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Stone And Steel

Stone And Steel

Book excerpt

“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 match, 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 you. 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, 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 being maddeningly reserved. “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 felled 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, 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.” She 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.”

Through Shade And Shadow

Through Shade And Shadow

Against All Instinct

Against All Instinct