15. Behind the Temple
The Plaza, Samaria City, Samaria
Obadiah clapped Ahab on the shoulder. “Bring your guards. Give the elder from Bethel a behind-the-scenes look.”
“Wha…?” Ahab stiffened.
The children were disappearing into the alley.
Obadiah sidled up to Hiel. “I seem to remember a certain young prince who lured me away from the safety of the fort to race on an empty road without attendants. You may find it hard to believe, but at one time our king led daring adventures.” He stepped back and patted Ahab on the shoulder while eyeing his chosen accomplice.
Hiel opened his eyes wide. “The big black. Was that the horse?”
“Shochar.” Ahab frowned.
“If only that mighty stallion were with us today.” Obadiah winked and brushed the king’s elbow.
Ahab squirmed. “Biah! What are you—?”
With an arm swept low toward the alley, Obadiah proclaimed, “Come with me behind this beautiful facade, my king. You still have a heart for adventure, do you not?” He winked at Hiel.
Ahab pulled his shoulders back and turned to follow the slavers and their chain of children.
“You owe me, Biah. I want your first-hand report on Hiel’s rebuild of Jericho.” He gave a shaky laugh. “Adventure. I’ve been wary of looking for excitement with Biah ever since he gave me a bloody nose.”
Hiel crowded closer to the king.
Dangling his hand in the air, Obadiah winced. “My wrist still hurts from that stiff arm, my king.” He led them past the four marble columns and into the tiny alley between the temple and the weaver’s yard. Gera would have to get along without him for a little longer.
The narrow alley emptied into a mature olive grove. A yellowhammer flicked its brown-streaked tail and sang. Sunlight played on the greens and grays of the sparse leaves remaining from the drought.
As the king emerged from the alley, he snapped off the brittle end of an olive branch and shook its brown leaves free. “I’ve searched everywhere for that goatskin kid. When I find him, I’m going to send his head rolling in the ditch. Then we’ll see how much he has to say about ‘dew-nor-rain.’”
Ahab and Hiel glanced around.
Between the rows of dried up olive trees and the temple wall of rough limestone, the chain of children slouched, rubbed their bloated bellies, and dug at their armpits. Flies buzzed their faces, settled in their eyes, and crawled their lips. Please, Lord, let my friend see what You see.
Obadiah motioned the bodyguards forward. “Come along, men. We don’t know what danger awaits our king.”
As a young guard yawned and polished an apple on his tunic, a girl next to last in the line gaped at the apple. The guard followed her gaze.
Obadiah held his breath. Would this young man see a child or a prostitute?
Color drained from the guard’s face. He closed his mouth and slipped the apple into his pack.
Thank you, Lord. Perhaps the guard was human enough for a child’s distress to trouble him, or maybe he couldn’t figure how to divide an apple among forty children.
The slaver who led the children smirked with a slight bow to the king. “Ahab. Needn’t have bothered. Honored to have you here.” A Persian accent marred his Hebrew.
Hiel and the king gawked as the slaver strutted up, leaned against the limestone, and slapped the door of the temple.
A gray-haired matron poked her head out and scowled.
The slaver stepped back. “Your new doves, dearie.”
In the still air, the stench of excrement assaulted Obadiah’s nostrils.
Hiel covered his nose.
Ahab tried to turn back, but Obadiah held his elbow with a steady hand. “Please, my king. Learn the true price of battle wagons and chariot horses.” Ahab remained, whether out of concern for the children or from shame to back out in front of his guards?
The slaver cocked his head at the matron. “Tell your boss the price is two hundred eighty.”
She poked her head inside.
A weasel-faced man put one foot outside the door. He glanced at the slaver then squinted and blinked. “King, um, Ahab.”
Ahab raised his head and said nothing.
The temple boss brought his other foot out. He wore a dark green robe with an outline of the buxom Asherah queen sewn on the front left shoulder. Twitching his nose at the slaver, the boss moved a hand toward the line of children. “You brought these?”
“Forty. Two hundred eighty shekels.” The slaver thrust his shoulders back.
Obadiah shuddered. Like buying chickens in the market, three for a shekel.
A boy wailed then closed his mouth like a trap.
Hiel looked up and down the chain of children, then lowered his gaze to the grass.
Ahab pulled free from Obadiah’s fingers.
The temple boss shuffled his feet and coughed. “Um, the last string was four each. So, that would be a hundred and, um, sixty shekels.”
The slaver’s mouth curled. “My cousin sold you that string for five each. Seventeen Kasran girls. You paid him eighty-five. These from Tadmor are seven each. Two hundred eighty shekels.”
Obadiah shook his head. Jezebel chose her lackeys from the bottom of the heap.
Hiel kept his head bowed and his mouth closed.
Ahab pulled his eyes away from Obadiah’s gaze.
The temple boss wrinkled his rodent nose. “Well then. Let’s see what you brought.”
“Bring your silver. We’ll use my weights.” The slaver pulled a rough goatskin bag from a basket on the camel, brushed leaves from a spot next to an olive tree, and set up his scales.
The boss ducked back into the temple and returned with his purse. Crouching beside the slaver, he set several silver rings, a silver hair piece, and a necklace of silver on the left tray of the scales.
With slow, exaggerated movements, the slaver added bronze weights to the opposite tray, each in the shape of a turtle about the size of a large pearl. “Seventy-six.”
Rising on their toes, Ahab and Hiel watched over the back of the temple boss.
Flies buzzed the line of children. One child whimpered.
As Ahab glanced at the alley, Obadiah gritted his teeth. Don’t let him leave, Lord.
The boss placed rough-cut silver pieces on the tray.
“One hundred eighty-nine.”
A handful of chips clinked onto the pile.
“Two hundred seventy-seven.”
The boss dropped in a tiny chunk.
The slaver spread his fingers. “Two hundred eighty.” He folded a cloth around the silver, stuffed the lump into the purse at his belt, and tucked his scales and weights into their pouch on the camel.
As Ahab switched his gaze from the slaver to the line of children, he cringed then wiped his face with his hand and stared unblinking, as if to show he was up to Obadiah’s challenge.
The slavers clucked their tongues, and the children shuffled to the door, dragging their chain in the dirt.
One slave retrieved a hammer and chisel from the camel and approached the first girl in line. When he touched the point of his chisel to the clasp on her ankle, she quivered and shrank back.
He swung the hammer. The clasp shifted with his blow and gouged her.
She flinched, and fresh blood poured onto her foot.
As Obadiah’s stomach surged, he clapped a hand over his mouth and groaned.
The matron shrank into the doorway, and the temple boss cursed.
The slaver swung again, the girl recoiled, and the hammer slammed into her foot. As the child’s head shot back, her eyes rolled up in her head, and she sprawled on the dirt, silent and still.
Obadiah stumbled behind an olive tree and retched. He looked up as the next blow popped the clasp.
As Ahab gawked, his eyebrows drew together.
“Do we have to have a royal audience?” The slaver with the hammer straightened on his haunches and turned to the one with the silver.
The guards shifted half a step closer to the king.
As the slaver moved his chisel to the second child, he growled, “Hold still.”
Ahab took in a sharp breath. “Careful with that hammer.”
Obadiah’s neck flamed. With one word, the king could stop this torture. Instead, he asked for better aim. How long shall the wicked triumph, Lord?
Hot tears stung Obadiah’s eyes. He whirled, every muscle tensed and ready to coldcock his old friend. If he snatched a spear from the nearest guard, he could pin the slaver to the wall.
Let Ahab’s guards run him through. A good way to die. Then a vision of Yedidah and the children emerged with the sober calculation that if he lived, he might do some good.
He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Little children. Made in the Lord’s image. And we chain them like dogs.”
Hiel stared at him then dropped his gaze to the ground.
The slaver laughed.
Ahab lowered his chin to his chest.
Obadiah snorted. Was Ahab hiding his eyes? Fat lot of help royal shame did these little ones.
The temple boss shoved the girl with the bloody foot into the arms of the matron in the doorway then paced the line of children. “Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight.” He brushed flies from his face and spun toward the slaver with the silver. “You said forty.”
“Tadmor’s a long trip.” The slaver plastered on a glib smile and rested a hand on his purse.
“I paid for forty.” The eyes of the boss darkened.
“And I brought forty. Two didn’t make it.”
The boss’s cheeks flushed scarlet as he shoved the children toward the door and cursed the slaver by the gods of Tyre.
Obadiah put a hand to his forehead. “Oh, Lord. What have we become?” He flared his nostrils at Ahab. “Our father Jacob knew better than to drive his ewes and cows too fast, but your hired thug whips children up the trail. When one gets sick and slows him down, he leaves her to die in the heat. No mother. No father.”
“Here it comes. The sob story.” The slaver with the silver raised an eyebrow toward the one holding the chisel.
Ahab flicked a hand at Hiel. “I’ve seen enough.”
“Don’t you dare leave.” Obadiah lunged into Ahab’s path.
Royal bodyguards stepped between him and the King, spears at the ready.
As Ahab paused, his eyes flicking from Obadiah to the spears and back, Obadiah spread two fingers above the point of a spear. “Two children, my king. Take the trail to Tadmor and check under the bushes. You’ll find the bones of two children.” He turned away then reversed and leveled his eyes at Ahab over the crouching guards. “So you can entertain guests and hire chariots.”
“Basics, Biah. You still don’t understand the basics.” Ahab pushed past him and stomped into the alley.
Hiel lagged behind. Although his gaze focused on Obadiah, his thoughts stayed hidden.
As the bodyguards followed the king, the guard with the apple fell back and leaned toward the girl next to last in line.
Obadiah held his breath. What was the guard’s intent?
The child shrank toward the temple wall.
“Here.” The guard held out the apple.
The little girl’s chin trembled, but she lifted a scrawny arm and let the apple settle into her hand.
The guard’s face sagged. He glanced back at Obadiah then followed Ahab into the alley.
Obadiah let his breath out in a whoosh. He turned his back on the slavers and strode past the line of kidnapped children into the alley.
When he emerged, Ahab and his guards had crossed the plaza and were mounting the palace stairs.
The young guard who placed the apple in the child’s hand glanced back. He had done more good with his apple than the king’s man with his job titles.
Hiel jogged out of the alley and raised a gorilla arm toward Obadiah.
Yet, Obadiah turned away. He’d failed with the king. There was no point in discussing Joshua’s prophecy with this gorilla.
At the chariot, he bowed his head. “I’ve wasted our day.” His voice was flat. He never should have followed Ahab to the facade. And then to manipulate his old friend into watching the delivery of slaves? A fool’s errand.
The driver asked, “Was it bad behind the temple?”
Obadiah moaned and let the question hang unanswered. He needed to forget what he’d seen, not relive it with his guards.
Fish. Fresh fish rang in his head. He jerked his head up and glanced around the plaza. Wake up? No, thank you. He’d seen enough. Better to close his eyes and dream small. Inspect groves, clean stables, keep the books. And protect Yedidah and the kids.
Zak swung onto his mount. “To Gera’s?”
“Yes, Gera’s. We’re late.”
“Wait, please. Wait!” Hiel called across the plaza.
He loped over to the chariot and tipped his enormous head up toward Obadiah. “Come. Please come visit us in Jericho. It’s … it’s important. And, like the king says, bring your wife.”
How long shall the wicked triumph? – Psalm 94:3
Jacob drove ewes and cows – Genesis 33:13
A thought of kindness – Psalm 109:16
Guard at my mouth – Psalm 141:3
Hiding place – Psalm 32:7