The shepherd boy sat languidly in the hot afternoon sun playing his harp. His back rested on a large limestone outcrop and his muscled leg dangled carelessly, swinging in time to the pleasant lilting of the strings. Although he seemed relaxed in an idyllic indolence, his eyes tracked each step and every movement of the sheep grazing in the pasture about him. The warm breeze gently tousled his curly hair and caressed his skin. Her warm breath smelled of grass and flowers, filled with the sound of buzzing locusts and the occasional syncopated bleat from his flock, then carried each note he played on his harp and delivered the resulting symphony up to the hosts of heaven.
Suddenly sensing a change in the harmony of his world, he stopped playing and stood up quickly. His eyes, the eyes of an eagle, focused instantly on a distant movement and a cloud of dust rising from the road in the valley below him.
He picked up his shepherd’s crook from its resting place, and shrugged quickly into his cloak which lay beside it, and bound it about his waist with a cloth girdle. He looped a leather thong around his harp and slung it behind his back, whistling to his flock. The sheep started at the sound, and began bleating in reply. He glanced quickly back at the road. He recognized the military formation. Their ranks weren’t orderly enough to be Romans, and they carried no standard. He guessed they were Nabatean mercenaries.
He had reached the age now where he had to be wary of military travellers, as he was almost as large as a grown man, and he knew they would perceive any native male in the hills as a potential guerilla. The guerillas were a motley crew, and wore no uniform, so the occupying forces had a habit of killing any man who seemed a threat to them, especially out in the hills where there were no witnesses but the gods and jiin.
Moving quickly, he started up the mountainside and the flock closed ranks behind him and moved in unison with their shepherd. Within seconds the entire flock had rounded a rocky outcrop and were now moving into a narrow cleft in the mountainside. The lead sheep balked as the cleft narrowed into a cave, but the youth waved his arms and urged them into the darkness. He dodged back and forth to move the last few errant lambs into the cave, then stood before them his hands on his hips.
The flock stared dumbly back at him. One of the ewes bleated a complaint at her ill treatment and his rudeness at the boy. He smiled at her. “Hush!” he said. He knew better than she of the danger to her from the men coming down the road. Hungry mercenaries would make quick work of his charges. Satisfied the sheep were accounted for, he lay his harp against the wall of the cave. Pulling pre-cut thorn bushes and branches across the cave entrance, he fashioned a kraal to keep his sheep safely hidden and boxed in the cave.
Satisfied the entrance was sealed, the shepherd scrambled quickly out onto the mountainside, and shielded himself behind rocks so he would not be seen from the road.
He peered from behind a large boulder and saw a slave train. If the procession had been a war party, the youth would have stayed up in the mountains until they had passed, but he knew a slave train meant the people in the train were lost souls from his own tribe. Their kinship called silently to him. He knew he must move close enough to witness their pain and their passing. He rubbed the talisman hanging from his neck between his thumb and forefinger for a blessing. The sounds of the captives’ chains reached his ears as he silently worked his way between the rocks towards a place by the road where he could intercept the train and spy on them unseen.
Half the train had already passed by the time he reached the spot he was seeking and looked up. He saw Yohanna, and his heart stopped. He froze for an instant, and she turned at looked directly at him.
Their eyes locked.
Silently, she called him for help, but he was helpless.
Silently she forgave him, and his heart broke.
She turned and was gone.
He looked back at the mountain where his charges stood waiting in the darkness. He could picture each of their ovine faces, and he was torn. He would have to leave them behind. He had to save the girl he had seen in the slave train.
The sun had set, but his glow still lit the horizon of the evening sky. The crescent of the New Moon glowed in the indigo heavens, and to his left, Venus, the Evening Star of Ishtar kept him company. Yohanna stirred the huge iron cauldron as she stared to the west, revelling in the glorious and manifest presence of the Queen of Heaven.
In order to weed out the old, the weak, and the infirm, none of the slaves would eat until they reached Caesarea, where they would be cleaned and fed in time for the auction. One of her captors had taken a fancy to her, and decided Yohanna belonged in the mess kitchen. So she stirred the stew for the guards. As cook, Yohanna could sip and taste until it was time to feed the guards. Her elderly companion had been detailed to bake bread, and as usual she was chatting to Yohanna as she tended the oven.
“Heathens!” she swore, “The lot of them! Pagans in every sense of the word! They’d bow down, worship my ass and praise my farts as Holy Law if I told ’em to! No concept whatsoever of purity!” She stopped poking the fire for a moment and looked directly at Yohanna incredulously. “They don’t wash!” she said it as if it were the most heinous of crimes. “Can you imagine?”
“No...” answered Yohanna distractedly. She looked about her as if expecting someone she knew to appear at any moment.
“They say,” the old woman whispered conspiratorially, “That in the north, every year they sacrifice a virgin boy to the asherah every spring. Nail him to a tree and let his blood run out into the ground so the crops will grow. Can you imagine?”
Yohanna was distracted.
“It’s true! They look after the boy’s every wish for a whole year, then whoosh! Off with him! He even has sex with the High Priestess! Whenever he wants!” The woman was relishing the thought as she condemned it. “Can you imagine! The corn king they call him-”
“Tammuz,” interrupted Yohanna. She looked directly at the woman. “His name is Adonis Tammuz. He is the lover of the Rabbath Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven and she must travel to the underworld to rescue him from the clutches of her sister Rabbath Allat at the spring solstice. That is why the people mourn at the Festival of Easter. In three days she returns and the people rejoice! The new king is chosen and Tammuz is resurrected for another year!”
The thought refreshed her, and Yohanna glowed as she recited the words of the familiar story.
The old woman’s mouth snapped shut as her head jerked back. She realized Yohanna was not, as she had first believed, a Yawhist, or even a Jew.
“The Holy Mother be Praised!” said Yohanna ecstatically. She was staring into the face of the shepherd.
His beautiful curls were covered by a headdress. “I have come to rescue you!” he said earnestly, “We must flee!” He gripped Yohanna’s elbow, and pulled her to follow him.
For a brief moment Yohanna wanted desperately to kiss him passionately, without end, until they both lay exhausted and naked on the ground, but her knees gave way.
He grasped her and held her closely in his arms. Face to face, she could smell his breath. It tasted of the hills and freedom. “I cannot go!” she whispered.
“I can’t go!” Yohanna repeated.
“You mean I risk my life to save you, and you can’t go?”
“Not without the others!”
“The-” the shepherd gasped. “I can’t -”
“It’s the only way!” whispered Yohanna fiercely. “All or none!”
The shepherd released her with an exasperated sigh.
“Guards!” whispered the old woman in warning at the sound of approaching voices.
Like the wind, the boy vanished in an instant. The old woman and Yohanna turned back to their cooking and two warriors passed by, not even glancing in their direction.
“Do you think he’ll come back?” Yohanna asked hopefully looking at the woman.
The old woman shook her head, sighed and went back to tending the oven, and Yohanna stared into the growing darkness where she had last seen the shepherd boy.
The sheep shifted restlessly in the kraal. They could smell danger, and they knew it was close by.
The news about the presence of the shepherd boy had travelled swiftly through the ranks of the prisoners, and emotions bubbled to the surface where, dulled by the shock of their loss and subsequent captivity, the waters had previously appeared calm. The captives whispered excitedly amongst themselves. Some could not believe in the shepherd for fear that he would not return. Others believed in him but were afraid to ask when he would come back. But they all hoped he would appear at any moment, complete with a host of angels at his back, and deliver them from their captivity.
Yohanna sat by herself and all eyes focused on her. Some eyes stared in Pity. Some stared at her in Hope. Some eyes betrayed Jealousy. But no one approached her to ask whether he would appear or not. The hope for salvation added to the depth of their misery and desperation and the thought of freedom was too much for them to bear.
A hand suddenly reached from behind Yohanna and closed over her mouth. She struggled but was thrown to the ground. It was the guard who had put her on kitchen duty, but his kindness had a price and he had come to claim the reward. Another man helped him by holding Yohanna down. Her skirt was pushed roughly around her waist as Yohanna struggled uselessly as each man took turns at her. The only the sound was her whimpering and the grunting of the two men. The other captives huddled in the darkest corner of the compound, silently watching the rape, none daring to interfere. The rape ended as quickly as it had begun; the two men spent their seed within seconds.
After they had finished, the guard who had earlier been so kind to her, hit her across the face with his mailed fist with all his strength. “Jewish bitch!” he growled, and hit her again. Her jaw stung terribly and she could feel blood trickling from a wound across her cheek. Yohanna ached terribly between her legs, and her wrists and legs were raw and bruised. She wrapped herself up and curled into a tiny ball, her head bowed.
Finally, tears flowing down her cheeks, Yohanna stared up at the moon rising above her head. A hand touched her shoulder and she started.
It was the old woman.
“They will blame you for everything, now,” she whispered sympathetically as she sat down beside Yohanna. “They asked me if you are a jiin. Superstitious fools!” The old woman spat on the ground to protect herself from their superstitions.
After a long silence, the old woman said calmly, “I think your shepherd will return.”
She pulled Yohanna’s robe around the girl’s shoulders. “My name is Naña.” she said kindly.
Yohanna glanced at Naña.
“I am Yohanna,” she said defiantly.
“Yohanna, you have a good heart.”
“I am tired,” said Yohanna sadly.
“We shall always be sisters, you and I,” said Naña.
The two women hugged. Then, under the light of the waxing moon, they huddled together as protection from the growing cold.
The leopard could smell her prey. She could hear their frightened bleating. She leaped gracefully up the rock face, until she crouched on the crest of the ridge staring down into the rock cleft. The movement caught her eye. The sheep knew they were in the presence of Death, but their fear made them helpless, and they could only huddle together and cry out in the darkness for their shepherd.
The sentry was nodding. The march had been long and he was tired. For a moment he was in his tent with his mother, and he started, coming back to focus at the sound of a click from somewhere to his right. He shook his head to clear the fog of fatigue from his brain. He heard a click again. He slipped his sword from it’s scabbard, shouldered his shield and gripping them tightly in a defensive position, stepped forward.
“Who’s there?” he whispered fiercely.
Panic began to spread through the flock. The sheep began to climb over each other to reach the deepest part of the cave. The eyes of the leopard glowed intensely as she scanned the perimeter of the flock looking for the one who would die.
The sentry felt nothing. A flash of white pain in the back of his skull, then nothing.
She leapt into the kraal. Her claws sank into the ewe and her jaws fastened onto the sheep’s neck and her teeth sank into the warm quivering flesh. Blood filled her mouth, and she held the struggling ewe as she slowly began to choke to death.
The shepherd dragged the body of the sentry into the shadows. He slipped out of his cloak and quickly donned the soldier’s clothing. He picked up the sword and shield and stepped forward.
The guard other guard detailed to watch the sleeping prisoners, was planning how he would spend his share of the sale of the slaves. First a good meal, he thought-
The sword sliced through his neck and his head rolled to the ground. The huge hands of the shepherd grasped the body under the arms and eased it to the ground, so that it would make no sound when it fell. The prisoners stirred from their sleep, their chains clinking in the darkness.
The shepherd slid silently to the first prisoner and held his finger to his lips. Despite his efforts the prisoners began to moan and grumble as they awoke.
“Quiet in there!” ordered a guard stepping into the prisoners’ compound. With a clash of metal, the shepherd struck him, and he staggered forward. He brought up his shield to fend off the shepherd’s second blow, and it gave him time to pull his own sword from it’s sheath.
Holding the dead sheep in her jaws, the leopard leaped to clear the rocks, but missed and fell back into the kraal. The flock panicked and she was trampled under their sharp hooves. She lashed out in anger, slicing open a sheep’s flank. Blood spurted onto the ground. She shared their panic. Both hunter and prey shared the same thought. Escape!
A second soldier, carrying a torch entered the compound, and peered curiously from under its light. He was knocked sideways by the two combatants in the kraal and dropped the torch. He struggled with his sword to pull it from his scabbard, but the shepherd’s sword cracked through his forearms and he screamed in pain.
The air filled with shouts of men in the darkness and the screams of women in the compound. Panic spread through the camp, and soldiers fought in the darkness mistaking friend for foe in the confusion. The shepherd staggered under a blow from his adversary, and fell to the ground. The soldier raised his word above his head to deliver a final death strike to the shepherd, then screamed as the blazing torch smashed into his face and exploded in a shower of sparks. Yohanna howled as she twisted the burning torch into the man’s face, then struck him with all her strength across the side of the head. The man fell to his knees clutching his face and crying in agony.
The shepherd rushed to Yohanna’s side.
The leopard was injured. The sheep had trampled her in their panic. She bled from several cuts. In her blind panic, she had laid waste to several sheep. She ran into the harp, and it twanged in protest. She jumped sideways in shock at the noise, and growled a warning at it. Finally, in desperation she pushed through the branches of the kraal, yowling in anger as the thorns tore at her skin. In a crackling of branches, she sprang free of the compound, and ran as fast as she could from the rock cleft into the velvet darkness. Two sheep bolted through the opening she had left, then stopped, staring wild-eyed into the night. The rest stayed huddled in the back of the kraal pressing against each other in fear.
Like ants from a damaged nest, panic stricken prisoners scuttled up the hillside through the rocks with no thought as to where they were going. Only a few had escaped the pursuing warriors, most had been caught and dragged back into the camp, but the soldiers had no stomach for chasing them more than a few feet into the darkness beyond the camp perimeter. The hills were full of jiin and guerillas, the latter being foremost in their minds.
Yohanna fell, out of breath, to the ground and lay panting and coughing. The shepherd reached down and lifted her like a child into his arms. “Naña,” she whispered weakly.
“I’m here,” called the old woman’s voice. Yohanna smiled, buried her face in the shepherd’s shoulder and fell asleep.