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Stone And Steel

Stone And Steel


Book excerpt

Prologue

AZOTUS, JUDEA
31 MAY, 61 AD

“Matthais? Is she…?”

“Your daughter is alive, my lord. Seth is following, with my sons. They have her.”

Releasing a long-held breath, Symeon sagged as Abigail wrapped her arms about him. Holding her close with his right hand, his left slipped beneath his long beard to rest on his racing heart. Days of prayer had left his knees raw and aching, yet he fell to them once again to offer up his joyful thanks. Abigail joined him, and they prayed together, clutching hands.

Finished, Symeon looked back to the bearer of these glad tidings. “Matthais, thank you. I can only say…”

Abigail noted the curious look on Matthais' face. “What is it? Was she—?”

“She was not molested, my lady.”

“Hurt?” asked Symeon.

“No man raised a hand to her, my lord.”

Symeon did not care for the title of "lord." He was a simple fisherman, son of a fisherman, turned into a fisher of men. The joke, though old, still made him smile.

But there was no smiling now. Three days ago his daughter had been taken from him, kidnapped by a rich old man who found her beauty irresistible. First he had tried to buy her. Symeon had turned down the offer, but the miser Elkanah was unused to being refused. Just as he would have stolen an excellent horse or goat, he had sent his men to abduct Symeon and Abigail's only daughter to be his bride.

There was no recourse at law. As a regular resident in the cells of Fort Mariamne and Fort Phasael in Jerusalem, Symeon had no standing. The new Kohen Gadol, Ananus ben Ananus, was a bitter foe, and the enmity of the high priest put all Jerusalem against him. If Symeon had dared bring this complaint, the Sanhedrin would like as not lock up him, not Elkanah.

And there was no turning to Roman law for justice. Not for a Jew.

So Symeon had turned to prayer. A prayer of deliverance. A prayer for salvation. A prayer for the iron hand of the Lord to reach out and protect his little girl.

His friends had more forceful solutions. Seth, loyal Seth of the Scars, insisted on bringing her back, and Matthais the mason had offered to help. Despite his fifty years, the stonemason was strong and vigourous, with arms like clubs. He'd taken his two young sons with him. Though not yet men, work in their father's yard had made the twins stronger than any children Symeon had ever known.

Returned now on a lathered horse, the normally impassioned Matthais was maddeningly reserved. In a panic, Symeon demanded, “What is it then? Is she injured? Has she gone mad? I beg you, speak!”

Matthais addressed both parents. “Your daughter – they say she prayed all the way to Elkanah's holdings. It's a day's ride. The moment they reached the walls and dragged her within, she was overtaken by some kind of fit. Writhing and sputtering nonsense, they said. That bastard Elkanah thought she was faking and tried to shake her, but she broke his nose with her forehead. He lost two teeth.” Matthais' grin was fleeting, gone as soon as it appeared. “The fit lasted an hour, and when it was over everyone was afraid to go near her. Someone put her in a bed, and when she woke the next morning—” Matthais paused, clearly at a loss for words.

Symeon's vivid imagination usually served him well. At this moment, it was a curse. It was Abigail, brave, brave Abigail, who pressed to know the worst. “What? What is it?”

Matthais' voice was like one of his stones, hard and blunt. “The left side of her face is slack. Lifeless. Looks like she's had a stroke. But what thirteen year-old girl has a stroke? They're saying, at Elkanah's hold, they're saying that she was touched. Marked, by the Lord. Elkanah – the coward – ran back to the city just an hour before we arrived. His men said something about a sacrifice, and penance. When we got there, Elkanah's men were more than happy to hand her over. They're afraid, as they should be, the bastards. I hope the Lord shrivels their cocks and splits their shins. Pardon me, my lady.”

Symeon tried to imagine his daughter's beautiful face as a Greek tragedian's mask, half smiling, half mourning – the face of the insane. “Be careful what you pray for, my friend. The Lord may answer you in kind.” He looked to Abigail, whose eyes were swimming. Did she understand? Did she see it? “We prayed for deliverance, for salvation. For the Hand of the Lord to reach out to protect her. And He answered our prayer in every particular.”

“Praise to the Lord.” Abigail understood. How could he have doubted? No wife was ever so in tune with her husband. A pity that he could not give Abigail the title of wife. “Matthais, where are they?”

“A few miles behind me. She's tired, naturally. Seth wouldn't leave her, so he sent me ahead. Said you'd want to arrange passage to wherever you're heading next.”

“He was correct.” They had to leave. If this story spread around Jerusalem, that would be just one more excuse to lock him up, stop his work. Perhaps even murder him. Already they had executed so many of his friends. From the old days, only Seth and Matthais were left. And Saul, he reminded himself. But Saul has always traveled his own road.

“Where will you go, my lord?”

“Where they can't touch us,” answered Symeon. “We'll go to the center of the world. We'll go to Rome.”

When she arrived, an hour before dawn, the girl was half-asleep in her saddle. They'd ridden all night. Seth, good Seth, suspicious Seth, he understood the danger they were all in.

Matthais' twins hopped off their mounts at once, stretching their sore legs. “Horses!” groaned one. “We would have done better to walk.”

“ 'Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,' ” retorted the other. That had to be Asher, the boy prodigy. It was said he could perfectly quote any part of Scripture from memory. Which meant the other was Judah, the brawler. Always getting into fights, or so his father claimed. Of the two, Matthais was prouder of Judah.

Ignoring the twins, Symeon and Abigail raced to their daughter's side, pulling her down from horseback and enfolding her in their arms. Abigail had no words, and Symeon found himself able to say nothing but her name. “Perel! Perel! My pearl…”

Drowsily she blinked at him. “Father. I'm fine, father. Truly.” And she smiled up at him.

That smile smote his heart. The right side of her face was life, joy, a flower in full bloom. But the left was a mawkish imitation – waxen, limp and lifeless.

Tears flooded Abigail's eyes as she reached out to touch her daughter's slack cheek. “Does it hurt?”

“Not at all.” She was trying to sound chirpy, the way she'd always answered them. But she had to speak carefully, for her lips were only half in use. “Papa, I'm sorry for all the trouble.” The sorry was a little slurred.

“No trouble, no trouble,” murmured Symeon, pressing his lips into her hair. Over her head his gaze fixed on Seth. “No trouble?”

“Not yet.” Sliding down from his saddle, Seth looked as he always did–hideous. Wounded as a youth, a shiny puckered scar ran from his nose all the way to his left ear. It made the sinister side of his face even more so, pinching the flesh under one eye and giving him a grotesque leer. Not even his neat, trim beard could help. My friend and my daughter are now a matched pair.

Still hugging his daughter, Symeon heard the stonemason greet his sons. “Boys. Made yourselves useful, I hope.”

Seth answered. “They did. Judah got a deer with his sling. Asher kept us awake with his stories.”

“Stories,” sneered Matthais. “At least your brother does something useful. You're not a priestling, boy, and doubtful ever will be, no matter what they tell you at your beth hasefer. Seems to me you ought to learn to be a man before you give it all up for stories.”

Red in the face, Asher was silent. It was his twin who answered, flexing his fists. “He kept our minds off our saddle sores and hunger. Pretty useful, I'd say.”

Matthais owned a deep and volcanic temper, and was at the edge of eruption. “You'd best say less, boy.”

Side by side, the twins faced their father. Half past eleven years, their mother had died bearing them, and they seemed the Castor and Pollux of Judea. So alike in form, so different in spirit, yet inseparable, even in the face of their father's anger.

Symeon released his daughter and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. “Matthais, I haven't yet thanked your sons. Judah, Asher, I owe you both a debt I can never repay. It was a brave act of loving kindness.”

The boys had only met him a handful of times, so his debt likely didn't matter much to them. They had gone after Perel as an adventure, as a boon for their father. The mason had never explained the bond between himself and Symeon. Doubtful he ever would. Matthais was a man of Jerusalem, and in the White City a link to Symeon meant death.

Still, he owed the boys something more. He didn't have an inkling what to do for the rough-and-tumble Judah. In Asher, however, he knew just what offer would serve. “If you ever want a teacher, Asher, come to me. I'll treat you as my own son. You can be a priest, even if it's in exile in Rome.”

The boy's eyes widened. “Rome?”

Perel's eyes had similarly turned into saucers. “Is that where we're going?”

“We sail in an hour. Best we get our things aboard.”

Seth moved to obey. Symeon took one more look at his daughter's face, feeling he had best say something. Softly in her ear he said, “He has marked you as His own. It is an honour.”

Perel dropped her eyes, leaning her slack cheek against his bearded chin. “I know, father.” She then followed her mother towards the ship that would take them away from their native land.

Symeon gathered the rest of his band of followers and made for one of Azotus' three quays, Nebi Yunis. Their passage was on a Greek merchantman called the Crest Dancer, its V-shaped hull making extra room for amphorae of oils and perfumes. It would call at Ptolmais, Tyre, Paphos on Cyprus, Rhodes, then the long run to Athens. From there the small band would have to find their own way to the City of the Seven Hills. And there were many cities, towns, and hamlets on the way to preach in and cast his net for more men.

Watching his daughter board the Dancer, Symeon was glad to be quitting this port city, which had once belonged to a dancing princess called Salome, a woman who had arranged the beheading of one of Symeon's friends. So much death. And so much of it Jew shedding the blood of his brother's blood. Cain has much to answer for.

Matthais and his sons helped them shift their possessions aboard, then returned to the quay. Symeon said, “You're certain you will not come?”

The mason shook his head. “Jerusalem's walls have too much of my blood in them. It'd be like leaving a brother behind. Besides, masoning is all I know. And a mason needs a city as much as the city needs him.”

Symeon understood. Unlike him, Matthais was in no danger. He had never been a true convert. Only a friend. Yet if there was ever a man to be fished… “Rome is always building. There's never a shortage of work.”

“Like as not I'd be carving false idols, then, and new Towers of Babel. No, thank you. I'll see you when you return.”

Symeon frowned. Return? When will that be? He had always assumed that he would die in Judea. But now he had the strangest feeling that this was his last moment on Judean soil. Farewell, Israel.

Embracing Matthais and thanking the twins again, he climbed aboard. As the oarsmen shoved them off and wafted them around, he noticed his daughter looking back at the twins on the quay. One of them waved, and she waved back, her sad half-smile clear as day. He wondered which of them had become her friend until she said, “Do you think he will come and study?”

So it was Asher, the prodigy. Naturally. His daughter favoured the exceptional. “Perhaps, when he's old enough.” Hugging her tight, Symeon watched his native land grow smaller and smaller. He had left it many times, but always to return. This felt more final. The last farewell.

The sun crested the horizon, dazzling him. His last impression was of the handsome twins on the quay, wrestling and playing as boys will, trying to topple each other into the water. So much of Judea in them. Or rather, of Israel. Intelligence and strength. A questing mind, and a strong will. Those were the rocks of Judaism.

All at once one brother hooked the other's foot, sending him over backwards. The falling twin kept hold of the other's wrist, and they fell together into the water, much to their father's disgust. Symeon laughed, squinting at the sun glinting off the water.

When he was unable to stare into the bright sunlight any longer, Symeon escorted Abigail and Perel below, then asked the ship's captain if there was a fishing net about. “I like to be useful.”

Part One - Eagles and Vultures

BETH HORON, JUDEA
3 NOVEMBER, 66 AD

As if obedient to Joshua's famous command, the moon hung over the plain of Ajalon like a lamp. A threatening lamp, close, cold – taunting, just out of reach. Full of promise. Full of menace.

The name meant the Place of Deer, and just now the deer and gazelles were skittishly returning after a fright. The terrible stamping thunder had shaken the earth, driving them far afield. Venturing back now, their hackles were up, their nerves jittery. So at the first sign of another influx of hunters, they fled again in silence – unlike the birds hiding in the grove of apricot trees, who screamed their outrage as they took flight. It was night, they protested. No time for hunter's games.

They needn't have feared. This night the hunters were after different prey.

Among the hunters was Judah ben Matthais. At seventeen, the mason's son was more Goliath than David, his expansive chest built by years of hewing stone. But unlike Goliath, he had an almost embarrassing comeliness – lush black hair, strong brow, and a body sculpted by years of hard work. Shirtless, barefoot, running in just his kilted cloth, his overall appearance was almost Greek – not the Greeks he rubbed elbows with every day, but the statuary, the beautiful figures of Hellenic myth and song that had invaded Judean culture. Yet his face, from the strong chin to the slight curve of his nose, was pure Hebrew.

The hard planes of his muscles moved like a wild animal. He ran with a lithe step, almost weightless, and he flew over the terrain as if he were one of the deer, barely touching the earth.

There was one difference. Deer didn't carry spears.

Judah shifted the weapon in his grip. From sawing stone to swinging a stick, he had capable hands, strong and large. He didn't have his brother's way with books or words, nor his father's sarcastic streak. He didn't have his grandfather's fabled patience, nor his dead mother's sweetness. Judah was just an angry man who was good with his hands.

Passing the grove of apricot trees, he remembered bringing Deborah here in the summer months. It had been sweet smelling then, but in the time between, the fruits had all been stolen and the trees stood denuded as if by locusts. These trees were lucky. The larger trees of Ajalon had all been ravaged, knocked down for the invaders' fort or made into siege engines.

Thinking of the invaders fed his anger. Thinking of Deborah made him angry, too, but not in a way that would help. Pushing thoughts of her from his mind, Judah ran on.

Past a small village, Judah and the rest arrived at the great ancient highroad, newly covered with paving stones. This same road had brought the Canaanites, Israelites, Philistines, Aegyptians, and Syrians. It was the road of pilgrimage, and the road of invasion. But unlike all other invaders, the Romans had not only used it, but made it their own, repaving it as they marched. They put their mark on everything they touched, like some hideous nation of Cain.

Breathing hard, Judah ignored the road. Instead, he scrambled up the ancient goat-paths on the southern hill ridge. He'd spent countless hours among these hills with his brother, quarrying stone for their father. Normally he might fear a panther or a wolf lurking in a shallow cave. He remembered a nasty fright as a boy when he'd encountered a lone hyena. But tonight the noise from the road had driven all such beasts away.

Through Shade And Shadow

Through Shade And Shadow

Against All Instinct

Against All Instinct