Despite the aspirations of a delirious mother, Berkael had never considered himself blessed. And standing here in a line of peasants in a town that – despite its relative proximity – felt a world away from Jerusalem, he was beginning to feel just as cursed as this place surely was. How had all this happened? Well, the winds were changing, and Berkael knew that despite his methods, Nathaniel had been right.
The older man had verbalised their shared circumstances as they sat sneezing in the damp and stretching cold hands out to the flames, two men left by their squad to protect this tiny settlement just north of Jerusalem. ‘The Yahwists are everywhere now,’ Nathaniel had whispered, reaching out unconsciously to check that his sword still lay by his side. ‘You and I will be forced to take an oath in the Temple once the work is complete, mark my words.’
‘Why?’ asked Berkael. ‘I’ve already pledged my loyalty to the King.’
Nathaniel shook his head scornfully, but when he spoke his tone was softer, sorrowful. ‘Ah, yes,’ he mocked. ‘Your mother dropped you on your head, didn’t she?’
Berkael said nothing, watching the dancing fire as the other continued: ‘Don’t worry. It’s why I like spending time with you. I get to feel better about myself. And…’ Nathaniel slapped him: ‘Baal’s balls, boy, stop looking into the flames! You’ll be useless if anyone comes upon us!’
Berkael looked away from the fire, blinking to bat away the echoes of firelight. ‘Will you get to the point before we die out here, do you think?’
The older man smiled, stroking a bearded cheek. He didn’t want to be here any more than Berkael, but there wasn’t much money coming out of the royal coffers these days, and assignments like these paid more than standing guard in the city. ‘My point, Berkael,’ he resumed, ‘is that you and I share names with the gods of the past. And the Yahwists will eventually cleanse us all of our infidelities.’
‘Cleanse us?’ Berkael was visibly concerned. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Simple,’ Nathaniel replied. ‘They’ll change our names. Add their god’s name instead of the mighty El…who doesn’t seem to be able to stop any of this from happening, you may have noticed.’
‘Mocking El isn’t wise,’ the younger man said sharply.
‘Well, it’s starting to look like the Israelites’ god has the biggest balls out here, don’t you think? The days are gone when we can all worship our gods and think to ourselves “Oh, how nice…your god is just like mine. Let’s all dance around this pole and live in peace and harmony”. Wake up, boy!’
They had lapsed into silence and Berkael felt his eyelids growing heavier as a cool breeze picked up. But a scent on the wind snapped him awake. ‘What’s that smell?’ he whispered as he nudged Nathaniel, pointing past him towards the low-lying hills to the south.
Nathaniel nodded as his nose wrinkled, and he caught the younger man’s eyes as he slowly lifted his sword and repositioned himself to his knees. ‘Leather and sweat!’ he hissed, rising and turning just in time to face a huge figure emerging from the shadows and the sparse vegetation. Another man – perhaps afraid to be seen – held to the shadows, while Berkael was faced with three men coming from his right. Ragged and unkempt, these men were likely one of the many groups of thugs operating across Judah, taking advantage of the numerous vacuums of power resulting from the King’s campaign of centralization. Nonetheless, even blunted swords drew blood, so Berkael hefted his blade and prepared to defend himself. From the flickering light of the fire, he could see blood on the hands and faces of two of the three men as they came closer, and he stole a glance at the closest house behind them. There he could see flames too high to be simply those of the hearth. Pointing his sword accusingly, he snarled, ‘What have you done?’
There was a moment’s silence before a familiar voice from behind replied calmly, ‘They’ve taught the Yahwists we will not go peacefully.’
Berkael turned to see Nathaniel standing alongside an impossibly tall man with a long, dark beard. When this man spoke, his voice was deceptively soft: ‘We are with you, boy. Our Lord is Ba’al, son of El the Mighty.’
Nathaniel stepped forward with a triumphant smile. ‘You’re a child of Ugarit, Berkael. It may be no more than a memory, but it is our memory. These southerners have infected our lands for too long. They should have stayed beyond the Jordan where they belong!’
‘I know nothing of Ugarit, Nathaniel,’ Berkael argued, shaking his head. ‘You’re simply trying to do what the Israelites are doing…saying you’re as old as the hills in the hope the hills are listening.’
Nathaniel took a deep breath and raised a hand to keep the others from acting. Berkael was aware of them behind him and he could almost smell the blood of the innocent upon them. ‘What do you want from me?’ he asked with tears now in his eyes. ‘I hear your words, Nathaniel, but I took an oath to serve the King. My sisters will drown in the Sea of Salt if I go with you.’
‘Then we will go and get them first,’ Nathaniel offered, moving ever closer. ‘We are strong, Berkael, growing in numbers ever since the Yahwists put the King on the throne. Your family will be safe.’ He sheathed his sword and offered his hand: ‘What’s it going to be?’
Berkael stared for a moment at the older man, and then the giant, before glancing back at the blood-covered brigands and making his decision. They expected a fight, but Berkael would not satisfy their bloodlust. At least, that was what he still told himself to quell the guilt. He had found an opening…and he had run, stumbling through olive groves and heading away from the lights of the burning houses at the edge of the village. ‘Where are you going, you fool?’ Nathaniel shouted after him. ‘We’re on your side!’ But Berkael was too panicked for reason, and when another shape emerged from his left, his sword seemed to raise of its own volition and pierce a heavily-cloaked man in the darkness. Both men met with eyes of horror and sadness, and while Berkael gasped in shock, the older man choked on his own blood. He fell from the sword and crumpled to the soil of the olive grove. Berkael stared for a moment, while some otherworldly purpose permitted the moon to illuminate the dead man’s clothing. The man was a Levite, a Priest ministering to the settlement. And once again, Berkael ran.
He ran for longer than he had ever imagined possible, skirting towns in which he might have found help, too afraid to reveal what he had witnessed; what he had done. Nathaniel hadn’t seemed sufficiently concerned with maintaining his support for Berkael that he might catch up with the younger man and convince him of their cause, yet still Berkael continued to run as if his life depended on it. He had never considered that any god might extend a helping hand to push him in any direction, but for some reason he felt compelled to ignore even Mizpah in his headlong flight north, finding himself a few hours later approaching a Temple City renowned for suffering the wrath of the prophets of the Southern Yahweh.
That was last night, and Berkael had remained here in Bethel, intending to hide and unsure of where his loyalties should lie. He had discarded any trace of his military connections, except for the sword hidden beneath his stolen rags, and he was in line for food with the rest of Bethel’s forgotten souls. More than a century ago, a Judahite prophet named Amos had come to this place and foretold its destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. Some said that prophecy was often isolated only to a single context, never to come to that person again. Berkael wondered if this excuse was nothing more than a means to ignore the more logical conclusion; that prophets could simply see what was coming because they weren’t idiots like the rest of the people, following kings in much the same way Amos’ goats would have followed him!
As the line resumed its collective shuffling, Berkael’s fatigue was dissolved by the sound of a woman shouting desperately up near the front: ‘Stop! Please!’ Several people craned their necks to see what was going on, but Berkael stepped out from the line, unable to detach from his training. He trudged up the long line, seeing a figure falling out on to the ground up ahead. The man looked old and unhealthy, but then that did little to distinguish him from the rest. What caught Berkael’s eye was the young woman, who was perhaps a beauty beneath the dishevelled world she carried upon her shoulders and face. She was trying to keep two men from injuring the older man further, but one of them – a burly stump of a man with narrow eyes – grabbed and lifted her while the other kicked the fallen beggar. Berkael’s face wrinkled with anger and he picked up his pace as he reached inside his rags for his sword.
He was upon them before they knew it, keeping his sword hidden but ready as he pushed the kicker violently with his free arm. The man, whose long hair kept him from seeing Berkael’s approach, tripped backwards and fell to the dusty ground, while the other roared his fury and released the woman. ‘This is none of your concern!’ the stump shouted, pushing up his sleeves to reveal huge muscular arms. He grinned with blackened teeth: ‘But it is, if you wish.’
Before Berkael could draw his sword, the man charged him, lifting him from his feet and releasing him so that Berkael was thrown through the air to come down hard on the ground. His back seemed to hurt less than the burning in his lungs as they sought recovery from the impact, but the burly man was not done; and he stalked towards his prey with a hungry grin. What he did not expect was to hear the woman screaming as she rushed him from behind to do little more than affect his balance as she slammed into him. It was enough, however, for him to find himself stumbling towards Berkael’s desperately drawn sword before feeling the blade pierce his stomach as he collapsed upon the man.
There were King’s soldiers on the scene by now, and Berkael half-pushed and half-slid to remove himself of his dying burden, his sword hand still vibrating from the weight of the man. The hilt could be seen jutting from the man’s belly, and Berkael chose to leave it there, his mind snapping at him with images of a dying priest. As Berkael watched the man lying beside him draw his last breath on Bethel’s cursed soil, and the King’s soldiers helped the wayward solider up from the ground, he knew that he had inadvertently taken a side. Sometimes it was not about what one believed or which cause seemed to offer what the heart desired. Sometimes, the mistreatment of an innocent and the naivety of righteousness was all it took to determine one’s fate.