Despite Miri’s continuing nightmares, they stayed in the booths for seven days, and after the Sabbath, broke camp, and descended to the farm settled in the valley, but stopped before they reached the farm. Everyone in the party knew something was wrong, but none knew quite what had disturbed them. They advanced slowly and soon it was apparent the farm was in ruins. Joshua, and two other young men advanced upon the compound, spears in hand. The women and children waited at a distance.
After some time Joshua returned, and they all descended upon the ruins. Though some of the walls were still standing, the farm had been burned. The corpses of their animals and the community members who had remained behind lay blackened in the farmyard. It was obvious the fire had been deliberately set. The human corpses were all headless. Miri felt a sharp twinge in her side, and had to sit down. Martha steered her to a niche in the wall untouched by the fire.
She leaned back against the wall and groaned. Somewhere she heard a whimpering, and she glanced at Martha who had heard the sound as well.
“Who’s there?” she asked.
The whimpering stopped, but they heard a scurrying noise, and they immediately realized it came from the grain jar buried nearby. Martha went over and lifted the lid.
“Oh my!” she declared, and her voice attracted the attention of the others. Within a heartbeat everyone surrounded the jar, and Joshua pulled out a trembling young woman. She was incapable of answering any of the questions Joshua put to her, and they took her and wrapped her in blankets.
Miri had not moved from her place, and as Martha approached, Miri spoke.
“It is time to leave!” she said, “This was for us! They’ll be back!”
“Where can we go?” asked Martha.
“To Meroway!” said Miri, “We will be safe there!”
“In Africa?” asked Martha, “How will we get there?”
“Walk!” said Miri.
“You’ll have your baby in the Nile!” said Martha, “We can’t travel that far!”
“I have friends in Alexandria!” countered Miri desperately, “We will walk to Yoppa! And gain passage there!”
“With what?” asked Martha, “We have no money!”
“We can’t stay here!” said Miri again, “Something must have happened to Yusef! Else how would they know we are here?”
Miri shook her head. “Why won’t they leave us alone?”
Martha wrapped her arm about her aunt, and froze in shock. Yusef stood watching her, his arm in a sling, and his clothes in tatters.
Yusef had been betrayed to Caiaphas and his role as one of the supporters of the Messianic sect that had evolved around Yeshua. Chuza had fled with Yohanna and their children to Rekkem and claimed asylum under Haritar. His Nabatean origins and relationship to Miri had given him free passage into the lands of his kin. It was just a matter of letting the alarm die down, and new fugitives to move their names down the list. They spent a month in the highlands.
The time had come to move. Miri had no wish to have her child in the hills, and she insisted they travel to Alexandria. There was no sense contacting any of the other Followers of the Way, for once the faithful saw Miri was with child, the news of Yeshua’s child would only serve to inflame their hope in the wear against the Kittim. But they had to delay their departure for Yusef had asked that they spend their last Hannuka in Israel. So they lit the first lamp, and the second night was the Sabbath. It was a sweetly sad celebration, and they spoke of visiting the Temple before they went into exile, but none could bear to entertain the thought for long. It was the Templars that had opposed their way of life, and killed Yeshua.
Miri spent a lot of time sitting up on the high places, hoping that she would see Jezebel plodding along with Yeshua on her back, and that her entire life had been but a dream. But it was not to be. The time had come to leave. They came out of the hills by Emmaus, as the war with Haritar filled the eastern territories of Israel with troops and chances of being discovered by the Kittim were seventyfold. News came that Vitellius had called Pilatus to Syria, and the Romans had withdrawn from the field to Alexandria and left Antipas with his hands full. Galilee and Samaria was a nest of angry wasps. Yusef had enough money for them to buy new clothes, a donkey and cart, and a camel. They stopped at a stable at Emmaus, and, after buying a camel from the landlord, bedded down for the night. Yusef slipped a scroll from his pack.
“What is that?” asked Miri sleepily.
“The Scroll of Isaiah,” he whispered reverently, “It brings me comfort, and when I am undecided, the Lord speaks to me from its writings!” He opened it, closed his eyes and lifted his hands in prayer. “I beseech thee, to speak to through the words of Isaiah!”
His finger dropped onto the scroll and he opened his eyes and read triumphantly.
“From the Book of Isaiah,” he announced, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. A young woman who is pregnant and will have a son and will name him ‘Immanuel’. By the time he is old enough to make his own decisions, people will be drinking milk and honey. Even before that time comes, the lands of those two kings who terrify you will be deserted.”
He smiled, confident he had found his passage.
“And if he is a she?” asked Miri, “What then?”
“Emmanuelle,” declared Yusef, without looking down or batting an eye.
They stood for a moment at the cross roads by Emmaus. Miri looked back toward the North, he Souls seeking Damascus in Syria, and, with no burden except grief, Yusef led his new household, Miri and Martha southeast toward Egypt. Although it would be dangerous in Yerushalayim for them, the only road south ran back through the Holy City. They would have to pass through Roman roadblocks, but the soldiers were looking only for weapons, and Yusef had avoided taking any with him. Their disguise as a Alexandrian merchant and his wives was complete. Joshua, the boy he had purchased with the camel, jabbered away at him in Aramaic, showing Yusef with amused, sometimes frantic motions, the correct way to handle the obstinate brute. Miri, heavy now with child, was bounced terribly in the donkey cart. Her backed ached from the burden of the child she was carrying, and she dreaded the bumps of the wooden wheels as they rattled on the paved stone road.
Four shepherds had gathered on the hillside. One of their charges had fallen into a crevasse and broken its neck. “Allat will provide!” recited one as he pulled the lifeless form from the rocks where it had fallen.
He smiled as he held up the lamb. “Let us eat!”
They laughed and set to bleeding the lamb. The blood dripped into a ceremonial cup. They were brothers. Their mother in a fit of zeal had given them names from the Book of Daniel: Belteshazzar, Shadrak, Mishak and Abednigo. As a result of their names they had each grown up with a well-honed sense of humour, and a total irreverence for authority, which was the opposite effect their poor mother had intended.
However, superstition as always defied eradication, and they still bled animals according to the old ways, despite the jokes they told while they did it.
After supplications to the gods, they poured the blood offering on a small hillside altar they had built. The known altars had been thrown down and smashed under the numerous purges of offending sacrificial sites outlawed over the centuries by the priesthood of Yerushalayim, and the men prided themselves on building their own secret altar stone. This sacrifice they performed for their own honour, unlike the grudging offering they had to produce during their pilgrimages to the Holy City. They saw no reason other than that the priests benefitted from the best unblemished animals of their flock. They had no doubts that very little of the sacred meat reached the poor without the transfer of coins from one hand to another. The Temple had far more money in treasury than all the pots buried throughout Judea.
They lit a small fire beneath the trilithic altar and roasted the gutted lamb on the capstone. They lay about the hillside chatting and laughing, their sheep grazing peacefully around them, and the smell of roast mutton wafted about on the gentle breeze. Suddenly Belteshazzar sat up quickly. He pointed to the road below them.
“Kittim!” he spat out, and the gaiety stopped instantly. All four men sat, as poised and alert as eagles in their aerie. The soldiers below them deployed to the right and the left of the road, oblivious to the four sets of eyes glaring at them from beneath their shepherd’s robes.
“Temple guards!” exclaimed Shadrak. “Why are they so far from Yerushalayim!”
“This is not right!” said Mishak fiercely.
“They are setting an ambush!” whispered Abednigo.
“Put out the fire!” ordered Belteshazzar.
Mishak poked at the fire with a shepherd’s staff and Abednigo kicked the ashes and cinders about with his sandalled foot.
Wearily, Yusef lead Miri lying in the donkey cart. The dust of the Bethlehem road covered them both. Martha trudged dutifully behind, but even the indominatable spirit of the practical woman was fading. They had enquired for lodgings at every inn and guesthouse along the way, but they were all full. Rumours that Pilatus had been removed and that a new general had been appointed, and of the approach of Legions from Syria had created a wave of migration in all directions from the capital and had filled most of the way stations outside the city.
No one spoke as they trudged toward Egypt. Miri was heavy with child and she could feel the baby squirming within her. The time was near, that she knew, and her thoughts swirled about a wayside place to give birth. Every tree that they passed, She surveyed for quiet soft pasture, but she saw nothing but rock upon which to lie and stones upon which to sit. Houses had long given way to fields, and the fields to desert. Tallying each part of the passing landscape for a place of refuge she saw none, and her eyes began to fill with tears. Her heart ached terribly for the loss of Yeshua. All her life she had been searching for him, and now she could not even bring his bones with her. He was lost forever, and without him she was more lonely than she had ever imagined possible. She thought of Yehuda and wondered where he would be. He would have to pass through Kefar Nahum to reach Syria. Perhaps he would stop in Galilee for a while. She would miss him for he was the closest link she had with Yeshua. She thought perhaps he would return to Hindustan, but without Yeshua, she knew he too, would be as alone as she.
A fall of stones suddenly rattled from the escarpment above, and her heart stopped in fear. A band of wild Arabs descended upon their party, demanding they stop immediately. Yusef reached for his sword and realized he was unarmed, and the Arabs held their arms up and waved their hands madly at the travellers.
“You must stop! Please!” cried Belteshazzar, “The temple police are lying beyond!”
“Saul!” said Martha, though Miri could not believe her would go to such lengths still to hunt her down.
“An ambush!” whispered Mishak, “If it is you they seek, they lie in hiding beyond the bend in the road!”
“You must come with us!” urged Abednigo, “We can take you past the patrol and on to the House of Lehem!”
Yusef glanced quickly at Miri, and at the same moment she winced as a strong tightening in her belly caught her off guard. Martha did not wait for Yusef to answer.
“Show us the way!” she said forcefully.
The brothers spoke heatedly and they designated Abednigo to lead Yusef and his party to the town of Bethlehem, and the Shadrak, Mishak and Belteshazzar returned to their flocks. The passage to Bethlehem was more arduous than the road, and the climb taxed both the camel and the donkey. The cart bounced terribly on the hill path, and finally, Miri was lifted from the cart to the pack on the camel. They continued through a hidden wadi, but the cartwheels screeched so loudly as the joints of the vehicle twisted this way and that on the rocky road, that they abandoned it. Finally after a steep descent at the southern edge of the town, Abednigo led them to an Arab caravan station. Abednigo stopped at the front gate to talk to the old Arab squatting in the entranceway.
Martha eased Miri down from the camel. Miri was focused on her large belly. She wished Yeshua could have lived to see and feel the life growing inside her. She wished that Life were not so hard, that people could not be more kind, that her child could grow in Paradise.
Abednigo and the old man talked heatedly, waving their arms and whispering angrily at each other. The old man kept shaking his head.
Miri stared hard at the old man. He seemed terribly familiar, as did his place by the gateway, but she didn’t understand why.
Abednigo finished arguing with the old man and turned to his charges. “He will find you a place to sleep!” His beautiful dark eyes pierced Miri from beneath his eyebrows, and she melted in sexual desire for a moment, but was immediately kicked back into the world by the intense cramp in her belly.
“I shall return!” he promised, then, in a flurry of robes, he was gone.
Before she could speak, the old man smiled a toothless smile. “Full!” he said to Yusef, “There are guests sleeping in the rafters, under and on the tables! They’re full! You’ll be sleeping under the stars tonight, my friend!”
“My-” Yusef hesitated for a moment, “My wife- is with child and we are weary.”
The Arab’s eyes narrowed. “You have money?” he asked.
“Some,” admitted Yusef.
“Denarii or shekels?”
Yusef reached into his cloak and pulled a cloth bag from its folds, and bounced the bag in his hand so that the coins clinked together.
The Arab smiled. “I cannot give you lodgings of my own. I share my son’s house and he is not, how shall we say? Hospitable?”
Yusef withdrew the bag.
“But-,” added the Arab, “If you are willing to part with that bag of coins, I have a room, um, under my care, as it were-”
“Five shekels!” said Yusef quickly.
“Six and you must provide us with a meal and water!”
“Eight! I will show you where the well is and give you bread from the inn!”
“Seven, and I will give you a meal of bread and fruits, you will fetch the water!”
“Seven, if you fetch the water!”
“Done!” cried the Arab in glee. He stood up quickly. “My money?” he asked holding out his hand. Yusef dropped seven coins into the old man’s outstretched hands.
“Follow me,” the Arab commanded, tucking the coins into his girdle.
He walked with a limp, and compensated by supporting himself with a walking stick. Miri, Martha, Yusef and Jezebel trooped after him into the station compound, and across the plaza. The Arab led them into a large room carved out of the hillside that housed several animals: cattle, donkeys and camels, and a number of birds. A Bedouin nodded to them from the shadows from the nest in the straw he and his family had made in the nearby niche with his camels.
The old man led them to a corner of the stable.
“Seven shekels for this?” demanded Yusef angrily.
“It is clean,” stated the old man flatly, “I will bring some food for you.” The old man turned to leave, and then paused. “If I were you,“ he said ominously, “I would stay silent as a serpent. The walls have ears. You are not in a position to give orders to anyone. I have put myself at great risk taking in a fugitive such as yourself!”
“A- what makes you think-”
The old Arab stepped forward, his face looming in the dull overhead light of a small lantern swinging from a wooden beam. “I hear the news from Yerushalayim! There a sleeping jiin readies to leap from its lamp! This I know!”
“You!” The Arab poked his finger at Yusef, “You are a rich man who could afford his own tents, yet you have none! You are a rich man used to having slaves at his beck and call, yet you have none! You are a rich man with only a bag of shekels left to your name! I do not need the eyes of my youth to see that you are on the run from the authorities!”
“I think,” the Arab added menacingly, “You are lucky I only charged you seven shekels, when I could have the whole bag!” the old man smiled his gleeful toothless smile again. “I shall find you some food now, I think!”
He stared into Miri’s eyes.
“Mistress,” he said as a farewell, and then wobbled away into the growing night. Puzzled, Miri stared at his shrinking form. The Bedouin family gawked at the newcomers. Yusef smiled at them and they looked away. He turned to Miri who was still staring after the old man. The three of them stared at each other mystified silence. The shock of the attack still numbed them.
Martha suddenly broke into her familiar bustle. “Well, let’s get settled, then,” she said fussily and began to arrange the straw into mattresses for their stay. Miri and Yusef smiled affectionately at each other, and held hands.
“Hmmph!” grumbled Martha.
Miri felt as though she was suddenly garasped by a massive hand that squeezed her tightly, and a strong sharp pain pushed into her groin, and she felt as though she was compelled to urinate.
“I have to relieve nyself!” she whispered to Martha, and her neice guided Miri to a private place to squat and pee. Her water broke and she knew the child was on the way.
“Take me inside!” she said to Martha. Martha guided her to a nest, and another paroxysm paralyzed her for a moment. And in a flash of light, the pain had a purpose. Though the pain was unimaginable, it was not gratuitous, nor damaging, but a sudden pleasing pain that she bore with a great lusrt. She pushed down upon the pain, and it increased, but she could feel the child turning slowly, and in a great scream, miri’s voice mixed with the cry of her child.
“It’s a boy!” cried Martha.
Miri suddenly became aware of her surroundings and the passage of time. Two Bedu women had come to her aid and had offered olive oil and salt with which to rub the newborn baby boy. He opened his eyes and Miri stared straight into those beautiful eyes, and knew him instantly.
“Immanuel!” she whispered happily, and the boy shuddered and cried a great forceful cry that was a complaint of being removed from his mother. The women placed the child to her swollen breast, and his little mouth explored her flesh, seeking her nipple. She brought breast and baby together, and he began to suckle. His little tongue tickled and she laughed. Her joy was caught short by a sharp pain. Though her vagina was sore, this pain was sharp and it her heart stopped for a moment. The contraction closed again, and she felt something move inside her. She grunted, and Martha’s eyes narrowed and instinctively went to Miri’s vulva.
“Another one!” she exclaimed, and the Bedu women backed away, for they were not sure what sort of child might appear. Another great push and the second child gushed out into the world.
“A girl!” cried Martha happily, and oiled and salted the child, for the Bedu women clutched at their talismans and muttered invocations against the jiin under their breaths.
Martha had sent Yusef to find clean linen for the children, and he entered just as Martha declared the baby to be twins, and he dropped the cloth bolts on the floor. He recovered quickly and gathered the swaddling together and carried them to the nest of straw. Martha took the linen from him and swaddled them deftly. Miti was exhausted, and, though she herself had delivered hundreds of babies throughout her life, both in Philae and Galilee, she was content to allow her niece to tend to the babies. Martha eventually stopped her fussing and brought the twins to Miri, but hovered about should there be anything she could do to assist her aunt.
“Sit down!” she said affectionately to Martha, and patted the straw beside her.
Martha could not sit and continued to hover. But she was suddenly distracted. A herd of sheep bleated at the door, and a curious ewe peered in at them.
Miri laughed, and the ewe started, and a sudden explosion of sheep filled the stable for a moment. Their saviours from the hills followed the charges into the cave that served as a shelter. Each carried a cured sheepskin.
“A gift for the child!” said Belteshazzar.
“Children!” corrected Miri proudly.
“Hallelujah!” cried Shadrak and Mishak together.
“Doubly blessed!” added Abednigo.
Sheep bleated and one of the cattle lowed.
Yusef, as the father, was obligated to play host, and he apologized for not having food to offer, and the Bedu family, unable to watch him lose face, took it upon themselves to prepare a meal for the shepherds. Though she was tired, Miri felt no need for sleep. Her attention was focused on the babies. They were adorable, and everyone about her agreed they deserved adoration. A light at the door took Miri’s attention, and she saw three men in the doorway, and for a moment her entire world turned inside out.
Her new visitors were Fuk, Lok and Sau.
“May we enter?” asked Fuk.
Miri waved to them and replied, “Please, it would be an honour!”
Fuk entered the shelter first, and his presence lit the stable. The light seemed just to be far greater then had existed and even the stone walls seemed to radiate light, and as he entered, three bats fluttered from the beams above their heads and made their way out into the night. “We have traveled far to find you, and followed the Path of the Stars, for the stars have placed you in this place and time and with these people.”
And he placed a small scroll at her feet.
Lok, carrying a small chest followed behind him immediately. “A chest of gold for your children,” he said, and then produced a beautifully enameled box. “Tea!” he said happily. “They shall prosper!”
Behind him, beaming happily, Sau, an old man with a prominent bald head, propelled himself forward with a large knotted stick with his right hand, brought a big peach in the left.
“We have brought the twins gifts, it was quite a journey to find you!” he said. His merry demeanour was infectious, and his presence brought smiles to all who saw him, “I bring you blessings,” he profferred the peach to Miri, “I present your children with this the heavenly fruit and grant them long life.”
The Bedu grandmother, herself supported by a stick as gnarled as she, wobbled forward. “Though I am old and blind, I can only offer my prayers to you and your shildren, but my prayer is that they shall outlive you, for that is all a mother can ask!”
Miri listlessly stared at the old woman as she came into the circle of light cast by the lamp beside her bier, and for a moment, she thought she recognized the woman.
“Erishkigal!” she whispered in horror, for her underworld sister never at any time bore her goodwill.
The crone smiled, and as she peered at Miri, Miri blanched. “What are you doing here?” she whispered.
“Looking after my interests!” the crone replied, and promptly disappeared.
For some reason, no one noticed her absence, and in a moment of panic, she realized that neither Belteshazzar, Shadrak, Mishak and Abednigo, notr the Three Astral Travellers from the Orient, nor the family across from her family, had even seen the crone or Erishkigal.
“Please, God, if you have ears to hear my prayer, protect my children!”