Berkael was pleasantly warm, and a cool breeze was coming through the open window as if a virgin goddess had pursed her lips to whisper in his ear. The water on the table was pure, the bread was a mere two days old. Life, in these moments men found difficult to appreciate, was good. Of course, had Berkael not closed his eyes to relish the whispering goddess, he would not have had his feet so viciously knocked off the table by the flat of a Captain’s blade that he fell off his chair. ‘Where did you come from?’ the Captain snapped. ‘You’re not one of my men!’
‘No, Sir,’ Berkael managed to say as he got to his feet. Three other soldiers stood behind the leather-clad Captain, but Berkael was drawn to the man’s damaged face. A scar ran from just below his left eye to the right of his upper lip, above which some of his nose was missing. When he breathed in through his sliced and risen nostrils, the Captain emitted a wheezing sound which made Berkael forget all about the sweet-nothings of a virgin. As Berkael stared in helpless judgement, the Captain stepped in: ‘So where did you come from?’
‘I was...assigned to a settlement south of here,’ Berkael explained carefully. ‘Har-Yashav. Although we didn’t even know its name until we got there.’ A part of him still clung to the conflicting empathy he had felt upon listening to Nathaniel’s arguments about the Yahwists and the ways of the King, and he was somewhat on the fence when it came to the question of giving them up.
‘Did you speak with a Priest?’
‘A…a Priest, Sir?’
‘A Levite, boy!’ the man snapped. ‘Surely, like the rest of us, you were assigned to bring the Levites into line and to account for the people?’
‘Oh, yes. Of course, Sir.’ Berkael felt sick. ‘The…ah…their Priest had already left by the time we arrived. The people were…em…’
‘Were…what?’ The Captain fixed menacing eyes on the young soldier, and Berkael felt the temperature rising in his head as if the man were focusing the sun on his flesh.
‘They were the King’s people,’ Berkael replied calmly as a virgin breath once again kissed his face. ‘We counted them and placed tithes upon their holdings and…they were happy.’
‘Happy.’ It hadn’t sounded like a question. And yet Berkael felt the room filling with imagined echoes correcting the man’s intonation, just in case he had misunderstood. ‘I…believe so, Sir. Yes,’ he replied to the question that was not asked.
‘What’s your name, soldier?’ the Captain asked as he moved away with his back turned. ‘I’ll need to report the incident you…stumbled upon here.’ The other soldiers sniggered in unison, and Berkael turned with an expression of misguided anger. But his mind was firing wildly as he considered his response. They’ll change our names, Nathaniel had said. And why? Because the dying breed in King Josiah’s new Judah was recognised by its name.
The Captain swung back with a confused look on his face. He looked at his men. ‘Did I not speak clearly?’ he asked them. Wise enough to know a rhetorical question when they heard one, they merely grinned. ‘Tell me, boy,’ he resumed, ‘are you fast?’
The Captain looked again at his men, this time saying, ‘Is it me?’ before turning back to Berkael: ‘Fast, boy…are you a runner? Would I, for example, entrust an urgent message to you, in the knowledge that it would reach its destination faster than, say, a man on a horse?’
Berkael stared for a moment, but when it dawned on him, he felt his stomach turn. The Captain continued: ‘Well…are you faster than a horse?’
‘No, Sir.’ The walls were closing in.
‘Of course you’re not. And I happen to know that the people of Har-Yashav are far from happy. In fact, they are far from life! But then, you already know this.’
Berkael hung his head: ‘I didn’t know they were all dead.’
‘You mean you didn’t wait around to watch them burn?’
‘No!’ Berkael snapped, his head coming up. ‘I mean…I had no choice. There were brigands. I…’
The young soldier said nothing, and the Captain leaned in, whispering, ‘I know what happened. I know who did this.’ Berkael held his accusing glare, but the shame overwhelmed him and he sobbed, ‘I didn’t know…who to trust.’
‘This must be why you didn’t return to your Watch Commander at Nob.’
Berkael nodded. ‘I’m not a traitor,’ he cried. ‘I serve the people. I serve the King!’
The Captain straightened and took a deep breath, dismissing his men. When they left, he poured himself some water and filled Berkael’s cup. ‘Have you heard of a prophet named Jeremiah?’
The young soldier wiped his eyes, sipped his water and nodded: ‘Yes.’
‘He also serves the King. And while the King is not always happy with what he has to say, it’s not difficult to see that this prophet is swiftly becoming one of the most influential men in Jerusalem.’
Berkael blinked, saying, ‘I’m…not sure what you mean.’
‘Jeremiah hails from Anathoth, a town a mere stone’s throw from that settlement you didn’t know anything about until you watched it burn.’ Now Berkael felt his heart pounding, and the Captain continued: ‘So, I think it would be justified for you to accompany the Prophet Jeremiah as he ventures into the wilds of Judah. A way to atone for your…sins, don’t you think?’
Berkael nodded, seeing again the sorrowful eyes of the Priest so wickedly cheated of life. ‘When does he leave?’
‘You will need to meet him on the road,’ said the Captain. ‘Now, you need to tell me what happened before word of this gets to the King. You need to tell me how to find these…Canaanites…so I can bring them to justice.’
‘Of course, Sir.’
‘Good man. I’ll send a message to Commander Jonan at Nob requesting secondment to my division.’ The Captain finished his water: ‘And for that you’ll need to tell me your name.’
‘It’s Berkael, Sir. Son of Hananel.’
‘Ah. I see. A picture is forming, young Berkael, of exactly what happened out there with your comrades in arms. Just remember where your loyalty lies. And pray that the Prophet is more forgiving than I.’