'd heard the servants speak of a god greater than the ones her mother had worshipped, but she'd yet to see him with her own eyes, as she'd seen the wooden and bronze statues in the courtyard outside the palace. "You've had a great shock, Bilhah. You do not know what you speak."
"If they did not spare your mother, the Queen of Judah, they will not spare us, Abigail." Bilhah's shoulders sagged as she pressed her face into her hands. Abigail swallowed her fear as the memory of the frantic cries of the servants assaulted her. It was the one time she had willingly crawled into the wooden chest in order to hide from the warrior priests.
It was no wonder the confident, alluring woman who prowled the palace at will crumpled into another round of sobs. The change in her cousin's behavior since the priests and temple guards had stormed the palace was disconcerting. Abigail was having a difficult time being cast from her home, too. However, if she hadn't been forced to abide by Captain Suph's demands, Abigail thought she might actually enjoy her freedom from the palace.
A dark shadow passed outside their tent and then pressed against the fabric. "Princess," Micah called from outside. "The captain requests your presence."
As if her nerves weren't already taut, now the captain requested her presence. He'd not been kind since their flight from Jerusalem and he'd always made her feel less than human, as if she were a stray dog begging for scraps. How could she make him understand she was his rightful queen, would be his queen once her throne was restored in Jerusalem, and as such deserved his respect?
Abigail dried her palms and pulled back the flap. "In a moment, Micah."
The young servant nodded and crossed his arms over his linen tunic; although no more than a child, he'd been one of her only constant companions for the past few years. One of the only people her mother had allowed to attend her. Abigail faced her cousin. "Once you've rested and I've taken my position as Queen of Judah, all will be well. You'll see." She took two steps, bent at the waist and started to press her lips against Bilhah's smooth head before halting. If she was to go on as her mother had, if she was to succeed as Queen of Judah, such comforting gestures would no longer be allowed. "Rest, while I see what Suph requires of me. And dry your eyes, Bilhah. Our people need you. You cannot perform in your current state."
She shook out her tunic and brushed a hand over the dust-infested tunic. With a trembling hand, she patted down her hair before slipping between the folds of her tent. She scanned the desert encampment, pleased that many of her mother's subjects had followed their exodus during the priests' attempt to take over Jerusalem. Soon, with Suph's help, she'd see them returned to their beloved city, where she would reward their faithfulness with a banquet to rival her great ancestor King Solomon.
Of course, she'd have to gain Bilhah's help since she'd no idea how kings and queens dined.
"Come, Micah, let us see what Suph wants, shall we?" She smiled at the boy. His black orbs sparkled before his lashes dipped against his tanned cheekbones. She followed behind him, twisting and turning through the maze of tents that had been hastily erected after their flight from Jerusalem. The people lowered their heads as she passed as if she were already queen. Their actions humbled her. And disheartened her. Until a few days ago many knew not of her existence. Those who did had slighted her, not even treating her with the acknowledgment a servant receives.
Now they looked to her to lead them, to give them back Jerusalem, a task that seemed near impossible given she'd rarely been allowed outside her chambers.
Micah halted and Abigail stumbled into his back because she'd been preoccupied with how she was to lead these people as those who had done so before her.
Captain Suph turned toward her, the lines around his mouth firmed. His eyes remained cold, filled with hatred. She stopped herself from taking a step back, from fleeing to her tent, and allowed a smile to curve her lips. She would show him courage, lest he find her weak and incapable of ruling Judah.
"I have a gift for you, Abigail."
She tilted her chin and waited. Suph stepped aside, revealing a rather muscular man in nothing but a loincloth and a gem the color of amber hanging from a leather cord around his neck. She drew in a shallow breath and forced calm into her limbs. Her practiced reserve kept her from blushing at the man's near nakedness, kept her from flinching at the grotesque swelling of his face and the open cuts decorating the rest of his body. She knew her mother had been cruel at times, but had she been this vicious? Would the captain expect the same from her? Abigail hoped not.
"This is the brother of Ari, former Commander of the Temple Guard. This man's brother is responsible for placing that imposter on the throne, and I've no doubt our prisoner took part in the rebellion, as well. He'll fetch a handsome price. Perhaps even the return of your throne, Abigail."
She stepped forward and bent closer. The scent of his wounds hung in the air. The whites of his eyes glowed from the bloodied mess of his face. "Is this true?"
The man's nostrils flared. His jaw clamped tight. Suph yanked his sword from his sheath and swung wide.
Anger surged through her blood, thundered in her heart. How dare the captain threaten a man who couldn't even stand on his own? "Enough."
Spears of fire sparked in Suph's gaze. "You cannot think"
"You will not dictate the thoughts of your future queen. Is that understood?"
Suph's chest expanded as he squinted his eyes to mere slits. The lines creasing the corners of his eyes twitched in tandem with the tic of his jaw. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"Good. Now, clean his wounds. We cannot negotiate using a dead man."
She twisted on the balls of her feet. Holding her shoulders straight and head high the way she'd seen her mother do, she walked toward her tent. She ducked inside, fell to her knees and retched into an earthen jug. A gentle hand smoothed back her hair. Bilhah knelt beside her.
"What is it, child?" She pressed a cup into her hand.
Abigail swiped the back of her hand over her mouth and gave a nervous laugh. "You call me 'child,' yet we are the same age, you and I."
Bilhah scooted back to the furs and sank against a mound of decorated pillows, her eyes downcast. "We are. Come, what has upset you?"
Abigail curled beside her. "Was my mother so cruel?"
Sadly, Abigail had witnessed a few floggings, and from the way the servants spoke, her mother took pleasure in the beatings. Abigail had also heard them speak of others losing their heads. A part of Abigail had believed it was only to cause her fear so that perhaps she'd behave.
Bilhah's fingers stopped toying with the furs. "You've been sheltered."
Abigail sat up and looked into Bilhah's eyes. "You did not answer my question."
"I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, even your mother."
Abigail laid her palm against Bilhah's cheek. "I've always known she was cruel to you." She ran her hand over Bilhah's shiny head. "Forcing you to serve her gods when you should have married well."
Bilhah shook her head. "I was your father's niecewith my father dead I was nothing more than a servant. At the time it seemed a high honor. Or so your mother convinced me."
Abigail laid her head against Bilhah's chest. "Thanks to Jehoiada we are all that's left. I would see him pay."
Her words sounded hollow as the image of the bloodied prisoner invaded her mind. Her stomach churned. If treating a man like a mangy dog was what it would take, she did not know if she'd have it in her.
"Perhaps not all has been as it seems, Abigail."
She ruminated on that for a few moments. She was about to ask Bilhah what she meant, but the rhythm of her heartbeat against Abigail's ear slowed. Rising up on her elbow, Abigail gazed at her cousin, so young yet hardened by the life chosen for her. She sat up and tucked her knees beneath her chin.
Had she truly been sheltered, or had she been forgotten? Bilhah was not the only one who'd experienced her mother's cruelty. Although she would miss her mother, Abigail would not miss the viperous tongue reminding her she was weak like her father and not the beauty her mother had hoped for. Her arms were too long, her hips too thin. She was lanky and awkward. With her limp hair, her lack of golden hues, her green eyesa curse from the godsshe hadn't needed to see the disgust in her mother's eyes to know she was a disappointment. Aye, she may miss her mother a little, but she would not miss the way she flogged the servants for their inability to make Abigail presentable.
A breeze blew from beneath the tent, carrying with it Suph's raised voice. Abigail rubbed her arms and rose. She pulled back the flap and peered at the group of men surrounding the prisoner. They had moved the man to near the center of camp. To do her bidding and cleanse his wounds, she supposed. She had been unable to tell what sort of man he was. A warrior, if his sculpted chest and arms were any indication. He was taller than the captain, even slouched beneath the burden of the yoke around his neck. The captain tossed water into the man's face, causing him to straighten somewhat. The captain, a handsome man when he genuinely smiled, paled in comparison even with the cuts and bruises marring the prisoner's body. Especially knowing the man had been cruelly treated by Suph.
It had been a rare moment when she stood up to Suph. She'd never spoken with such boldness in her life, but something about the beaten man called to her sense of compassion. She would not allow Suph to kill him.
And how was she to stop him? She glanced down and dug the toe of her sandal into the ground. Her mother's beauty had commanded respect when she walked into a room. People near fell at her feet and begged to do her bidding, especially Suph. And though he'd shown her some tolerance since their flight from the palace, Abigail was certain it was a ruse. He held no great affection for her.
She was not so naive to believe she'd rule Suph, with or without great beauty, which meant she'd have to take care around him lest she found herself in a worse position than being locked in her chambers.
Cold water splashed against Jesse's face. His muscles refused to move away from the offensive attack. His arms were wrapped over a yoke, bound with leather straps. It seemed, by the grace of God, his captors intended to keep him alive. The least he could do was open his eyes and face the traitors.
His uncle Elam hovered before him. "Aye, nephew, you would do well to end your torment and join the captain's pursuit to recapture the throne."
"I am not a coward, Uncle. Nor will I betray God as you have done." Jesse still had difficulty believing his uncle had betrayed his family. If he'd not witnessed his uncle's insanity, he would not have believed it.
Elam let out a low, harsh laugh. "You cannot think that the child you and your brother helped Jehoiada place on the throne is the rightful heir to the throne?"
"How can you believe otherwise, Uncle?" There were no doubts in Jesse's mind. Joash was the son of Ahaziah, descendant of King David. Grandchild to the deceased wicked Queen Athaliah. The queen, in a jealous rage, had killed all her husband's descendants seven years before. All except the infant Joash, who had been rescued by his aunt.
"It is like Jehoiada to deceive the people to gain their cooperation. He's hungry for power."
Jesse drew in a breath and clenched his teeth against the pain throbbing in his head. "Is that what you believe? Jehoiada is a man of God, chosen to be God's high priest to intercede on behalf of God's people. He does not need to deceive the people, Uncle. He has the approval of God, unlike you and that queen you were loyal to."
A low growl emanated from his right. The captain shoved Elam aside and pressed the tip of a dagger beneath Jesse's chin. Eyes, red from too much wine and hatred, glared at him. "It is with great providence our future queen has a soft heart, else I'd leave little of you for the birds."
Certainly the young woman with the pointy chin and high forehead wasn't a product of Athaliah. Although pretty with her waist-length chestnut hair and her strange green eyes, she wasn't the stunning beauty her mother had been; nor did she seem to carry the same abhorrent character. Her pale complexion at the sight of him said as much. No, the captain toyed with him. But if Suph thought to play games with the people of Judah, at least he could have chosen a more prominent woman, not one frightened of her own shadow.
Jesse straightened his shoulders, removing his flesh from the man's blade. "I killed your queen. And I'll kill her, too, if need be."
The captain's fist slammed into Jesse's jaw. A flash of white light exploded in his head a moment before his feet were swept from beneath him. He landed on his back. Air stole from his lungs as the wooden yoke jammed against his shoulders.
The sun captured and glinted off the dagger held above his attacker's head. The captain's chest heaved with each breath. He meant to kill him.