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CHRISTIAN SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
Christianity Oasis Ministry has provided you with this Christian Spiritual Journey lesson on Christian Spiritual Journey verses. This Christian Spiritual Journey book on Christian Spiritual Journey meaning looks at Christian Spiritual Journey message and asks what does Christian Spiritual Journey mean, who needs a Christian Spiritual Journey, what is the Christian Spiritual Journey purpose, how can a Christian Spiritual Journey be obtained, why the Christian Spiritual Journey is important, what is the Christian Spiritual Journey message and how the Christian Spiritual Journey message affects your Christian walk. Come and let us seek within the Bible and find the truth of Christian Spiritual Journey verses with Christian Spiritual Journey message together in this Christian Spiritual Journey Bible study, shall we?


 

 

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JOAKIM

By Meredith Burton

 

 

Preface

                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 mlb3v@hotmail.com.  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

By Meredith Burton

 

                “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 Rufus!”

                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 said softly.

                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 about it.

                “Joakim?” a familiar voice rang out cheerfully.  “Come on into the bakery.  I just made some honeycakes!”

                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 our list!”

                “We’re Imperialites, sir.  Our Lord provides all that we need.  Other gods are deceptions planted by Salak.”

                “Salak? Whom are you referring too?”

                “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.”

                “Union Ceremony?”

                “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 fulfilled.”

                “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 goddess!”

                Jakob 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 your sons.”

                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 him.

                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 clouded.

                Muttering an oath, he dismounted from his horse.  “Where has he gotten to?” he murmured.

                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 delight.

                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 said.

                When the men had faded from view, Justin whooped.  “We play our cards right, they’ll be eating out of our hands! We could—”

                “NO FOOLISH TALK!” Jakob thundered, “WE’RE GUESTS IN THEIR LAND, AND WE TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT!”

                “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, and then—”

                “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,” He said.

                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 hesitated.

                “What?” Joakim asked.  “What happened?”

                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 your honeycakes.”

                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 his Word.”

                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 Uncle Esol!”

                “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 easy tools.

                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 all!

                The first part of the plan could start immediately.  Quickly, she instructed: “Show me Shelkah’s son!”

                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 has come.”

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 prospect.

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 said.

Father and Son began an intricate dance.  Their movements were perfectly harmonized and defied description.

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 calmed.

                “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 back.”

                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 asked sharply.

                “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 a lemon?”

                “No, I’m—”

                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 sweet taste.

                “You have made my life sweet, just as sugar improves the taste of lemons,” Shelkah said simply.

                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! Please, Donna.”

                Donna’s face fell.  “Joakim, I need to see girls of my own age.  You’re too young to understand.“

                “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 establishment.

                “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 was raised.

                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.  It’s lunchtime!”

                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 blushed.

                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 enough.

                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 I’ve ever—”

                “Don’t start that! I’m not interested.  I’m waiting for—”

                “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 my—”

                “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 married.”

                “I’d rather die.” Donna’s voice was strangled, so she didn’t sound as defiant as she’d hoped.

                Shelkah simply laughed.  “I’m going to get you some soap and water to clean up.  I’ll be right back.”

                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 fast.

                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 was—

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 away.

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 already?”

                “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 sharply.

                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 away.

                When they returned several hours later, Donna was not with them.  Their faces were crimson with rage, and they demanded an audience with Father.

                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 roared.

                “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?” he snapped.

                “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 a common—”

                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 usual.

                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 those—”

                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 thunderd

                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 Donna.  Now—”

                “It’s my fault, Father.  It’s my—”

                “Your mother told me about your dream, Son.  Do not blame yourself.  How could you have known?”

                “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.”

                “Why, Father?”

                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 Promise?”

                “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 your culture.”

                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 else?”

                Levan shook his head.  “Nothing more.”

                “Very well.  Our chieftain gives his consent.  Send your father here in three day’s time.”

                Nodding, the brothers took their leave.

 

                “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’ time?”

                “Yes, Father,” Simal said.  “He said he’d changed his mind.  Levan and I will go get her then.”

                “Why does he want us to wait three days?”

                “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 room, and--“

                “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 done?

                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 wept.

                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 SHAME?”

                “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.”

                “So?”

                “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 called softly.

                Stooping to enter, Joakim caught the sweet aroma of lemons.  “Can I—”

                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 bake again?”

                “Yes, of course.  It’ll get my mind off of things.”

                Joakim grinned.  “Sure I’ll help!”

 

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 right?”

                “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 with you?”

                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 asked.

                Without hesitation, Donna said: “Verbena.”

 

                “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 was blind.

                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 a year.”

                “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 if—”

                “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 activity.”

                “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?”

                Joakim nodded.

                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: Wormwood Serum.

                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 YOU ARE!”

                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 frustration.

                “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 nothing.”

                “I know plenty! You’re a tyrant! Let me do my—”

                “NO!

                The voice faded, and Salak, quivering with anger, turned back to her mirror.  As she’d anticipated, the powder had disappeared.  Curse him! Curse him!

                Well, she wasn’t through.  There were other ways.

                After a moment, her mind formulated another plan.  This one would take longer, but it would work.

 

                “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 happily.

                “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! Pleeease?”

                “All right.  Grandpa and Uncle Esol were?”

                “Twins!” Verbena said happily.  “They were born at the same time!”

                “Right! Who wanted to always be first?”

                “Grandpa!”

                “Yes.  Well, as they grew up, Isol found out that he loved hunting.”

                “Like Rufus?”

                “Right.  Jakob loved working with Grandma Roberta in the tents.”

                “Like you?”

                “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—”

                “My favorite!”

                “Well, Esol asked Jakob for some of the stew, but Jakob wanted something in return.  What was it?”

                “The b-birthright.”

                “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 him Pumpernickel.”

                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 put down.

                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 food—”

                “Venison!”

                “That’s right.  He wanted to bless Esol so that he would grow wealthy and have many descendants.

Roberta was listening.  She wanted Jakob to receive the blessing, so they came up with a plan.  What did they do?”

“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 story?”

“Esol found out, and he was mad! He wanted to kill Grandpa!”

“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 you think?”

                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 for Bernard?“

                “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 mean!”

                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 delight.

                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?” Joakim said.

                McPherson gave Joakim four tomatoes.  The boy placed them into a small bag.  “Thanks, sir.”

                “And how’re you, young lady?” McPherson asked.

                “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 a lamb.

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?”

                “Verbena.”

                “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, too.”

                “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 like mad!

                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 more.

 

                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 subtle approach.

                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 imprison her.

                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 inferior being?”

                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 the truth.”

                “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 prepared.

                “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 is safe.”

                “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 asked desperately.

                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 she’s miserable?”

                “Something as evil as her has no feelings of any kind, Joakim.  I found that out with Shelkah.“

                “I should have let Verbena draw the water.  Then, we’d—”

                “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 hate themselves.”

                “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 Verbena.”

                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 cried.

                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 said.

                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, Father.”

                “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 some—”

                “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.

                “L-Levan,” Bernard stammered.  “And, someone spoke to me last night when I was sleeping.”

                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 fault.”

                “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 protect you.”

                “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 no—”

                “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 covered her.

                With an effort, she pushed herself into a sitting position.  “W-Where am I?” she croaked.

                “Don’t worry, little one.  You’re safe with me.” The man’s voice sounded vaguely familiar.

                “You’re the man who gave us tomatoes.“

                “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.”

                “Who?”

                “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 wonder.

                “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 me.”

                “Aye, lass.  That’s what she said, anyway,” the man said.  “Is that stew helping?”

                “It’s great! It’s better than Momma’s!”

                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 Momma?”

                “Ah! You know about that do you?”

                “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 Freedom’s Bread.”

                “Huh?”

                “Yes.  It’s an old song me and my fellow workers sing.  Would you like to learn it?”

                “A song? I love to sing!” Verbena squealed.

                “Well, you’ll like this song.  If I teach it to you, will you teach it to your family?”

                “Sure.”

                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,” Verbena said.

                “Thank you, Verbena.  But, you sing better.”

                “Levan says I sing like a toad!”

                “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 heart.”

                “Why does your friend hate you now?”

“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 Eaglia’s?”

                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 help.”

                Trembling, Verbena nodded her head.

                “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 deep sleep.

                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, sir?”

                “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 sometime?”

                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 squealed.

                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 safe.”

                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 excitement.

                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?” Verbena asked.

                “Oh, your uncles have gone to Nunmal to find better grass for the—”

                “VERBENA!” Donna burst from her sleeping tent.  Sobbing, she clutched her daughter with trembling hands.

                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 beautiful melody.

                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 same since.”

                “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 journey.”

                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, please?”

                “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 play.

 

                “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 them!”

                “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 other day—”

                “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 began.

                “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 face.

                “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 tearing material.

                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 us all!”

                “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 listen.

                “Let me help you,” a gentle voice crooned.  “I’ll get rid of him for you.  Let me into your heart.”

                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 you?”

                “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 ignored him.

                “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 thought.

                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 mad!”

                “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 hysteria.

                “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.”

                “Sold him?”

                “Yes, he’s in Emril now.  We’ll tell Father we found the coat.  Everything’ll be all right.”

                “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 sharply.

                “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 Smalscum.”

                “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 simply.

                “Momma, did my daddy hurt you?”

                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 moving!”

                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 immense mansion.

                “What’re you waiting for, dog? Get moving!”

                “But, the soil’s soft there, sir.  The soil’s firmer over—”

                He screamed as numerous blows from the whip sliced into his back.  “Master Pomeroy wrote specific instructions! Get to work!” Quickly, Joakim lifted another plank.

                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 often thought.

                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 away.

                Joakim went to where the discarded tart lay in the grass.  He bent down and picked it up.

                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 it?”

                “You needed it more than me.  What’s your name?”

                “Brewtus, sir.”

                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 said the—”

                “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 barked.

                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 your master?”

                “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 things.”

                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 leadership.”

 

                “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 self-respect?”

                She flushed with anger and stalked away.

                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 with me!”

                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 undergarment.

                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 embarrassment.

                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 tempted!

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 she chose.

                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 words louder.

                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 you.”

                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,” Pomeroy said.

                Joakim related the truth in a straightforward fashion.  He couldn’t tell what Pomeroy was thinking.

                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 prison.”

                Joakim bowed his head.  He felt like discarded refuse.  “I didn’t do anything to her,” he whispered.

                “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.  Prepare yourself.”

                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 desperately.

 

                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 simply.

                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 the bleeding.”

                “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 intended.

                “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 that boy.

                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, now.”

                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 whispered.

                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! Come quick!”

                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 right!”

                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 snapped.

                “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 you, sir.”

                “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 translucent vibrancy.

                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 tightly.

                “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 Muriel?”

                “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 escaped.”

                “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 retreating figure.

                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 think we—”

                “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 crimson dress.

                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 drink?”

                “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 these items.”

                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 me.”

                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 of dreams!”

                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 people—”

                “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 nights!”

                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 you.”

                “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 that?”

                “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 reward you.”

                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 dreams?”

                “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 speak.

 

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 gone.

                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 asked.

                “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 woke up.”

                “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 the shop.

                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 tyranny.”

                “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 consequences.”

                “Tyrannical ways?” Verbena’s voice rose in indignation.  “You’re the tyrant, Salak! He promises us deliverance from your rule.  I eagerly await that day.”

                “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 response.

                “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 liquid.

                “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 hope.”

                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 with hope.

                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 victims.

 

                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 asked.

                “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 skeletons.”

                “Show them in, Brewtus.  Stay here with me when they enter.  You’ll need to be my interpreter.”

                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 fidgeted nervously.

                “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 cried.

                “Yes,” said Isanab.  “If something happens—”

                Anger overrode sense.  Joakim glared at them all.  “You dare to defy me?” he roared.  “Guards!”

                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 or thieves!”

                “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 sustenance.”

                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 whispered.

                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 youngest.”

                “Master? I do not—”

                “Yes, Brewtus.  Please obey my orders.”

                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 began.

                “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 we’d—”

                “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 lie! I—”

                “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 us.”

                “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 final!”

                Justin suddenly broke away from his brothers.  He approached Joakim and grasped his arm.

                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.”

                “Yes, master.”

                When the storeroom was empty save for his brothers, Joakim removed the elaborate headdress he wore.  He flung Pharaoh’s signet ring to the ground.

                “My brothers.  Don’t you know me?” His voice choked with emotion.

                “I am Joakim! I am your brother!”

                Cries of fear and bewilderment filled the room.  Each brother sank to their knees.

                “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 in style.”

                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 voice said.

                Turning, the brothers saw Donna preparing to enter the tent with them.  “I suspected from the very first,” she said simply.  “Praise the Lord he’s alive!”

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.

 

Final Notes:

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 entitled “Emilia.”

                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!

 

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