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Vessel of Honor
By Melvin J. Cobb
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2004 Melvin J. Cobb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneROMAN PROVINCE OF JUDEA A.D. 33
Sahlin Malae was plummeting into the abyss. Like a baby bird falling out of the nest, he flailed his arms desperately and prayed for a miracle that he somehow knew would not arrive in time. His stomach rolled uncontrollably and felt like a hollow gourd that was ready to be dashed to pieces on the jagged rocks below.
He opened his eyes to see the approaching floor of the Great Valley of Napata. Along with the hard stones, he saw the phantoms of his life's regrets that somehow made it down to the bottom before he did. He was able to make out each one clearly, and he rued the fact that the last images his mind projected were the twisted shadows of his own faults and shortcomings. One regret wore the sullen face of the woman that he had manipulated for many years. Another bore the image of a vizier that he had crushed only weeks before.
Unwilling to face the final reality of his degenerate state, Sahlin tilted his vision upward, toward the object of his desire. No, it was more than an object; it was a presence for which he violently hungered. As the object grew smaller and more distant, he tried to figure out why he was not able to reach his goal-why he always fell short.
Sensing the inexorable approach of doom, he opened his mouth and voiced one last thought. "Lord God Most High, I have failed to reach You ..."
* * *
Awakening from his tormented slumber, Sahlin's eyes snapped open just in time to see the first rays of early morning sunlight pour into his room. Grateful that his body hadn't been dashed to pieces, he clenched his teeth and forced himself to exhale sharply.
Drenched in sweat, he propped himself up on one arm and tried to settle his senses. Though he knew that he was awake and the experience was no more than an overactive imagination, he still felt himself wavering between the horror of his dream and the exhaustion of his reality.
Yet, there was something more. He felt something-no, he felt someone. Instinctively, he forced his sleepy eyes to scan the room. He was convinced that his unauthorized visitor was standing next to his bed, silently waiting to reach out.
Not sure if he was yet awake from his nightmare, Sahlin stretched out his hand to grasp the visitor but found only air. Once he was certain that no one else was there, he rubbed his eyes vigorously and perused the room once more. Everything seemed in order. He felt his heartbeat finally start to slow down and resume a normal rhythm.
With his eyesight clear, he was able to distinguish the solid objects from their long shadows that were formed by the rising sun outside. As the light verified that the room was indeed empty, he felt relaxed enough to lay his head down and close his eyes again.
Today, I shall cast my eyes upon the City of David, he thought, allowing the silent words to echo deep within his soul. Images of the great city danced past his mind's eye. He and his companions lodged for the evening only a half day's journey from Jerusalem. It took him weeks to travel from the heart of Africa to the Roman province of Judea. He found it hard to believe that he was only a few hours away from completing the longest journey of his life.
Slowly, he rose from his bed and stood at the window. He peered down into the streets below and pondered the purpose of his life. At age thirty-five, he held the powerful post of chief treasurer in the queen's court, representing the fourth generation of his family to serve in such a capacity. Since before the Great Roman War, members of his family governed provinces and administered the affairs of the royal family. It was a tradition that he had been prepared his entire life to carry on.
He turned and stared at that collection of parchments responsible for his long journey. The discovery of the record that chronicled his grandfather's own search for truth and peace did far more than strike his curiosity. Most remarkable to Sahlin was the detail that his grandfather had taken to describe how and why he so fervently turned from the idols of Kush toward the God of the Falasha-the unofficial title given to the Jews who dwelt in southern Kush.
The writings continually referenced a future journey to Judea that his grandfather intended to someday take. From everything that Sahlin could discern, the trip had to be made during or around the Passover in a specific yet undisclosed year. It almost appeared as if his grandfather was part of a prophetic mystery and was counting down to some extraordinary event. However, it was an excursion that Rahman never made. His journals tracked the numerous years that flowed past but never recorded any visits to Judea during that time.
"At least I managed to cheat death on my journey," Sahlin voiced softly, recalling the half dozen associates that warned him not to undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nearly every soothsayer in the city of Meroë admonished him not to go, proclaiming that he would surely meet with death because of the trip.
It was late afternoon when Sahlin's party cleared the summit of the final hill that separated them from the city of Jerusalem.
"There it is," Sahlin said more to himself than to the three bodyguards that traveled with him from Meroë. His grandfather, who had been a powerful Kushite magistrate, described the great Jewish temple to him many times during his youth. As is the case with many beautiful things in life, mere words failed to capture the essence of the great building. Even from a distance, it appeared to have a soul of its own, and every other structure in the city seemed to pay homage to it.
Responding to Sahlin's muffled comment, Bakka stepped forward. Sahlin was by no means a small man; however, he was dwarfed by the robust stature of his chief guard who was almost twenty years his elder.
"I am certain that the Romans helped them to build it," Bakka said, unimpressed, cocking an eyebrow.
"Maybe so ... but it is a beautiful building," Sahlin replied as he folded his arms and viewed the city once again.
"I hope I did not offend you, my lord. I simply miss the temples of our homeland," Bakka offered. It had been over two months since Bakka had made an offering at the Temple of Apedemack in Meroë, and he wondered how much longer the lion-god would tolerate his neglect.
The golden afternoon sunlight was accompanied by an inexorable wave of heat that affected Sahlin immediately He responded by removing his dark gray cloak, revealing the fanciful kilt that he wore underneath.
"I understand, Bakka. I miss home as well," Sahlin admitted, momentarily contemplating the comforts of his estate in Meroë that overlooked the Nile River. However, his feelings quickly shifted as he thought about the strife that habitually invaded his home. Again, he found himself thankful that he was away from his sister, cousins, and the madness of his job.
As the wind shifted, Sahlin briefly caught the soft aroma of bread baking in a home nearby. The scent triggered similar hunger pains in all four of them.
"Look," Bakka said, gesturing towards the south. "Roman legionnaires."
Sahlin and the others turned their attention in the direction of the battalion of three dozen Roman soldiers that marched up the road. The sight of the legionnaires reminded the four Nubians that they now traveled in the conquered province of a rival empire.
As the group marched past, the appearance of the conquerors was hardly mighty or triumphant. Many of the soldiers bore expressions of exhaust and apprehension. Though they enthusiastically clutched their lances, their body language proclaimed their utter contempt for the land that they possessed and ruled by the sword.
Having once been the commander of an occupying force, it was a look that Bakka knew all too well. There was nothing desirable about living in the midst of a beaten and suppressed enemy who would rather die than live under foreign rule.
After stowing his cloak in a sack that was mounted on his horse, Sahlin glanced over at the other two bodyguards who kept a silent vigil over the passing legionnaires. The two men had hardly spoken during the journey from Meroe, letting only their hawkish eyes express their feelings. Both were career soldiers that now served in the queen's royal retinue. It was a distinction that declared their status as among the elite of the guard.
While traveling, Sahlin often wondered how the men felt about sojourning to a land that was dominated by the Roman Empire. He knew that at least one of the men was from a family that had served with great distinction in the Great War against Rome some fifty-five years earlier.
As the Romans disappeared over the hill, Bakka stepped forward and slowly shook his head. "The gods have forsaken this land."
"Even their god has been beaten and disgraced by the Romans." The scornful comment came from one of the guards.
Sahlin arched his head slightly and considered the guard's comment. He, too, had noticed the desolate veneer that coated the Judean landscape. Again, he found himself questioning the invisible hand that had driven him there. As an administrator, he was used to being in control, with the power to manipulate any circumstance that had a price tag attached to it. Yet the tumult that resided beneath his calm exterior seemed to agitate his soul more each day.
"I am sorry, my lord," the guard quickly said, noting his employer's stern countenance. "But many of the people whom we have encountered since we entered this land have been embittered and void of any sort of hope. Perhaps they have sinned against their god, and he has turned his face away from them."
The guard's pitiless words echoed in Sahlin's heart throughout their entire trek through Judea. Though many of the people they interacted with were simply resentful of the Roman occupation, some of them took out their frustration upon foreigners in general.
For the moment, Sahlin did not care. He concentrated on the gleaming temple that sparkled like a burning jewel in the heart of Jerusalem. Ready to conclude his long journey and commence his cryptic search, he started down the hill.
Chapter TwoROMAN PROVINCE OF EGYPT
Anothernight went by and sleep still eluded Dikembul Nukae. Though he couldn't see it, he felt the slow movement of the sun over the distant Egyptian horizon.
Once again, he lay awake for hours as his bewildered mind wrestled with his body's growing fatigue. Throughout the night watch, he tried convincing himself the topic that provoked his consideration wasn't worth the loss of so many valuable hours of sleep. Nevertheless, the more he resisted, the more the vivid memories commandeered his thoughts.
He sighed deeply into the waning darkness and closed his eyes. As far as he was concerned, the images that ran through his mind may well have been portions of a dream that he had two months earlier. However, he knew they were real. No matter how strange they seemed to him, the memories of faces, sounds, and feelings that permeated his mind were definitely real.
Dikembul's trip to the heart of Jerusalem that morning had been uneventful. He pressed his way through the crowded streets to a stone building just outside of the temple. It was the sixth day of Sivan, fifty days after the annual barley harvest. As expected, he found himself in a sea of fellow Jewish males from throughout the known world. Like himself, they had made the journey to the Holy Land of Jerusalem in order to observe the Feast of Weeks. He doubted that very many of them had traveled as far as he had. The heart of the Kushite kingdom of Meroë was a formidable distance, to say the least.
Despite the inconvenience of having to pray in a subsidiary building outside of the great temple, Dikembul reveled in the very fact that he was there at all. He was by no means a rich man, a fact that made him that much more grateful to God for providing a way for him to make the pilgrimage. He was a simple Falasha herdsman who wanted only to obey the precepts ffwen by Moses.
Following the directions provided by the resident priests, he climbed up a flight of stairs and entered a medium-sized meeting hall. It was large enough to hold approximately forty men, and it was already close to capacity. As he glanced around, he noticed that the crowd was fairly mixed. There were a few Egyptians and Parthinians, as well as two or three Arabs and Lybians. At the front a priest stood reverently, waiting for the newcomers to get situated so they could resume the morning period of prayer and consecration.
Dikembul settled down in the back and for a brief moment wished that he could have gotten access to the temple itself. The fact that he was a lower-class foreigner all but dashed his hopes of entering the temple on such a holy day when nearly every able-bodied man converged in the city. He closed his eyes, quieted his mind, and focused upon the goodness of the Lord. He had already presented the freewill offering that he had brought with him from Meroë. He had given the offering with a sincere heart, desiring only to please the invisible God who provided him and his daughter, Annika, with sustenance.
Among the many things that he was grateful for was the fact that he and his daughter lived quiet lives, free from the strife that often engulfed his native land. His existence as a herdsman may have been extremely unrenowned, but he had no complaints. Good friends and knowledge of the Holy One were all that he needed.
As his eyes closed, he felt a gust of wind circulate through the room of prayer. He would have thought nothing of it were it not for the fact that something brushed up against him. He opened his eyes and noted the thick veil that ran the length of the room, forming a wall beside him and partitioning this group from what appeared to be an even larger multipurpose room. Dikembul drove the distraction out of his mind and refocused his heart on his prayers.
Within moments, the wind returned even stronger than before. This time it was accompanied with a loud, violent rumble that seemingly shook the foundations of the large room. Several men glanced around as the noise subsided and ushered in a hush. Dikembul gnawed on his lower lip as he watched the long, towering veil sway gently back and forth. Muffled voices from the other side of the veil softly invaded the room.
Dikembul couldn't make out what the voices were saying and was about to drive the noise out of his mind altogether, when he suddenly heard someone speaking in his native tongue. He frowned in bewilderment. It had been months since he had heard the dialect used in the Kushite region of Napata. Out of pure curiosity, he quietly slipped along the veil to the point where it kissed the stone wall.
Excerpted from Vessel of Honor by Melvin J. Cobb Copyright © 2004 by Melvin J. Cobb. Excerpted by permission.
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