Shamash opening chapters

Shamash

© Alistair Forrest


Buckingham Palace, London, 1850


Josiah Jenkins made sure there was a solid oak table between himself and the leopard. He slowly pulled out a chair, taking care that it did not scrape the floor and thus alarm the jungle cat. With his elbows on the table and his head in his hands, he despaired. Never before had a wild beast, at least nothing bigger than Her Majesty’s infuriating spaniels, ever been allowed near his scullery.

It was his scullery, his domain. The Queen had never, to his knowledge, set foot inside it. Here he shelled peas, scraped potatoes, sliced carrots for the cooks, kept immaculate records of all deliveries, ensured that the coal bunkers outside were filled weekly, and even cleaned boots for the household cavalry on condition that they left him a few shillings, the occasional bottle of gin or a bag of pipe tobacco.

But nobody, not their majesties or those snotty foreigners who arrived in their fancy carriages, had ever asked him or the other backroom boys to look after a wild animal. Especially not one with yellow eyes and teeth that could bite right through his arm.

‘Why, Josh, why?’

His friends down at the King’s Head called him Josh, everyone called him Josh, even Martha and their seven children, but if they could see him now they would call him something else and make up silly rhymes.

 

Josh, Josh, the lion is growlin’

He ain’t bin fed an’ he is starvin’

See those teeth and hear that roar

‘Ee’ll eat you up and be back for more!

 

Not his fault that they wouldn’t know the difference between a lion and a leopard. He only knew it was a leopard because the army officer had handed him the six-foot chain and, slipping him a half sovereign, more than two weeks’ wages, said ‘Look after my leopard’ and disappeared to dine with his Queen.

Bloody cheek. But ten bob in the pocket for an evening with a leopard? Strange folk, these army officers.

What to do while their lordships dined on that gawd-awful Russian fishfood and the ducklings he had plucked and dressed that afternoon. Why not eat leopard? Not sure how to skin one of those, he thought, and just then as if in protest at the thought, the leopard looked up from a half-eaten rabbit and smiled at him, licking bloodied whiskers.

A leopard that smiles?

Or was it just sizing him up for afters?

Josiah Jenkins wished he had a beer and could reach the tobacco bag that hung on the same hook that the leopard’s chain was attached to.

 

+          +          +

 

Queen Victoria raised her hand to cover a cheek that flushed with amusement. Prince Albert snorted and raised his glass to Major Henry Creswicke Rawlinson of the East India Company. The six other guests in the Queen’s private dining room, all men, fell silent and wondered whether England’s hero of the Mesopotamian deserts might take it upon himself to rekindle hostilities with France.

‘The French are so gullible,’ said Rawlinson, unapologetic for catching the young queen off-guard with his tale of international provocation. ‘Silly little man actually ran around in circles. I think his spectacles were so dusty he didn’t know which way to dash off to find the treasure.’

One of the other guests, whether the man from the bank or the toff Whig, Rawlinson wasn’t certain because he was admiring the Queen’s delicate features, coughed into his hand and made to speak. But Albert raised a hand, waving his kerchief for quiet.

‘This Frenchman….’

‘Botta,’ threw in Rawlinson. ‘Paul Émile Botta. Able fellow, if a bit dim.’

‘Botta, yes. He took the bait, eh?’

‘Indeed sir. Straight of to the Zagros foothills to find the greatest prize of all.’

‘Which was…?’

‘Which was nothing.’ Rawlinson allowed his lips to curl into a mischievous grin. ‘A toilet. A lavatory. For camels, Arabs, Turks, all manner of rascals, even the odd jackal or two.’

‘Are you sure? It seems every inch of this desert has treasures waiting to be found.’

‘Absolutely certain, sir. But the real treasures were right where he was about to dig. Sculptures, reliefs, more of those huge carved bulls and lions with the faces of kings…’

The Queen had recovered her composure. ‘Come now, Rawlinson, how could you or anyone know what’s buried beneath these mounds of dirt and sand? Surely it’s just a matter of luck?’

‘Oh yes Ma’am, luck indeed, and Layard has a good nose for finding these treasures that you have seen in the British Museum.’

‘Ah, Layard. Canning’s man,’ said Prince Albert thoughtfully. ‘I’ve seen the reports of his work coming out of Constantinople. So much success for so little reward.’

As a butler served coffee and the Prince Consort reached for the cigar box, the other guests rose to leave. Neither the Queen nor her husband objected, courteously expressing their appreciation of the evening’s company. Rawlinson remained seated and accepted the port decanter passed by Prince Albert. A servant stoked the fire that flared in appreciation.

 ‘To answer Your Majesty,’ he said through a fog of smoke as he worked his cigar alight, ‘you asked how Layard and I knew that the Frenchman was on to something… damn fine smoke this, even better than those Turkish hubbly bubblies…’

‘Dutch,’ said Prince Albert proudly.

‘Lovely aroma. Quite tempted myself,’ the Queen confided.

‘Well,’ Rawlinson continued, ‘Botta had found this inscription, you see, in cuneiform of course—’

‘Cuneiform? That’s picture writing isn’t it? Like hieroglyphics?’

‘Originally it was. Long before the Egyptians devised their writing. But by the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires it had evolved into a sophisticated written language, where letters and words were a series of arrowhead shapes and lines based on the original picture. Until recently, of course, no one knew how to read it.’

‘You mean until you deciphered it,’ said Prince Albert. ‘Allow yourself due credit for your discovery, man!’

Rawlinson gave a slight bow in acknowledgement. He had made no secret of his achievements since those hot days when he had clung precariously to a sheer cliff face in Persia painstakingly copying the inscriptions of Darius the Great, carved into the smoothed stone in three languages. By identifying the names of Darius and the kings he conquered, he began to form a Babylonian cuneiform alphabet and soon became the first man to translate the lingua franca of antiquity. To him, the challenge had been irresistible, just the same as big game hunting in India or his regiment’s missions in Afghanistan.

‘And Botta?’ asked the Queen, interrupting Rawlinson’s reverie. ‘You said he found an inscription?’

‘Aha, the inscription.’ A twinkle in Rawlinson’s eye forewarned the Queen and her Consort that more mischief was about to be forthcoming. ‘Well, he couldn’t read it of course so he showed it to Layard and myself. Asked what it meant. It took me a while to realise that it was a complete directory of a vast palace at Nineveh. A kind of signpost to all the rooms and temple areas. And, of course, the treasures they contained. Botta was right on course to claim the biggest find of archaeology on behalf of France. Couldn’t have that, could we?’

Rawlinson sipped at his port, relit his cigar and leaned back, smiling.

‘Well?’ exclaimed the Queen.

‘Go on,’ said Albert.

‘I told him he had discovered the directions to the hidden treasures of Sishkwan.’

The Queen looked at him askance. ‘Who?’

‘First name that came into my head. Sishkwan. No such person I’m afraid, but that didn’t matter to old Botta. Worked himself up into a fair old state, took detailed notes of my, ah, translation and organised an expedition east into the Zagros Mountains.’ Rawlinson chuckled to himself, then remembered where he was and added: ‘I would be most grateful if your majesties wouldn’t mind keeping this to yourselves? I mean, if the French should hear of it—’

‘My dear Rawlinson,’ interrupted the Queen with laughter in her voice, ‘you are very dear to us and your work is greatly respected. Not a word will be said outside this room. Now then, what did you find at Nineveh?’

‘Layard found it, not me. He seems to be finding new wonders almost every day. But the heat has made him ill and his despatches via Constantinople seem disjointed. It seems that a king called Sennacherib had colossal bulls with human heads guarding his every door and Layard plans to float these on rafts down the Tigris to Basrah, and thence by steamer to Bombay and on to London. The East India Company is seeing to it, but it is both a precarious and perilous journey for these monsters that have lived under the sand for two-and-a-half thousand years!’

The Queen smiled and it was her turn to have a mischievous twinkle in her eye. ‘Sir Francis Drake brought Spanish gold to Queen Elizabeth,’ she said, ‘and all you and Layard can manage is a shipment of bulls!’

‘Very big bulls, Ma’am,’ laughed Rawlinson. ‘But that’s not all…’

‘Aha,’ said Albert, ‘Mesopotamian gold then?’

‘Oh yes, lots of it. Most of that will be pilfered in Bombay. But more important, I think, is the library Layard uncovered.’

‘A library eh?’ The Prince Consort rested his cigar on a cut glass ashtray and leaned forward. ‘Which only you can read?’

‘There are others now who are proficient in understanding cuneiform text,’ said Rawlinson, ‘but what they don’t have they can’t read—’

‘Very clever of you Rawlinson, I must say,’ Albert said. ‘But what, exactly, is in this library and where have you put it?’

‘A lot of remarkably well preserved clay tablets, at first glance mainly lists of tribute paid by vassal states. But,’ Rawlinson lowered his voice lest the servants should hear, ‘there are some that I think are rather important. You see, a lot of these tablets were on shelves, partitioned off under the name of a country or city, and most of them look incredibly dull. As I said, tribute lists and numbers of slaves, that sort of thing. But I’m pretty certain, actually I’m positive, that one section, by far the biggest, is labelled “Jerusalem”. I’m having these put under lock and key in my consulate at Baghdad.’

Queen Victoria looked at her husband then back to Rawlinson. ‘Why are they so important? Are they… could they be part of the Old Testament, do you think?’

Rawlinson shook his head. ‘No, they don’t read as if they are pages from Holy Writ. But we know they were written to King Sennacherib from Jerusalem, all by the same person. He calls himself Shamash, which is the name of an Assyrian sun god, so at first I decided the author was definitely not Jewish. He is either a diplomat, or a spy, who knows. But this fellow is prolific. Tablet after tablet, all with his “Shamash” seal. And then I discovered that not only was he sending reports, he was writing his own story, as if trying to explain his roots and his actions to Sennacherib, or the king’s cup-bearer, or whoever controlled world affairs in Nineveh at that time.’

Albert held up a hand. ‘You said at first you did not think this fellow was Jewish? Sounds like you’ve changed your mind.’

‘The tablets that are autobiographical contain a number of Hebrew words.’ Rawlinson tried to calm the excitement he felt whenever he spoke about his discoveries. ‘Names, too. I’ve found references to someone called Isha’yah. That’s none other than the prophet Isaiah.’

‘How wonderful,’ said the Queen, though with less interest than she had shown earlier in the evening.

Rawlinson went on quickly, realising his audience must end soon. ‘That doesn’t make him Jewish of course, but the opening lines of his story probably do.’

‘And they are…?’ Prince Albert seemed completely immersed in Rawlinson’s discoveries.

‘He calls himself The Last Samarian. I think he was deported after the fall of Samaria, which was besieged by the Assyrians some twenty years earlier. It might take me some time to piece together this young Israelite’s story, but when I do I am certain it will give us tremendous insights into the politics and life of these ancient people.’

‘What date are we talking about here?’

‘Historians seem to agree that this would be about seven hundred years before Christ.’

Again, the Queen and Albert looked at each other. They seemed puzzled, as if the chronology meant little to them.

‘The time of one of the greatest kings in Jerusalem,’ explained Rawlinson, delighted to be able to pass on a little bit of biblical history. ‘Hezekiah.’

‘Oh,’ sighed the Queen, and shrugged.

‘Except I’m not sure he was so great.’

‘Oh.’ The Queen looked tired, possibly in need of another funny story about the French. The clocks nearby chimed eleven.

‘Ma’am, it is late,’ exclaimed Rawlinson, pushing back his chair and rising to his feet with a courteous bow. ‘I apologise for outstaying my welcome.’

The Prince Consort rose. The Queen remained seated.

‘Two things, Rawlinson,’ she said sweetly. ‘Firstly, I hope that whatever you discover in your excellent work, you will not, ah, shall we say, disturb my faith or that of my people.’ Rawlinson bowed, not daring to say that he was a scientist, not a theologian.

‘And secondly, my dear Major, I want to see this tiger of yours before I retire.’

‘It’s a leopard, Ma’am.’ Rawlinson bowed again. ‘I shall be delighted to introduce you to Fahed. He is most appreciative of royalty.’

‘Not in the eating sense, I trust.’

‘Fahed is completely tame, Ma’am, I assure you. He’s even acquired a taste for humbugs.’

 

+         +          +

 

A few minutes later, after passing through the Music Room, along several corridors and past the kitchens where her staff were too busy cleaning pots and pans to notice, Queen Victoria became the first monarch to do two notable things. She entered Josiah Jenkins’ scullery, sending the little Welshman into a frenzy of wide-eyed bobbing and bowing.

And she stroked a leopard.

 


City of Samaria, Israelite territory, 721 BCE

 

The walls are breached

 

It was a day as bright as any but it will always be dark in my mind. It was the day I became the last Samarian.

By my reckoning I would have passed twelve harvests but the invaders had stolen three.

Three years. For what? When the soldiers swarmed up their earthen rampart and over the south wall they cut down our feeble warriors and violated our women, young and old alike. I was glad for the first time in my life that my mother had gone down to Sheol long before Samaria had offended the Great King, glad that I did not have a father on those defiant walls. They laughed as they conquered the weak and the sick, they sneered as the palace was taken, they jeered their guttural insults as they dragged the elders by their beards to make an example of them. The city treasurer screamed for mercy as they lifted his emaciated body onto the sharpened stake and pulled on his frail legs, then laughed at his agony and vain clutching at the gory shaft that held him aloft like a beetle pinned on a builder’s nail.

This I watched from the stable roof, transfixed by Samaria’s nightmare, too scared to move until I realised that the soldiers ransacking the palace would soon turn their attentions to other buildings including the one where I hid. The royal stables, once graced by thirty noble animals, now home only to a frightened stable boy and the rats I learned to catch for food.

Our city nobles had eaten the last of the horses long before the starving city fell, the old stallion saving them the trouble of feverish slaughter when he collapsed at the sight of the rusty knives that had taken his mares and their foals. I watched his heart pulsing through his ribs, each beat slowing until he breathed his last sorrowful breath. And when his heart gave out, mine was broken. The royal butchers, their once-fine robes now as ragged as my filthy loincloth, thrust me aside like an empty feed sack and when they had finished their foul work all that was left was an oozing mess of blood and filth.

The stables offered many hiding places, but none as certain as the sewer beneath that carried the stinking slime from royal bowels beyond the city walls. I had dug my own small cavern under the wooden trap door, an access long forgotten by King Hoshea’s builders, and there, wrapped in an old grain sack, were my supplies and my treasure. A crust of mouldy flat bread, lovingly hoarded, two hapless frogs that had ventured too far into the sewer, both now brittle and ready to be savoured, and my pendant. A bronze sun-disk with a chain of the finest workmanship ever seen in Israel, given to me by my mother with her last breath and the command, when he returns show him this, the symbol of the father I had never known.

But no water.

The shouts of soldiers warned that the enemy was coming. I tried not to panic and forced the terrible image of the dying treasurer out of my head as I looked around for the pail, spotting it behind the stable’s forgotten drinking trough. Its content could no longer truthfully be called water. Only two fingers of dark and rancid slush, alive with mosquito hatchings. Better than anything I might find beneath the trapdoor. The sounds of approaching men was louder now as I tied a piece of rotting rope to the pail and lowered it into the slime, jumped down after it, pulling the wooden cover into place and trusting whichever gods now ruled Samaria that none entering the stables would notice it had been moved.

It was very dark, the soft scurrying of rats in the sewer competing with the muffled sounds above. The stench was not as bad as the first time that I had ventured here, but it was still difficult to breathe. Perhaps the king, his chamberlains and his concubines had no recent need to offer it their noble anuses as even the palace faced the same starvation as the common people. Only the thrifty and daring children can survive a siege.

Reaching into the sack, I felt for the pendant and put its chain over my head, feeling only a little safer for its protection.

Then, still as a mantis on a springtime leaf, I waited.

 

My mother, the beautiful harlot

It is hard for a child without a name to have friends. I am called “Asher”. It is all I was given. But a child without a father has no name and is little better than a wild dog hunting for scraps outside the walls of Samaria. Yehoiada ben Eleazar had a grand name. So did Ethan ben Shalaman and the haughty Natan ben Malachi ben Yishai who revelled in three names and threw stones at me because I had only one. They called me “Ant” because I was small and ants don’t have names, and the first time they all chanted this name at me I cried and shouted at them to stop, but of course that made them shout my new name all the louder. I ran home to my mother and found her with one of my “uncles”, a trader from Jerusalem, who asked me what my name was. Without thinking I replied ‘Ant’ and he laughed.

‘Asher,’ said my mother, handing him a cup of mint water. ‘His name is Asher.’ Then she turned to me with her wonderful smile – I will never forget the flash of her proud white teeth that gave her so much more beauty than the other women of Samaria – ‘but Ant is a lovely name too.’

How I miss her.

My uncle laughed and ignored me, so my mother gave me an errand to steal (she said ‘find’ but I knew what she meant) some bread from the market and possibly some olives or a pomegranate or preferably both because our guest had come a long way to visit us. I returned with all three. I was almost caught by the fruit seller but I was as quick and slippery as any child of five.

Later, when my uncle had left after giving her a gift, for which she embraced him with that soft, throaty chuckle of hers, she sat on the reeds by our small hearth and I begged her to tell me again about my father.

‘But Asher,’ she smiled, pinching my cheeks with a jangle of her silver bracelets, ‘I have told you about him so many times.’

‘Tell me again. Please,’ I demanded, knowing that she would.

‘Well,’ she said slowly, adjusting her skirts around her as if everything had to be in just the right place for such a special moment, ‘he was the most important man in the land of the Two Rivers—’

‘Even more important than their King?’ This interruption was expected: it was always the same.

‘No, he was not more important than the King, but nobody could ever look on the King’s face, except of course—’

‘My father!’ Another expected interruption. My mother clapped her dainty hands and beamed.

‘Yes, Asher, and he was tall, and dark, with a golden vest and the finest beard you ever saw!’

‘And wise, mother. Don’t forget he was the wisest man in the east!’

‘Yes, and rich, and strong. With a voice as deep as thunder. When he commanded, others obeyed.’

He was The Rabshakeh, a name I found difficult to pronounce and the first Aramaic word I ever learned. But in time I realised my mother also referred to him as “Nasi” and sometimes “Nasirpal”, so piecing everything together I eventually gleaned more about the Great Man who was my father. The commander of the Assyrian forces.

He had led the army of King Pul from the east to teach the Syrians and Israelites a lesson in obedience, summoned by the king of Judah who nestled up to our overlords like a puppy sleeping in the lap. And The Rabshakeh had come to the gates of our town by the Sea of Chinnereth where my mother, so young and beautiful that she was reviled by the women as a harlot and the priests as a she-devil, made candles and pretty flax bracelets for the market. The town surrendered quicker than you could say ‘The Assyrians are coming’ and thus the women were spared the manhood of foreign conquerors and the elders lived to count out tribute of gold and silver to send to the Great King.

But, my mother said, Yahweh watched over her and she had caught the eye of The Rabshakeh who wanted candles and pretty things for his command tent. She obliged and I was born. It sounded so simple but I now know that Rabshakeh Nasirpal stayed a full two years to oversee the government of the region even after the army had left to wreak its vengeance elsewhere. And when he eventually left, his crescent banners flying nobly in the hot summer breeze, the women of our little town turned against my mother and her baby.

Years later, in a moment when I knew she had been drinking the date wine brought by one of my uncles, she confessed they had called her the Whore of Babylon and me Abaddon’s Spawn. They had hounded us out of the town.

And that’s why we moved to Samaria.

  

My city burns

The stables burned so fiercely that I was forced to take my small bundle and the pail deeper into the sewer to escape the smoke that seeped through the trapdoor’s crude planking. The space was barely enough for me to crawl along but I took comfort that no Assyrian soldier would be able to follow.

The smell became unbearable, a thick, cloying air clutching at my throat and causing me to retch, but there was nothing in my stomach to bring up and no stirring of the air to take away the oppressive stench. The rats retreated but their scuttling was never far away; terrified, I imagined them waiting for the feeble intruder to collapse and die before beginning their unexpected feast. There was no light and the heat was more intense than the high summer sun. My eyes stung with sweat and I tried licking my arms and legs to relieve the gritty dryness in my throat, but the taste of shit and piss made me retch all the more.

A gentle downward slope led me towards what I guessed would have to be the sewer’s exit beyond the walls. I dared to drink from the pail before abandoning it at a narrow point where an intruding rock gashed my forehead, and pushing my sack of crust and frogs before me, edged towards freedom, licking at the blood that dribbled to the corner of my mouth. The rats retreated before me.

The light, when I saw it, was barely more than a dancing spirit within the blackness, so subtle at first that it was barely noticeable. Increasing my pace, slimy rocks stabbing at my knees and elbows, I crawled onwards and surprised myself with a small exclamation of joy when I made out a rusty iron grille beyond which there was a white light, almost blinding in its intensity. I clambered onto a stone ledge, my bony fists curling around the bars, solid and unyielding, to look out on the horror of war’s desolation.

The grille was set into the lowest part of the city wall, probably put there to allow an exit for the city’s filth when the levels rose to their highest. The tunnel led on to somewhere beyond, but that way was dark and here was light. And it was just possible that a child’s frame could squeeze through.

But not today.

The scene was bloody and violent. At least thirty more execution stakes held unfortunate Samarians high under the merciless sun, most of them still and lifeless, only two or three writhing weakly in their death throes, each pierced beneath the rib cage to suffer a painful, lingering end. A huge wooden cage held hundreds of keening prisoners who yesterday had begged at Samaria’s palace doors and probably eaten their own young, or someone else’s. It was heavily guarded by soldiers with thighs like terebinths, muscular arms cradling iron-tipped thrusting spears, all with cloths of different colours tucked under conical helmets to keep the sun from necks and shoulders. These appeared to be well nourished in contrast to their captives who reached thin arms between the slats in a pathetic pleading for food and water. They were ignored.

All this, the executions and the pitiful cage of prisoners, seemed so close to my hiding place that I could see, hear and smell the desperation of a captive city. But this could be only a small part of Assyria’s retribution. Beyond my vision there must be a thousand more prisoners, hundreds more dying in agony for the pleasure of the invading gods, more soldiers, tents, donkeys, camels and arsenals. And food. And water. Rich pickings for a small, hungry thief.

I felt for my pendant, rubbing the raised sun image between forefinger and thumb to ignite its power, thinking, plotting, and I knew I must wait until the Assyrians had gone before returning to the city or even escaping to the hills. I watched all day while the sun beat down on Samaria’s unfortunates and Assyria’s mighty men, seeing the prisoners led away in columns of fifty or so, roped together and led by brightly adorned camels, the elderly and very young tightly packed in ox-drawn carts. Those that showed any remnants of fighting spirit and those that cursed their captors were made an example to the others: an iron hook through the nose or jaw, tied to the slave ropes, soon bled their rage away and sapped their will power. Their places in the cage were taken by more captives goaded at spear-point from the city to wait their turn to be led into the wilderness, perhaps to the land of the two rivers of which my mother had spoken, the empire of the Great King.

When the breeze changed, smoke drifted from the burning city giving only limited respite from the remorseless sun. At one stage it was so thick as it lay over the horrible scenes outside my window that I could barely make out the movements of soldiers and prisoners, and when it lifted the soldiers were piling corpses downwind while those in the cage that still lived wailed their sorrow over lost kinsmen.

Once, late in the day, I caught sight of Natan ben Malachi ben Yishai, alone and weeping, roped between a barefoot shoemaker and the most renowned moneylender in Samaria. For a moment I thought, What use is your fancy name now, Natan ben Malachi ben Yishai?, but in truth I felt a great sadness for him.

A sadness I soon forgot when a dizzying wave of nausea flooded over me just as dusk was falling.

 

A journey into Sheol

My mother died when I was seven. She gave birth, surrounded by three snapping women who each said they were a friend and midwife but were painted with kohl and decorated like Asherah poles, all falling silent when my mother screamed. A tiny form slid from between her legs, covered in blood and still, so still and lifeless, my sister who never took a breath in this world. The three women looked at the dead baby, then at each other, and with loud wailing and false tears smothered my mother with kisses and their unfeeling words of encouragement and ran from the house. They didn’t even know that my mother was dying.

She was covered in sweat and the bedding was matted with blood. I thought she was dead, but then with a great effort she heaved a breath of rancid air and smiled at me.

‘She’s gone, hasn’t she?’

I tried not to weep. Flies settled on the bloody mess.

‘Tell me, Asher.’ Her every word was a huge effort and pain wracked her bowels so that she shuddered and broke the skin on my forearm where she grasped me in her agony.

I nodded, my cheeks wet with sorrow.

She managed to put a bloody hand on my cheek. In that moment, her eyes were clear, wide and full of wonder.

‘Asher…’

I wanted to reassure her, speak kind words, but all that came was a shuddering sigh and I looked away.

‘Take this…’ she managed through another spasm of pain. She held the moon pendant and tried to lift it, but she barely had the strength. I helped her. It was cool to the touch though her body burned with the fever of death. She whispered, ‘He will come…’ The light in her eyes faded. With great effort she sucked a shallow breath. ‘Nasi… show him… Nasi…’ I understood.

His name was her last word in this world.

I did not know what to do. I had seen dead people before, but I had loved none of them. I shook her, kissed her, and tried to lift her head to make her speak again, even give another sigh, but she wasn’t there. Her beautiful brown eyes had no spirit in them any more. One arm was extended over the bed, her hand open as if to receive one final gift from an uncle of mine, the other between her legs as if trying to stem the flow of babies and blood. The flies gathered and I thrashed and swatted, screaming at them to leave her be, then collapsed in the corner to stare blankly at the mother who had loved me and laughed when all the world despised us.

I buried my sister outside the walls. I carried her tiny body in a pail and, with a stolen hoe, hacked at the dry earth to make a grave. It took me until the prayer hour to dig deep enough, and then, with blistered and bleeding hands I dragged rocks on top of my sister’s resting place to keep the wild dogs from having any part of her.

When I returned for my mother’s body a fat man with a bulbous nose and flowing robes barred the door.

‘Be gone, brat,’ he snarled at me.

‘But my mother—’

‘But nothing. Be gone before I kick you down the street.’

‘It’s my house,’ I shrieked, ‘my mother’s in there and I have to—’

‘There’s nobody here but my wife and our children,’ he sneered, ‘now go or you’ll wish you’d never come nosing around my business.’

I stared at him, not understanding.

He slapped at my head. ‘Go! Get away from my house!’

I backed away, then darted between his legs like a flash of lightning, and hurled myself into our solitary room. I slid to a stop before a woman with a tangle of greying hair and a look of hatred in her eyes. Three children, all much younger than me, clutched at her dull gown, whimpering. The fat man grabbed me by the hair and threw me into the street.

‘If I see you here again I’ll flay you dead!’ He aimed another kick and I scrabbled out of range. For a moment I stared at him, trying to be brave, be a man.

‘What did you do with her?’

The fat man didn’t answer, just scowled. But someone else answered from behind me: ‘Asher, come.’

I turned and looked into a kind face, one I recognised. I had seen him with my mother. I knew he was a friend because he had made my mother laugh on each of the few occasions he had visited. But I hesitated, reluctant to leave my house to these unpleasant strangers.

‘We have to bury your mother. Come.’ His accent was unusual, foreign.

I stood and straightened my tunic. The fat man grunted and turned away, stomping into the house, and heaved the door closed. I heard him lift the locking beam and slot it into place with a heavy thud, and I was homeless. I fought back tears but the kind man put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. He smelled faintly of horses.

‘Come,’ he said again, leaving his hand on my shoulder as he eased me away from my home.

We walked in silence towards the north gate, his hand strong on my bony shoulder, but gentle, almost fatherly, a new experience for a boy who had only ever known a mother’s love. As we walked without speaking, I glanced sideways and upwards at him, taking the opportunity to study the man who seemed so unconcerned at the theft of my house. He was tall and thin, though not in any way ungainly; in fact I found it difficult to keep pace with his long, assured strides. He wore simple clothes of an unusual fashion, calf-length leggings of the sort that children wear to play chase in the olive groves, an embroidered tunic that seemed impossibly clean and leather shoes laced at the ankles. His hair was cropped above the collar and his beard was trimmed very short, giving him a boyish look that I warmed to. Old men with unkempt beards frightened me. He didn’t. His nose was strangely bent in an appealing way, his blue eyes alert, focused on the route ahead. I thought my mother must have liked him as much for his good looks as for his quiet but firm manner. And his laughter, of course.

He must have noticed me stealing glances at him. ‘Neriah,’ he said. That was all, and I took it to be his name.

‘My name’s Asher,’ I replied, panting now as I trotted beside him.

‘I know.’

‘But some people call me Ant. I don’t mind if you call me Ant.’

‘Your name is Asher.’ It was a statement. I concentrated on keeping up, and thankfully we slowed as we passed through the fortified gates. ‘Over there…’ He pointed to some stone steps that led steeply down to what I knew to be the royal burial chambers. Children were forbidden to play there.

‘Are we allowed…?’

‘Yes.’ He stopped suddenly and crouched before me, a hand on each shoulder, those sincere eyes locked on mine. ‘Asher, my family loved your mother and I wish we had known she was… was suffering. We would have cared for her. But now…’

I nodded, my eyes prickling again. I was glad that there had been someone besides me and my occasional uncles.

‘Did you bury the baby?’

Again, I nodded. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’

‘You did well. Did you offer a prayer?’ I think he guessed my omission for he went on quickly: ‘I will take you to your mother now. And then I will look after you.’

She was wrapped in a linen shroud and smelled of spices, only her face showing, peaceful and asleep. There were three women softly keening their sorrow, hands thrusting me to her, so I kissed her on full, red lips then looked around, uncertain of what was expected of me. They sang a sad song in a strange tongue as they and Neriah carried her gently into a cavern where her candles burned, giving off a thick aroma of flowers and heady scents. Their light flickered on her beautiful face giving a golden sheen where outside her cheeks had been pale and bloodless. Neriah sewed the shroud to cover her head, like a drape closing on the day, while the women mumbled their prayers and I looked my last upon my mother.

But I was not alone. Neriah gave me a new life and the women, his kin, an education. From them I learned herbcraft and how to keep myself clean and healthy; none was as beautiful as my mother but I loved them for their fussing and clucking and the way they insisted I was the most handsome young fellow in Samaria, even in all Israel.

From Neriah I learned languages and how to commune with the horses in his care, for he was the king’s horsemaster and the king had paid handsomely for the Urartian stallions and mares as well as for Neriah their keeper. The first language I learned was to be able to talk to the horses, especially the foals, understanding each quirky way of nudging and snuffling, whinnying and snorting, which one had a temper and which needed more attention than the others. I quickly learned how to detect fever and choke with a look in the eyes and my face nuzzling their nostrils, which they loved, even when sick. I took swiftly to caring for their hooves, hardened on the stable’s cobbled floor but, if ever I was tardy in my sweeping away of their waste, susceptible to all manner of infection. I groomed them at dawn, a different song for each, and rode often with Neriah through the soft olive groves and vineyards and beyond to the hard ground of the northern trade routes. The feel of my pony and the wind in my hair felt wonderful, but not so precious as the occasions when we passed Yehoiada ben Eleazar, Ethan ben Shalaman or Natan ben Malachi ben Yishai in Samaria’s streets. Whenever this fortuitous and satisfying thing came to pass I would stiffen my back and, with a regal hand on my hip, completely ignore them.

While the women showed me how to prepare food with herbs and spices, Neriah taught me herblore for horses. In winter we gathered olive and terebinth bark for poultices, mixed with coriander seeds and goat weed, truly a miracle cure for boils, bruises and sores. In the heat of summer we pilfered sweet almonds when the farmers weren’t watching and ground the nuts into the horses’ barley grain; in the springtime, Neriah knew where sheep sorrel and garlic grew in abundance and here we let the horses graze and gathered the leaves and bulbs to mix with their feed. Our horses were the king’s pride and joy and Neriah was richly rewarded for his knowledge and skill, both of which he passed to me in those few wonderful years before the coming of the Assyrians.

When everything, including Neriah and his kindly kinswomen, was taken away from me.

 

Into the enemy camp

I woke with a start when the rats began their feast. It was dark. I sensed by the urgent patter and scraping that there were hundreds of them, on my head and my back, their teeth like needles, but when I tried to thrash at them my arms and legs were heavy and disobedient. I could barely draw breath and a furious thirst raged in my throat so I could not cry out. With immense effort I rolled from the stone ledge and landed on a moving mass of soft fur and the foul stickiness of the drain. The rats retreated with a squealing chorus.

Panting for breath and finding little air in the night’s stillness, I continued my weak thrashing until I was convinced the rats would keep their distance, at least for a while, then dragged myself to my feet and climbed back onto the ledge. The only light outside the grille came from a dozen campfires but these spun like wheels of flame, hurting my eyes and adding to the throbbing in my temple. My skin was hot to the touch yet I shivered uncontrollably. I knew I was sick. Sick with fever and hopelessly weak.

And without water I would surely die. If I hadn’t already descended into Sheol.

It took an age to heave myself through the grille, landing on my back in the gorse that clung to the base of the city wall. I barely felt the thorns and ignored the scurrying of roaches and dung beetles as they fled. I lay on the flattened bush with my eyes closed to calm the dizziness, then began to drag myself towards the nearest campfire. The watchmen were silhouetted against the crackling flames, huddled with their heavy campaign cloaks drawn tight against the night’s chill. Would they give me water before throwing me into the cage? Probably not. I lay still and considered my next move, and as the images before me stilled slightly I realised that somewhere nearby must be some kind of tented barracks and army stores. The Assyrians had been here for three years, with thousands of men who needed food, water and everything else to keep up morale so far away from home.

The first hint of dawn lightened the night sky behind the eastern hills as I crawled beneath the heavy flaps of a large tent. A single torch flickered dimly, enough light to see racks of spears, shields piled high one atop the other, hundreds of sacks in neat rows, presumably containing grain, and if grain there must be bread. But water? I had found the stores and there must be water, but also guards.

I lay still, listening, touching the sun pendant to offer a silent prayer begging my mother’s spirit to watch over me, then began to crawl around the perimeter of the huge tent. There was a shuffling sound ahead and a cough, then low voices, no not voices… the familiar dawn murmuring of goats. A large flock, enough to feed a sizeable section of the besieging army. Not guards, then. But there must be watchmen somewhere, so I moved slowly, cursing the spreading light of dawn.

It was that light that saved me from crawling directly into a solitary figure asleep under what might have been a ragged blanket or the man’s cloak. I made out slight movement as I crept towards him, holding my breath, my heart pounding.

There was a cough and a groan as the sleeper stirred, then was still again. Within his arm’s reach, next to an unsheathed sword and a pair of leather boots, was a wooden pail. I knew it contained water because I could smell it. I looked from the pail to the sleeping man and knew I could no more resist his water than return to the fetid sewer. I would drink, he would wake and I would be Assyria’s slave. An easy choice. I slid towards the pail, fighting nausea and fear, until my head was almost touching it. Slowly, carefully, I dipped a finger in the cool water and dabbed cracked, swollen lips, then eased the half-full pail gently towards me and drank. My head swam with pleasure as I gulped, determined to drink as much as I could before I was captured and marched into slavery.

From the corner of my eye I saw the sleeper’s blanket move. I froze, the heavy pail still tilted in my shaking hands, watching the shifting shape of the grubby cover in the half-light. A large, hairy arm emerged to pull the blanket closer for warmth and in that moment I realised that it concealed not one, but two figures, and one of them was watching me. She wasn’t much older than me, her eyes wide with alarm, her long, dark hair matted with grime, her mouth and nostrils crusted with dried blood. She didn’t move, but I sensed a hint of a smile, the moment confirming her as my ally.

The man grunted and thrashed at the blanket that covered his head. In a flash the girl twisted and threw a bony arm around him, somehow forcing him to turn away from me, muttering the same gentle words I had heard my mother use with my uncles. The sword lay next to me. I looked at the heavy blade, pitted and chipped yet with a newly-sharpened point, and for a moment considered plunging it into the chest of the man who so cruelly used a young Israelite girl, but I knew I didn’t have the strength to lift it.

I crept away.

I found a hiding place before the sun was fully risen. A small boy can easily conceal himself between the lines of grain sacks where they had been leaned on each other to create a tunnel just large enough to wriggle into. A handful of pilfered dried dates and half a stale flatbread would be my feast that morning, though already my thirst was returning and I still did not know where to find the water supplies. I had barely begun my lavish breakfast when I heard the shouts and jests of the men who worked to feed and clothe an army. The first sacks were taken to be milled, forcing me to crawl deeper into my tunnel, finding a slightly larger space to share with the mice that lived there. Here I listened to the sounds of the goats outside, the grinding of great millstones somewhere nearby, the plodding of the mules that drove them, the slap and hiss of dough on hot stones and the laughter of men as they broke their fast.

My stomach fuller than it had been for many months, I slept.

  

The man from Moresheth

With my understanding of languages came an awareness of the world beyond Samaria.

Neriah knew I listened to the garrulous travelling prophets, the traders and the king’s men when they brought their mules and donkeys to the stables, but he just smiled and winked at me, I think appreciating the way I feigned ignorance when men talked of empires and armies, of enemies and friends in far off lands. I cared for their animals, busying myself with brushes and clean water, bringing their feed, tending to insect bites and the wounds of impatience, all the while listening to snatches of conversation about burdensome taxes not only in Israel but in all the northern lands as far as Damascus, of the might of Assyria and the wonders of Egypt.

I also learned about the gods, particularly Samaria’s god, Yahweh, though it was difficult to imagine what he looked like. Ba’al I understood: he looked like an overweight priest. The prophets, too, were as different from each other as birds are from fish. One prophet would be all angry eyebrows and unruly hair and shout at everyone, another would be calm and gentle, assured. If our god was as diverse in character as his prophets perhaps it would be better that there were several, one to lead us into war, another to love us and yet more to provide the harvest and ensure that the people prospered in peace.

Micaiahu of Moresheth I liked, not just because he was kind and tossed me trinkets, sometimes a small pottery seal, sometimes a glass bead as I took his disconsolate donkey for grooming, but because I heard him berating some of the royal courtiers for stealing — yes, that’s what he said, stealing — land from the poor farmers who scratched a meagre living from the fields around Samaria, and giving it to their friends or even keeping it for themselves. He always looked them in the eye while they huffed and puffed, and several times I thought he would be dragged off and stoned to death for his audacity. But somehow they never touched him. Yes, I liked Micaiahu of Moresheth because he championed the poor and the dispossessed. People like me. Though I never told him that my mother’s house had been taken on the day she died.

Micaiahu came often. He always showed interest in me, asking my name and never missing an opportunity to tell me something interesting, like the story of the Philistine giant or the wonders of the temple in Jerusalem. He would hitch up his robe and squat to my height, tug at his wispy beard and chuckle as he spoke.

‘Call me Micah,’ he said once as I struggled with the complexity of his full name.

On one of his visits we studied a column of large black ants that had worn a rut in the earth outside the stables with their relentless marching to and fro along the same route, day in day out. We knelt with our noses close to the ground and watched them, some returning with seeds or dead insects many times their size, others hurrying off to gather anything they could find. That’s when I told him about the boys who called me “Ant”.

‘A good name,’ he said, keeping his eye on an ant carrying what looked like the leg of a locust. ‘See how the ants go about their work? Not one refuses.’

‘Who tells them where to go and when to stop?’ I asked, imagining an ant king in a huge ant palace somewhere beneath the stable floor.

‘Hmmm,’ he mumbled, still watching the ant. ‘They just know.’

‘How?’

‘Well, they don’t have beds to sleep in, they don’t have city walls to build, they don’t plough fields, they don’t have any money… so they just need food. That’s all. And off they go and get it.’

We both thought about that in silence. Then Micah looked at me.

‘They do it for each other, Ant.’

It was rare for my other name to be spoken with respect. Micah used it as if it was an honour to be named after such a creature.

‘We should be like that, but we’re not.’ The humour had gone from his tone and a look of sadness crossed his face. ‘We’re greedy,’ he said to the ants, ‘greedy, greedy, greedy. We don’t care about the poor, we don’t care about our children, we just want gold and mighty palaces.’

‘You don’t,’ I protested. ‘Neither do I.’

He smiled. ‘No Ant, not you and I. The king and his tax collectors and his fancy noblemen. Not just here, but everywhere. In Jerusalem, Hebron, Lachish, Megiddo, Gath… the rich take from the poor and God won’t stand for it much longer.’

He sighed.

‘What will God do?’ I asked innocently, and Micah looked at me with an intensity that made me start.

‘God?’ He laughed, then remembered his revered role in life. ‘God… yes, well, I suppose God will sort it all out, but as sure as that ant will get its heavy load back to the nest, God won’t do what we all expect a god to do!’

I wanted to hear more but Neriah came and chided me for neglecting my duties, ushering me off to feed the king’s horses and polish their silver bridles.

Yes, Micah’s visits always lifted my spirits, though in those days I struggled to understand what would become of such a greedy people as the Samarian nobles. But those were the best days of my youth. Horses to tend, colourful visitors to admire, fascinating snatches of conversation to listen to.

As much as I enjoyed Micah’s musings, the darkness came with a tall, haughty prophet from Jerusalem. Not complete darkness like a winter’s nightfall, but a cloud drawn across the sun, causing folk to draw their robes tight against a sudden chill. Even Micah faded into the shadows when the great Isha’yah came calling. Despite his advanced years, he rode a grey stallion as if he was born to rule, followed by a dozen or more men in fine robes like princes serving their king, all power and might, many of them armed because finely-dressed riders have money and means, and that always attracts robbers and thieves on the trade routes that flank the Salt Sea and the Jordan river.

Isha’yah was imposing and, despite his years, well muscled with long silver hair clasped at the nape and a cropped beard that emphasised a strong jaw. The first thing that struck me as he dismounted outside the stables with a leap far too lithe for his age, was that his eyes were strange. If they had not been so close to his prominent nose he would have looked like any other warrior. But these hooded, grey eyes darted hither and thither, always suspicious, always suspecting, and never did I see even a hint of a smile.

I was comfortable with Micah but I feared Isha’yah who not once gave me a gift for my troubles.

Isha’yah came to see the king with greetings from Judah but also a warning that he had better not bow down to the heathen king of the East who would surely try to wrest the kingdom away. I overheard his men talking and it was as plain as the nose on my face that they were treating Samaria like a holy experiment to see just how dangerous it would be to defy the Great King of Assyria. Neriah, too, heard this talk and I know it troubled him; for many days after Isha’yah’s visit he was sullen and moody as if he had read the signs in the heavens that terrible things would come to pass. When he did speak, it was not to me or his kinswomen but to the king’s cupbearer, the most important man in Samaria after the king himself, an importance that he wore with garish style and a manner of looking at everyone as if they were an unwelcome rodent. I saw them talking near the palace gates and I could tell Neriah was not succeeding in getting his point across. It was only when the cupbearer raised his voice that I could hear what was being said.

You will go,’ he shouted, jabbing a finger into Neriah’s chest, ‘because you know their ways and you speak their language.’

Neriah did not take a step back and held the cupbearer’s gaze with his flintiest look, but after that their voices were lowered again and I never discovered on what errand he was being sent. The next day he rode out with three lightly armed soldiers. I know he would have told me all about his journey, if not before he left, when he returned.

But I never saw him again.

 

An Assyrian fist

A raging thirst awoke me. For several heartbeats my throbbing head reeled with the noise all around me, unable to establish where I was until I remembered the girl and the Assyrian watchman, the pail of water. My body was slippery with sweat and my bones ached. Was it still day? I crawled within the tunnel of sacks until I could see beyond the tent’s covering, to the remains of Samaria’s once beautiful groves, Eden laid bare by an army’s insatiable demands on all that had prospered there before they came.

Yet within that desolation there was hope. A small knot of women, guarded by three soldiers, busied themselves around what could only be a well, perhaps owing its existence to the energies of our forebears, long forgotten by the Samarians whose water supply lay within the city walls. The Assyrians, of course, would have made a priority of digging and restoring any wells within the shadow of Samaria’s walls, or even further afield, so precious was water in time of siege. The women did what women do with abundant water, washing themselves, wringing long braids of hair in its refreshing cleansing, laughing, teasing, celebrating their good fortune that must have come at a cost they were prepared to give.

And I saw the girl.

She seemed older, her sinewy body accentuated by the wet undergarment that clung to her slim figure, her dark hair glistening in the late sun. For a moment I thought she looked straight at me but I was mistaken; perhaps she stared at the supply tent where no doubt she would spend another night, secure in the knowledge that compliance meant life. She was the youngest of those women. All were thin and malnourished, some moving with the stiffness of age, but they chattered and laughed under the admiring gaze of the soldiers, hoping for privilege and sustenance in the coming night.

These were not Samarians. A good number of our women had left the city at the first news of the Assyrian invasion, making for Jerusalem or the cities on the coastal plain, Philistia’s Ekron, Gath or Ashdod. But with the Assyrian hordes came many of Israel’s northern womenfolk, all prepared to find hope in the arms of a needy soldier, perhaps a captain or a lord with gold and silver to shower on those that pleased without question or complaint.

I had never watched a woman the way I saw the girl now. But she and her friends had water and I did not. My throat rasped as if I had swallowed sand. I made an involuntary movement beneath the tent’s perimeter and this time the girl did see me. A hand went to her mouth in a start and one of the guards, who had been watching her with other things on his mind than mere protection, turned to follow her startled look. But she was quick again, and in a swift, graceful movement was at his side, touching his arm, his attentions regained.

I could not help myself. I crawled towards the women, the water and their guards. How I managed this without the soldiers’ attentions, I do not know. The women saw me, of course, and that helped as they distracted the guards with lusty suggestions as I snaked across the dusty ground. Then, after an age or a few heartbeats, I cannot recall, I was at the well with my head immersed in the pail, my mouth working faster than my throat could swallow, heaven’s purest gift coursing into me.

The women tried to shield me, one even covering my filthy body with her shawl in a vain attempt to conceal my arrival from the guards. But I was too small to pass off as a harlot. Though they crowded round and with ribald banter attempted to distract the soldiers, I was soon spotted. But the men were not interested in a small boy. Perhaps the last of the slave trains had left Samaria and I was not deemed worthy of a place even in the prisoners’ cage. I began to think I was safe; perhaps I should have dared to leave my abominable hiding place sooner. I relaxed, and gladly accepted the attentions of the women, removing the shawl and allowing busy hands to tug away the loin cloth, unashamed at my nakedness, revelling in the cool water splashed over me, the sewer’s grime washed away, cuts, grazes and rat bites stinging with dizzying pleasure.

But I had forgotten the necklace that hung around my neck. A glittering disk and a finely worked chain. A treasure not only in the eyes of women who must sell their bodies to survive, but also to wayfaring soldiers greedy for plunder. Delicate fingers touched it, admired it. I saw greed in the women’s eyes, all except the girl, my saviour from the supply tent. In her I saw alarm borne of sweet innocence, a child like me not yet accustomed to the despair that drives people to dishonour and cruelty.

The women would have torn it from me and fought over it among themselves had not a shout from one of the guards interrupted their intent.

‘Well, well, what have we here? A little prince bearing a gift for a kind old soldier…’

He was not old and I was soon to discover that he was not of a mood to be kind. His beard was so thick that it seemed to cover his face almost to the eyes, his black hair unkempt, dusty and matted with sweat. He wore a sentry’s light armour, a leather jerkin and decorated kilt, laced boots and no helmet. His clothing did little to disguise his bulk. Over one shoulder and crossed at the waist was a flax belt to support sword and dagger. His eyes were vacant, cold. This was the man who now strode towards me, his gaze fixed on my most prized possession.

Instinctively, I lifted a hand to clasp my pendant, defying him, and backed away.

He was fast for such a big man. With two strides he reached me where I now stood transfixed by this grim monster that now filled my vision. He back-handed me across my jaw, a blow so savage that it knocked me sprawling to the ground, a shrill whine singing in my ears, my sight suddenly gone, a nauseating ache spreading through my whole body. Head spinning, I tried to move but could not, wondering at the high-pitched sound that filled the air, mingling with screams of protest as the women shrieked at him to leave me be.

He reached down and snatched the pendant, breaking the chain.

That’s when I bit him.

From somewhere deep inside, inspired by the indignity of his treatment and the impending loss of my last link with my mother, I found the strength to gather myself and leap at him while he stood admiring his unexpected plunder. I sank my teeth into his forearm, tasting salty blood mixed with sweat. He bellowed a protest and swung at me with his other hand, as if trying to swat away an irritating insect. I bit harder, choking on his blood. He recoiled, lifting his wounded arm, taking me with it clean off my feet. I thrashed and flailed at his face, pure hatred driving me through the pain in my head and neck. With a shout, he hit me again and I fell to the ground, then instantly came at him again. The huge, hairy fist that clutched my mother’s pendant took me in the face and I had lost my first battle with the might of Assyria.

All I remember was flying at him. Then nothing.

 

The coming of the machines

The rumours began as a trickle of news from traders and visiting prophets, gathering strength like a winter storm, but nothing we heard in Samaria could have prepared us for the coming of Shalmaneser and his multitude of ordered soldiers. For several days this mighty army came from the north like flocks of black ravens and their tents filled the valleys around our city.

The old men and the scribes reminded each other constantly that Samaria was the same impregnable fortress as it was in the days of Ahab when Benhadad of Syria came against us, and the heralds persisted with their shouting on street corners that we should trust in the Lord and the strong right arm of our noble warrior-king, Hoshea the Mighty. We children climbed the walls to see for ourselves. When we looked out over the Assyrian masses camped as far as the eye could see, ignoring the scolding of our soldiers who prepared to defend, the seething mass of the enemy and its ominous siege engines looked very much like the end of the world to us.

Thank the gods so many of our womenfolk had left the city before they came, heaving hand carts of treasured possessions, the lucky ones with a donkey to provide the labour, dragging their protesting children with them to a new life in Hazor or Jerusalem. Why was I not removed from this peril by Neriah’s kinswomen? I think they looked for me, but they did not know that I had been sent to the fields along with Yehoiada ben Eleazar, Ethan ben Shalaman and Natan ben Malachi ben Yishai among many others to glean loose ears of corn and barley, to tear unripe figs from the wild trees and help usher the flocks of goats into pens of new wood inside the city walls.

Hoshea intended to hold out, and that was a great source of excitement to the children and for a brief time all enmity with my grand co-workers, Yehoiada, Ethan and Natan, was forgotten as we felt the lash of the whip and the stinging rebuke of the army commanders. It was only when I was seconded to the small team of skilled women stripping branches for new arrows that I discovered that Neriah’s women had left without me. But I wouldn’t have gone however much they might have pleaded. I had the king’s horses to look after and I would defend them with my last breath.

When the enemy came, I was no longer so brave.

At first, for several days, nothing happened. With the other children, I lay atop the walls in any small gap that permitted our slight bodies and watched the men in their vast camps where they polished weapons, drilled with sword and shield, laughed and sang. Each evening, in the cool before sunset, a squadron of chariots came beneath the walls near the south gate, ignoring the threat of arrows and spears that was usually withheld. The largest chariot, finely decorated in silver and brightly coloured cloth, drawn by two mighty stallions, carried a nobleman flanked by two guards whose shields were so large they would have deflected our missiles with ease. Whether it was this defence or the respect demanded by so obvious a great man, be he king or commander, not one of our men let fly an arrow when the proud chariot came.

Each evening he held his ceremonial spear towards the men on our walls and roared the demands of Assyria that the gates be opened to admit the Great King, Assur incarnate, Lord of Lords, who had laid waste to all Syria and the land of the Hurrians and had subdued all of the peoples between the Great Sea in the West, the deserts of the East and the mountains of the North. Shalmaneser, King of Kings. The Merciful One who would allow all within the walls to live if the gates were opened. The Terrible One, who would impale and flay all should the king of Samaria himself not come forth and do obeisance to the Anointed One — yes, he used the very words that I had heard drip from the lips of the prophet Isha’yah.

I understood all of this, and began to believe it.

But King Hoshea did not believe it, nor did he ever consider going out to answer the charges against him, for he sent his heralds into the streets to proclaim that El Shaddai would defend his people and the Assyrians would soon lose interest and go back to their own lands. Had not The Holy One of Israel (again I had heard these words when eavesdropping on Isha’yah) always protected his chosen people? Would He not do so again? Have faith and remain steadfast, the heralds called, then announced a reduction in food rations and a limit to the amount of water each family was allowed to take from the Pool of Samaria.

At first it seemed as if there was nothing much to it. Life went on as usual, though tempers flared frequently because food was rationed and everyone was constricted within the city walls like cattle at the market. Every household took in strangers, whether welcome or not. Even the royal stables, where I worked and slept in those dull and uneventful days, had new lodgers, mainly soldiers and new conscripts not much older than me. But because the king’s horses were considered part of the royal household, the numbers of men looking for a cool corner to snatch a little sleep were thankfully restricted, and in Neriah’s absence I was treated with respect simply because I was the only one who knew how to calm the animals when they became restless or tetchy. Rarely did I leave those stables for fear that someone might take my privileged place, but when I did I climbed the steps to the north wall and watched the enemy hordes building what was evidently to be a massive earth rampart to bear its army right up and into the city. At first our men laughed and shouted insults, threw rocks at those coming too close to the walls, wisely saving arrows and spears. Buckets of filth and occasionally heated oil were poured over shield-bearers protecting the sappers who, as one kindly soldier explained to me, were attempting to tunnel under the walls.

‘Won’t get far,’ he said knowingly, ‘these walls are built on bedrock.’

He was right. It wasn’t long before the Assyrians were roundly dissuaded from tunnelling, but instead the engineers organised a succession of huge ox-drawn carts laden with Israel’s rich soil to concentrate on building a rampart, working from beyond bowshot towards the city.

‘Wait till they get closer,’ said the same soldier when I returned a few days later, ‘we’ll soon pick them off.’

For much of the time, our defenders had nothing better to do than play dice or watch the enemy’s feeble plan unfold.

Of course, it was not so feeble a plan.

The hide of every exhausted ox that fell and every goat that was eaten at a thousand night fires was put to good use. The sounds of axe and saw filled the heavy air for many weeks as work on the rampart slowed in its remorseless approach to the city. Then one day, the very same day that the first of my horses was taken to slaughter, I heard a commotion near the north wall and ran to my vantage point. A great monster was coming, an enormous contraption of eucalyptus covered with olive branch weave and stretched skins, higher than our walls, creeping slowly along the course of the rampart towards our city, borne on wooden wheels that straddled the earthwork, hauled by slaves. There were more oxen, too, cleverly harnessed to push on long poles that extended behind the advancing machine, thus giving them a little extra protection from whatever missiles might be launched from the walls. Slaves were expendable, oxen apparently less so.

It was a huge shield, swaying precariously as it advanced to the rhythmic chant of the slave drivers, the great wheels groaning on short wooden axles, the upper parts above the rampart strengthened with crossbeams to support the weave and hide covering.

At first those watching were silent in awe, myself among them. Then a command was shouted for the walls to be cleared of all but our brave soldiers and, a little disappointed to leave such a spectacle, I found myself pushed roughly towards the steps along with the other onlookers.

‘Not you,’ came a gruff voice and a strong hand gripped my shoulder. Startled, I turned to look into the reddened eyes of the friendly soldier who, I noticed, looked drawn and tired.

‘Stand over there.’ He indicted a sheltered recess in the rampart. ‘When they bring fire, you keep it burning. Know how to do that?’

I stared at him, dumbstruck.

‘And when anyone calls for more shafts, you go find them and bring here. Understand?’

This time I nodded enthusiastically, pleased to have been given a task at such an exciting moment.

‘And keep your head down. Be small, that’s why we need you here.’

I stood where I was told and when a brazier was brought and lit with kindling, I tried to look busy and helpful. Soldiers brought wood, probably ripped from someone’s roof, while others began wrapping cloth to arrow shafts. I saw the plan and immediately thought how the Assyrians might have made a mistake in their construction. I fed the fire, in between snatching glances at the approaching monster. It would soon be within range.

The first volley was timed to perfection, several flaming shafts arcing towards the great shield, piercing the hide. There they burned feebly but did not ignite the skins.

‘Aim for the edges,’ came a commanding voice, ‘where you can see the supporting weave.’

More arrows flew to find their mark close to the few places where whippy olive branches, some still bearing their silver-grey leaves, protruded from behind the skins. I was right; perhaps the Assyrians did not know that olive wood will burn, however green, even newly cut from the tree. In several places the flames caught and crackled and the lumbering machine stopped as slaves and soldiers alike looked up to see the bright flaring in the heights above them. The fire quickly took hold in the thicker trunks of eucalyptus, then one after another the skins smouldered and dropped loose, their stitching burned, some falling in sparkling spirals onto the slaves below. Orders were shouted into the confusion as men ran away from the burning tower, turned back with whip and spear as more blazing arrows were loosed from the walls. Terrified by the smoke, the oxen panicked and strained at their harnesses, some breaking free to add to the confusion, bellowing their fear as they charged through men and slaves to get away from the fires. The enemy’s officers tried to reorganise their men, but to no avail, and their magnificent shield stood burning as they withdrew in disorder, left to collapse in smoke and sparks before it had even begun the task intended for it.

‘They’ll give up now,’ said the tired soldier with a sigh. ‘We’ve beaten them.’

He was wrong. And when I saw him next, as a new monster rolled towards us with more water then we had seen for many days pouring from pails hurled over the framework, his shoulders dropped and he told me to go home.

By then, the wasting sickness had set in. Samaria had already as good as fallen, struck down by the hand of God, whether our Yahweh or their Assur I did not know.

I think it was our god. Or at least Isha’yah’s.

I wonder now, when I look back, what took the god so long.

 

Among conquerors and prophets

The soldier had broken my nose and the bruising closed up my eyes so that I could barely see the suffering around me. It was hot in the cage, my nose was agony when touched and the fever lingered. My condition meant that I was always last to the water pail and there was no food. The guards didn’t care who lived and who died, just more worthless Israelites to toss into the valley of the dead.

If it hadn’t been for the same girl who seemed intent on helping me, I would have died in that cramped space, ignored by my countrymen, abandoned by all except a stick-thin waif who took pity on me. Her name was Leah and I told her mine. Asher, not Ant. I no longer felt like a child. She brought water, her blazing eyes warning off the other prisoners, and calmed me when I gulped then took a wet cloth to wipe away the crusted blood in my nostrils and cool the pulsating bruises around my eyes.

Leah was herself bruised, the new adult in me knowing that to survive she had allowed the foreigners’ brutality but whatever they did to her, they could not crush the spirit within. I liked her, perhaps I loved her too. She gave me strength.

Leah came often during the two days of my imprisonment. In soft whispers she told me that very soon I would be led away to a new life in another land, but that she would stay because the Assyrians who stayed behind had need of her and her like.

‘It will go well for you,’ she said as she handed me a crust of bread. ‘You’ll see.’

‘But why can’t I stay here with you?’ I pleaded. ‘I can be useful, too.’

Leah smiled. ‘Believe me, you have a whole new life waiting for you.’

‘Where?’

‘I don’t know,’ she shrugged. ‘I’ve never been further north than Dan. The soldiers talk of great cities and wonderful temples, their water canals and crops that stretch as far as the eye can see. Tall palms laden with dates and everyone dressed in fine linen and glittering jewels.’

She did not fool me. All soldiers talk like this, just as they claim their manhood is twice the size of everyone else’s. It is common knowledge. She knew I didn’t believe her.

‘Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps you are going on a great adventure. You have to make yourself useful to them, then they will treat you well.’

‘Useful? What would they want of me? I’m only a child.’

‘We all have talents,’ she replied quietly, ‘what did your father teach you to do?’

‘I don’t have a father,’ I said a little too crossly, then remembered myself and with a guilty start, added: ‘But Neriah taught me to look after the king’s horses.’

‘There. You do have a talent. These Assyrians have horses too. Lots of them. So they need you, don’t you see?’

I understood. I think she wanted this for me. Better than hiding in Samaria’s sewers and resorting to a life of thieving. I was about to ask her what more she knew when there was a stirring among the other prisoners as some soldiers approached. As they neared, I realised with horror that at the forefront was the very same man I had attacked, who had broken my nose and condemned me to this stinking cage, now coming for more retribution, his eyes seeking me out.

He saw Leah, then me. We both tensed, expecting those flailing fists and a sharp tongue. He pointed to me.

‘That one.’

I recoiled, trying to edge deeper among the other unfortunates. Leah glared at the soldier.

‘What do you want with him?’ she demanded fiercely.

The soldier ignored her as his men unbound the gate and came towards me, kicking aside the other prisoners.

‘Leave him be!’ cried Leah. ‘Haven’t you harmed him enough?’

The soldier continued to ignore her, as if she no longer existed. Rough hands were laid on me and I struggled and kicked, bracing myself for more fists and slaps. But they never came. If anything, the men who grasped me by ankle and wrist seemed to be taking care not to injure me further. They carried me out of the cage, the vacant eyes of prisoners around me not caring what happened as long as they were untouched.

The men placed me before the soldier who had hit me. The bite marks on his forearm had scabbed over, attracting the attention of several persistent horseflies. I tried to edge away from him but couldn’t because his men held me, their grip on my shoulders just firm enough to hold me upright and restrain me lest I run. Realising I was not to be beaten again, or worse, I looked into his eyes and I saw that the greed and savagery had gone and in their place was something less familiar to me… was it uncertainty? Anxiety? Even fear? What I saw there gave me hope, but I was still afraid of these men.

Leah ran to me and knelt, her hands on my face, her thumbs smoothing away grime from my cheeks, taking care not to touch my bruises. I felt her concern, and it gave me strength.

‘Leave him,’ the soldier commanded her. But neither he nor his men made any move towards her.

‘Where are you taking him?’ asked Leah.

‘That’s none of your concern,’ he replied.

I found my courage. ‘Give me back my necklace,’ I demanded, trying to muster defiance and strength, but to them I must have looked like a beaten puppy.

‘I no longer have your necklace,’ said the soldier, then, as if suddenly losing patience, added: ‘Bring him.’ He turned and strode towards the ruined city. Still gripping my shoulders, his men coaxed me after him leaving Leah kneeling in the dust.

‘God go with you,’ I heard her call. I tried to look back but the men were firmly forcing me away from the cage.

Stumbling on the rock-strewn ground, I relied on my guards to hold up my weak, shaking body, making it difficult for them to keep up with the soldier who strode ahead. I was scared, assuming I was either to be executed like the unfortunate Samarian nobles whose remains still hung from stakes beneath the walls, or I was to be chained and led away to a life of slavery.

‘God go with you,’ Leah had said, but I didn’t know where to find God in this forsaken place and I didn’t know how to trust the unseen, either. What would God want with a starving child dressed only in a dirty loincloth who didn’t know how to pray? I closed my eyes and tried to trust God but this just made me dizzy. When I stumbled again, one of the guards swept me up to carry me at a brisker pace. His odour reminded me of my horses.

They took me through the gates into smouldering Samaria where hundreds of soldiers, stripped to the waist, were cleaning up after the horror of war. They used brushwood to sweep the streets clean, carpenters were repairing burned roofs and doorframes, and here and there fires consumed mountains of rubbish and broken furniture. It was unrecognisable, no longer did it feel like my city, no longer were the people my people.

All around me I heard the chatter of foreigners in a captive Israelite stronghold, recognising some of the words that I had learned in the stables, missing the point of ribald comments but catching the unmistakable joviality of victorious invaders. I caught the meaning of my guards, too, when they complained about their duties of bringing a Hebrew child to the palace instead of sending the little rat to Assyria with the rest of the Samarian vermin, but I kept my mouth shut and let them believe I did not understand their tongue. Neriah’s teaching and my life in his stables might come in useful, as Leah had said, perhaps give me a better life if I was lucky.

The stables. Nearing the palace, we passed them and my eyes dampened when I saw there was no longer a roof, the stonework blackened with soot. I had not expected to see my home again, not so soon after escaping from the barbarians who now returned me to the ruined city.

The palace was surprisingly intact, not burned and broken like the rest of Samaria. I was set on my feet at the main gateway where more leather-clad guards, armed with spears, studied me with fierce looks. Firm words from the leader of our small group convinced them to let us in through a side gate, and for the first time I was inside the palace courtyard. I stared open-mouthed at the solid stonework and wide portico, at the palm trees and vines all stripped of their fruit, at the foreigners in King Hoshea’s palace with their fine clothes and full bellies, at the servants who rushed about the business of Assyrian masters who now ate in the king’s house and no doubt slept with his concubines.

Samaria was occupied by a foreign power and its people taken away. I wondered what had happened to the king I had never met. How did he feel when he was led away in chains, perhaps to his execution, perhaps to be thrown at the feet of the Assyrian king? Where was he now, and who reigned in his palace in his stead? I wondered if I was about to find out.

The soldier dismissed my guards and led me along a shaded colonnade, the stone paving cooling my feet, then through a room filled with men sitting at a long table pressing iron wedges onto clay tablets, listing the spoils of war. Before each scribe were more men who I guessed were messengers, dictating quantities and measures to be reported to the Great King. As I passed one group I heard “of ivory, gold and silver” and numbers I couldn’t understand, and another seemed to be arguing about the number of people deported so far.

None of them looked up as a small boy was led past the noisy throng.

The soldier approached two fully armed men who guarded a large door decorated with ornate carvings of a lion hunt. He spoke to them briefly. One of the guards studied me while the other spoke — from the little I understood there were delegations from Judah and the coastal cities seeking audience to renew their support for mighty Assyria. The guard looked at me with bored eyes and I wondered again what these cruel and powerful people could possibly want with a grubby, almost naked, barefoot boy.

The silent guard shrugged and pushed open the door. I padded in beside the soldier as if it was my divine right but was quickly overcome by a feeling that I didn’t belong in so grand a room, a boy in this vast chamber with a smooth tiled floor the like I had never seen, rich tapestries hanging on the walls and acacia furniture inlaid with ivory. The room was too large for the dozen or so men within it, three groups standing as far from each other as they could, each engaged in such animated discussion that they did not notice my arrival.

I recognised one of them immediately. Isha’yah was taller than the others in his group which, I guessed, must be the delegation from Jerusalem. His embroidered halug hung imperiously on his powerful frame, his arms extended as if to emphasise a point he was making to his somewhat portly companions. Our southern neighbours had sent their most persuasive prophet to do whatever nations must do at times of such military upheaval.

My guard led me past them towards an opening in the far wall where lacy curtains shifted in a gentle breeze. Beyond this was a wide terrace and a garden populated with dead or dying plants, more victims of such a long siege, and to my joy I was led outside where, tethered beneath the patchy canopy of a huge acacia, were at least six horses. Proud, beautiful horses, chestnut brown mostly, though one stallion was black as night, groomed tails flicking at Samaria’s insistent flies. Standing among them was a man of such noble bearing I knew immediately this was the commander who had brought Assyria’s vengeance to Samaria, a man who now received the love and devotion of his horses as much as he would demand the obedience of his soldiers. I knew it also when my guard hesitated as the commander looked up at us with penetrating dark eyes, a hand lingering at the nose of one of the horses.

While the soldier fell to his knees and put his face to the ground, I remained standing and studied the Destroyer of Samaria. I had expected a giant of some kind, a monster, probably fat with excess and cruel eyes of fire, wielding axe and club to crush the feeble Israelites. That I wasn’t afraid and didn’t throw myself to the ground was no surprise, it didn’t even occur to me, because I saw in him not only self-assuredness and authority but something more… intelligence of course, but perhaps understanding, compassion even. Was it kindness? And this confused me. Surely this powerful man had ordered the execution of the nobles and deportation of Samaria’s people? But he looked at me and I was not afraid.

He returned his attention to the horses. The black stallion nuzzled his chest, pressing its nose into a soft shirt worn under a brightly coloured sleeveless coat tied with a purple sash at the waist, the jewelled hilt of a ceremonial dagger winking in the dappled sunlight. I studied his way with his animals, seeing how he murmured to them, took in the well-groomed beard and oiled hair, his horses clearly as carefully tended as he was.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that all was not well with one of the horses. A mare stood slightly apart, not competing for the master’s attention, her head held lower than the others. I saw how she did not put any weight on one of her hind legs and knew instinctively that she was lame.

With a friendly slap to the stallion’s neck, the commander of Assyria turned his attention back to me.

‘Go,’ he dismissed the soldier, and to me he beckoned as he strode towards the palace terraces.

As he passed I smelled a hint of almonds. I followed him through the room where I had seen Isha’yah and enjoyed the sudden silence as visiting dignitaries caught sight of a small boy following Samaria’s conqueror. Then several moved towards him all at once with outstretched hands and demands on their lips. The commander stopped and turned towards them with a smile.

‘I ask you to wait a little longer,’ he said in Aramaic so that they could all understand him. ‘A matter of great importance has arisen which requires my attention.’

They were stunned, Isha’yah especially I hoped, but they all had the good grace to bow and wait for their audience.

For me, not three days since a sewer had been my home, and though my feet hurt and I was still weak with fever, I put a spring in my step and followed the most powerful man in the world after the Great King of Assyria.

On a matter of great importance.

 

The circle of fate

‘Where did you get this?’

He held up my pendant. Behind him two statues of ancient warriors stared lifelessly back at me, contrasting with the accusation in the commander’s eyes. There was no one else in the room, his new office I guessed.

‘My mother gave it to me.’ I looked down, hating myself for not being able to hold his eye, but after all I was just a child in the presence of the conqueror.

‘You didn’t steal it?’

‘No,’ I whispered, and when he told me to look at him and speak up, I added: ‘But the soldier stole it from me. Then he hit me.’

‘After you bit him…?’

So that was it. This was a court, and I was accused. My shoulders slumped.

But the commander let the charge drop. ‘So your mother gave it to you. Where is she?’

‘She is dead.’ I wanted to see sadness there when I said this, but it was a forlorn hope.

‘What was her name?’

‘Her name?’ She had been called many names, some nice and sweet sounding, others angry and vengeful, especially by the wives of my uncles. But in his fond reminiscing, Neriah had called her Mish. Short for mish-mish, his favourite fruit.

‘Mish,’ I said softly, looking at my feet again.

He walked around the table where several baked tablets lay haphazardly arranged, waiting perhaps for his despatch to the Great King. He put a finger under my chin and lifted so that I looked into those noble eyes.

I knew that I was looking at my father. I think I knew that the moment I set my eyes upon him. I also think he knew that I was his son, but he didn’t exclaim his joy and sweep me into his arms. Instead he looked at me with an intense gaze and considered this small Samarian captive before him.

‘I saw you looking at my horses,’ he said suddenly.

‘Yes, they are beautiful.’

‘All of them?’

‘All of them.’

‘Even the one that is lame?’

I started, and looked at him with all the courage I could muster. ‘Yes. Especially that one.’

‘Why do you say this? What use will she be to me if she is lame?’

I was shocked. I realised that he had no use for weakness. To him, everything and everyone had to be useful or be discarded like a dirty rag.

‘I can heal her.’

‘You? What do you know of horses?’

‘I know that when they hang their heads they are either tired or sick. And I know that she favours the other hind leg. It is probably a poison in her hoof, or a torn muscle. No more than that.’

He smiled. ‘But my physician says she is useless. Besides, she is already old.’

‘How old?’ It seemed to me that though I was small, I had earned the right to talk with him as an equal.

He shrugged. ‘Perhaps ten summers.’

‘She is not old. She is just sick. Let me heal her.’

‘How will you do this?’

‘I don’t know. I must see her first.’

‘You are very small for a healer.’

‘I have been well taught.’

‘Very well. If you can heal her, you will help me to look after my horses. But first, you yourself are unwell, filthy, probably hungry and you stink. Let’s make you into an Assyrian…’

He clapped his hands and a soldier immediately pushed open the door.

‘Lord…?’

‘Take this child to my quarters and have him fed and washed, in that order. Then feed him and wash him again. I want him back here looking and smelling like a river lily before the sun sets.’

‘Lord.’ The rough-looking soldier reached out a hesitant hand but the commander called me as I turned.

‘One more question. What is your name?’

‘Asher.’

‘Assur? Named after our God?’

‘No, Asher, it’s a Hebrew name.’ I turned to leave, then hesitated. I looked back at him over my shoulder. ‘But some people call me Ant.’

He smiled and held out my mother’s pendant. ‘You’ve forgotten this,’ he said.

I was lost for words. I hadn’t expected him to return it to me. I looked at the four-pointed sun swinging before me, noticing that the chain had been repaired, but I didn’t reach out for it. He placed it over my head and I felt the bronze burn at my breast as if it belonged there.

Then he was about his business with the reports on his table, so I allowed the soldier to usher me from the room. Just a small captive boy, dirty and malnourished, whose fate was in the hands of a greater power.

But I had my pendant back.


A worker of magic

It took me longer than it should have done to heal the commander’s mare.

The invaders had left the surrounding countryside bereft of all plants, and whether they knew of their medicinal powers or not, had plucked everything from the earth that might keep their people healthy during the three years of their campaign.

But I had a pony and a bodyguard because I was now Asher the Israelite Horse-healer who had the favour of the Assyrian Rabshakeh and could do no wrong. To these grizzled soldiers a healer had magical powers, however young he may be, and they envied the way the horses responded to my voice and touch. If I so much as looked at a soldier he would lower his gaze and wait for my command.

So I teased them.

Good food in my stomach and an army of women to wash and serve me gave me confidence. I asked the soldiers which of the women that followed their camp they preferred and they did not know how to answer for fear that the next day they would be executed at my whim. I tried to wink and laugh at their discomfort, but they feared me. So I demanded my own mount and went in search of herbs and tree bark for a poultice.

But not before commanding my escort to take me to the prisoners’ enclosure.

The cage was empty, the prisoners roped and marched north.

‘Where are your women?’ I asked the nearest soldier who was mounted on a stallion that had seen better days.

‘Women?’ replied the soldier, ‘what women?’

‘The Israelite women who served you as Samaria fell.’ I felt wonderfully confident, as if I was born to command. But I was still only twelve, perhaps thirteen, with a high voice.

‘There are no women.’

‘Yes there are,’ I said and eased my pony into a canter towards some tents in the distance. I wanted to find Leah.

But we didn’t find the women, saw none that I recognised, and with a heavy heart I forced the pace north to the hills where I thought there would be woods and a stream or a river with all the medicine I would need for the sick mare. And there we found some olive trees as old as Moshe and scraped away bark, picked some goat weed and some coriander, just enough to draw out the festering puss in the old mare’s hoof.

It took her seven days to recover enough to no longer be threatened with the knife, but by then my protectors were amazed, calling me ashipu, a title I had not heard before but when I questioned them they said that in their homeland there were powerful men who could expel evil spirits.

‘An ashipu is a priest?’ I asked as we led the horses to the old stables to bed them for the night.

They all shook their heads.

‘A prophet then?’ This confused them, and I realised they did not understand what a prophet was. ‘Then what? If you call me ashipu, I must know what kind of creature you have made me.’

The eldest of them, a bulky and scarred veteran whose name I could not pronounce, grunted an answer on behalf of them all.

‘A worker of magic.’

I laughed, and they were embarrassed. I looked at them and saw warriors who feared only what they could not see, who did not understand the simple healing plants that grew all around them, no doubt in Assyria as well as in Israel. I put on my most serious and intelligent look and thanked them for looking after me. They bowed with a respect that surprised me.

I put my hand to the pendant at my neck, acknowledging its power to have brought me from sewer rat to magician in just a few bewildering days. I thought of my mother’s fate and wondered if there had been any magic for her in the dust and squalor of Samaria’s backstreets, whether it is luck or fate or magic that makes us what we are, fleeting thoughts far beyond the understanding of a small yet privileged child.

So fleeting, that the obvious question did not even occur to me. Where would my sun pendant, or the gods, or magic, lead me next?

If I had given myself to pondering this weighty question I would have imagined riches and glory in the service of The Rabshakeh himself, the joy of a son who has found his father. I would have a thousand horses and a host of servants to groom and pamper them. I would ride at the head of the finest cavalry, my armour polished bright as the sun, my sun-god banner flying proudly as we chant Assur’s battle cry and sweep in perfect formation towards the massed ranks of the enemy…

But Assyria’s gods are no different to Samaria’s. When you think you have found peace, they snatch it away again.

They give with one hand and take with the other.

CONTACT THE AUTHOR

Libertas © Alistair Forrest Registered with the IP Rights Office Copyright Registration Service Ref: 1844683130

Goliath © Alistair Forrest Registered with the IP Rights Office Copyright Registration Service Ref: 1000924598