This novel is a prequel to my two previous books,
The Battle for Crimlia and Emilia. I’d recommend that you read The
Battle for Crimlia for a fuller explanation of some of the
references made in this story.
I’d like to stress that I take certain liberties
with this retelling of one of God’s most phenomenal accounts. I’ve
always felt immense sorrow regarding Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and I
have created a subplot that is entirely imaginary. There is no
evidence from the Bible that Dinah became pregnant after Chekem’s
assault. It is not my intention to blaspheme or offend. Please
remember that this is a novel and should under no circumstances be
substituted for God’s Holy Word.
I must also caution that this story contains some
scenes of brutality that may make people uncomfortable. The story
is for young adults, so very young children might need to use
caution. If you have questions, criticisms, or comments, please
feel free to email me at
firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d dearly love to hear what you think.
Retelling such outstanding accounts of God’s
boundless love and phenomenal grace helps me to appreciate even more
my Lord and Savior’s provision and sacrifice. We are involved in a
spiritual struggle with a formidable foe, and I want my imaginary
works to emphasize that we are victorious only through our reliance
upon our Savior, Jesus Christ. I hope you enjoy reading this story
as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please read the account of Jacob’s
family in Genesis.
Happy reading, and God bless you all.
“Joakim! Hurry! It’s your
turn to feed the sheep!”
The young boy looked up.
“Coming, Justin.” He called.
Joakim was a slender boy, and
he was tall for his ten years. Already, he was nearly as
tall as Rufus, his eldest brother. Short, jet black hair
framed a finely-chiseled face. His blue eyes always
sparkled with happiness.
Bolting from the tent where
he’d been mixing some herbs for a healing poultice, he
hurried to a makeshift pen where several sheep huddled
together as if seeking shelter from the cold.
“What took you so long?”
Justin snarled. “It’s freezing out here!”
“I’m sorry, Justin. I was—”
“Who cares! I’m gonna go find
Sighing, Joakim reached for
some food. Going to each sheep, he talked to them and
gently stroked their heads. He loved the feel of their
soft, warm wool. “You’ll be nice and warm this winter,” he
Joakim often wondered why his
brothers never stayed around to talk with him. Of course,
he wasn’t dumb. He knew the answer, but it hurt to think
“Joakim?” a familiar voice
rang out cheerfully. “Come on into the bakery. I just made
Happily, the boy dashed out
of the sheep fold and into a small tent at the back of their
dwelling. A slender, young girl stood beside a blazing
fire. Her shoulder-length blond hair was gathered into a
bun at the nape of her neck, and she wore a simple, cotton
dress. Her brown eyes, so different from her mother’s,
shone with happiness, and her face was perfectly
proportioned. The girl gestured to a platter filled with
round, fragrant, golden cakes. “You better hurry before the
bloodhounds smell them out!” she laughed.
Joakim grinned. “Thanks,
Donna!” he cried. He took six cakes from the platter.
“I’ll take some to Momma and Aunt Laurel!”
Donna ruffled the boy’s
hair. “Tonight, let’s go for a walk on the common. It’s
winter, but we’ll wrap up really well.”
Joakim nodded. Donna always
took him for walks, and she let him help her in the bake
shop. She was nicer to him than anyone else, with the
exception of Father, Mother, and Aunt Laurel. None of his
brothers seemed to care that he existed.
Grasping the cakes, he ran
from the shop and back inside the home tent.
His mother stood surveying
the poultice he’d been mixing earlier. She was a tall woman
with a creamy complexion. Her eyes were the same color as
Joakim’s, but they shone with less luster than his own. Her
face was careworn. “Excellent work, son.” She said
admiringly. “Penelope’s leg will be better in no time.”
“It will be if Isanab is
gentle with her!” a harsh voice called from the corner.
Joakim smiled. Aunt Laurel
was a brusque lady, but she was all bark and no bite. He
handed two honeycakes to his mother, then approached the
chair on which his aunt sat. She held a torn tunic close to
her face, and she was knitting slowly. “Aunt Laurel? I’ve
brought you some honeycakes.” The boy said.
The woman looked up. Her
eyes were horribly bloodshot and mismatched in color. Her
right one bulged unpleasantly. She smiled at her nephew,
and the smile transformed her plain features into something
beautiful to behold. “The Imperial Lord bless you, child.”
She said gratefully.
From outside, stamping feet
could be heard, and grunts of pleasure. “They’ve caught the
scent!” Momma laughed.
“Animals, Regina! They’re my
sons, and they’re animals!” Laurel laughed in spite of
herself, and Regina joined her.
The sound of horse’s hoofs
could also be heard. “Father!” Joakim cried with glee.
He catapulted from the tent,
and ran headlong into a stout young man who was dismounting
from a chestnut mare.
“Mind your manners, boy!” the
youth snarled. “Who brought you up? A cow?”
Joakim’s face flushed
scarlet. “I’m sor—”
“Never mind! My father and yours are following me. I—”
Suddenly, a burly young man
stood before the stranger. “Who’re you?” he snapped.
“What’s your business here?”
“I’m Shelkah, Son of Shelkah,
the chieftain of these lands. Who’re you?”
“I’m Rufus, the eldest son of
Israal, also known as Jakob. What’s your business here?”
Suddenly, more hoofbeats
announced the arrival of two more men. Joakim dashed from
where he’d been standing and stopped before a large, black
stallion. Astride the horse sat a dignified man. His face
was covered with a long beard.
The man’s stern face crinkled
into a smile. “Joakim! Wonderful to see you!” he cried
joyously. Bending down, he swooped the boy onto the back of
the stallion. Joakim grinned in spite of himself.
On the other horse, an
equally tall man surveyed father and son. “He’s quite a
youngster, Jakob!” he boomed jovially.
“Aye, that he is, Shelkah!
The Imperial Lord has blessed me with a magnificent son!”
“Ah! Again that “Imperial
Lord” business!” Shelkah chuckled. “You’re in Normdal, now!
We serv many gods here. I suppose we can add one more to
“We’re Imperialites, sir.
Our Lord provides all that we need. Other gods are
deceptions planted by Salak.”
“Salak? Whom are you
“She’s Queen of Crimlia, the
land where I was born. Her influence reaches all lands.
She may not manifest herself in those lands, but she
controls them. This is why my family is journeying to
different lands looking for a place to settle. She caused
strife for my family in Crimlia, and I’ve never been allowed
back there. We hope to make our home with your people for a
time if you will permit us. However, I must ask if you
enforce the Union Ceremony here.”
“Yes. A brutal custom! I was
subjected to it as a child of twelve. Children are taken by
force to prevent the Imperial Lord’s promise from being
“Well, I don’t know what you
mean! The only “Ceremony” we have is the “Festival of
Elora,” a celebration of Love! We pay homage to our supreme
frowned. “I’m afraid we cannot stay—”
“Nonsense!” Shelkah cried in
surprise. “We will not force you to participate in our
celebrations. You can worship however you like! Now, enough
moralizing! I want to meet your relations, starting with
By now, all ten of Jakob’s
sons were gathered in a huddle. Joakim, still on the
stallion, saw Rufus, Justin, and the eight others glaring at
Blushing, the boy dismounted,
and joined the others. With one accord, they shifted their
bodies so he was soon standing apart from them.
After introductions were
made, Shelkah surveyed the brothers. “I’d like to introduce
all of you to my—” His voice trailed away, and his face
Muttering an oath, he
dismounted from his horse. “Where has he gotten to?” he
As if on cue, bubbling
laughter issued from the bake tent. Two figures emerged,
one holding the other’s hand. The stout man was cramming
honeycakes into his mouth and chewing ravenously. “Be
careful!” Donna laughed. “You’ll make yourself sick.”
“I don’t care!” Shelkah Jr.
said, “This is food from the gods! Father, she’s the most
extraordinary baker I’ve ever met!”
His father laughed. “Well,
Jakob! You’re holding out on me! Whose this lovely lady?”
Jakob frowned slightly.
“This is Donna, my only daughter. Her baking talents are
known in all lands.”
“Well, my dear,” Shelkah
said, “why not come and meet some of the women of our land,
soon? You’ll be treated graciously.”
Donna blushed with pleasure.
“May I, Father?”
“We’ll see, my dear.” Jakob
turned to his guests. “Will you both honor us with your
presence at our supper table?”
Father and son nodded with
During the meal, Joakim
watched in disbelief! He thought his brothers had big
appetites! They ate like birds when compared with Shelkah
and his father!
The younger Shelkah insisted
on sitting next to Donna. He talked only to her. Joakim
became increasingly uneasy.
At long last, the two men
prepared to take their leave. “Please come to visit us
anytime, Jakob! All of you are welcome.” The older Shelkah
When the men had faded from view, Justin whooped. “We
play our cards right, they’ll be eating out of our hands! We
“NO FOOLISH TALK!” Jakob
thundered, “WE’RE GUESTS IN THEIR LAND, AND WE TREAT THEM
“But, Father!” Simal protested, “They’re barbarians! We—”
“They’re human beings who’re imprisoned by Salak as much as
we are,” Jakob murmured, “we’ll stay here at least a month,
“Father?” Donna broke in, “may I please go—”
“We’ll discuss it later,
Donna.” Jakob murmured. “Now, let’s all get some sleep!”
As the groups dispersed,
Jakob nodded to Mother and beckoned her to follow him into
his tent. Father had a private tent that no one but himself
and his wives were allowed in. Joakim knew that Father was
also married to Aunt Laurel. He saw his aunt frown
slightly, but the look didn’t last long.
Joakim caught Donna’s eye, and she grinned at
him. “I haven’t forgotten,” she said, “are you ready?”
“Sure, let’s go!”
Although the February wind
was cold, Joakim and Donna wore thick, woolen coats. They
walked along in silence for a short time. “What do you
think of the two men, Joakim?” Donna asked.
“They’re all right, I guess,”
Donna blushed. “The younger
man’s handsome, but he makes me nervous, somehow. He just
came into the bakery and stared at me. I thought—” She
“What?” Joakim asked. “What
Donna smiled at him.
“Nothing, it’s nothing,” she said quickly. “Was Mother
fixing Rufus’ tunic earlier today?”
“Yes, and I gave her some of
Donna smiled and ruffled his
hair. Joakim blushed. “You’re nicer than my own
flesh-and-blood brothers, Jo!” she laughed. “Make sure you
always stay that way. The Imperial Lord uses those who obey
Joakim smiled at her. “He
uses people who are mean, too. Remember Father’s story?”
Donna laughed. “Father did
act mean when he was younger, didn’t he?”
“So did Grandma Roberta! Poor
“And Grandpa Imril! Can you
imagine tricking a blind person? I’m sure the Imperial Lord
was very angry!”
“He granted justice when
Father was tricked by Uncle Labek!”
Donna frowned slightly, and
Joakim immediately felt guilty. “I love Aunt Laurel,
Donna. Father should have been nicer to her.”
Donna took his hand. “She
loves him, you know. She always has. The Imperial Lord has
richly blessed her.”
Joakim nodded. In spite of
himself, he shivered. “Salak had a hand in the strife,
too. Donna, what’s she like?”
The girl clutched Joakim’s
hand. “I’ve never found out. I pray I never shall. You
pray for that, also. She’s dangerous.”
Joakim nodded. The two
siblings hurried back to the cluster of tents.
In Plenty Palace, a massive,
resplendent building constructed of marble, cheerful fires
were lit in every room. Before one such fire, a
magnificently beautiful woman stood. Her strawberry blond
hair billowed down her back, and the firelight glinted on
her alabaster skin. She peered into her Mirror of
Revealment, a resplendent object she’d fashioned from the
Gems of Discord: crystal-clear trinkets that were as deadly
as they were beautiful. Gems of Discord could cut the mind,
causing gashes that would never heal. She’d had her
servants mine for the Discord Gems in the bowels of
Crimlia. Many of them had not survived the grueling work,
but an assortment of the clear, glass-like gems had arrived
safely into her hands.
Now, the woman smiled as she
peered into the glass. She watched the family of Jakob, a
man who’d been a thorn in her flesh for so long! He’d once
been so pliable, so easily used! Now, the meddlesome
Imperial Lord had once again determined to thwart her plans!
“You always think you’re so
invincible!” she snarled. “Don’t you see that I’ll never
stop hounding him? He may have been reconciled with his
brother, but there’s other ways of destroying him! Why must
you always get in my way? Do you like to hurt?”
As usual, the Imperial Lord
did not respond to her questions. Salak could never fully
understand her creator. What was his game? How could he
love such inferior beings as humans? They were so gullible,
so easily manipulated!
Now, Crimlia’s queen stared
at the sleeping Donna. That virginal girl and the young boy
were her biggest threats. The other family members were
It didn’t help that the
Imperial Lord had promised Jakob that “The Deliverer” would
arise from his descendants! If that was the case, he must
either have meant that wretched girl or the young boy,
Joakim. None of the other brothers were pure enough.
Smiling, Queen Salak leant
forward. The germ of an idea was sprouting. In a few
moments, a maniacal laugh erupted from her throat. Her plan
would take several years to unfold, but she was a mistress
of strategy. She didn’t mind biding her time. This plan
would eradicate the whole Imperialite nation once and for
The first part of the plan
could start immediately. Quickly, she instructed: “Show me
Her mirror revealed the young
man lying in his bed. Salak smiled. He was lovesick for
the girl already! She could tell by his tangled sheets and
his sweat-soaked brow.
Whispering incoherent words,
she hurled pictures into the young man’s mind: pictures that
stirred his already fevered blood to a roiling frenzy!
Then, satisfied, she leant
back to watch the unfolding game.
In a place of magnificent
brilliance, an undefinable Presence hovered. The Presence
was dazzling and larger than life. Around this entity,
lesser beings gathered. They were magnificent to behold,
but they looked dingy compared to their Maker.
“My Son!” The Presence’s
voice resembled a rushing waterfall and a skylark’s song
simultaneously. It was a voice that throbbed with an
ever-changing and crescendoing music.
Another Presence, equal in
brilliance, joined His Father. “She is at work again,
Father. I will do your bidding!”
“Yes, she will always be at
work until you take your place among mortals, but your time
has not arrived.”
“I know, Father. You want me
to use Joakim.” The statement was not a question, but an
acknowledgment of a fact. Father and Son knew each other’s
thoughts and communicated accordingly.
“Yes. She’ll seek to kill
him. He’s our Instrument. Send him “The Dreams. The time
The Son turned and glanced down into the
world of mortals. He surveyed the sleeping boy. Soon, I’ll
experience all that this child experiences, He thought in
wonder. He was equally excited and apprehensive about the
Softly, the Son began to sing. His voice was
more powerful than a thunderstorm, and softer than a
springtime shower of rain.
His melody formed
itself into a resplendent cocoon of intricate light that
wrapped itself around the sleeping boy.
Then, the Son turned to His Father. “Let us
now put Our Plan into action as in the Days of Creation!” He
Father and Son began an intricate dance.
Their movements were perfectly harmonized and defied
The dancing progressed until the two
Presences merged into One.
The Lesser Presences, of whom Salak had once
been the most beautiful, sang an accompanying melody of
breathtaking joy. The music praised their Makers with
unsurpassed beauty. Good and evil were about to collide.
Under a canopy of trees, a young girl sat.
Above her, the canopy provided shade, and strange yellow
fruit spread its citrusy fragrance to her nostrils.
Suddenly, a looming shadow appeared. The
girl gasped. She jumped to her feet and began to run.
With a snarl of frustration, the figure
lunged after her.
Choking on her own sobs of terror, the girl
exploded from the grove of fruit trees. She heard the
sharp, guttural growls of her enemy as he approached.
The pursuer burst from the grove, and the
brillian spring sunlight revealed a Wolf with black,
bristling fur! From the creature’s blood-red mouth, jagged,
brilliantly white teeth protruded.
With a savage lunge, the foul creature
launched himself into the air! He landed on the screaming
girl, driving her to the ground. He flipped her onto her
back and dug his razor-sharp claws into her stomach. The
girl’s screams grew in hysterical intensity!
The boy jerked upright on his sleeping cot.
He still screamed, and his eyes feverishly scanned the room.
“Joakim! It was a dream. It’s—”
Slowly, the boy’s pounding
heart began to slow down. His labored breathing gradually
“Mother, I—I—” Joakim began
retching in agony. He couldn’t find the words to explain.
His mother touched his
forehead. “No temperature, thankfully. I’ll be right
Joakim stared after his
mother’s departing figure. What a strange dream! It
couldn’t be—but, the girl’s face! He’d seen her—
His mother soon reappeared
with a cup of warm goat’s milk mixed with honey. “This will
soothe you.” Gently, she ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Is Donna all right?” Joakim
“Donna? Why, of course she
is. She’s sleeping. Now, drink this. It will help.”
After receiving the drink,
the boy lay back on his cot. “I’ll stay with you, if you
want,” his mother said.
Joakim shook his head, but he
did not sleep the rest of the night.
Three weeks passed by with
uneventful slowness. Joakim helped his brothers with the
sheep whenever they saw fit to include him.
The only thing unusual about
the passing weeks was that the younger Shelkah often came by
their dwelling. He always went into the bakery to see
Donna, taking a gift of some kind with him.
On one particular visit, he
carried a basket filled with plump, yellow fruits. A
citrusey fragrance emanated from the basket.
Joakim, who’d been helping
Donna chop hazelnuts for pastries, dropped the mallet he’d
been using when he saw the figure at the bakery’s entrance.
“Joakim? What—” Donna began.
She stopped when she saw how
white Joakim’s face was. She turned around.
Donna’s face fell when she
saw the visitor standing there. “Sir, I told you. No more
gifts, please! I’m—
Shelkah strode leisurely into
the shop without being asked. “The lemons have just
ripened.” He smiled warmly at Donna. “Have you ever tasted
Shelkah glared when he
spotted Joakim. “What’s he doing here?” he snapped.
“He helps me. I’ll not have you—”
Shelkah peered closely at the
boy. A strange smile suffused his features. “Sorry, lad,”
he said, but his tone suggested otherwise. “Here.”
Joakim backed away from the
man who was proffering a lemon which he’d sliced with a
pocketknife. Rich, yellow juice covered his hands, and the
citrus fragrance was intoxicatingly sweet.
Joakim glared at him. “I
don’t want anything from you!”
Donna gasped, and Shelkah
glared. “You’re an impertinent little twerp, aren’t you!
Donna, send him away. I need to talk with you.”
Donna placed her hands on her hips. “I’ve told you
repeatedly, I know what you want. Leave my brother—”
“You misunderstand my
intentions. They’re honorable,” Shelkah’s face softened.
“Here, as a peace offering.”
He handed Donna a lemon
slice. Tentatively, the girl took a small bite and winced
at the taste.
Shelkah smiled. “Look what
happens to them when sugar and water are added.”
So saying, he filled a small
cup with water, added a spoonful of sugar, and squeezed the
juice of a lemon slice into the cup. As if presenting a
chalice to a queen, he proffered the drink. “Try it.”
“If I do, will you promise to
leave me in peace?”
Shelkah laughed. “On my
honor, but I will expect you to come meet the women of our
land soon. I’ll even send a carriage with some female
chaperones to accompany you if you’re nervous.”
Sighing in resignation, Donna
placed the cup to her lips. Her eyes opened wide at the
“You have made my life sweet,
just as sugar improves the taste of lemons,” Shelkah said
Donna blushed, but she turned
back to her pastry dough. “I’m busy, sir. Please leave,
and never talk to my brother in such a manner again!”
Bestowing a condescending
smile upon the stricken boy, Shelkah turned to withdraw.
Gently, he held out his hand to Donna and caressed her left
arm. Donna flinched and moved aside.
“I’ll send a carriage for you
in a week,” he said. Then he swept from the tent.
“Donna!” Joakim hurried forward and clutched his sister’s
arm. His face was ashen. “Please, you—”
“Sh.” Donna said soothingly.
“It’s all right. What’s wrong?”
“I-I, the lemons! They were in my—”
“In what? What are you—”
“Don’t go in the carriage!
Donna’s face fell. “Joakim,
I need to see girls of my own age. You’re too young to
“Too young? I’m ten! You’re
just fourteen! I know what I’m talking about!“
Donna laughed softly. “It’s
different with girls, Joakim. You’ll understand soon
enough. Mother and Aunt Regina do their best, but now we’re
here, I need girl friends of my own age.”
The boy glared. “I need boy friends of my own age!” he
snapped. “In case you haven’t—”
Donna’s face fell. “I know,
I know,” She said softly.
Gently, she enfolded her
brother into her arms.
A week later, a resplendent
carriage arrived from Normdal Palace, along with a whole
entourage of young girls and older women. Donna, clutching
a basket of baked goods, boarded the carriage.
After much discussion, Jakob
had consented to allow her to go. Joakim knew Mother and
Aunt Laurel had had a hand in the decision.
Now, the boy watched as the
carriage pulled away. Nausea gripped his stomach.
The day was marvelous! Donna
met many wonderful girls of her own age. They complimented
her baking skills and showed her around Normdal.
Normdal was vast, a city that
semed to stretch into eternity. Donna particularly liked
the botanical gardens in the middle of the city’s square.
“My mother loves gardening,”
she cried happily. “Might I take some flowers back with me
to show her?”
One of the girls smiled. “Of
course! Take whatever you need.”
Donna was drawn to a clump of
herbs that spread their citrusy fragrance throughout the
air. “What are these?”
“They’re lemon verbena.
Excellent in teas! It cures headaches, too.”
Donna gathered several
handfuls of the herb, and placed them into the bodice of her
dress. “They will make wonderful sachets.”
Donna also saw the public
bath house. It was constructed of elaborate marble. Tubs
of frothy, steaming water, fragrant soaps, and even a
refreshment kiosk were the primary features of this
“Come, Donna! Why not bathe
right now?” one of the girls asked.
Donna hesitated. The water
looked so inviting! For someone who always bathed standing
up, this prospect was irresistible. “We’ll join you,”
another girl said, “Don’t worry. No one’ll see us.”
“Is there a door or—”
The girl pointed to a wooden
partition that could be erected.
Quickly, Donna undressed,
making sure that she covered herself with the bathing
garment one of the girls provided. The garment was lower
cut than she’d first realized, so she was glad the partition
Donna splashed and lay back
in the marvelous water. The other girls played a game where
they threw a golden ball to one another, and dove under the
water to retrieve it when it got away. Donna soon joined
in. She hadn’t had such fun in a long time!
While she was preoccupied,
she failed to notice a shadow at the bath house entrance
until one of the girls shrieked. “Shelkah! Get lost!”
Her face scarlet with
embarrassment, Donna jumped from the water. The bathing
dress seemed more revealing than ever. She looked toward
the entrance, but saw no one there.
“Don’t mind him,” the girl
who’d shrieked said. “He’s always spying on us. Come on.
In a sunlit pavilion, Donna
sat at a table covered with a snowy cloth. Maids brought
out platters of smoked fish, chicken, and other
sauce-drenched meats. Plates of vegetables and cups of
fruit drinks accompanied the sumptuous feast.
After the huge meal, bowls of
custards, trifle, and platters of cakes and tarts were
distributed. The luxury was overwhelming!
“These tarts aren’t as good
as yours,” one girl said with her mouth full. Donna
All too soon, Donna realized
that she must be heading back home. “Please come back
sometime. Can we come see you?”
Unbidden, a feeling of shame
surfaced. The girls wanted to see her dingy bakeshop? Donna
was horrified that the feeling had invaded her mind.
Nevertheless, she nodded. “Maybe sometime,” she said.
“Come on. We’ll take you to
the botanical gardens to wait for the carriage. Ariel will
accompany you back home.”
Donna had met Ariel earlier
in the day. She was one of the maids who’d served lunch.
The only thing Donna remembered distinctly was that Ariel
was parading around in a dress that looked new. Her eyes
had never met Donna’s directly, but she’d spoken pleasantly
Now, Donna waited in the lush
gardens. A canopy of lemon trees provided ample shade, and
she loved gazing at the beauty that surrounded her.
Rustling grass caused her to
raise her head. Shelkah stood at the entrance to the lemon
tree grove, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Hello, Donna! Well, I’ve kept my word. I haven’t tried to
talk with you all day.”
Donna glared. “You spied on me at—”
“Come on! How could I help it? You’re the loveliest girl
“Don’t start that! I’m not interested. I’m waiting
“Ariel? She’s ben detained.
I’ll take you home myself.” He pointed to a chestnut mare
bridled and saddled that stood a few feet away.
“No thank you,” she said. “I’ll send a messenger to
“Don’t be ridiculous! You’ll
be taken home in style!”
Donna began walking away. “I’m not interested in you.
You’re wasting your—”
With lightning swiftness, his left hand slammed into her
cheek. “Don’t talk to me like that! You want me as—”
“I don’t! Leave me—”
The next few moments were
abrupt and brutal. Donna tried repeatedly to run, but
Shelkah tore her dress with savage swiftness. Hurriedly,
she tried to step from the garment, but he was just so fast!
His movements were as passionless as a ram attacking a ewe
during mating season.
When the act was over, Donna
lay shivering. Pain wracked her body.
Shelkah stood over her, his
face red and his clothes disheveled. “It’s your fault. You
wouldn’t cooperate with me. Don’t worry. I’m not going to
abandon you. I’ll take you to my home so we can be
“I’d rather die.” Donna’s
voice was strangled, so she didn’t sound as defiant as she’d
Shelkah simply laughed. “I’m
going to get you some soap and water to clean up. I’ll be
When the monster had gone,
Donna tried to stand. She was shaking so badly, she
couldn’t gather her ripped clothes around her. Above her
head, a soot-black Crow flew. Occasionally, it swooped down
as if wanting to look at her more closely. The bird emitted
raucous cries that resembled jeering laughter.
Stumbling, Donna tried to
run, but she was in so much pain she couldn’t move very
A small shape materialized in
the grove. A Lamb, snow-white, stood in her path. Its eyes
were the most sorrowful she’d ever seen.
Donna crumpled to the ground,
and the Lamb shifted its body so it was lying next to her
prostrate form. Tears flowed unchecked from her eyes. The
Lamb bleated sorrowfully as if it, too, was crying.
Tentatively, she hugged the
Lamb closer to her. The tears she shed soaked its wollen
back, but the Lamb did not move away. Its fragrant breath
touched her face. Unexplained comfort washed through her.
Above her head, the Crow
swooped down once again. Donna saw the Lamb fix a gaze of
terrifying anger upon the bird. The Crow flew away in a
rush. What could this strange sight mean?
Donna realized that she must
let her family know what had happened. How could she get a
message to them?
Joakim! That was it! He’d known something
Quickly, she looked at the torn dress.
Inside the sash, the lemon verbena herbs were gathered into
a cloth bundle. Donna took these out of the dress. “Little
Lamb, I know you must be from the Imperial Lord. Can you
please help me?”
The Lamb stood as if waiting for
instructions. Gently, she used the torn sash of her dress
to tie the package of herbs around its neck. “Take these to
Joakim.” The Lamb received its instructions, and walked
All too soon, Shelkah returned. He watched
as Donna began cleaning herself. “You’ll stay here with
me,” he said. “You’ll see I love you, and you’ll come to
love me in time.”
“It’s late! What could be
keeping the girl?” Aunt Laurel asked.
“I’m sure she’ll get here
soon,” Momma said.
Joakim stood over the fire,
mixing a sauce for tonight’s supper.
From outside, he heard a rustling at the tent flap.
“Momma, may I go and see—”
“Sure, but come right back.
That sauce can’t burn!”
Dashing from the tent, the
boy nearly collided with the most beautiful Lamb he’d ever
seen. “Hello, there!” Bending down, he quickly ascertained
that the Lamb was male. “Momma, has Cornelia given birth
“In the third month of the year? Don’t be silly, Joakim!
Lambings next month. What’re you—”
The boy was no longer
listening. He stared at the Lamb’s neck. A familiar,
citrusy fragrance assaulted his nostrils, and he’d seen the
sash so often that, even bloodstained, he knew whose it was!
“Momma! Aunt Laurel!” The two
women rushed from the tent. Momma was the first to scream.
Aunt Laurel finally spotted the Lamb and what he carried.
Falling to her knees, she began to cry.
“It’s my fault!” Joakim sobbed. “I—”
“What’re you—” Momma asked
His nightmare tumbled out
between wracking sobs.
Momma put a hand on his
shoulder. “We’ll send Rufus and Justin to Normdal. They’ll
find out what the problem is.”
Momma untied the bundle from
the Lamb’s neck. Bestowing a sorrowful look upon the two
women, the Lamb then surveyed Joakim with a mixture of
sorrow and pride. Then, it walked away.
After what seemed like an eternity, the
brothers returned from where they’d been feeding the sheep.
Quickly, Rufus and Justin saddled one of the horses and tore
When they returned several
hours later, Donna was not with them. Their faces were
crimson with rage, and they demanded an audience with
Jakob, who’d been informed of
the situation, drew them aside.
Early the next morning before
breakfast, he sat out alone for Normdal.
At breakfast, all the
brothers were talking at once. “It’s disgraceful! We’ve
done nothing to them!” Rufus slammed his fist down,
upsetting a pitcher of goat’s milk.
“It’s because we’re
newcomers,” Isanab spat. “They want to humiliate us!”
“Father’ll try to negotiate.
He’ll get nowhere!” Justin raged.
“They’ve disgraced us!” Simal
“Yes, they think they can
humiliate us and—” Levan began.
“Shut up!” Joakim’s voice cut
through the tumult. He was shocked at his own anger.
Dead silence descended.
Then, Rufus snorted. “Who do you think you’re talking too?”
“All of you are talking about
how it hurts the family, but you haven’t mentioned Donna!
What about her?”
“Mind your own business,”
Simal growled. “She’s my sister. Of course I care about
her. What do you know about it?”
“Yes, Joakim!” Levan spat. “She’s only your
half-sister. How can you interfere with our
discussions? We’ll not allow anyone to treat our sister like
At that moment, Aunt Laurel
shuffled into the room. Her eyes were not focusing today,
and she stumbled as she fell into a chair. “Eat and stop
screaming,” she said simply. “Haven’t we enough trouble
without all of you carrying on?”
No one said anything else.
The day stretched into an eternity.
When Jakob returned, he was
alone. His face was haggard, and he moved slower than
After supper, he gathered the
whole family together. “They won’t allow her to come home,
but they’re willing to negotiate.”
“Negotiate?” Levan roared. “We can’t let her stay with
Jakob held up a hand. “They want to form an alliance
with us. Shelkah’s father is prepared to find brides
for you all. We’ll—”
“HOW DARE YOU!” Justin
Jakob’s face crumpled. “It’s the only way! If we do
this, we’ll see Donna again. Don’t you understand?
I’ve endured defilement, then I was kicked out in shame!
Your sister is being treated like a princess! The
chieftain’s son is a spawn of Salak, but the father is
decent. He’s refused to let Shelkah see her again.
She’s safe there. We just need to have—”
“Faith?” Simal guffawed.
“What kind of Lord do you serve, anyway? You’re spineless!”
Jakob turned to go into his
tent. “I suppose when you say he’s found brides for all of
us, you mean just ten of us, don’t you?” Justin called after
him. All the brothers looked accusingly at Joakim.
Bewildered, the boy turned to
follow his Father. “That’s right!” Rufus called after him
sarcastically, “Go curry more favor!”
“Leave your brother in
peace!” Aunt Laurel shouted. “He’s the only one of you who
has any sense!”
Without a word, the brothers
stamped toward one of the tents.
In Jakob’s tent, Joakim
watched his father kneel. Tears were flowing from his
eyes. “You’re punishing me, Lord,” he whispered, “Why must
suffering be inflicted upon her?”
“Father?” Joakim said softly.
Smiling weakly, Jakob rose to
his feet. “Come sit with me, Son.”
“Can I get you—”
“No, I’m all right. I need
to talk with you.”
Joakim nodded and waited.
“You know I’ve told you about
the Union Ceremony? Well, we travel so frequently from
place to place. Do you know why?”
Joakim shook his head, although he thought he
might know the answer.
“To keep you and your
siblings from enduring it. I particularly feared for
“It’s my fault, Father. It’s my—”
“Your mother told me about
your dream, Son. Do not blame yourself. How could you have
“I tried to stop her from—”
“We all make our own
choices. She’s lonely, and if anyone’s to blame for the
predicament of this family, it is myself.”
Jakob laughed bitterly.
“Because I lived up to the meaning of my name: Deception.
I’m paying for that now. In Crimlia, Salak rules by
planting strife. After her diabolical ceremony, I knew
she’d fixed it so anyone could get anything just by taking
it. That is what I did.”
“But, you and Uncle Esol are
all right, now. What about your name change, and the
“Yes, but I still have to
live with the consequences of my rash actions. The same
truth applies to your mother and Aunt Laurel. I got what I
deserved, but at the time, I took my anger out on your
aunt. The Imperial Lord loved her more than I did. Why do
you think He’s blessed her with so many children?”
Joakim shook his head. “I
don’t understand what you’re saying.“
“He lifts up those who are
rejected by the world. Now, leave me, Joakim.”
As the boy rose, his father
enfolded him into his arms. “You remember that dream, Son.
Perhaps the Imperial Lord has given you a gift.”
Before dawn the next morning,
two figures stepped from the shadows of the sheep fold.
They each mounted horses and rode away into the darkness.
When the figures arrived at
Normdal’s gate, a burly guard raised his hand. “State your
business,” he barked.
“We’ve come to see Chieftain
Shelkah,” one of the figures said, “I’m Simal, and this is
my brother, Levan. We’re from the house of Jakob, also
known as Isrral.”
The guard inclined his head
suspiciously. “Why did your father not come?”
“He’s ill, and he sent us in
his stead. We’re prepared to comply with the chieftain’s
request, but certain rules must be met to satisfy our god.”
“Well, tell me your
conditions, and I’ll relay the message. We’ll let you know
an answer before the day is done.”
Levan spoke. “According to
our law, the men, young and old, must submit to
circumcision. Only then can we consider ourselves a part of
The guard winced. “I do not
know what to tell you. Please wait here.”
As the guard departed, the
two brothers grinned at each other. “If Father’s too
cowardly, we’ll be avenged ourselves,” Simal said.
Soon, the guard returned.
“Is this the only condition you require? There is nothing
Levan shook his head.
“Very well. Our chieftain
gives his consent. Send your father here in three day’s
Nodding, the brothers took
“I wish you would have
consulted me first,” Jakob said at breakfast that morning.
“Your sure they said you could bring her home in three days’
“Yes, Father,” Simal said.
“He said he’d changed his mind. Levan and I will go get her
“Why does he want us to wait
“Because, they insist she
stay till the beginning of April. If her Moon Phase cycle
is revealed, then they will allow her to come with us at
once. If not, they’ll examine her to determine if—” Levan’s
voice trailed away.
Jakob nodded. “Next time,
check with me before you do something like this.”
All the brothers waited for
their father to leave. “If she’s pregnant, what will they
do?” Don asked.
Levan and Simal exchanged
glances. “They’ll give us enough money to care for her
since they’re responsible,” Leban said.
Rufus looked shrewdly at his
siblings. “You’re up to something, aren’t you?”
Simal glared at him. “Even
if we were, what do you care? You didn’t seem interested in
helping us last night.”
Rufus didn’t say anything,
and the meal ended in silence.
Donna sat on a marble balcony
overlooking Normdal’s town square. Almost a whole week had
passed since she’d been brought here by Shelkah.
She couldn’t complain about
her treatment. Maids waited on her hand and foot. The
girls whom she’d met the first day came to see her
frequently, and she hadn’t seen Shelkah since she’d arrived.
“His father’s assigned a
guard to keep close watch of him,” one of the girls had told
her. “I heard him say: “If you’re going to act like an
animal, then you’ll be treated like one”.
Despite the luxuries that
surrounded her, and the kind treatment, Donna longed with
every fiber of her being to go home. She felt like a spider
caught in a web.
From the street below, she
heard earsplitting screams. What was happening?
A maid rushed out onto the
balcony, her face pale. “My Philip, Miss! What’ve we done
that we deserve this?”
“Please, I don’t know what you’re talking—”
“They killed him! I could
understand them killing Shelkah, but this—he’s done nothing!
He was weak from the operation. The boy burst into our
“Killing?” Donna felt sick.
Screams came from the
dwelling, and the maid dashed inside.
“Donna!” a familiar voice
broke through the screams. Levan! Shaking, she dashed
inside her bedchamber.
Her brother stood framed in
the doorway. His clothes were bloodstained, and his eyes
were wild. He didn’t come forward to embrace her. “Wait
here. We’ve got work to finish.” His voice was angry.
“Levan, what’ve you done? Is everyone—”
“We’ll talk about it on the
way home.” Without another word, he left the room.
Sobbing, Donna fell onto the
satin sheets of her bed. They were all so nice! What have I
In Plenty Palace, Salak stood
before her mirror. This show was better than she’d
anticipated! Smiling in glee, she watched the girl as she
Salak began to whisper. Her
poisoned words soaked into the child’s mind like water into
a sponge. “You’ve caused this,” she crooned. “You incited
his lust, and now you’ll pay for your seductive ways. How
can you think the Imperial Lord loves you? Would He have
allowed this if He did?”
Donna heard no specific
words, but feelings of inferiority clutched her heart. “I
didn’t allow this, I didn’t!”
“Of course you did. Now, the deaths of countless men
will be on your conscience. Think of the women and
children who must—”
Before her eyes, Salak saw
the Lamb materialize in her glass. She knew Donna couldn’t
see Him, but, nevertheless, she trembled.
Continuing to whisper her
words of hate, she became aware that the Lamb was singing!
Biting her lip, she cursed in frustration. “It’s not fair!
Leave her to me!” she raged.
Paying no heed, the Lamb sang
louder, drowning out her poisoned words.
Donna couldn’t understand
why, but peace suddenly crumbled the barrier of doubt. They
were kind to me, she thought. I didn’t do anything wrong.
In another few moments, Simal
and Levan entered the room. “We’ll go now.”
Squaring her shoulders, Donna faced them. “They didn’t
hurt me,” she said. Her voice was stronger than she
thought possible. “How could you have—”
Simal frowned. “Should you
be treated like a prostitute?” he asked brutally.
Donna glared at him. “You
did this for your honor, not mine,” she said simply.
Levan and Simal looked at her
without expression. Then, they beckoned her to follow them.
“YOU FOOLS!” Joakim could
hear his Father’s shouts echo around the dwelling. “TO USE
THE IMPERIALITE LAWS FOR YOUR OWN PURPOSES! HAVE YOU NO
“Should we have allowed her
to stay there, Father?” Simal said reasonably. “We did what
you wouldn’t do.”
“You do realize that we’ll
have to leave now? Hasn’t your sister endured enough? What
if she is with child? The journey is difficult enough as it
is. Word of what you’ve done will spread, and we’ll not be
welcomed anywhere. We’ll have to go back to Crimlia.”
“You know nothing,” Jakob
snapped. “Once we’re back in that harpy’s territory, I
can’t guarantee your protection. Can’t you see I wanted you
all to mary to preserve your purity?”
The argument continued, but
Joakim no longer listened. Going to his sister’s tent, he
bent down to scratch at the flap. “Donna?” he whispered.
“Come in, Joakim,” Donna
Stooping to enter, Joakim caught the sweet aroma of lemons.
She looked up at him.
Joakim’s face fell. His sister’s vibrant eyes had lost
their sparkle. Even so, she smiled weakly. “Here,
brother,” she whispered.
Donna handed Joakim a
cloth-wrapped bundle of sweetly scented herbs. “Lemon
verbena. Lemon’s are bitter, but these flowers are
sweet-smelling. I want you to have a sachet.”
Joakim’s lip trembled. “I’m
sorry, Donna,” he whispered.
“You’re smart, Joakim. Don’t
ever forget that. Now, do you want to help me tomorrow?”
“You mean you’re going to
“Yes, of course. It’ll get
my mind off of things.”
Joakim grinned. “Sure I’ll
Nine Months Later
“Joakim! Bring me some
cloths! Now!” Aunt Laurel’s voice was taut with fear.
The boy bolted into his
sister’s tent. Donna lay on her cot, screaming and
writheing in agony. Aunt Laurel and Mother bent over her.
“Leave them!” Laurel cried. “Then you must go!”
“But, will she be—”
“She’s strong,” Mother said,
“but, the child’s turned wrong. Pray, son. Now, go!”
Running from the tent, Joakim
ran headlong into Rufus. For once, his eldest brother
didn’t chastise him. “How is she?”
“Mother says the baby is—”
Taking Joakim’s hand, Rufus
led him to a fallen tree stump. “We’ll sit here, all
“Where’s everybody else?”
“Father’s in his tent, and
everyone else’s with the sheep,” Rufus said, “Simal and
Levan couldn’t hang around.”
“Rufus, why can’t I ever go
Rufus’ face hardened. “You
work better in the tents, you know that,” he said. “Now, do
you want to help Donna, or not?”
Joakim nodded. “Yes, I do
want to help her.”
Rufus took the younger boy’s
hand. Both brothers bowed together, and lifted their
petition to the heavens. For the first time in a long time,
Joakim felt a surge of peace.
After what seemed like an
eternity, a shrill infant’s wail pierced the morning air.
Relief, pure sweet relief, filled Joakim’s heart.
Before he could rise, Rufus
sprang from the stump and bolted toward the birthing tent.
Joakim hurried after him. Was Donna all right?
In the tent, Donna surveyed
the wailing child. The child’s hair was a vibrant yellow,
and the face resembled Donna’s own. “You have a lovely
daughter, Donna,” Mother whispered softly.
Aunt Regina stroked Donna’s
sweat-soaked brow. “She’s lovely, and I think she’s hungry!
Are you up to it?”
Donna managed to smile
weakly. “Yes,” she whispered.
As the child nursed, the
women watched in approval. “What will you name her?” Laurel
Without hesitation, Donna
“The Imperial Lord has spoken
to me,” Jakob informed the family.
Two months had passed since
Verbena’s birth. The child ate well. She seemed to have
inherited one thing from her father: his voracious appetite!
Donna was proving to be an excellent mother.
However, there was a slight
problem. Verbena’s eyes. Mismatched in color, they
resembled Laurel’s eyes. There was one other problem.
Unlike Laurel, whose eyes were weak, Verbena’s eyes were as
yet not focusing at all. All the family knew that the child
Joakim sat beside his sister
and his niece. He loved spending time with Verbena. Now,
he listened to his father’s words.
“We must leave this place of
safety. The time has come for us all to return to Crimlia.”
Jakob’s voice was strained. “The journey will take at least
“But, we’ve only been here for a little while!” Laurel
protested. “I thought the Imperial Lord had—”
After Donna had returned home
from Normdal, the family had prepared to journey back to
Crimlia. On the night before departure, Jakob had wandered
away into a grove of olive trees.
When he’d returned, he’d
informed his family that the Imperial Lord had instructed
him to seek shelter on the outskirts of Luciana, a smaller
land than Normdal. “I will protect you,” the Lord had
said. Jakob and his family had obeyed the instructions.
Now, Jakob turned to Laurel.
“He says that the promised Deliverer will be born in
Crimlia. We must make our home there for a time.”
“But, what about Regina? Her Moon Phase has not come in—what
“Don’t worry about me,
Laurel,” Regina said. “The Imperial Lord will protect us.”
“Joakim?” Jakob called.
The boy rose from his seat
beside Donna. “Please stay close to your sister and
Verbena,” Jakob whispered. “Report to me any suspicious
“Me, Father? But, what about Rufus or—”
“I don’t trust them!” Jakob’s
voice was bitter. “Who knows what Simal and Levan might do
to that child! Stay close to her. Do you understand?”
As he walked back to his
seat, he saw his brothers fixing a steely gaze upon him.
They hadn’t heard the exchange, but their faces were angry.
“We’ll set out in the morning,” Jakob said.
“You fool! This is
marvelous!” Salak’s voice throbbed with rapture. “You’re
sending them right into my hands!”
Her own words sank in, and
she looked up. “What’re you up to?” she called suspiciously
into thin air.
Turning to her mirror, she
looked at Donna, who was telling a story to that nauseating
child! The child, of course! That was it! The Imperial Lord
was going to use that blind child!
Quickly, Salak intoned a dark
chant, words that chilled the bone marrow. Her favorite
illness, the Senual Plague, was too slow a death for that
child. She’d use something quicker and more subtle:
A clear, translucent powder
flowed toward Crimlia’s queen. “No!” she instructed.
“Invade Donna! Infect the child through its mother’s milk!”
The powder reversed its flow
and was about to sink back into the mirror when a
reverberating voice shattered the stillness. “REMAIN WHERE
Salak tried to look up, but
her body was frozen. The powder, too, had stopped its
flow. “Stay out of this!” the queen bellowed in
“BE SILENT, DEFORMER!” The
Imperial Lord’s voice ricocheted around the room. It was
charged with an overpowering anger. “IF YOU WANT THE CHILD,
YOU’LL HAVE TO USE OTHER MEANS. I’LL NOT ALLOW THIS!”
“What about all the other
children you’ve let die?” Salak spoke reasonably. “Is she
more important than them? Where’s your love in that?”
“It is not for you to
determine my will,” the Imperial Lord said. “You know
“I know plenty! You’re a tyrant! Let me do my—”
The voice faded, and Salak,
quivering with anger, turned back to her mirror. As she’d
anticipated, the powder had disappeared. Curse him! Curse
Well, she wasn’t through.
There were other ways.
After a moment, her mind
formulated another plan. This one would take longer, but it
“Jo! Jo! Me, too!” A
high-pitched, little girl’s voice screeched.
Joakim, now a burly seventeen
years, turned around. He grinned when he saw his niece
standing at the bakeshop entrance.
“You’re sure, Verbena? That
water pot gets awfully heavy.” His eyes twinkled.
“Me, me, too!” the girl cried
“Did you ask Donna?”
“She did,” Donna called from
the tent. “I said yes. She needs to stretch her legs.”
“Well, come on, then.” Joakim
reached out a hand to help his niece.
The day was beautiful with
vibrant sunlight. Uncle and niece skipped along with glee.
Verbena had grown into a
lovely girl of six. Her cheeks glowed with a continual
flush of excitement, and she was always humming.
“Uncle Jo, tell me about
Grandpa Jakob and Esol again, please? Please?”
Joakim laughed. “Again? You
know that one by heart!”
“But, it’s my favorite!
“All right. Grandpa and
Uncle Esol were?”
“Twins!” Verbena said
happily. “They were born at the same time!”
“Right! Who wanted to always
“Yes. Well, as they grew up,
Isol found out that he loved hunting.”
“Right. Jakob loved working
with Grandma Roberta in the tents.”
“Yes. Well, one day—”
“Jakob was making stew!”
“And what happened?”
“Esol came in from hunting!
He was sweaty and hungry!”
Joakim laughed at his niece’s description. “Yes.
He wanted some of that delicious stew! It smelled so good!
Onions, garlic, barley—”
“Well, Esol asked Jakob for
some of the stew, but Jakob wanted something in return.
What was it?”
“Very good. He wanted all
the wealth and goods that Esol was supposed to get. So,
what did Esol do?”
“He sold the stuff for one
bowl of soup! That was dumb!”
Joakim laughed. “Well, it
was,” he admitted. “But, he was hungry! Remember when you
were four, and Rufus brought home some plums? You wanted one
so badly you said you’d give him anything.”
Verbena’s face fell. “I gave
Joakim ruffled her hair.
“But, he gave her back, didn’t he?” He touched the wooden
doll that Justin had made for Verbena, and which she never
Verbena frowned. “I’ll never
do that again! Rufus was mean!”
“He was just teasing you. Do
you want to hear the rest of the story?”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Verbena jumped
up and down.
“Well, a few years later, Jakob and Esol’s father, Imril,
was sick. He asked Esol to prepare him his favorite
“That’s right. He wanted to
bless Esol so that he would grow wealthy and have many
Roberta was listening. She wanted Jakob to
receive the blessing, so they came up with a plan. What did
“Jakob dressed in some of Esol’s clothes, and
he brought Imril some food,” Verbena said.
”Jakob spoke like Esol, and smelled like him!
Imril was blind, so he was tricked.”
“I wouldn’t have been!” Verbena said proudly.
Joakim laughed. “Of course not!” Then, his
face fell. “But, remember that Imril was sick. He probably
wasn’t thinking too clearly. Do you want to finish the
“Esol found out, and he was mad! He wanted to
“Yes, and so Jakob had to leave.”
The pair walked along for a
moment in silence while Verbena thought about the story.
“Why would the Imperial Lord hurt Esol so bad?” she asked.
Joakim squeezed her hand.
“That’s an awfully big question for someone your age! Why do
Verbena was quiet for a long
time. “So I could be born?” she finally asked.
Joakim gasped in surprise.
“Wow! you sure are smart! Not just you being born, but all
of us. Remember, Esol has lots of children, too. The
Imperial Lord looks after us all. Remember our enemy. She
tries to hurt families, but the Imperial Lord makes good
things come out of the bad things.”
“Like the Deliverer?”
“Joakim nodded. “The
Deliverer will come one day. Remember that.”
As the pair talked, they
approached a busy marketplace. Crowds rushed in every
direction, and Verbena clutched Joakim’s hand tightly.
Booths were filled with
astonishing arrays of foods, and other merchandise was
displayed in many vibrant colors.
Verbena inhaled the intoxicating aromas that filled the air.
“Jo! Can I buy a—”
Joakim squeezed her hand.
“No, Verbena. You know it’s not possible.”
“Just one bar of chocolate
“Even though we live in
Crimlia now, we don’t follow the crowd,” he said. “We just
have to get some vegetables. Come on.”
“It’s not fair! She’s so
Joakim ruffled the girl’s
hair. “It’s sweet of you to think of Bernard. I’ll tell
you what, I’ll let you listen to the theatre show before we
go home. How’s that?”
Verbena squealed with
Joakim and Verbena hurried to
a remote part of the market, far away from the bustling
crowds. A muscular man stood before a makeshift table that
held a small assortment of vegetables. “McPherson at your
service! What can I get you?” His voice was cheerful.
“Just some tomatoes, please?”
McPherson gave Joakim four
tomatoes. The boy placed them into a small bag. “Thanks,
“And how’re you, young lady?”
“Great,” Verbena said. “I
get to see the theatre show!”
“Do you, now?” the man boomed
jovially. “Well, you have fun!”
As Joakim and Verbena turned away, the little girl felt
Joakim clutch her hand even tighter. Verbena winced in
pain. “Ouch!” she cried. “What—”
“Never mind,” Joakim said
quickly. “Come on. The show’s a long way off.”
As they walked along,
Joakim’s mind spun. Among the brightly colored booths had
been some tents. They weren’t like his families tents, but
decorated with multi-colored beads and tantalizing
tapestries of a lewd nature. Women with heavily painted
faces stood in the entrances of the tents, waving jeweled
fans and calling to passersby. Joakim had seen some
familiar figures stopping before the tents.
Quickly, he banished the
thought from his mind.
In a remote corner of the
marketplace, a small crowd gathered around a makeshift
stage. Verbena stood beside Joakim and jumped up and down
with anticipation. “Is it nearly time, Jo? Is it?”
Joakim laughed. “In a
minute, Verbena. They’ll be out in a minute.”
As he spoke, the curtains
parted to reveal a small theatre troupe consisting of five
or six people. They were dressed simply, and the stage set
contained only a table and chair.
However, when the performance
started, people forgot about the sparse setting. Actors
pranced about the stage, holding cloth masks for the
different parts. The show was a retelling of the age-old
struggle between the Imperial Lord and his enemy, Salak.
Songs had been added to the show, and dance numbers as well.
Verbena clapped in delight as
she listened to the performance. “The girl playing Evelina
sings so pretty, doesn’t she, Uncle Jo?”
Joakim smiled. “She sure
does!” He, too, was captivated by the young, shapely
teenaged girl portraying the First Woman. She played her
part with a vibrancy and understanding that was mesmerizing.
When the serious part of the
show was over, the troupe launched into a comic tale of a
young couple who were just starting out on married life. A
villainous duke was jealous of the couple’s happiness and
tried to thwart their plans. However, thanks to a pair of
bumbling sisters, friends of the bride, the duke’s plans
were always destroyed!
When the performance had
ended, Verbena insisted on meeting the actors. They stood
on the stage, smiling and talking to the spectators. Joakim
saw a few people whose left arms bore vibrant depictions of
Salak’s Mark of Allegiance, a picture of a serpent attacking
Although everyone was branded with her Mark
at birth, the Imperialites wore a different badge of
servitude. Those who were sincere received the Imperial
Lord’s Mark on their foreheads. Every Imperialite always
wore Salak’s Mark of Allegiance to remind them of their past
unrighteousness, but the Mark was faded in color to signify
a change in nature.
The people who wore Salak’s Mark looked lost
and sad. They clustered around the performers, many of them
asking questions and listening to the troupe’s response.
“They seek the truth,” Joakim told Verbena. “The performers
are Imperialites, like us. If Salak knew--”
Verbena shuddered. “They
sure are brave!”
When it was their turn, uncle
and niece shook each performers’ hand. “I really liked
you,” Verbena said to the teenage girl.
“Thank you, my friend,” the
girl blushed. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Verbena. I’m Tamria.
Come back sometime.”
The journey toward home was a
happy one. Verbena hummed and skipped, dragging Joakim with
her. “Thanks, Uncle Jo! That was great!”
“I liked it, too,” Joakim
said. “Now, we hafta stop here at the well. Can you wait
by this walnut tree while I get the water? Then, you can
carry it home if you want.”
“But, I wanna draw the—”
Joakim ruffled his niece’s
hair. “It’s heavy even for me! Just wait here. I’ll be
where I can see you.”
Sighing, Verbena plopped down
beneath the tree. What a wonderful day she’d had! She loved
spending time with Uncle Jo! He was such fun!
As she sat, Verbena became
aware of the silence. Of course, that wasn’t strange.
Delmar Well was far away from the market. A small band of
Imperialites had dug the well and prayed that it would be
protected. Without the well, Imperialites would die of
thirst. So far, nothing had happened to it.
Verbena sat there for what
seemed like hours. What was keeping Uncle Jo?
Suddenly, she heard singing.
It was the voice of the girl she’d heard earlier! The voice
was so beautiful! It seemed to beckon the girl to follow it!
But, Uncle Jo told me to stay
here, Verbena thought. But, that glorious music!
Slowly, the girl rose to her
feet. Shuffling forward, she listened closely to see if she
could pinpoint the location of the voice. There! It was
coming from her right!
She turned in the direction
of the music, only to discover a mass of blackberry bushes
in her path. That was strange! Why would the voice be
coming from there?
Tentatively, she stepped
forward, groping with her hands. A blackberry thorn pricked
her left hand. Gasping, she jumped backward.
A rustling in the thicket
made her heart pound. “Are you all right, Verbena?” The
girl’s voice called. “There is no need to be afraid. Come
closer. I have something for you.”
“But, the thorns hurt! I’m
waiting for my Uncle jo!”
“It’s all right,” The girl’s
voice was more beautiful than her singing. “He knows I’m
here. You looked hungry when I met you. I brought you a
bar of chocolate.”
Chocolate? As if to emphasize
her words, the rich, intoxicating fragrance assailed
Verbena’s nostrils! Chocolate was one of her favorite
treats. It was something Momma hardly ever was able to get.
“If you’re scared to come
closer, I’ll just hand the chocolate to you. How’s that?”
“My Uncle, Bernard. I wanted
to get him some, too.”
“That’s very thoughtful of
you. It just so happens I have two bars here. The best
milk chocolate you could ever want! There’s walnuts in it,
“But, you’re an Imperialite.
How could you buy it?”
“My father’s also a
confectioner. Do you know what that is?”
“Somebody who makes candy?”
“That’s right, smart girl! He
travels all over Crimlia to give away his sweets to
Imperialite children. Do you want the chocolate or not?”
Verbena hesitated for a few
moments longer. The intoxicating aroma grew overpowering.
“Yes,” she finally said. “But, I’m scared to come—”
The girl laughed gently.
“Just hold out your hand.”
Slowly, Verbena stretched out
her left hand. The chocolate smell made her mouth water
A fiery pain suddenly shot up
her left arm. Screaming, she crumpled to the ground,
gasping for air. A strange sound invaded her muddled mind.
It took her a moment to realize that the sound was laughter,
and that it sounded anything but human. It sounded more
like the roaring of a bloodthirsty beast. Uncle Jo, where
are you, was her final thought of panic. Then, she knew no
In the thicket of blackberry
bushes, a scarlet serpent balanced on its tail. Its bulbous
yellow eyes surveyed the little girl with malicious hatred.
Quickly, the serpent
transformed into the beautiful queen. She’d followed the
girl and that nauseating Joakim all day. She congratulated
herself on speaking with the voice of the girl from the
theatre troupe. She was a mistress of mimickry.
Salak grinned as she looked at her victim.
Now all she had to do was transport her to the palace! When
she reached there, she’d tell her soldiers to find that
theatre troupe! So, they were the reason so many people were
leaving her service! Well, she’d take care of that! She’d
have them brought to her and tell them she appreciated their
desire to bring good theatre to Crimlia. She’d feed them a
sumptuous meal and offer them payment if they’d consider
becoming performers in the palace. Of course, she’d feed
them poison in their food. If this strategy didn’t work,
she’d have them beheaded even though she preferred the more
But, now, she must see about
the girl. She’d caused Joakim to stumble on a tree root and
hit his head. He wouldn’t be out for long. She’d thought
about killing him, but the guilt he’d endure because of the
girl was a much better tactic. With luck, her plan for him
would be a much more agonizing death.
Bending over the prostrate
girl, the queen raised a hand to summon Verbena’s spirit.
She wondered what type of bird Verbena’s spirit would be. A
dove, no doubt. She couldn’t kill the girl, but she could
Salak prepared to snap her
fingers, when sharp pains suddenly clutched at her hands.
NO! Feverishly, she repeatedly tried to capture the girl’s
spirit, but the pain became more and more unbearable.
“Leave her to me!” she gasped.
No answer came, but the pain
travelled from her hands throughout her whole body. Curse
him! The pain became so strong that she finally doubled over
in the grass. Quickly, she changed into her serpent form
and slithered into the blackberry bushes once again.
A flurry of wings announced
the arrival of an Eaglia. The magnificent creature was
dressed in a snow-white robe. He settled by Verbena’s
form. Gently, he touched the fang marks on her hand.
Singing softly, he massaged the hand, rubbing a fragrant
ointment into it. The ointment sizzled as it encountered
the snake’s deadly venom.
Salak emerged from the bushes
and fixed a steely gaze upon the Eaglia’s face. “Mimoria.
How does it feel kowtowing to him? How does it feel to be an
Mimoria didn’t answer. He
changed into his human form. Salak recognized him as the
man who’d been handing out vegetables at the market
earlier. “The Imperial Lord rebuke you,” he said simply.
Bending down, he enfolded
Verbena into his arms.
A few yards from the
blackberry bushes, he stopped and addressed the unconscious
Joakim. “She’ll be all right,” he whispered. “When you
revive, go home, and I’ll bring her there tomorrow. You are
a faithful servant to the Imperial Lord. Well done.”
Gently, he touched Joakim’s forehead and vanished.
Trembling, Salak shouted a
curse to the sky then slithered to the well that had been
hidden from her for so long. She sent a stream of her
lethal venom into the crystal clear water. Now, many
Imperialites would die.
Smiling, she vanished. She’d have to put her
plan into action regarding Joakim as soon as possible.
There was no time to lose.
The world slowly shimmered
back into focus. Dazed, Joakim slowly sat up. What
happened, he thought wildly.
Struggling to his feet, he
felt his head begin to swim again. He only remembered
something tripping him and a sharp pain in his head.
Verbena! Quickly, he began
calling the girl’s name. A look under the walnut tree
revealed that she was missing! Pumpernickel, the beautiful
wooden doll, lay abandoned in the grass. This sight struck
terror into Joakim’s heart.
“Verbena! Verbena! Come out!
We have to go!”
There was no response. “Oh,
Lord, help me!” Joakim prayed desperately.
Suddenly, he remembered the
dream he’d had while he was unconscious. Verbena being
watched by a serpent! Verbena being attacked! Oh, Imperial
Lord, please, no!
“She’ll be all right.” The
voice from his dream! Now he remembered the magnificent
creature who’d healed his niece. A calm feeling broke
through the panic.
Breathing deeply, he stumbled
forward to Delmar Well. Shaking, he prepared to lower the
water pot when he felt a sudden urge to move away from the
well. Verbena! I have to tell everyone, he thought.
Quickly, he bolted away.
“Are you certain, Joakim?”
Donna asked sharply.
“Yes, Donna. I’m telling you
“You and your dreams again!”
Justin scoffed. He was sitting at Donna’s right with his
wife, Muriel and their three sons. Eric and Owen were
Muriel’s sons from a previous marriage. They were both
thirteen, and even at that young age, they were crude and
unscrupulous. Michael was Justin and Muriel’s son. He was
six, and he was nicer than his half-brothers, but he did
have a frightening temper. Justin had married Muriel six
years ago when they’d arrived in Crimlia.
Now the other brothers nodded in agreement
with Justin’s mockery. For once, none of them were eating
the lentil stew and barley bread Aunt Laurel and Donna had
“Jo is always right,” a small
voice called from one end of the table.
“Be quiet, Bernard!” Levan
snapped. “You’re only five! What do you know about
anything? Remember when he was twelve, everybody?” His voice
grew mocking. “We were gathering twelve stalks of wheat in
a field,” he mimicked Joakim in a falsetto voice. “You’re
eleven stalks bowed down to mine.” All The brothers, except
Bernard, laughed harshly.
Bernard began to wail in
protest. “Leave him be,” Jakob, his face white, looked up
from the head of the table. “We need no arguments here.
Pray that your brother speaks the truth. Pray that Verbena
“Half-brother, Father,” Simal
said sharply. “He’s our half-brother.”
Angrily, Jakob rose and
stamped from the table. “He’s your brother, and don’t
forget it,” he said. “You may very well have to answer to
him one day!”
“What’s that’s supposed to
mean?” Rufus snapped.
“Just what I said.” Jakob
walked into his tent. After a moment, Aunt Laurel rose and
followed him. Before she left, she turned to the family.
“Act civilly toward each other,” she instructed. “Since
Regina died, I’ve never forgotten the horrible things I’ve
said to her in the past.” Then, she joined her husband.
After a moment’s silence,
Rufus spoke. “I’m going to check the sheep.” He left the
others to finish their meal.
After supper, Joakim joined
Donna in the bakeshop. “You do believe me, don’t you?” he
Donna hesitated for only a
moment. “Yes, Joakim, I do,” she said simply. “You’ve
known so much for so many years. You even knew what would
happen to Aunt Reg—” She broke down and collapsed onto a
stool. “Oh, Jo! When will that harpy leave our family be?
Why does she hate us so?”
Joakim hugged his elder
sister tightly. “She hates everybody. Donna, do you think
“Something as evil as her has
no feelings of any kind, Joakim. I found that out with
“I should have let Verbena draw the water. Then,
“Don’t start that again, Jo!
You know the water pot’s too heavy for her.”
Joakim was silent for a
moment. “Thanks for believing me, Donna. I can’t help my
dreams, but they all hate me.”
“They don’t hate you. They
“I saw them today in the
market. They were visiting harem women.”
The statement needed no
response. “I need to be alone, Joakim. Please pray for
Nodding, Joakim trudged
toward his tent.
“Joakim?” his father called.
Joakim turned toward the
voice. Jakob hobbled forward to take his son’s hand. “I
need to speak with you.”
In his Father’s tent, Aunt
Laurel sat on a blanket. “We want the truth, Joakim. Did
you see anything else at the market today?” she asked.
“Yes. Verbena and I saw the theatre—”
“You know that’s not what
we’re asking,” Jakob said sharply. “Your brothers left the
sheep in the fields today. They could’ve been eaten. Were
they at market?”
Joakim hesitated. “They should tell you—”
“Tell me the truth!” Jakob
Sighing, Joakim related what
he had seen. During his recital, he saw Aunt Laurel bite
her lip to keep it from trembling.
“Were all of them there?”
Joakim thought back. “Rufus
and Justin were not,” he said.
After a long pause, Jakob
went to a corner of the tent. He brought forth a wrapped
bundle which he slowly revealed. “This is for you, Son,” he
Joakim gasped. Jakob held a
magnificent coat. Even in the dark tent, Joakim saw that it
sparkled with many colors: ruby, peach, purple, and
aquamarine. Other colors were also present. “Father!”
Jakob smiled. “Laurel helped
make this, Joakim. I collected the wool, and she did the
hard work. This coat signifies what you will become.“
“But, Rufus is the eldest,
“Yes, but you have proven
yourself worthy to be next in line for the inheritance.
There will be no argument on this point. Wear the coat
proudly, my son.”
Swallowing, Joakim took the
coat with trembling hands. A feeling of pride invaded his
mind. I’ll be next in line, he thought happily. I’m worth
something after all.
Leaving the tent, he collided
with Simal, who’d been standing at the entrance. Simal
didn’t say anything, but his eyes took in the magnificent
coat. Joakim looked at him for a moment, then he went into
the tent he shared with Bernard.
“Jo! Jo! Can we play ball?”
Bernard bolted upright from his sleeping mat.
“Sure, Bernard. Let me just—”
“Wow! What a pretty coat!”
Bernard said. “Did you buy it today?”
“Now, Bernard. You know we—”
“I know,” Bernard sighed. “Verbena said she’d bring me
“Have you prayed for her
yet?” Joakim asked.
“Yeah. I bet she’s meeting
the Imperial Lord now!”
“Maybe. Come on outside if
you want to play.“
“Jo?” Bernard’s voice had
suddenly turned solemn. It always amazed Joakim how quickly
the boy’s emotions changed.
“What is it?”
“Did I kill Momma?”
The question hit Joakim like
a slap. Hurrying to the boy’s side, he grasped his hand.
“Who told you that?” he snapped.
stammered. “And, someone spoke to me last night when I was
Overpowering anger clasped
Joakim’s chest. Composing himself, he said quietly, “Of
course you didn’t kill her, Bernard. She was sick from the
Senual Plague. She was very thin and weak. It wasn’t your
“But, the woman in my dream
said it had to be,” Bernard said. “She said the Imperial
Lord hated me.“
“Whenever you have a dream
like that again, just pray to the Imperial Lord. He’ll
“Are all dreams bad?”
Joakim laughed. “No, many
dreams are good. Only those that make you doubt the
Imperial Lord are bad. Now, do you want to play ball?”
The two brothers stepped out
of the tent.
Suddenly, a hand shot forward and grabbed Joakim’s coat,
throwing him to the ground. Another hand slapped his
face. “You tattle on us again, you twerp, and we’ll
make you sorry!” Levan’s voice hissed. “It’s bad
enough we have to watch you kowtow to Father, but you have
“Leave him alone!” Rufus’
voice interrupted the tirade. He thrust his muscular body
between Joakim and Levan.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Levan’s voice was wild with anger. “If anyone has the right
to be mad, it’s you, Rufus! You’re the eldest!”
“Remember Normdal, you fool?
Use your head for once!” Rufus snapped. “Joakim? Bernard?
Go back inside the tent.”
Shaking, Joakim grabbed his
brother’s hand. Bernard was sobbing.
Hurriedly, he entered the
tent. Both boys sat together in the silence. Joakim did
not sleep that night.
Humming filled the girl’s
mind. She smelt fresh bread baking and a fragrant stew.
Slowly, she tried to sit up.
Her head swam.
“You’re awake, I see!” a
jovial voice said. A gentle hand touched her forehead.
Gradually, the girl realized
she was lying on a soft cot. She felt a soft blanket that
With an effort, she pushed
herself into a sitting position. “W-Where am I?” she
“Don’t worry, little one.
You’re safe with me.” The man’s voice sounded vaguely
“You’re the man who gave us
“Correct, Verbena. Now,
would you like some nice barley stew?”
“Uncle Jo! Where is he? Where’s the girl who—”
“It’s a long story, m’dear.
Come now, that stew will help you regain your strength.”
“How’d you know my name?“
The man laughed. “That’s
easy! He told me.”
“Why, the Imperial Lord, of
course. Here.” The man gently began spooning large bites of
stew into Verbena’s mouth. She gasped at the pungent taste
of the garlic and onions. Immediately, strength began to
flood through her like water from a fountain.
“You know him?” she asked in
“Of course I do. He’s my
reason for living. Now, in regard to your questions: your
Uncle Jo is at home. You’re in my hut. That “girl” was not
who she seemed to be.”
“She had some chocolate for
“Aye, lass. That’s what she
said, anyway,” the man said. “Is that stew helping?”
“It’s great! It’s better than
The man laughed. “Don’t tell
her that. I’m glad you like it. It’s not often I get to
entertain a guest.”
“Can I go back home?”
“Yes, certainly. But, you’ll
stay here tonight. I must make sure you’re hand is well.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My Maker’s enemy has decided
to hurt your family. I’m responsible for you tonight.”
“But, I haven’t done—”
“Doesn’t matter, lass. I
know you. You’re wise beyond your years. Well, you would
be, wouldn’t you? When it comes to Salak, you don’t have to
have done anything.”
“You mean, like she did to
“Ah! You know about that do
“I don’t understand it all.
I just know my Daddy did something bad. Uncles Levan and
Simal killed him and a lot of other men.”
“Aye,” the man’s voice was
sad. “Your families gone through a lot. Now, finish that
stew, and I’ll have a surprise!”
After the delicious stew,
Verbena smelled a rich aroma. Was it? Could it be? Yes!
“Here you go, lass!”
So saying, he handed her a
bar of chocolate. “Freshly whipped milk chocolate with
walnuts!” he said proudly. “I even have a bar for Bernard!
You can give it to him tomorrow.”
Verbena squealed in delight.
She bit into the chocolate and gasped. Sweet and creamy,
its silky smoothness spread over her tongue. “Thank you,”
she said with her mouth full.
“You’re welcome, lass. Your
Momma can’t get it much, huh? Figured after all you’d been
through today, you deserved a treat.”
“Momma makes good pastries,
though, and bread.”
“Yes. A baker of the first
order! Just like the Baker who’ll come one day to prepare
“Yes. It’s an old song me
and my fellow workers sing. Would you like to learn it?”
“A song? I love to sing!”
“Well, you’ll like this
song. If I teach it to you, will you teach it to your
The man began to sing a song
that was both sad and lilting simultaneously. “Tyranny now
chains our land with poison and pain. A Deliverer will come
to cleanse every stain! Give the Imperial Lord glory! Blind
girl and crippled boy will bring an end to Evil’s story.
Baker will prepare Freedom’s Bread in his purifying oven”.
“I thought the Deliverer
would be a King.”
“He is a king, lass.
However, he must become a commoner for a time.”
“A blind girl? Like me?”
Verbena asked excitedly.
“Correct. A special girl,
just like you. The Imperial Lord does not look at weakness
like everyone else. He uses it for his glory. Let’s sing
the song together, shall we?”
The little girl and the man
sang the song several times: the man in a superb bass voice,
Verbena in her quavering, off-key alto. “You sing pretty,”
“Thank you, Verbena. But,
you sing better.”
“Levan says I sing like a
“To me, you sound like a
choir of Eaglia’s. My old friend who now hates me has a
beautiful voice, but she also has a wicked heart. Your
Uncle Levan needs to learn some manners!”
Verbena nodded. “He can be
mean,” she whispered. “Uncle Jo is nice to me.”
“Your Uncle Joakim has a kind
“Why does your friend hate
“She is filled with hatred for everyone and
everything. She has locked herself into a prison from which
she can never escape. She is an Eaglia, but she has no one
to serve. Eaglia’s were created to serve, Verbena, not to
be the ones who demanded service for themselves.”
The pair was silent for a long moment.
Finally, Verbena asked, “How do you know so much about
The man hesitated. “I am
one,” he said simply.
Verbena began shaking, and
she started to bow her head. “Never do that to me,” he said
gently. “I am only a servant. If ever you need help, don’t
pray to me, do you understand? Call on the Imperial Lord for
Trembling, Verbena nodded her
“You best get some sleep,
now,” Mimoria said. “Tomorrow, I’ll take you back to your
home. Remember that song, lass, and teach it to your
family. You’re the message bearer.”
Her mind reeling with the
information, Verbena was nevertheless able to drift into a
In the morning, the Eaglia’s
cheerful singing woke her. “Are you up to having some nice,
hot porridge? I made it with lots of honey!”
Verbena’s stomach growled
ferociously. “Yes, please,” she said. “What’s your name,
“Ah! I have many names. Just
call me McPherson. Here you go.”
The porridge was smooth and
sweet. “Grandma Laurel makes good porridge, but it’s
lumpy,” Verbena said.
McPherson laughed. “You are
honest, Verbena. I’ve enjoyed having you with me.”
“Can I come see you again
McPherson shook his head.
“No, lass. I never know where I’ll be.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
McPherson gently caressed her
forehead. “Yes, lass,” he whispered.
Then, rising to his feet, he
retrieved an object from a corner. “I have a gift for you
before I take you home,” he said.
McPherson placed a long,
wooden object into Verbena’s right hand.
Slowly, Verbena explored the
object with tentative fingers. “It’s like Uncle Justin’s
shepherd’s staff,” she said.
“Exactly, but it is for you.
You walk with it.”
Verbena’s face shone like a
candle. “You mean, I can use this to walk by myself?” she
McPherson laughed. “Yes,
that’s exactly what I mean.”
Jumping to her feet, Verbena
leant on the stick and shuffled forward.
“No, lass. Hold the stick
out in front of you and swing it from left to right. Like
this.” McPherson positioned the girl’s hand on the stick and
showed her the appropriate way to use it. When the stick
swung to the left, Verbena moved her right foot. When she
swung the stick to the right, she moved her left foot.
“Listen to the messages this cane gives you, and you’ll be
As if to prove his point, the
cane touched an object in the corner with a bang. Verbena
jumped, but then she grinned. “Thanks!” she said happily.
“You’re welcome, Verbena.
Keep this cane with you, and you’ll see one day that there’s
more to it than now appears. Let’s get you home.”
“Verbena?” Joakim, who’d gone
outside Donna’s bakeshop for some water, gasped in
His niece stood outside the
bakery holding a peculiar object. Her face shown with a
translucent happiness. “Are you all right? I’m so sorry!”
“I’m great, Uncle Jo! Mr. McPherson was—”
“McPherson? Wasn’t he the man
in the marketplace?”
“Yeah! He’s great! Look what
he gave me! It’s called a cane! Now I can walk by myself!”
Joakim ruffled Verbena’s
hair. “Has Mr. McPherson gone away?”
“I think so. He’s an—”
“I know,” Joakim
interrupted. He clutched his niece to him with glee.
“Where’s everybody else?”
“Oh, your uncles have gone to Nunmal to find better grass
“VERBENA!” Donna burst from
her sleeping tent. Sobbing, she clutched her daughter with
Jakob and Laurel emerged from
their tent, and the reunion continued. “Tell us everything,
granddaughter,” Jakob cried.
The words poured from Verbena
in a happy rush. “He fed me barley stew, bread and
porridge. His name’s McPherson, and he’s an Eaglia!”
Silence fell for a moment,
then Joakim heard Jakob breathing a prayer of thanksgiving.
“He taught me a song, too,”
Verbena said. Without being asked, she launched into the
Laurel gasped when she’d
finished. “Another prophecy,” she whispered. “Fancy that.”
“Mr. McPherson said the blind
girl would be special, like me! I don’t know anyone
crippled, though, except you, Grandpa!”
Donna gasped. “Verbena! Mind your—”
But, Jakob was laughing.
“You’re right, Verbena. I am. Before I met with my
brother, Esol, I encountered an Eaglia. We wrestled all
night long! I was stubborn and would not release him, so he
touched my hip joint and dislocated it. It’s never been the
“But, that was mean what the
Eaglia did, Grandpa!“
“Mean? No, child. It was the
best thing that ever happened to me. I was stubborn. It
took the wrestling match to show me that the Imperial Lord
is in control of our lives. He blessed me on that night and
changed my name to Israal. I’d gone my own way so long, I
had to learn the hard way.”
Verbena looked bewildered.
Then, she said, “I’m glad to be home.”
The family laughed and
murmured their agreement. “Come on, now. Let’s get you
some fresh clothes,” Donna said.
As the family dispersed,
Bernard came out of his sleeping tent. He screeched in
delight when he saw Verbena.
Joakim prepared to follow his
brother, when Jakob intercepted him. “Joakim. Your
brother’s have been gone since this morning. I need you to
go to Nunmal and check on them. It’ll be a two day’s
Joakim swallowed. “Father, I don’t think
they’ll—remember the report I—”
“All the more reason for you
to go. Keep them on their toes, son. Have Donna pack some
provisions for you to take to them.”
Sighing in resignation,
Joakim went into his tent to get ready. He lifted the
magnificent coat from where he’d neatly folded it. Pride
filled his heart. Should he wear it?
After hesitating a few
moments, he squared his shoulders. Yes, he should. The
coat was a wonderful gift, and he loved it immensely.
Placing it on, he sauntered
out into the morning sunshine.
Going to the bakery, he
relayed Father’s message to Donna. Donna praised the coat
before setting to work. Verbena was with her mother
kneading pastry dough.
As Donna wrapped some
provisions in a bundle, Joakim stood by his niece. “That
song was pretty. Could I hear it one more time?”
Verbena launched into song.
Joakim listened closely to the words and grinned. “I’ll be
back as soon as I can,” he said, “you and Uncle Bernard have
fun, all right? I brought Pumpernickel back with me, and
I’ve put her in your tent.”
“Can I go with you, Jo,
“No!” Donna said firmly
before Joakim could speak. “You’ve had too much excitement
for a while.”
“I’ll bring you back some
plums if I can find them,” Joakim promised.
Hugging his sister, Joakim
left the bakery. He waved to Bernard, who was bouncing a
ball along the ground. “See you in a few days!” he called.
“The Imperial Lord go with
you!” Aunt Laurel called from where she was watching Bernard
“Rufus! Simal! Look whose
coming!” Justin’s deep voice shattered the afternoon air.
“Well, well!” Simal
guffawed. “If it isn’t the Dreamer!” The brothers stared at
the distant figure making leisurely progress toward them.
“Shut up, Sim,” Rufus
mumbled. “Grow up.”
“You’re so high and mighty,
Rufus!” Justin snapped. “Why don’t you just admit he angers
you as much as the rest of us?”
“All right! Of course he does, but—”
All the brothers were
gathering in a cluster. “What did Father mean giving him
that coat?” Isanab asked.
“What do you think it means?”
Levan snapped. “Dear Joakim’s next in line! I say we finish
this once and for all!”
“Remember what happened last
time you vowed to finish something?” Rufus snapped. “You’re
all crazy! I’m telling you to use your brains, if you have
“You’re outnumbered, Rufus,”
Justin said matter-of-factly. “If we wanted to get rid of
him, what could you do about it?” His voice acquired a
menacing tone, and his older brother backed away.
“That’s right,” Justin said
with satisfaction. “You couldn’t do anything, could you?”
“You can’t just go around killing—”
“Where’s the law that says we
can’t?” Isanab said. “There’s none in this land. We could
get by with it.”
“What about the Imperial—”
“Spare me!” Simal’s voice was
harsh. “If he existed, Donna would still be pure. That
spawn of Shelkah’s wouldn’t have been born.“
The others gasped in horror.
Even Levan gaped. With a snarl, Rufus lunged forward
prepared to strike. “She’s our niece, Simal. I know what
you wanted to do to her. I saw you at the apothecary’s
booth in the market when she was a baby. I’m the one who
got rid of the poison! You’re lucky I didn’t tell Father!”
Simal laughed. “I have plenty to tell Father about
you. Just because you weren’t with the harem women the
“QUIET!” Justin rumbled. “What about the Dreamer?
What’re we gonna do about—”
“Kill him and be done with
it!” Isanab said bluntly. Except Rufus, the other brothers
mumbled in agreement.
“You’ll not shed his blood,”
Rufus said. “If you want to do this, you can leave him in
one of the pits around here. He’ll die of natural causes,
not by our hands.”
“Who are you to tell us—” Don
“I’m the eldest, that’s who!”
Rufus shouted. “We’ll just tell Father he never got here.”
The figure of Joakim slowly
materialized. “Brothers?” he called. “I’ve brought you
some provisions from Father. Are you well?“
Emerging into the clearing
where his brothers stood, Joakim hesitated when he saw their
stony faces. Swallowing, he addressed Rufus. “Father
wanted me to see if you needed anything,” he mumbled.
“Only one thing, Joakim,”
Justin said in icy tones. “Your coat.”
Joakim turned toward Justin. “My—”
“You heard me. Your coat!”
His brothers surrounded him
with lightning swiftness. Joakim only had a moment to
decide what to do. Quickly, he started to remove the
beautiful coat when hands from all directions slapped his
“Brothers, I—” he gasped.
“SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” the
voices shouted in unison. Joakim felt the coat being
savagely ripped from his body. He heard the sound of
A booted foot slammed into
his stomach, and he doubled over in pain. “Had any more
dreams, Joakim?” he heard Simal mock. “Anymore stars bowing
down to you? How about the sun and moon? Even Father got
onto you about that one!”
“I-I can’t help what I—”
“You’re an upstart, aren’t
you!” Isanab spat in his face. “You think you can rule over
“No! That’s not—”
The next few moments were a
blur. Joakim felt several more booted feet rip into his
body. Hands tore his clothes. Through his swollen eyes, he
saw the plums he’d gathered for Verbena falling from his
tunic. Simal’s foot slammed into the cluster of fruit,
sending juice in a torent over Joakim’s hands. The juice
dribbled into the open wounds causing the boy to scream.
“ENOUGH!” Justin called.
“Let’s get this over with.”
Before Joakim knew what was
happening, he felt himself being roughly thrown over
someone’s shoulder. Darkness flooded his mind, and he felt
hands pitch him down, down, down—
He heard a reverberating boom
as a stone was lowered over his prison. A pit, he thought
wildly. They’ve thrown me into a pit.
Disbelief was his first
emotion. It’s a joke. They’re just having fun.
Disbelief quickly gave way to
panic. “Brothers! Brothers! Help me! Have mercy!”
Another booming sound told
him that another stone had been placed over his prison.
“Joakim,” a soft, female
voice whispered. “Threaten to tell your father. Avenge
this wrong upon yourself.”
The voice was so beautiful,
so self-assured. Joakim felt anger toward his brother’s
invade his mind. “Yes, Joakim,” the honeyed voice
persisted. “Threaten them. Tell them they’ll be sorry.
You’re Jakob’s favorite. You can make them pay.”
Where was the voice coming
from? Joakim knew where. So this is what she’s like.
“Begone, Salak,” he managed
to whisper. “Leave me alone.”
The disembodied voice
laughed. “Who are you to order me around, you weakling? If
you don’t avenge this wrongdoing, you’re not a man!”
“By the Imperial Lord’s
grace, I’m more a man than you are a queen!” his boldness
shocked him. “You’re nothing!”
The voice faded from his
mind. Trembling, Joakim felt nausea grip his stomach.
“Brothers! I’ll not tell Father, I promise! Please, let me—”
Simal stood over the pit. He
felt as if something was pulling at him, begging him to
“Let me help you,” a gentle
voice crooned. “I’ll get rid of him for you. Let me into
Trembling, Simal felt
prickles of apprehension and curiosity creep up his spine.
What a lovely voice!
After a moment, he let
himself surrender to the voice’s plea. He felt a mighty
push as if something had stolen his breath.
“Shut up!” he heard himself
scream toward the pit. “I’ll strangle you with my bare
hands if you don’t be quiet!”
A few moments later, Justin
came up to him. “Rufus has gone to relieve Don from his
watch. Are you hungry?”
“Ravenous.” Simal’s voice
resembled a wild beast’s.
Justin looked at him with
curiosity. “Are you all right?”
Simal smiled strangely. “I’m
more than all right,” he said. I’m ecstatic. After we eat,
we’ll kill him. Rufus isn’t here to stop us.”
“I’ve been thinking, Simal. We probably should—”
Simal slapped Justin’s face.
“I’m running this show, do you understand? We’ll eat, then
we’ll kill him. Is that clear?”
Justin stepped backward.
“Whoa! Sim! I’m on your side, remember? What’s wrong with
“Make sure you stay on my
side! Now, let’s get everyone together for lunch.”
When nine of the brothers
were clustered around the pit, they unwrapped the provisions
that Joakim had dropped. Bread, goat cheese, apples, and
pastries nestled in a napkin. They all attacked the food,
especially Simal, who ate as if he hadn’t eaten in days.
From the pit, Joakim
occasionally emitted pleas for assistance. The brothers
“Look, Justin! Look what’s
coming!” Levan called.
In the distance, several
grimy-looking horses loaded with wares could be seen.
“Sumrilian traders!” Justin
said. “I think I know how we can get rid of him! Now, we
won’t be responsible for his death. After all, he is our
brother!” He laughed harshly.
Simal dropped the pastry he’d been eating. Anger
erupted in him that was overpowering. The feeling
unnerved him. “You fools!” he heard himself rage.
“Killing him’s the only way—”
“Don’t you see, Sim?” Justin
said. “This way, we’ll make a little money on the side!
We’ll accomplish two goals at the same time!”
Simal rose to confront
Justin, but the other brothers were already taking the
stones from the pit. They lifted Joakim into their arms.
For a moment, Joakim’s face
shone with thanksgiving and hope. Then, his face fell as he
saw Don and Isanab running to intercept some strange men.
Merchants, he thought.
Joakim saw Isanab pocket a
handful of silver coins. His whole body sagged in the
brothers’ arms, and he allowed himself to be placed on one
of the horses. Imperial Lord, protect me, was his final
Simal felt his body jerk as
if something was leaving him. He saw a soot-black Crow
follow the departing horses.
From her vantage point, Salak
looked through the eyes of the Crow down at the stricken
Joakim. She’d wasted valuable time taking possession of
Simal! She should have killed Joakim herself! Now, she’d
employ a subtler strategy. “I’ll make you miserable!” she
cawed raucously. “You’ll never rest!”
“Where’re they taking him?”
Justin asked Isanab. “How much money did you get?”
“They’re headed to Emril.
He’s gone for good,” Isanab said. “We got twenty pieces of
silver! Now, let’s finish lunch! We’ll move the sheep to
another pasture tomorrow.”
Justin approached Simal,
whose face was sweat-soaked and flushed. “Are you all
right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Simal said simply. It
wasn’t true. He was stunned.
Later that night, stealthy
footsteps approached the pit where Joakim had been
imprisoned. “Looking for something, Rufus?” Levan stepped
out from behind a clump of blackberry bushes.
Rufus flushed. He turned to
Levan and glared. “I’m setting him free. You’ve all gone
“Too late, Rufus. You
weren’t really going to betray us, were you?”
“What’re we gonna tell
Father? Have you nitwits thought that far ahead?” Rufus’
head was spinning, and his voice verged on the edge of
“Calm down. It’s all worked
out.” So saying, Levan brought forth Joakim’s magnificent
coat. The wool was matted with dried blood.
Rufus crumpled to the
ground. “How did you do it?” he whispered.
Levan laughed. “Don’t act so
pious! You hated him as much as we did! Relax, all right? We
didn’t kill him. That’s goat’s blood. We sold him.”
“Yes, he’s in Emril now.
We’ll tell Father we found the coat. Everything’ll be all
“We? No, you’ll tell him! I
want no part of this!”
“You’re in on it, anyway,”
Levan said matter-of-factly. “Remember what Simal said?
You’re the eldest! Now nothing stands in your way!”
Rufus turned and started to
walk away. “Here,” Levan called, “your share.” He threw a
small handful of coins at his brother’s back. Rufus lay
down under a walnut tree. Tears of frustration cascaded
down his cheeks.
Three days later, the
brothers reached home. Solemnly, Rufus entered Jakob’s
tent. Jakob’s face was lined with worry.
“What is it?” he asked
“Father, we found this on the
outskirts of Nunmal in the woodlands. Is it Joakim’s coat?”
Rufus’ face was flushed.
In the bakeshop, Verbena and
Donna heard a heartrending cry of pain. Donna dropped the
mallet she’d been using to crush walnuts.
Using her cane, Verbena
rushed from the shop. She collided with Jakob as he
stumbled from his tent.
“Grandpa? What Is it?”
“Child, it’s Joakim. A wild
beast has devoured him.” Jakob’s voice was choked, and he
clutched the little girl in his arms. “We must offer
prayers to the Imperial Lord. Go tell Donna to prepare
“I heard, Father,” Donna
whispered. “Come, Verbena.”
In the bakeshop, Donna began
the preparation of the bread called Smalscum. It was a
coarse bread flavored with Orilian Root, one of the
bitterest herbs that could be found. Verbena sobbed as she
helped Momma mix the ingredients together. Her tears
plopped into the clay bowl, but she didn’t care. Momma,
too, was crying.
“Momma, what’ll happen to
us,” she whispered.
Momma clutched Verbena’s
hand. “We’ll honor his memory and soldier on,” she said
“Momma, did my daddy hurt
Donna blinked. “Yes,
Verbena. Very much so.”
“I’m sorry, Momma.”
“Don’t be, Verbena. I
wouldn’t have had you if it hadn’t happened. Your too young
to understand, but the Imperial Lord came to comfort me,
just like when he sent the Eaglia to help you. Sing to me,
child. Sing the song the Eaglia taught you. The only way
we’ll survive is if we can sing.”
Justin passed the bakeshop
and paused. His niece’s off-key voice sang intriguing
words. “Baker will prepare Freedom’s Bread in his purifying
oven”. His mind settled on a momentous decision. He
couldn’t remain at the camp. He went to find his wife.
“All right, you dog! Get
Two weeks had passed since
his brother’s betrayal. Joakim, his face covered with
perspiration, emerged from the stables that skirted the edge
of a lavish estate. A mansion built out of stately granite
supported by brick pillars was surrounded by lush meadows
well watered by pure springs.
Joakim struggled to carry a heavy plank. His
back ached constantly, and he had grown very thin.
The overseer, a burly man
with a rough voice, laughed at the struggling teenager.
“What’s the matter? Your Imperial Lord asleep?”
Joakim heaved the enormous
plank from his back and placed it on the ground. Other
slaves prepared to lift it into the appropriate place.
“Answer me, slave! Your lord
too proud to help you?” The overseer’s whip whistled as it
struck Joakim’s bare back.
Joakim bit his lip in pain.
“He’s always with me,” he gasped.
The overseer laughed
harshly. “Get to work with the others! Master Pomeroy wants
the formal garden wall completed by this afternoon!”
Joakim joined the large crowd
of perspiring workers. He hesitated when the men began to
erect the planks for the wall in a location north of the
“What’re you waiting for,
dog? Get moving!”
“But, the soil’s soft there, sir. The soil’s firmer
He screamed as numerous blows
from the whip sliced into his back. “Master Pomeroy wrote
specific instructions! Get to work!” Quickly, Joakim lifted
When the morning’s work was
finally over, the slaves were given a meager meal of watery
soup and stale bread. The afternoon meal was the only time
the men were able to see their families.
Bedraggled women emerged from
the mansion, followed by sad-eyed children. Joakim always
watched the men who were fortunate to have families.
Thoughts of his father, Aunt Laurel, Donna, Verbena and
Bernard invaded his mind. Why hasn’t Father come for me, He
Joakim watched one little boy
look longingly at an approaching figure. Mistress Pomeroy
strolled leisurely through the gardens. She was eating a
large tart. Joakim saw plum juice and crumbs dribble down
her chin. She flung the half-eaten tart onto the ground,
and Joakim felt anger rise within him.
Despite this fact, there was no denying that
the woman was breathtakingly beautiful. Her waist-length
chestnut hair swished as she walked, and she wore a
beautiful revealing dress of plum-colored silk. Her
chocolate brown eyes roved over the bedraggled slaves.
Joakim’s heart beat wildly.
For a moment, the woman
hesitated. Her eyes met Joakim’s, then she quickly walked
Joakim went to where the
discarded tart lay in the grass. He bent down and picked it
Stealthily, and keeping his
eyes peeled for a sight of the overseer, he approached the
little boy. “It’s half eaten,” he whispered, “but it’s the
best I can do.”
Quickly, he handed the tart
to the boy. The boy gaped in shock. “You better eat it
before someone sees,” Joakim whispered.
The boy crammed the prize
into his mouth. His eyes opened wide at the wonderful
taste. “Thanks, mister,” he breathed. “Why didn’t you keep
“You needed it more than me.
What’s your name?”
A hush suddenly fell over the
group of slaves. Master Pomeroy, a large, broad man,
stamped into the garden. He wore the lavish purple robe of
an official in Pharaoh’s service. Master Pomeroy was
captain of Pharaoh’s guards. He was rarely at his home, and
Joakim had seen him only once before: the day he’d been
purchased at auction.
Pomeroy stopped and surveyed
the erected walls of the formal garden. “Nathan?” he
roared. “What’s the meaning of this?”
The overseer sauntered
forward. His self-assurance crumbled when he saw his
master’s livid face. “Yes, Master?” he asked.
“The walls! Look at how soft
the soil is! They could collapse at any moment! Why were
they erected there?”
“B-But, Master, you yourself—”
“Didn’t anyone notice the
soil? What were you thinking?”
Nathan shuffled his feet. “One slave, sir. He
“Well, point him out, you
idiot! It would appear he has more sense than you!”
Shaking, the overseer pointed
to Joakim. “Present yourself to Master Pomeroy, slave!” he
Joakim stepped forward. He
inclined his head to the tall man. “Kneel before your
master, you impudent—” Nathan began.
“No!” Pomeroy snapped.
“Well, boy? Explain yourself! Why won’t you show respect to
“I do respect you, sir,”
Joakim said. “But, to kneel to someone is to worship him.
I worship only the Imperial Lord.”
Pomeroy laughed. “A slave
with spirit! Well, boy, you’re in Emril now! You worship our
Great Pharaoh because he is a god! You worship me because I
stand in His Worship’s presence!”
Joakim shook his head and
said, “My enemy desires to be worshiped. She is a deceiver,
and she seeks to manipulate you. Those who worship you are
really worshiping her. Only the Imperial Lord deserves to
be worshiped because he created all things and is above all
Pomeroy’s brows furrowed in
puzzlement. “I could have you executed in a moment,” he
said. “However, even if you are crazy, you’re a person of
integrity. I wrote plans for the garden walls to be erected
at the northern end of my estate. I knew the soil was the
wrong type. You’re the only one who had the courage to
point out the mistake. It was a test that you passed.
Therefore, I’m promoting you.”
Joakim’s head spun.
Promoting? He thought wildly.
“You’ll be in charge of my
household. I know you have the brains for the work, and
that you’ll do a good job. If this Imperial Lord of yours
is worth anything, he’ll make things thrive under your
“Joakim?” The young man
jumped and spun around. He’d been removing the pits from
cherries so that a pie could be prepared, and his hands were
stained with the red juice. His face flushed crimson.
She stood before him, her
brown eyes shining with triumph. “We’re alone, Joakim,” she
whispered. “You don’t have to pretend anymore.”
A month had passed. Pomeroy
had been right. Since Joakim had been placed in charge of
his household, everything had flourished. Pomeroy came home
buoyant everyday and sat down to a sumptuous banquet. All
was right with his world.
The same couldn’t be said for
Joakim. He’d seen to it that the slaves were treated with
respect. No beatings were permitted, and the slaves had
begun to work more willingly because of the kinder
treatment. However, because of his newly acquired status,
he’d been forced to move into the mansion.
From the moment he’d entered
the house, Mistress Pomeroy hounded him day and night.
The first time, she’d
approached him as he washed his hands. “You’re very
handsome,” she’d crooned. “What’s your name?”
“Joakim, mistress. Do you
require anything?” He was still thunderstruck by her beauty.
Gently, she ran a soft hand
through his hair. Quickly, he pulled away, but he couldn’t
stifle a gasp that escaped unbidden from his throat.
“You know what I require,”
she whispered, bending closer. He inhaled the intoxicating
scent of lavender that seemed to cling to her.
“Your husband has placed me
in charge of everything he possesses. I have control over
everything except you. How can I betray his trust? More
important, how can I sin against my Lord and throw away my
She flushed with anger and
Day after day persisted in
the same fashion. She approached him while he bathed and
while he instructed his fellow slaves. She’d even come to
his chamber in the night. He’d taken to sleeping in the
stable. Her demands were no longer subtle. Joakim was at
his wits’ end.
Now, he turned from the pie
preparation. His face was flushed.
“The servants are gone away,
Joakim,” she whispered. She was panting. “You don’t
understand my predicament! My husband is never here.
Everything is in readiness, and what will it matter? Just
once, fulfill my desire, and I can do so much for you. Do
you want your freedom? It will be yours if you’ll only lie
Joakim’s heart was
hammering. He felt dizzy, and every fiber of his being
longed to succumb to her request. She was wearing a
different scent today: something that resembled a mixture of
vanilla and cinnamon. Unbidden, an image of Donna crept
into his mind: her bakeshop and the days she made cinnamon
swirl bread! Lord, Lord, help me!
He felt Mistress Pomeroy’s hands stroke his
hair, and he realized he was breathing hard.
With a cry, she grabbed at
the loose-fitting tunic he wore. Joakim let out a strangled
moan. Fiercely, he wrenched himself from her grasp and
heard, as he often did in recurring nightmares, the sound of
ripping material. He realized he now only wore his
He bolted from the mansion
and dove into the stable. He knew Mistress Pomeroy wouldn’t
lower her dignity by coming into such a place of filth.
Joakim’s body still ached with desire, and shame ripped
through him. Forgive me, Lord, please! Choking on his
sobs, he dove into a stall that held a large stallion. The
horse whinnied in surprise. Joakim’s face burned with
From the house, he heard
screams of terror. He knew what would happen. “I’m sorry,
Lord. I wanted her,” he whispered.
“Yes, you imbecile!” a
familiar voice invaded his mind. “I thought you were noble,
but you’re just like all of them! Your impure, a filthy
weakling! Your brothers at least have the gumption to act
upon their desires! If you have something you want, take it!
You’re such a self-righteous fool! No better than anyone
else! He’d never use you!”
In Plenty Palace, Salak
continued her tirade as she stood before her mirror.
Euphoria filled her as she watched Joakim crumble. He was
finally listening to her. Humans were all the same! Find
their weakness, and they’d eat out of your hand! Who cared
about his morality! He felt shame just because he’d been
It didn’t matter that Joakim hadn’t succumbed
to the temptation. She could play on his guilt. He was
such a milksop, she could use guilt on him for as long as
The Lamb once again filled
her glass. “Listen to me, Joakim.” He spoke no words, but
Salak knew what he was communicating into the boy’s
thoughts. “There is nothing to forgive. You did nothing
wrong. I, too, will experience temptation when I come.
What matters is how you respond to it.”
“He’s not listening to you,”
Salak guffawed. “I told him I’d make him miserable! I’ve
only just begun.”
The Lamb continued to survey
Joakim. He began singing. Salak spoke her hate-filled
In the stable, Joakim
suddenly felt an unexplained calmness fill his mind. “I
didn’t lie with her,” he whispered. He still felt guilty,
but he also felt relief. “You still love me, Lord. Thank
At that moment, Master
Pomeroy stormed into the stable. Looking into each stall,
he spotted Joakim and gestured for him to come out. “I want
the truth, slave.” Surprisingly, his voice was gentle. “Did
you rape my wife?”
Anger slammed into Joakim’s
stomach. Squaring his shoulders, he Stared into Pomeroy’s
eyes. “My sister and Father endured defilement. I’d never
force anyone to endure that shame,” he said harshly.
“Tell me what happened,”
Joakim related the truth in a
straightforward fashion. He couldn’t tell what Pomeroy was
When he’d finished, Pomeroy
looked at him. “You do realize the punishment for rape is
death, slave? However, I’m going to have you put into
Joakim bowed his head. He
felt like discarded refuse. “I didn’t do anything to her,”
“I know you didn’t, Joakim!”
Pomeroy’s voice was furious. “You’re smart! Act like it!
I’m doing you a favor! No one will believe the word of a
slave over a noblewoman. If I don’t do something to you,
I’ll be a laughingstock! I know my wife, and I know whose
speaking the truth. I’m going to get the guards now.
Before Pomeroy left, he
stared into Joakim’s eyes. “Your Imperial Lord watches over
you. You might want to pray to him now.” He left the barn.
A few moments later, three
guards arrived with chains. Roughly, they clasped manacles
onto Joakim’s hands and feet. As he was dragged away, he
caught a glimpse of Mistress Pomeroy staring from an open
window. Her face glowed crimson with hatred and triumph.
In his mind, he distinctly heard the terrifying sound of
jeering laughter. Lord, take me home, he thought
The cell was cold and damp.
Joakim huddled on a flea-infested mat. Other prisoners
huddled in the same cell. The bad odors were overpowering.
“What’re you here for?” a
raspy voiced man growled.
Joakim turned toward the
shaggy-bearded speaker. “For doing what is right,” he said
The man snorted. “What is
right? What’s right and wrong around here, anyway?” His
voice was bitter.
At that moment, the grating
at the top of the cell rattled. Small cups of foul-smelling
soup were pushed inside followed by moldy bread.
The men lunged toward the
offerings, snarling like wolves. A scream of pain was
ignored by the multitude.
For a moment, Joakim’s hunger
overrode all other thoughts. He almost ignored the scream
himself then thought better of it.
Surveying the men, he saw one
bony figure sprawled on the floor. His left hand dripped
blood from where it had been trampled.
Joakim tore a fragment from
the tunic he wore. Approaching the man, he gently reached
for the mangled hand. The man shied away like a wary horse.
“It’s all right,” Joakim
whispered. “I can’t do much for you, but I can try to stop
“You’re strange,” the man
croaked. “What’s your game, anyway?”
“You’re hurt. Do you want to
bleed to death?” Joakim’s voice was harsher than he’d
“You do care, don’t you?” The
man’s voice was awed. He allowed Joakim to wrap the tunic
around the wound. “Stay here a few more weeks, and you’ll
not care about anybody.”
Outside the cell, the chief
jailer who’d distributed the food watched the young boy
minister to the hurt man. A strange feeling surged within
him. He thought of his wife and children who’d been taken
to a foreign land so long ago. I would want them treated in
such a fashion, he thought. Someone must be watching over
The next day, Joakim was
placed in charge of the prison.
“Is everyone all right,
Verbena?” Donna asked. Her voice throbbed with weariness.
“Yes, Momma. They’re asleep,
Verbena’s face was weary.
She’d blossomed over the last three years. Now, she was a
beautiful ten-year-old with flowing hair and rosy cheeks.
However, she was always tired.
Imperialites came to Jakob’s
camp in droves. Many had died from the poisoned water of
Delmar Well, so those who had survived came seeking
refreshment. Now, Jakob’s water supply was running low.
“I’m going for a walk,
Momma. Do you think Bernard wants to come?”
“He’s asleep, Verbena. Don’t
go too far, all right?”
Nodding, the girl trudged
from the bakeshop. She used her cane to walk to the
outskirts of the camp. “Lord, please help us,” she
Often, she remembered the
encounter with the Eaglia. How nice he’d been! Now, life
seemed to be nothing but sadness. Grandpa spent most of his
time in his tent. She missed Uncle Jo so badly! Uncle
Justin had left with Muriel and her boys three years ago,
and Verbena missed him, too. She only found comfort with
Bernard. Occasionally, Rufus would spend time with her, but
he had gotten married last year. He was not around much.
As Verbena walked, she felt
as if something was calling to her. Remembering the
encounter with her enemy when she was seven, she ignored the
urge to listen.
Gradually, the summons became
more insistent. It wasn’t a voice that was calling to her,
but a sound like the rushing of water. Where could the
sound be coming from?
Shuffling, she propelled
herself forward until her cane touched a large rock. That
was where the sound was coming from! How strange!
Forgetting her fear, Verbena
bent down. The rock was large, but when she tapped it with
her fingers, she realized it was hollow. Your cane, the
water seemed to say. Use your cane.
Bewildered, Verbena gently
tapped the top of the rock with her cane. With a whooshing
rumble, water cascaded over her bare feet, drenching them!
She screamed and stepped back
in shock. A spring! She’d found a spring! “Momma! Momma!
She felt Donna’s hands grip
her shoulders. “What is it? What—” Donna’s cries changed to
a scream of joy. “The Imperial Lord be praised! We’re all
The spring would prove to be
a lifesaver for countless Imperialites. All would be well.
In the darkness, Joakim saw
two massive lakes. One lake held murky water that flowed
thickly like treacle. People flocked to this murky lake,
taking large gulps of the gummy liquid. Joakim watched in
horror as the people crumpled to the ground, their faces
stony in death.
The other lake shimmered with
an unearthly light. The water was translucent, and it
smelled of springtime rain. Quickly, it converged with the
murky water. The crystal water devoured the murky, leaving
only one lake. Its pure waters flowed over the dead people,
and they immediately rose to their feet, their faces
suffused with light.
Joakim saw two figures
standing at the edge of the new lake, Verbena and a
snow-white Lamb. He recognized the Lamb from the day he’d
learned of Donna’s defilement. You’re family is well. The
words entered his thoughts. You’ll see them soon.
Joakim woke from the dream.
He felt calmer than he’d felt in months. Salak still tried
to invade his thoughts, but he prayed each night to be
protected. Now, his Lord had shown him a wondrous sight!
Rising, he made his patrol of
the cells. Many of the prisoners slept, but two newly
arrived inmates were whispering furiously.
“My friends, are you both all
right?” he asked.
Both men looked up,
startled. They wore the purple robes worn by Pharaoh’s
servants. One was Pharaoh’s cupbearer, the other his
baker. They’d been charged with thievery.
“Can I help?” Joakim asked.
“We had strange dreams, sir,”
the cupbearer said. “We’ve listened to the story of your
family as you’ve talked with other prisoners. Could you
perhaps tell us what the dreams might mean?”
“I cannot. Only the Imperial
Lord can interpret dreams. If you’ll tell me what you saw,
perhaps he’ll reveal the answer to me.”
The cupbearer and baker
whispered together. Then, the cupbearer spoke: “In my
dream, I saw a tree with three branches. The branches
groaned under the weight of huge, beautiful plums. I
squeezed the juice from the plums into Pharaoh’s cup and
presented it to him. He drank from it.”
Joakim bowed his head. A
moment later, he smiled and looked into the cupbearer’s
face. “The three branches are three days. In three days
time, you’ll be reinstated.”
The cupbearer sighed with
relief. Joakim saw the baker’s face shining with hope.
“Now, my dream, sir!” he cried happily.
“Are you sure? Dreams can
also have negative meanings.”
“Yes, yes! Listen to me! I
was holding a magnificent three-tiered cake on a silver
platter. It was covered with white frosting and chocolate
mousse. I’d filled it with raspberry jam. As I cut into
the cake to present a slice to Pharaoh, blood gushed forth.
Vultures came and devoured the cake.”
Joakim bowed once more.
After a moment, he swallowed, but he was able to look into
the baker’s eyes. “The three-tiered cake is also three
days. In three days time, you will be beheaded.” Joakim’s
face fell in sorrow. “My sister is a baker. I’m sorry to
deliver such horrible news.”
The baker cursed. “You’re
just an impertinent boy!” he spat. “What do you know?”
Joakim continued staring into
the baker’s eyes. “Did you commit the crime you’re charged
with?” he asked gently.
“What if I did?” the baker
“You have three days. If you
want to talk to me during that time, let me know. If not,
my Lord is always ready to forgive. Simply repent of your
wrongdoing and ask him for help.”
The baker turned away.
Joakim turned to leave.
“Thank you, my friend,” the cupbearer said.
“I have one favor to ask of
“Yes, of course! Anything!”
“When you are reinstated,
please tell Pharaoh about me.”
“Certainly my friend!” the
cupbearer said quickly.
Joakim went back to his cot.
He immediately fell into a deep sleep as did the cupbearer.
Only the baker remained awake. He had lots to ponder.
Three days later, Pharaoh’s
officials were collected by guards. As the baker passed
Joakim, he smiled feebly and managed to gesture toward his
forehead. Joakim looked, and grinned. The Imperial Lord’s
Mark, a picture of a brick baker’s oven, shone with
As the cupbearer passed, he
barely acknowledged Joakim’s wave. “He won’t remember you,”
Salak’s jeering voice pierced Joakim’s thoughts. “You’ll
rot here. I’ll make sure of that.”
Seeking his Lord’s assurance,
Joakim was able to ignore the voice. He set to work doing
his daily tasks.
“Aunt Donna! Justin’s come!” Bernard’s shrill
voice interrupted Donna’s meal preparation.
Donna looked up with a
smile. “You and Verbena go greet him!”
Verbena was now thirteen.
She rushed ahead of Bernard. Justin saw her and hugged her
“It’s great to see you,
Verbena! You’ve grown so tall and beautiful! Shiloh is
coming with some provisions.”
“Where’s Eric, Owen, and
“It’s a long story, Verbena.
I’m dying of thirst! Can I have some water, please?”
“Sure. Come see the spring
the Imperial Lord provided for us! Other Imperialites come
here all the time now! We’ve missed you, Justin.”
Justin spotted Bernard and
hugged him tightly. “Come on, Bernard. Lets get a drink.”
“So much has happened,”
Justin said that night at supper. He attacked the vegetable
soup Donna and Aunt Laurel had made. “Both Eric and Owen
are dead.” His face fell.
“What did they do, Justin?”
Verbena was startled to hear Momma’s voice. It was harsher
than she’d ever heard it. “They were evil men. They got
what was coming to them!”
“They had their faults,
Donna, but they were my sons. I met a girl performing a
one-woman show in Luciana where I’d settled. Her name was
Tamria, and she was alone in the world. Her family had been
captured by Salak’s soldiers. I don’t know how she
“What happened, Uncle
Justin?” Verbena asked.
“I offered her shelter. Eric
was looking for a wife, and I arranged the match. He died
of a seizure two months later. She married Owen as befits
our custom to produce Eric’s heirs. Owen died two weeks
later from a choking fit. I’ve never believed in the
supernatural, but I’m inclined to think my son’s married a
demon, a servant of Salak! I sent her away.”
Donna slammed her soup bowl
onto the table so hard the thick soup sloshed over her
hands. “A servant of Salak?” she raged. “If anyone’s a
servant of Salak, it’s you and the other men sitting around
this table! You mean to say you turned that girl out in
disgrace to fend for herself?”
“Watch your tongue, Donna!”
Levan spat. “What’re you implying?”
“The Imperial Lord struck
Eric and Owen down! Many a night, they’d seek me out and try
to harm me! Who knows what they did to that poor girl! And
you, Justin! How could you be so heartless? I’m taking some
more stew to Father and Bernard, now. I’d advise you all to
stay clear of me!”
Verbena trembled at her
mother’s anger. Slowly, she rose and followed Donna’s
All the brothers looked at
one another, but they did not speak.
The next morning, Justin left
with Levan to attend the sheep-shearing festival in Nunmal.
“Does Donna know what we did,
Levan?” Justin asked harshly as the brothers walked along.
“She’s never let on before. I don’t know, Justin.”
Levan’s face had grown haggard over the last six years.
He was stoop-shouldered and looked weary. “I sometimes
“I know, Levan. Especially when I see Father’s—”
The two men stopped talking
abruptly. Levan whistled in admiration.
A slender young woman sat
under a date palm. She wore a heavy veil and a revealing
Leisurely, she stood up and
sauntered forward. The scent of the dates clung to her, and
she held a jeweled fan. Justin gaped in wonder.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she
whispered. “Do you need anything?” She smiled coyly.
Levan laughed. “We’ll take
whatever you offer,” he said cheekily.
“I don’t serve men who are
not gentlemen,” she answered with a saucy toss of her head.
Her eyes under the veil scrutinized Justin. “You seem to be
the type I prefer. Can I serve you in any way?”
“A harem woman with spirit!”
Levan guffawed. “Take her, Justin! I’ll seek someone more
submissive!” He laughed and sauntered away.
Justin approached the woman
on trembling legs. Muriel had been dead for two years, and
he missed her companionship. “I have no money, but I can
bring you a young goat for payment. You can sell him in the
marketplace for a good price.”
The woman laughed. “I don’t
hold with rash bargains. I’ll require something as a pledge
you’ll keep your word.”
Justin sighed in
frustration. “You’re particular for someone earning a
living! What do you want?”
“The signet ring you wear and
your shepherd staff. They’ll do.”
Justin handed over the items
without thinking. Then, he followed the woman into the
grove of date palms.
The next day, when he
returned with the goat, the woman was nowhere to be seen.
Nine months later, a figure
swollen with child staggered into Jakob’s camp. Verbena,
who’d been drawing water from the spring, heard shuffling
feet approach her. “Yes? Can I help you?” she asked.
“Please, Miss,” a familiar
voice said. “I heard reports of your spring from
Imperialites in the marketplace. May I please have a
“It’s ben a long time, but I
think I remember you from when I was little,” Verbena said.
“You’re the girl from the theatre troup, aren’t you?”
“I’m what’s left of it.” The
woman’s voice was bitter. “That harpy queen murdered my
family. When the soldiers came, my mother made me hide in
the cellar Poppa dug under our house. A strange man stayed
with me while the soldiers searched our dwelling. Momma
should have let me go to the palace, too. My life’s been
nothing but bitterness since they were taken!”
Gently, Verbena handed a
ladle of crystal clear water to the older woman. “The man
was an Eaglia,” she said matter-of-factly. “The Imperial
Lord has a plan for you. Maybe this water will refresh
you. Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”
“No, miss. I’m seeking a man
named Justin. Do you know someone by that name?”
“Yes, of course! He’s my uncle. He should be—”
“WHAT’RE YOU DOING HERE?”
Justin had approached without being noticed. His clothes
smelled of sheep, and his face was livid. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN
COMING HERE, WITCH?”
“I am pregnant, Justin,” the
woman said softly. “I’m due any day now. I seek shelter.”
“You won’t get it here! How
dare you disgrace me by showing your face. You carry
another man’s child, and dishonor the memory of my sons!You
dare come seeking my help?”
“You promised Shiloh to me
when he came of age!” the woman shot back. “Don’t talk to
me about disgrace! The child’s father is the man who owns
So saying, she reached into
the bodice of her dress, withdrawing a signet ring and a
shepherd’s staff. “You don’t understand, Justin! I have no
one. I wanted a child, and I insist upon my rights! I’m not
a cow or mare! I’m a woman and a follower of the Imperial
Lord, and I deserve respect! That harpy queen took away my
joy! The Lord showed me a way to at least gain my desire if
not my dignity! He loves me even if no one else does.”
Justin sucked in his breath
in shock. “Tamria,” he breathed. “Your more righteous than
Gently, he reached for
Tamria’s hand, his face crimson with shame. “I’m sorry,
Tamria. I’m the one who was wrong.”
Tamria hesitated, then she
allowed Justin to clasp his hand in hers.
Verbena, who’d been listening
in utter bewilderment, now touched her uncle’s shoulder.
“She’s staying with us, Justin. I’ll go prepare a sleeping
mat for her.”
“I seem to remember you,
miss. Your name’s Verbena, correct?” Tamria asked.
“That’s right. Welcome,
Tamria. The Imperial Lord bless you.”
“Thank you, Verbena. May he
bless you as well.”
Two days later, Tamria gave
birth to twins. The first she named Percival, and the
second Zachary. She stayed at Jakob’s camp and assisted
Donna, Verbena and Aunt Laurel with the household tasks.
She’d sought refuge and gained so much more.
“It’s insupportable! You’re
my astrologers and magicians!” In Emril’s lavish throne
room, a stout man with a weak chin sat in the place of
honor. His eyes were bloodshot, and his face was haggard
from lack of sleep. “I expect you to determine the meaning
Several men clustered around Pharaoh’s throne. Their
faces wore expressions of concern but also fear. “Have
mercy upon us, Mighty Pharaoh!” one of them wheedled.
“Perhaps the river represents your great provisions for the
“Enough flattery!” Pharaoh
roared. “Find me someone who can interpret these dreams, or
you’ll all lose your lives! I haven’t slept in three
A discreet movement at the
throne room door forced the king to look up. “Oh, it’s you,
Cupbearer! Leave at once! I didn’t summon you!”
The cupbearer’s face was
flushed. “Have mercy, Great Pharaoh! I, too, have been
troubled by dreams in the past. While in prison, I met a
man who could interpret dreams. His name is Joakim, and
he’s a shepherd from Crimlia. I didn’t say anything before,
because I feared speaking out of turn. Perhaps he can help
“Crimlia?” Pharaoh barked.
“The land where our supremest of all rulers dwells? Great
Ellona, highest of all goddesses?”
“Yes, Magnificent Pharaoh.”
“Well, send for him at once!
Make sure he is washed and in appropriate attire.”
Joakim stood outside the
throne room flanked by two guards. He still wore manacles,
and his stomach churned with apprehension.
The five years in prison had
done nothing to hinder his appearance. He had grown into a
magnificently handsome man. His broad shoulders and
muscular limbs bore witness to his maturity. His voice was
now deep and rich.
Joakim’s work in the prison
had helped him to get to know many people. He’d talked
freely of his beliefs to fellow prisoners, and many had
turned from Salak’s ways.
Now, he breathed a silent
prayer as he was ushered into the throne room. “Kneel
before his worship, Great Pharaoh!” a guard boomed.
Joakim faced the man sitting
on his throne. The man was only a year or so older than
him! Inclining his head respectfully, Joakim said, “Sir, how
may I assist you?”
“What’s this?” Pharaoh
snapped. “You refuse to kneel to me?”
“I kneel only to the Imperial
Lord, mighty Pharaoh.”
“The Imperial Lord. Who is
“He is the only Lord, sir.
He is my only reason for survival.”
“You’re from Crimlia, are you
not? What about the Great Goddess Ellona? She is willing to
stoop below her status and mingle with mortal men. Even I
must answer to her.”
“You refer to our queen
Salak, the tyrant who has imprisoned our land since she
seduced our Great Mother and Father into leaving the
Imperial Lord’s service.”
“Watch yourself, slave! Speak
not of her in such a manner! Speak civilly to me as well. I
hear you can interpret dreams?”
“No, Pharaoh. Only the Imperial—”
“ENOUGH! Listen to my dreams
without interruption. If you can interpret them, I will
Joakim waited to hear what
Pharaoh would say. “Lord, please be with me,” he whispered.
“I was standing on the bank
of the Great Niliam River. Suddenly, seven sleek, well-fed
cows emerged from the waters. They immediately began
grazing on the lush grass. Then, seven scrawny,
malnourished cows rose from the water. They turned upon the
sleek cows and devoured them. When they’d finished, they
looked as scrawny as ever.
In my second dream, I saw
seven ears of yellow corn growing from a single stalk. The
corn was plump and smelled sweet. On another stalk, I saw
seven withered, black ears of corn. The seven ugly ears of
corn swallowed up the seven plump ears.”
Joakim was silent for a
moment. Then, he said, “Both dreams have the same meaning,
Pharaoh. The seven sleek cows and plump ears of corn
represent seven years of bountiful harvest. There will be
so much abundance that the excess will be overwhelming!”
Pharaoh leant forward, his
eyes bright with excitement. “And the other portion of the
“The scrawny cows and ugly
ears of corn represent seven years of famine. The famine
will be so severe the good years will seem like a dream.”
Gasps exploded around the
throne room. Joakim saw that Pharaoh’s face was ashen.
“What can we do to prevent the people from starving?”
Pharaoh asked harshly.
“You must appoint someone to
be in charge of a harvesting project,” Joakim advised.
“Gather all the access grain from the years of plenty and
store it for the years of famine. In this way, the people
will not go hungry.”
Pharaoh sat absolutely still
for a moment. Then, he held out his hand that wore a shiny
signet ring and touched Joakim’s shoulder. “Since you seem
to know so much about what will happen, I’m placing you in
charge of the gathering process,” he said. “You’ll answer
only to me, for I alone will out-rank you.” So saying, he
removed his ring and placed it upon Joakim’s left hand.
Joakim was too overcome to
Seven Years Later
The time had come. Salak
stood in Plenty Palace, her eyes smouldering with
anticipation. After years of biding her time, her enemy had
finally taken his hand from her. Now, she was free! Free to
reak havoc! Free to make her enemies hurt!
Quickly, she looked into her
mirror and called forth the Wormwood Serum, a poison more
lethal than her own venom. “Infect the produce of all
lands,” she ordered. The serum flowed out from her mirror
into the world to do its work.
“What’ll we do?” Rufus’ voice
was choked with worry.
Around the breakfast table,
the whole of Jakob’s camp fidgeted nervously. “The sheep
can’t graze,” Justin said. “We’ll have to sell them soon.”
The ground was absent of
grass, and all of Crimlia resembled a barren desert. Other
countries were in the same predicament. The family was
eating a meager meal of lentel soup. Even that was nearly
Verbena said, “There’s a
little barley left, but not enough for too many more days.”
“I can make two loaves,”
Donna said. “Then it’ll be gone. That’s not enough for
Percival and Zachary.”
“We’ll be all right,” the two
boys said stoutly.
“I heard in the market
yesterday that Salak’s soldiers will be making the rounds of
all the towns today. She might be with them.” Simal said.
Verbena felt apprehension
creep up her spine. “Percival? Zachary? You need to go down
by the spring right after breakfast and stay there.”
“But, we’ve never seen a
queen,” Zachary began.
“The spring is blessed and protected by the
Imperial Lord. You’ll be safe there. You don’t want to see
her,” Verbena said firmly
“I’ll go with them to make sure they stay
put,” Tamria said.
From the head of the table, Aunt Laurel
nodded in approval. “I’ll come with you,” she said.
After breakfast, Verbena
followed Donna into the bakeshop. Both women set to work
preparing the barley bread. “Have they gone?” Verbena
“Yes, Verbena. Everything’ll
be all right. I doubt if she’ll come here.”
“She will, Momma.” Verbena’s
voice was so calm that Donna ceased her work.
“What are you talking about,
Verbena?” she asked sharply.
“Am I pretty, Momma?”
Verbena’s question was so
unexpected that Donna was taken aback. “You’re beautiful.
You’ve grown into a breathtaking woman. I still can’t
believe you’re twenty now! But, this doesn’t have anything
to do with what you just said.“
“It does, Momma. My eyes.
They scared suitors away, didn’t they? My uncle’s and
Grandpa never looked for a husband for me. Girls my age
usually have their second or third child by now.”
Donna sucked in her breath.
“They tried, Verbena. They did. Men are fearful and
ignorant. They think because you cannot see you are
dimwitted. Try to understand.”
“I do understand, Momma. It
was part of the Imperial Lord’s plan. She’s coming, Momma.
She’s coming for me.”
“Verbena, what are you
telling me? I can’t lose you! You’re talking nonsense!”
“No, I’m not,” Verbena’s
voice choked with tears. “Uncle Jo isn’t the only person
who has dreams. I wish he was here so I could talk with
him. I dreamed last night that a serpent carried me away to
its lair. The serpent had captured millions of beautiful
birds and was about to eat them. I sang to the birds, and
they were able to fly away. The serpent bit me. Then, I
“You’re thinking about your
experience as a little girl! Stop this, Verbena!”
“You’re not making this easy,
Momma. I needed to prepare you. You’ve been through more
than anyone should endure. I need you to be strong so you
can help everyone else. Please!”
“If anyone’s going to that harpy’s palace, it will be me!
You’re going to the spring immediately! Do you—”
As if on cue, horses hooves
pounded outside. Donna screamed, and Verbena heard her sink
onto a bench.
Trembling, the young woman
took her cane from a corner of the bakeshop. Then, she
hugged her mother tightly. “I love you, Momma. When you
see Joakim again, tell him I love him, too. I’ve had other
dreams as well. Joakim’s alive.”
Donna was too overcome to
speak. She watched her daughter, her pride and joy, leave
Verbena followed the sound of
the horses hooves until her cane touched the bottom of a
magnificent carriage. Her uncles and Grandpa were clustered
around the elaborate conveyance.
“Salak. What’s your business
here?” Jakob said harshly. He was a shell of his former
self, but his voice still held authority. “I no longer
serve you. By the Imperial Lord’s grace, I am free of your
“But not of my revenge, eh,
Jakob?” Salak’s musical voice filled the silent air. “I
come to give you all an offer. Renounce your allegiance to
the Imperial Lord and come to Plenty Palace. This famine
has only just begun. He obviously cares nothing for you. I
happen to know the famine will last another six years. Your
family will dwindle to nothing. Come to the palace and eat
sumptuously! All people in this land are being offered the
same choice. Renounce His tyrannical ways, or suffer the
“Tyrannical ways?” Verbena’s
voice rose in indignation. “You’re the tyrant, Salak! He
promises us deliverance from your rule. I eagerly await
“Ah! The blind waif who has a
sweettooth!” Salak chortled. She spoke using Tamria’s
voice, and Verbena felt nausea grip her stomach. “You’ve
grown into an old maid. Who will listen to you, virginal
wretch? Your nothing!”
“I belong to my Lord,”
Verbena said simply.
Salak raised a hand and
gestured to one of her soldiers. The burly man dismounted
from the carriage and forced Verbena into the seat next to
the queen. “I would force you to witness her defilement,
Jakob,” Salak said, “but there is no time for that. She
will die as soon as she reaches the market square. She’ll
be the first example to set before the people. They’ll see
that the Imperial Lord does not love them!” Crimlia’s queen
spat. “I assume you refuse my offer?” she snarled.
Silence was the only
“Starve, then! Your Lord was
wrong! This famine will destroy you all, and the Deliverer
will never come through your seed!” Laughing, she slapped
Verbena across the face. The carriage drove away, leaving
Jakob’s camp reeling with shock.
In the bustling market
square, a huge crowd of spectators watched as a young woman
was chained to a chair. Many of the spectators laughed when
they saw the woman’s mismatched sightless eyes. Salak stood
before the woman. She held a large goblet full of an amber
“Prepare your final words,”
the queen instructed. Then, turning to her subjects, she
said, “Listen to the delusional old maid! Listen to the
dimwitted blind child who foolishly believes in a fairy
tale! Know that her Deliverer will never come! I’m your only
Silence descended, and
Verbena spoke. “I will not preach to you. I’ll sing.” So
saying, she began singing with all her might. Many of the
spectators laughed at her off-key voice, but she only sang
louder: “Tyranny now chains our land with poison and pain.
A Deliverer is coming who will cleanse every stain! Give the
Imperial Lord glory! Blind girl and crippled boy will bring
an end to Evil’s story. Baker will prepare Freedom’s Bread
in his purifying oven”.
When the last notes of the
song faded, many of the spectators only laughed. However, a
few of them looked toward the prisoner, their eyes shining
Salak poured the amber liquid
down Verbena’s throat. Excruciating pain exploded in the
girl’s stomach, and she started to convulse. Screams filled
the marketplace as she writhed.
“Verbena! Lass! Sing! Sing!”
McPherson’s voice! He was here!
“I can’t,” she managed to
gasp between retches.
“I’ll sing with you. I’m
here.” Verbena felt a familiar hand caress her forehead.
She heard McPherson’s magnificent bass voice reverberate
around the marketplace. Quaveringly, she joined her voice
with his. She grew louder and louder, and glorious calm
descended upon her.
The spectators were awed.
The woman was able to sing while in so much pain? Hadn’t her
voice been atrocious earlier? Now, it was magnificent! She
was the finest soloist they’d ever heard!
The queen’s face turned chalk
white. “STOP!” she roared. “SILENCE!”
Verbena didn’t hear her. She
continued to sing along with McPherson, not realizing that
she was the only one who could hear him. She felt him grasp
her hand, and she ended the song on one final piercing note
of exquisite beauty.
When the song ended, the
spectators looked at the lifeless prisoner for a long
moment. Slowly, they began to disperse. The rest of the
day, the marketplace was quiet, and all that could be
distinguished was a lingering echo of hope.
When the crowd had gone,
Salak watched in anguish as Mimoria gathered Verbena into
his arms. “You’re wasting your time!” she raged. “I’ve
fixed everything. The Deliverer will never arise from
Jakob’s seed! I’ve killed the Tyrant’s instrument.”
“He will arise,” Mimoria said
simply. “Grace is one thing you’ll never understand. You
miscalculated.” With that, he carried Verbena home. Salak
stared after him, her eyes swimming with tears she was
incapable of shedding. She knew in the long run who would
be the victor, but she would never surrender.
Squaring her shoulders, she
prepared to journey toward more towns in search of more
Overpowering light suffused
Joakim’s dream. He saw a familiar figure standing in the
light. An indescribably brilliant Presence came and touched
the familiar figures eyes, wiping away sorrow and disease.
Now, the figures eyes sparkled a vibrant green.
Kneeling, his niece
prostrated herself before the Presence in silent awe.
Grasping her hand, the Presence swept her to
her feet. Verbena and the Imperial Lord’s son danced
joyously. Then, they sat down to a sumptuous feast.
Joakim saw in the Presence’s
face a shadow of the Lamb he’d seen on two other occasions.
Awaking from sleep, he lay on
his magnificent bed in his stately mansion that bordered
Emril’s palace. His tears flowed unchecked, but he felt
calmness invade him.
Morning sunlight broke
through his bedchamber window, and he rose to prepare for
the day’s work. He donned the elaborate headdress and robe
that signified him as Pharaoh’s second in command. Many
people would come seeking sustenance. As the second most
powerful man in Emril, he was kept busy from morning to
night. “I’ll see you again one day, Verbena,” he
whispered. “I love you.”
The atmosphere at Jakob’s
camp was oppressive. Talk had ceased, and the food supply
had dwindled to nothing. The family did receive water from
the spring, but they all knew that finding food was
imperative. Percival and Zachary were skin and bones.
Jakob addressed the brothers
one morning. “Why are you all sitting around doing nothing?
There are reports that the land of Emril has so much grain
they are assisting other countries. Go there immediately or
we’ll all starve!”
“All of us, Father?” Rufus
“Everyone of you except
Bernard. I have some money put aside. Go immediately.”
Rising from her place, Donna
faced her brothers. Her face was weary, but an
unexplainable peace was also in evidence. She, too, had had
the dream that Joakim had experienced regarding her
daughter. “I’ll pack some provisions for you,” she said.
Then, a shadow of an old smile played at the corners of her
mouth. “Stay out of trouble!”
“Great Master Joakim?”
Joakim looked up from where
he’d been placing grain into large-mouthed sacks. “Yes,
Brewtus? Is someone seeking nourishment?”
“Ten men, Master. Men from
the land of Crimlia.”
Joakim’s hands ceased their
labor. “Ten?” he asked sharply.
“Yes, sir. They look like
“Show them in, Brewtus. Stay
here with me when they enter. You’ll need to be my
Brewtus frowned in puzzlement. “Interpreter, master?
But, you are fluent—”
“Yes, Brewtus. My
interpreter. Admit them.”
Brewtus rushed to do his
master’s bidding. He’d never forgotten the man who’d given
him a plum tart at Master Pomeroy’s mansion when he was a
little boy. He’d been elated when the great Pharaoh had
appointed him to be in Master Joakim’s service!
Now, he ushered the ten men
into the colossal storeroom. “Ten men from Crimlia,
Master. They seek to buy food.”
They were all there except
Bernard. Each one prostrated themselves before him. Joakim
felt heat rush to his cheeks. His heart pounded. His
brothers certainly looked thin, and their faces showed signs
of deep grief. “You are spies!” His voice was harsh.
“You’ve come to see if our land is unprotected!”
Joakim listened to Brewtus
relay the message. His brothers looked bewildered and
“No, my Lord. That’s not true,” Rufus said.
“Your humble servants have come only to buy food. Our
land is ravaged by—”
“I’m well aware that the
famine infects all lands! Who is your family? Is there
anymore of you?”
“There is a sister, a
sister-in-law and her children, our mother and father, and
two other brothers. One brother is at home with our father,
and the other is no longer with us,” Justin said.
Joakim scrutinized each face
closely. Anger washed through him. Were they still
unwilling to admit their actions. He heard Salak whisper in
his mind, “Imprison them, Joakim. Show them the same
treatment they showed you. You know you want revenge.”
“I still believe you are
spies,” he said. “So, I’ll put you to a test. If you’re
honest men, leave here and come back with your brother whom
you claim is at your home.”
“My Lord, we cannot!” Levan
“Yes,” said Isanab. “If something happens—”
Anger overrode sense. Joakim
glared at them all. “You dare to defy me?” he roared.
Six men rushed into the
storeroom. “Throw these men into prison! They’ve come to
spy out the land!”
Over his brothers cries for
mercy, he heard his enemy’s laugh of triumph. Guilt sliced
through him like a knife. He saw Brewtus looking at him
with surprise. “You did right, Master,” he said reasonably.
Joakim bit his lip to stop it
from trembling. Then, he said, “Take over operations here,
Brewtus.” Without another word, he fled to his home.
In a dank cell, the brothers
huddled together. Three days had passed, and they were
beginning to despair. “I told you,” Rufus kept repeating,
“this is happening because of what we did to Joakim! We’re
being punished, and we’re getting exactly what we deserve!”
“Maybe so,” Justin admitted,
“but Father. He can’t stand many more catastrophies. We
have to think of some way to get a message to him.”
Crouching in a corner of the
prison, Joakim listened to his brothers words. After three
days of prayer, his anger had abated slightly. Longing to
see his father and Bernard became overpowering.
He went back to the storeroom
where Brewtus was distributing grain. “Have the ten men
brought to me,” he instructed. “I’m sending nine of them
home today. When I give them their sacks of grain, put the
money they give you into the mouth of their sacks. Make
sure they don’t see you do this!”
Shrugging, Brewtus went to do
his master’s bidding.
When his brothers were
brought to him, Joakim said through Brewtus, “I am a
merciful man. I’m sending nine of you home. One of you
will stay to ensure your honesty. Come back with your
brother and the one who remains here will be released.” His
eyes roved over the brothers, and he pointed to Simal,
“You’ll remain here,” he said.
Simal’s face grew pale, but
he bowed in submission.
When the brothers headed
home, they each opened their sacks and marveled at the large
quantity of grain. Then, Don saw a glint of silver in his
sack and gasped. “My money! It’s still here!”
All the brothers soon
confirmed their own sacks contained their money. Trembling
with fear, they hurried toward Crimlia. They didn’t stop to
rest anywhere along the way.
“Absolutely not!” Jakob’s
voice was tense. “I’ve lost one of Regina’s sons! I’ll not
risk losing the other.”
“You don’t understand,
Father!” Levan sounded exasperated. “It’s the only way
he’ll release Simal! Our money was in the sacks. He’s
probably waiting to kill us! We must prove we’re not spies
“Hasn’t this family suffered
enough? Who knows what Salak has planned! People in Emril
serve her! What if this is a trap?”
The brothers had no answer.
“Bernard is of age, Father,” Justin finally said. “He
should be the one to decide.”
“Yes, he should,” Bernard’s
voice came from outside Jakob’s tent. “I’ll go, Father.”
“My son. We’ve lost Joakim,
and we lost Verbena! Think about the danger! I’ll die if
anyone else is harmed in this family!”
“I’ll take responsibility for
him, Father,” Rufus said quietly. “My own son will be yours
if harm befalls him.”
The silence seemed to stretch
into eternity. Then, Jakob whispered, “The Imperial Lord
protect you all.”
“The men from Crimlia have
returned, Master Joakim,” Brewtus said. “They have one more
with them now.”
Joakim’s heart swelled with
anticipation. “Admit them immediately,” he said.
When his brothers entered,
they bowed and presented him with the money from their
sacks. “We’ve brought more to procure grain, my Lord,”
Rufus said. “We are truly honest men who seek only
Joakim was not listening. He
had eyes only for Bernard. Tenderness for the young man
swelled within him. My flesh-and-blood brother, he
thought. He is well. Thank you, Lord.
“Wait outside while I send
for your brother,” Joakim said.
When Brewtus had ushered them
outside the storeroom, Joakim allowed his tears to flow. He
crumpled to the ground, his body shaking. His sobs were so
loud and uncontrolled that everyone outside could hear him.
“Is he mad?” Bernard
whispered to Justin.
“I don’t know,” Justin
When Joakim told Brewtus to
admit the men once again, he said, “You will not leave
without sampling our land’s hospitality. Come to my palace
for a feast, then I’ll send you on your way.”
In Emril Palace, a lavish
banquet table was erected. The banquet table groaned under
the weight of silver platters overflowing with food. Joakim
made sure he was seated by Bernard.
“Look, Justin,” Bernard
called, “have you noticed how our seats are arranged?”
Justin had noticed. The
brothers sat in accordance to their ages from the eldest to
the youngest. Justin sent a silent message with his eyes to
his youngest sibling. Don’t provoke him!
During the meal, Joakim
whispered to Brewtus, “Put their money back in the sacks,
and put my silver drinking cup into the sack of the
“Master? I do not—”
“Yes, Brewtus. Please obey
The brothers headed toward
Crimlia in high spirits. They had all decided not to open
the sacks until they reached home.
Suddenly, horses hooves
thundered toward them. Brewtus reined in the chestnut mare
he was riding and dismounted. He stepped into the brothers
path. “Is this how you repay my master?” he roared. “Why
do you repay good with evil?”
“Please, sir. We—” Rufus
“My master’s drinking cup!
One of you stole it!”
“That’s preposterous!” Levan snapped. “We returned the
money that was in our sacks from the last trip! Do you think
“I don’t care about last
time. You must all submit to a search.”
“Go ahead,” Isanab said.
“We’ve nothing to hide.”
Each sack was opened from Rufus’s to Bernard’s. A
magnificent silver cup studded with diamonds tumbled from
the mouth of the youngest boy’s sack. Bernard’s face
grew crimson with embarrassment. “Brothers, it’s a
“You all must return with
me,” Brewtus said.
“I invite you into my home!”
Joakim exclaimed, once more having Brewtus interpret for
him. “and this is how you repay my hospitality? That cup is
a family heirloom!”
“It isn’t true, sir,” Bernard said. “I didn’t—”
“We can vouch for him, my
Lord,” Rufus said. “He’s honest. More honest than any of
“He will stay here with me,”
Joakim said. “You all are free to go. The evidence points
only to him. He will remain here as my slave.”
All the brothers gasped in
consternation. “No, my Lord!” Brewtus cried. “Please!”
“Silence! My decision is
Justin suddenly broke away
from his brothers. He approached Joakim and grasped his
Brewtus and two guards
hurried forward. “You dare to touch His Greatness?”
Justin paid no attention.
“My Lord, you don’t understand! If the lad does not return
with us, our father Jakob will die of grief. I am willing
to stay in his place.”
Joakim looked at Justin’s
earnest face. His eyes travelled over the faces of his
other brothers. They each stared back at him with
unwavering eyes. “You all were willing to sacrifice your
own freedom to save your brother from slavery and your
father from death?” he asked.
Each brother nodded.
The barrier of anger
crumbled. “Leave, Brewtus,” he instructed, “all the guards
leave as well.”
When the storeroom was empty
save for his brothers, Joakim removed the elaborate
headdress he wore. He flung Pharaoh’s signet ring to the
“My brothers. Don’t you know
me?” His voice choked with emotion.
“I am Joakim! I am your
Cries of fear and
bewilderment filled the room. Each brother sank to their
“It’s true. Rise, brothers!
It is I!” Joyously, Joakim hurried to each prostrate
figure. He hoisted his brothers to their feet and enfolded
each one into his arms. In his mind, he heard an anguished
cry of frustration and pain.
“The Imperial Lord has
reunited us! Salak’s power over our family has broken!”
Joakim cried in ecstasy.
“I am to blame,” Simal sobbed
in anguish. “I allowed her to enter my heart. We deserve
nothing but death.”
“No, you don’t,” Joakim
said. “All is well! It was all part of our Lord’s plan.
With his help, I have saved our nation from starvation! The
Deliverer will come! Your intentions were evil, but the
Imperial Lord used them for his good. Go home and get
Father, Donna, and everyone else. You’ll all come here till
the famine ends. Then, we’ll go home. I’m sending you home
When the brothers reached
camp, they hesitated before their father’s tent. Simal
trembled, and each brother’s face was pale. “We’ll all tell
him,” Rufus said.
“I’ll help you,” a gentle
Turning, the brothers saw
Donna preparing to enter the tent with them. “I suspected
from the very first,” she said simply. “Praise the Lord
Two days later, Joakim stood on the outskirts
of Emril. His eyes were bright with excitement. On the
horizon, he saw several approaching chariots. His eyes were
arrested by a dignified, bearded man whose face was flushed
with anticipation. Beside the man, an equally dignified
woman rode proudly. Her mismatched eyes were not covered,
and her head was held high.
Bolting from his place, Joakim hurried toward
the joyous reunion that lay ahead.
In the course of
time, Percival, one of the sons born to Justin and Tamria,
was married and bore a child of his own. Through Justin’s
descendants would arise Jamal, whose story is chronicled in
“The Battle for Crimlia.”
Jakob’s family stayed in
Emril for many years. Donna was appointed to be a baker in
Emril’s palace, and she taught the baking trade to Tamria,
who in turn taught it to her sons. No other hardships came
upon Jakob’s family, although Salak still persecuted the
whole Imperialite nation with a vengeance. She hatched
another diabolical plot which is chronicled in the scroll
The song that Verbena learned
from the Eaglia passed from generation to generation. Her
heroism is rarely acknowledged because the majority of
Imperialites never knew she existed, but the song lives on,
shining as a beacon of hope during the days of oppression.
Every year on the anniversary of Verbena’s execution,
Jakob’s descendant’s commemorate her courage by eating a
stew flavored with the lemon verbena herb. They thank the
Imperial Lord for his provision and deliverance. The
Imperial Lord be praised!