“There is no such thing as Friend of Rome,” said the ethnarch of Rekkem, “You are either useful, not useful, or in the way! Do you think for a moment that if the barbarians of the West decided I were withholding a great treasure hidden beneath the sands of Arabia, they would hesitate even for a moment, to descend upon our lands with their legions?”
Miri knew enough not to answer. She stood in the court in chains. The ethnarch was obviously playing to the members of his court. The men were desert hardened, skin darkened by sand and sun, the women veiled and covered by the best silk and brocade money and prestige could acquire. This was the first court she had attended where she saw no scribes. She noted a small contingent probably of a priestly class, but there was little in the court to distinguish rank or occupation. Though the ethnarch of Rekkem sat on a throne, it did not distinguish itself radically from the other seats in the tent.
The palace, was cool and for the most part was decorated with carpets that were of as fine a quality any she had seen in Hindustan. A breeze blew gently through the central space, yet, probably simply as a sign of his authority, servants wafted great fans of the Egyptian style to keep him cool.
“So,” continued the ethnarch, “Miriam, Friend of Rome, why are you in Rekkem in the company of a member of the Praetorian Guard?”
“Ex-member,” corrected Miriam. “He is my bond servant.”
“I see,” said the ethnarch slowly, “And what am I to make of this?”
As he spoke two soldiers carried in her purse, and emptied the contents into his hand to reveal the glittering coins still inside.
The ethnarch stepped from his place. His retinue stood with him. He held up a coin. “Gaius Caesar Germanicus” he read from the obverse of the coin. It names the Legion Tenth Fretensis, but not the name of the Emperor Tiberius. I find that very strange, don’t you?”
“I received them at a discount,” replied Miri defensively, “The guard was a present to ensure that my investment would not fall into the wrong hands. I have business in Yerushalayim.”
“With whom?” asked the ethnarch.
“I have family there.”
“And your business?”
Miri knew she was on shaky ground for the Nabataeans had all but sewed up the spice trade, had an extreme interest in maintaining that monopoly.
She made her mind up. The best defense was strong offense. “I am a spice trader!” She said firmly. A great murmur raced through the court, for each and every man and woman in the court depended upon the sale of spices for their income.
The ethnarch smiled.
“Then we have something in common!” He relaxed. “And your family? They are also…“ he paused for a moment to sit down again. “…Merchants?”
“I am not sure,” replied Miri, “It has been many years since I left my homeland.”
“And your father’s name?”
“I have no father or mother. They were killed by the Romans under Varus, and I was raised by my sister, Yohanna, and under the guardianship of her father-in-law Yusef of Arimathea.”
One of the priests leaned forward and whispered in the ethnarch’s ear.
“Yusef of Arimathea, of the Judean Sanhedrin?” asked ethnarch.
“I have not seen him for some time,” replied Miri.
“So, what business have you with Herod Antipas?”
Miri started for she had said nothing of Herod. But the ethnarch held a small piece of parchment in his hands. Miri’s heart stopped. She instinctively reached for the secret place she had hidden her letter of introduction to Herod from Agrippina despite the fact Haritar was holding it up.
There was no use lying to the king, for he already had read the contents of the letter. The ribbon and seal had been broken.
She sighed, “Germanicus was in Egypt without an Imperial Permit, and released grain to the population south of Denderah for they were without food. There are those who will make a case of treason against him to Tiberius, he has returned to Syria…”
“And he expects allegiance from the fox of the Judean desert?” asked the ethnarch incredulously.
“Yes.” Said Miri, “There is a close friendship between the family of Caesar and the family of Herod.”
“There is no such thing as a friendship with Rome,” said the ethnarch bitterly, “And Rome is in the hands of mercantilists who worship nothing but the glitter of gold!”
The ethnarch angrily threw the coins bearing the name of Germanicus upon the great Persian carpet at his feet.
“Take her away!” he snarled.
“So, how did it go?” asked Redbeard.
“Well, I am still alive and my skin is unblemished,” replied Miri. They were in a small room cut from the rock.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“A tomb,” replied Redbeard. “It seems the Nabateans house their dead in rock cut palaces and live in tents. Form what he jailer has told me this is a city of the dead. They bring their loved ones here to be deposit their bones in the rock and then they return to the desert from where they came. On the whole, they seem to be treating us very well.”
He held up a platter of unleavened bread, grapes and dates.
“That jar over there has some very warm beer in it. It is quite good.”
They remained in the tomb for three days. The jailer brought food and drink, and, on the first day that they ran out of beer, they discovered that apparently they could ask for whatever they wished and they drank enough beer to float a trireme. For which they suffered for the remaining day and a half. A doctor came to visit them, and examined Redbeard’s injuries.
“We will move you!” he said after some poking, prodding and perusal.
“Where?” asked Miri in alarm.
“To a tent where he can get some fresh air, and we will have someone oil and rub salt with some herbs on his body until the skin heals. Frankincense and myrrh will restore him and perhaps the flies will grow in the open sores to eat away the infection.”
“I can help!’ said Miri.
“Not unless you take a bath!” sniffed the doctor disdainfully. “I will see what I can do!”
“You must have a horseshoe stuck up your arse!” said Redbeard.
Miri patted his forehead with a wet cloth.
“What are you talking about?” asked Miri.
“We’re captured by wild Arabs, and they treat you like you’re the queen of Sheba, sell you to the leaders of a rogue state, and we get all the beer we can drink and a nice oil rub down. That’s what! You must have friends in high places.”
“There’s no such thing as friends in high places. You’re either useful, not useful or in the way!”
“To be sure you’re more than a beautiful face, Miriam,” said Redbeard, “And a great set of-“
A Bedouin with the features of an eagle swirled into the tent. “You are to see Haritar, Peace Be Upon Him!” he said sternly in Greek. Two women followed in his wake. “Sharifa and Amatel will take you through to the public baths and prepare you to meet the Sheik.”
The warm water brought her back to a dream. Suffering and pain washed away from her immersion in the Mikvah, and the scents of the perfumes ate away at her defenses, melting her insides until she became one with the water. Her essence floated in the warm bath, without skin, flesh or bones. There was no other existence than her fluid state, and the waters had absorbed the others within it and she knew all that they knew, and she rose from the surface, her body reforming, her soul wrapped once more in flesh and bone. Arising from the cleansing water, she was a new woman, the dust and grime of her old life washed away.
As she stepped from the bath, before the water evaporated from her skin, Sharifa and Amatel began rubbing her with scented oil, and she stood, her arms raised to shoulder height, and allowed their hands to rub the oil into her skin. Both women chatted to each other and occasionally directed their comments to Miri. The language seemed similar to Aramaic and seemed to have some words in common, but Miri had no idea what they said to her. They scraped the oil from her with Roman strigils, and her skin was smooth and silky. They dressed her in cool white cotton stolla in a strange Greek-Roman hybrid, and twisted a brocade palla wrap round her. Sharifa added a veil and Amatel lifted a loop of the palla over her head, and then both women stood back to admire their handiwork.
At the very moment they nodded to each other in satisfaction, the eagle faced Nabatean appeared to escort her to the court of the Nabatean chieftan, Haritar.
They moved swiftly, and Miri had to increase her step to follow her escort. He seemed to glide over the stone steps without touching them, his entire manner as well as looks ever reinforcing his similarity to an eagle. She lifted her skirts to keep up.
“What is your name?” she asked, but received no answer.
From the narrow siq through which they traveled, the city opened up into an east-west main street teeming with merchants and shoppers. To her right was a temple to Al Dushares, whom she assumed was their Yahweh, and, as they approached the temple, and armed escort fell in behind them. They moved swiftly into the open courtyard of the palace of the ethnarch south of the colonnaded street opposite the temple to Al-Uzza. There a large canopy had been erected and beneath the shade of the tent, Haritar sat upon a throne surmounting a raised dais. He was surrounded by his royal retinue and was receiving a number of his chiefs who had materialized from the desert to honour their leader.
Miri was ushered into a separate area that served as a court for the women, where she was left with Sharifa and Amatel and though she sensed that some understood both Aramaic and Greek, they all spoke their own language. Because of the similarity some of the words of the language to Aramaic, Miri knew what they were talking about, but not necessarily how they felt about it. The looks they gave her though betrayed a rather hostile reaction amongst the others to her presence.
She sat uncomfortably a little apart and opposite facing the others, flanked by Sharifa and Amitel. The two attendants exchanged a series of whispers. That they were veiled allowed the two attendants to speak without anyone else in the room knowing they were speaking.
“They think you are betrothed to Haritar,” said Sharifa in Aramaic.
Miri was startled by the sudden change of language. She stared at her attendant in surprise. “Pardon me?”
“Please don’t look at us!’ commanded Amitel.
Miri turned again to face the others across the pavilion.
“They think you are a new bride for Haritar.” Said Sharifa.
“The woman in green and gold is his wife Shulkila,” whispered Amitel. “She is not pleased with your presence.”
Miri stared at the woman in green. The intensity of Shukila’s gaze was a warning to her, and Miri sensed the number of her days were being severely reduced by the woman opposite. But to her left, a younger woman did not reflect the head wife’s resentment. As she focused on the young woman, she could feel a plea for help and allegiance.
“Who is the woman in black?” asked Miri.
“Phasaelis, the daughter of Huldah,” whispered back Shukila.
“Huldah was Haritar’ first wife,” said Amitel.
“She died of a wasting disease, they think perhaps she was possessed by an evil jiin,” whispered Sharifa, “Though there are some who think Shukila herself cast a spell calling the jiin upon her!”
“She went straight for Haritar before the god’s messengers could strip her bones. Her corpse was still up on the mountain when Shukila flew to Haritar. Her brother Unayshu is a very strong chief, and the union was natural, and proceeded upon both wings of a sacred hawk.”
“It is a fine match,” added Amitel, “But Shukila is not secure in his heart, for Huldah still remains in Haritar’ heart, and she is determined to remove Huldah from his memory.”
The women’s pavilion was guarded on the outside by two men, and on the inside by two large and stern women dressed entirely in black. Their headdress was not the intricate silver mesh woven with coins, but caps of interlaced bronze strips. They turned to Sharifa and Amitel and said something in their Nabatean tongue.
“It is time!” said Shukila, and Miri and her escort arose in a flurried rustle of cloth, and bustled past Shukila and her court. They were brought to the throne of Haritar. He sat alone, his courtiers dismissed, and his guard withdrawn. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed Sharifa and Amitel who withdrew to a safe distance. They were to remain out of earshot as chaperones, not so much to testify and ensure Miri’s honour, but the king’s.
He spoke in Greek and asked after Yusef of Arimithea.
“I have not seen him for many years,” she replied, “I left his home several years ago.”
“He is an honourable man, if indeed he is your father in law,” said Haritar, “He is fair in his dealings, and I am kindly disposed of him. You said Yohanna is your sister?”
“She was more than a sister,” replied Miri, her emotions beginning to boil.
“Yet you have not seen her either?” asked Haritar, “You are traveling alone. You have no husband?”
Miri smiled, but due to the veil, all Haritar could see was the crinkling at the corner of her eyes. A man used to seeing women through their veils, he smiled back.
“Your sister is from what place?” he asked.
“Sappho near Yerushalayim.”
Haritar seemed pleased.
He clapped his hands and a scribe appeared and handed him a sheet of papyrus Miri recognized as her not of credit from Aristophanes.
“You are a close friend of the Kandake of Meroway,” he said warmly. “She is a staunch friend of Nabatea.”
“Yes,” answered Miri. “This Aristophanes, the Ambassador to Kemet is a close friend of yours?”
Miri smiled. “He is a very dear man, and a great friend!”
Haritar held up the necklace Aristophanes had given her. “And this?”
“A gift from Aminatare,” said Miri.
Haritar smiled. “ And this inscription?”
Miri stepped forward and read the Meroitic script on the obverse of the gold and faience medallion, “Satet, Protector of Her Royal Highness, Aminatare, Kandake of Meroway and Priestess of Amon.”
“Who is this Satet?”
“It is my name in Kemet and Meroway.”
“So, the Kandake considers you a sister?”
“Yet you are also a friend of Rome?”
“Only recently, it seems.”
He suddenly became serious, and his eyes clouded with thought. A wave of sadness passed over his face, yet, immediately calmed and settled. He waved away his retinue and motioned Miri closer.
“Speaking of Friends of Rome, I have come to an arrangement with Herod Antipas concerning our borders and have promised my youngest daughter’s hand in marriage to him to guarantee our contract. We are related through his mother and my second cousin and we have both sacrificed to Mithras, and I must send my daughter into the lion’s den.”
Miri held her tongue, for, though she bristled at the thought of a woman without the right to choose the man who would become the master her life, she knew most marriages were arranged by the head of the families, and at the level of kings and queens, political marriage was the norm.
Haritar sensed her displeasure.
“That is why I wish to speak with you.” He said slowly. “I married Phasaelis to him because she is a thorn in the side of Shukila. Huldah blessed me with several children and she is the last of my daughters to be married, and I had thought by moving her to the palace of Antipas, I would save her from my new wife’s jealousy. I have married my nephew to Herod’s niece, Berenike, but I am not sure that Phasaelis will be safe despite the exchange.”
He took a deep breath.
“She is to leave in seven days. You will travel with her and keep me apprised of her condition.”
“You want me to spy for you?” asked Miri. “I would be signing my own death warrant if Herod found out I was an agent of the Nabateans.”
“But you are already an Imperial agent,” said Haritar, “Or at least you will be if Germanicus becomes Emperor.”
“He will not live to be Emperor,” said Miri flatly.
Haritar lifted his eyebrows. “And how do you know that?”
“His thread has been spun, measured and cut,” said Miri, “I read it in his palm. He is not long for this world.”
“And mine?” Haritar asked, holding out his palm
“You will live long and prosper!” said Miri without even glancing at the Sheik’s open hand.
“So, you are a magician, Miriam?”
Miri untied her veil, and allowed it to hang across her breast, so to speak on equal terms with the shaik. She heard a brief intake of breath from both Sharifa and Amitel., and Haritar instinctively felt for the large blue sapphire in his necklace.
“I can see the unseen,” she replied softly.
“Then you would be the ideal person for this task,” replied Haritar, recovering his royal confidence. “All I ask from you is a report on her condition.”
“So you want me to risk my life so you can sleep at night?”
“If I sleep well, then so will you,” said Haritar coldly. “I have forty gold Imperial coins of Germanicus from your purse. For every report, I will send you one of your own coins. The person who gives it to you will ask for nothing, but you will tell him of the health of and happiness of my daughter. By the time you have received every coin in the purse but one, I shall send it to you with the Celt.”
Miri’s heart faltered, for she had never considered Redbeard while she had been speaking with Haritar, but she recovered her composure instantly.
“He is of no consequence to me,” she replied, “but I have bought him for his drinking debts in Alexandria.”
“Then I shall sell him to the Roman company mining along the Shat-al-Arab,” said Haritar, “And pay you four times his value!”
“He is not for sale!” declared Miri.
“You are in no position to bargain!” declared Haritar angrily, “Whether you walk, ride or your bones are picked clean by the vultures rests entirely with me!”
“And if you want the truth about your daughter, you will not threaten me!” hissed Miri, “You asked me because I have no dealings with your court, which tells me you cannot trust everyone about you! So, you asked me! Asked me! If I accept your offer, it is not because I am afraid of you, but because I think it best!”
Haritar stood unmoving, caught aback by Miri’s attack. Suddenly he smiled.
“You and Phasaelis will get along famously!” he declared. “I shall see that your note from the Ambassador is fulfilled fivefold with dinars from my own mint, but I shall still keep your Celtic friend as a surety!”
“How can I know you will ensure his safety?” she demanded.
“You have my word,” replied Haritar.
“I have no doubts to your word, your highness, but I shall require a token from Redbeard as well as one of my coins,” replied Miri.
“Of course, my courier will bring you a note from him in exchange for your report.”
“And he will be well treated?”
“As if he were my own son!” declared Haritar.
For the next week, Miri was introduced to Phasaelis and spent some time with the young woman. She was pleasant enough, but she was petulant at times and quick to turn when she did not get her way. They spent a great deal of time with the women of her entourage in the marketplace shopping. It was great fun, and there were some truly magnificent items to be purchased. The presence of Haritar in Rekkem had attracted traders for far and wide, looking to share in royal largesse, and the princess and Miri did not disappoint them. Phasaelis seemed to recover her girlishness in the bazaar, and the frequency of her tantrums diminished. Yet, after one strange bout of tantrums that ended with Phasaelis storming off, Miri raised her eyebrows at Sharifa.
“Her highness was not always this way,” said Sharifa apologetically, “She was one of the sweetest girls you could possibly imagine. After her mother Huldah took to her bed, she came every day to wipe her brow and talk with her, but the doctors and magicians who were assigned to cure Huldah insisted she be taken from the room when they performed their rituals, and she blames them for Huldah’s death. They claimed magic beyond their powers had claimed the Great Royal Wife. Haritar put five of them to death for fraud and failure, and when Shukila entered the scene, whispers that Shukila had poisoned Huldah reached the princess’s ears. I told Phasaelis she should hold her tongue until she had proof, but she spoke to Haritar as soon as she heard of it. Shortly after that, she was betrothed to Antipas, and she has been impossible ever since.”
“So, did you think Shukila poisoned Huldah?” asked Miri.
Sharifa held herself up and looked about.
“I am sure she made a sacrifice for the success of her courtship,” said Sharifa, “But whether she performed the ritual before or after the death of Huldah, I cannot say. Even the most holy of hearts sometimes harbours malice. In her way, I think Shukila loves Haritar, but she is not as soft as Huldah, and some might see that difference as evil. Most people do not take kindly to a woman as ambitious as she.”
Miri decided she would make a special effort to befriend Phasaelis, but the petulant princess was a very high maintenance friend. The degree of manipulation to keep Phasaelis on an even keel was tiring and Miri soon gave up, and weathered the stormy outbursts by withdrawing as soon as they arose. For some reason that worked, and Phasaelis soon treated Miri more respectfully for she had few friends in the court.
In the seven days before she left, Miri had pleaded and advocated for Redbeard, but it was he who convinced her he would remain in Petra under Haritar’ protection. Haritar had indeed brought the Celt into his household, and Redbeard enjoyed their company. The princes and sheiks of Nabatea never tired of putting his great size and strength to the test, and he was more than happy to show off. Miri was sure that something ran in men’s veins that encouraged bravado and vainglory, and for some reason the Arabs and the Celt had as much of that blood as the other. He regaled them with tales of his feats and prowess that, though they were as improbable as any she had ever heard, they accepted with great applause and admiration. Not to be outdone, the Arabs matched him tale for tale that were as outrageous and incredible as his. A Nabatean poet attached himself to the Celt and took on the task of interpreting his tales into their own language.
By the time she left, the Celt was already freed from his chains and waved heartily after her.
Sharifa and Amitel traveled with Miri and Phasaelis. Miri discovered that the women assigned to her were the personal handmaidens to Phasaelis. The princess had been opposed to her marriage to Herod Antipas, but her opposition was not as adamant than if she had already chosen a suitor or consort of her own. Though she did stamp her feet more often than Miri thought appropriate over more petty issues, on the whole she still had a young, compliant and innocent heart. She accepted her fate for she had been prepared for her royal duty all her life, with no expectation of loving husband. Her only hope was that whoever her father chose for her was honourable.
As was befitting a princess, their caravan was a procession. Haritar led the column with his royal guard and as they traveled the King’s Highway north from Wadi Musa, all bowed their heads and prostrated before them as they passed. At the edge of the district of Rekkem, they were met by the sheik of the land north of the Wadi al Husa. Areatas bid his daughter farewell in a storm of tears and wailing. From there, they passed from sheikdom to sheikdom, and each lord rode out to meet them, accompanied by his warriors. At each station along the way, they were feasted and honoured, and they were expected to dine and sleep at every camp and town through which they traveled. The slow speed of their progress worried Miri, for she knew her message had to reach Antipas before the news from Alexandria regarding Germanicus reached Rome.
Her stomach tightened each day that her homeland approached. She was now an exotic foreigner, and she wondered how she would be received in Israel. Though the peasants of the North were more pagan than Hebrew, she knew how adamant they were about correctness in the worship of Yahweh, and the intransigence of the Chasidim and the more fundamental sects worried her. But these she realized were nothing compared to the fear that her family would reject her, and in her imaginings, she fancied not contacting them at all, for she realized her home town roots would diminish her in the eyes of others. She enjoyed being an Eastern Princess, but in her homeland she would just become Miriam of Sappho again.
Memories of her childhood flittered in and out of her heart and mind, but even the pleasant memoties filled her with fear. She wondered if Yehuda had returned to his home in Galilee. Lost in thought, she was not immediately aware of the young sheik rode alongside her.
“You are a beautiful woman,” he said amiably. His teeth were white and strong, his skin brown as leather. He was dressed in black, and the colour with the silver ornaments matched his black twinkling eyes.
“How would you know that?” asked Miri, for she was veiled, and her eyes were in the shadows of her headdress.
“You have the eyes of a goddess,” replied the young man, “and no goddess with those eyes could be plain.”
“Perhaps my eyes are my best feature,” replied Miri coyly.
“Then I am honoured to behold them,” replied the prince.
“What is your name?” she asked the young man.
“Harithar,” he replied, “I am son of Harithar, the Sheik of sheiks. I am staying with the family of my uncle to learn the ways of our people!”
“You are son of Haritar?” said Miri in surprise.
“His Greek name!” said Harithar, “I refuse to speak it!”
“And do you find that is advantageous to you?” Miri asked.
“My people are very loyal and every man is a warrior. You must not believe the propaganda from your puppet masters in Rome, Miriam. They speak Greek as a way to show their cleverness and polish their lies and deceit! We are not, as they say, pirates, nor barbarians or terrorists! There is no other way to fight Rome except to retreat before their armies and attack from the flanks. Chip away at it piece by piece, until it can no longer stand! Here, the land protects us! The Romans see us as cowards because we do not stand in rows waiting to be slaughtered by overwhelming force and armour. It is only natural to give way against overwhelming force and strike from the side as a cobra strikes from the wayside! Brass cannot break iron!
The power of Al Dusharus is in the very rocks that allow the hob nailed step of the Roman Legions upon the breast of the Great Mother. Her mountains hide us from their eyes. The Sun that gives us Life from Heaven parches their throats! And we, all we have to do is pick at the edges as the vultures strip away the flesh from the dead!
We do not bow and scrape before them like the spawn of Herod! The Romans have met their match! It is not we alone that stop them at our borders! If they strike at us, we vanish into the mountains. It is Al-Uzza, the Lady of the Mountain, that stands before them and Manawat that will throw them down and Allat shall swallow them all!”
Miri was uncomfortable with his tirade, but paradoxically admired and feared his passion. Her anxiety increased with each and every word he uttered.
“Do you think we wish to live like the Romans?” he said “Shall we build palaces in which to live, when we can live free as the wind without stones to mark out squares and patches in the dirt in which to scratch our living? They want us to live like them? They want us to live by the rule of laws that they set? They wish us to think inside little defined boxes, when our souls can run free and unfettered from here to beyond the horizon? We live in a world without end, and they wish to fence it in!”
Thankfully, her travel with Harithar was short and Miri and Phasaelis were soon in the realm of a hardened warrior named Hamilcar, and his name brought her closer to home. It was under his command that the caravan traveled across the valley of the Wadi Muijib, that the Israelites called Anno which marked the southern edge of the disputed territory between the Jews and the Nabateans, then shortly after came at last to the approach of the canyon of the Wadi al Thamad which marked the northern edge disputed area between Haritar and Antipas. The Herodian fortress of Machaerus rose above the hills to the North.
The tension amongst everyone transferred to the animals that carried them. The camels and horses balked under their reins almost as if the animals were wary of entering the contended land. As the procession approached the hill of Machaerus, a large contingent of Herodian soldiers emerged from the gates of the fortress. A cohort of the Nabatean warriors rode out to meet them. A heated discussion ensued and one of the Nabatean men broke from the others and rode back to speak with Phasaelis. Herod Antipas was not yet at Machaerus.
The Herodians had suggested Phasaelis enter the fortress and await Herod within the walls. She refused, and the messenger was pleased with her answer. He returned to the group and the Herodians angrily returned to their walls. Hamilcar dispatched riders into the wilderness and the Nabateans turned their backs on the fortress and returned to high ground south of the wadi. They unpacked and made camp. Before they were finished and the fires were lit, the first of several thousand warriors assembled around them.
Phasaelis began her footstomping almost immediately. Her honour had been slighted by the absence of her suitor. Sharifa was as affronted as her mistress. Amitel and Miri acted to smooth their ruffled feathers. Their male escorts assembled outside the royal enclosure and stayed well apart from the displeasure of the princess. The cooks prepared a wonderful meal for the royal retinue, composed of Phasaelis’ favourite dishes. Hummus as Miri had never tasted and wonderful spicy falafel, roast lamb and cucumber soaked in pomegranate vinegar sprinkled with herbs, followed by honey cakes.
Unfortunately, halfway through the meal a delegation from the Herodian camp led by Cleophas, an officer of the Court of Herod Antipas, arrived to apologize for the delay in the arrival of Herod. At the Herodians approach, the meal was arranged to appear as if freshly prepared and Phasaelis was seated upon a dais and flanked by Hamilcar and Harithar who had recently joined the others to discuss the insult delivered by the absence of Antipas.
Cleophas, for his part was flanked by some very brawny soldiery, as well as seven women who had been assigned to serve Phasaelis. Both Sharifa and Amitel were as haughty as Shukila as they surveyed the courtiers from Israel. Miri was thankful for her veil, for she was more afraid of being recognized than she had thought. The actual presence of people from her country made her feel an imposter.
To atone for the tardiness of the groom, the Israelites presented a number of very beautiful pieces of jewellery, which went a long way to placating the impatient bride, and soon, the Nabateans offered great platters of food to the visitors, and more gifts exchanged. As it turned out, there were family ties between the local Nabateans and the Israelites in their party. Distant cousins were related and the atonement was accepted by both sides after assurances were made from one end of the tent to the other.
The Israelites withdrew and promised they would return the next day, and a large contingent of Nabateans escorted Cleophas and his attendants to the gates of Machaerus.
Alone in her tent, Miri was having second thoughts about her contract to reach Herod. Throughout the evening, Cleophas has eyed her suspiciously, and his attention had made her nervous. The closer she came to her homeland, the more of a fraud she felt. For some reason, she dreaded facing her family again, but more than that, she was deathly afraid of facing anyone who had known her in Shechem, and felt she would rather return to Alexandria, or even to Koptos. Her heart traveled eastward and she thought she should take her leave and flee to Hindustan, or further. Somewhere she had never been. Anywhere but Yerushalayim. She could not sleep, but with the help of an extra few glasses of wine, Miri managed to quiet her nerves.
The next morning arrived earlier and louder than Miri would have wished. She was still dressed from the night before, and the washbowl in her quarters was empty. Horses thundered about the tent and and chariots rumbled and squealed from all directions. She groggily fumbled about and found an amphora of water to wash with, but it was so large, she could barely lift it. She removed the wash basin from the stand and placed it in the sand, then tipped it carefully, and the water sloshed out and spilled everywhere but the basin. She swore, and managed to direct the stream of water into the basin, and wished the tumult beyond the tent would relent but for a moment, but the sounds did not abate, and for some reason, seemed louder. Dizziness overwhelmed her as she lifted the basin to the stand, and she swore she would never touvh a drop of wine ever again.
Washing relieved her headache temporarily, She rummaged through her baggage and found some red Ethiopian Kahawa berries she had been given by Aristophanes in Alexandria, and popped them into her mouth. The bitter taste immediately brought relief to the pain of the headache, though the sharpness of the wine after effects remained for some time, the anticipation of the effects of the beans took hold and steadied her vibrating temples. She shook some powdered mint and parsley into her hand and licked the mixture from her palm. Her teeth and tongue cooled and she drew in a breath through her clenched teeth. She longed for some betel nuts, and wondered how Drusilla was faring.
Miri’s thoughts snapped back into her surroundings. She was thankful she had a cool fresh cotton hijab to drape over her head. After she covered her head with the hijab, Miri pulled the left quadrant of the headscarf across her face and tucked the corner under the cloth behind her right ear. Well protected from the sun under her clothing, Miri stepped out into the camp. Dust filled the air, and she discovered almost immediately Harithar had arrived with the full force of his warriors. The men were wild and handsome desert Arabs, and had rallied behind the brother of Phasaelis to avenge her honour.
Miri hurried to her companions, Sharifa, Amitel and Phasaelis. The three stood apart from the five Jewish handmaids that Cleophas had left with the Nabateans. The two groups did not mix. They slept apart, and eyed each other apprehensively, all hoping they could become fast friends but not really knowing how to breach the gap. Now, the rising tension in the massing warriors, heightened the sense of isolation within them.
“This is not going well!” wailed Phasaelis, “Harith is ready to open heads! I wish father was here!”
“He is on the way,” said Sharifa., “I heard Hamilcar order a herald toward Rekkem! The message will be posted along the King’s Highway.”
“There will be war because of me!” wailed Phasaelis.
Miri wrapped her arms about the young princess. “It’s not your fault, Phasaelis! Herod knew of the exchange! He should have been here awaiting your arrival!”
A tall Nabatean guard approached them excitedly.
“He is here!”
“My father?” asked Phasaelis plaintively.
“Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Perea!” said the guard, pointing towards the hill of Macherus. All three women gasped at once, for it seemed the very stones in the field had turned to warriors. Armour gleamed across the opposite ridge, and at the head of a great column of men rode Herod Antips upon a beautiful golden coloured Arabian mount at least fifteen hands in height. Miri was fascinated by the horse for she had never seen an animal like it. Though its coat was gold, its mane and tale were the colour of ivory, and the trappings were a marvelous red leather with gold and ivory trappings.
A murmur went through the Nabatean forces in admiration at the horse, for most of the desert mounts ranged from black through various shades of brown and white. All thought of war had been washed from the minds of the men who beheld the magnificent animal. The murmur turned to a buzz, as behind the Royal Guard rode a number of groomsmen on similarly coloured horses, though none were as magnificent as the steed upon which Antipas was seated. The tetrarch was arrayed in gold armour that gleamed so brightly under the eyes of Shamash, he appeared as a god.
Phasaelis had forgotten her fretfulness and was entirely enamoured of her paramour. “Quickly!” she whispered to her maidens, “I must ready to meet him!”
The women, both Nabatean and Jewish hurried into the princess’s tent, and a flurry of Indian silk, Damascene brocade and Egyptian linen whirled about her until she stood perfect and poised, her heart beating wildly and her breast heaving, ready to meet her husband. The ladies of her court, their mistress arrayed in her finery, donned their own court apparel. Miri was delighted by their presence, for they were as perfect a group of young women she had ever cast her eyes upon. She did not join them as they shuffled and rustled from the royal quarters to the reception canopy where they would await the princess’s suitor. She decided she should bathe and redress before she was introduced to the king.
Had she been entirely honest with herself, she would have admitted to her insecurity concerning her return to her the land of her birth, but such doubt was not a part of her nature, and she did not recognize it.
The water was cool and clear. The walls of the canyon towering above the Ammon River shaded the emerald pool. Kingfishers flitted in and out of the trees and dived into the water she shared with the frogs and small silver fishes. At first the camp sentries refused to allow her to leave, but after a brief discussion with the duty supervisor, they were both, to their delight, assigned to escort her to the Wadi, along with a guide, and his wife. The hike to the canyon and down a small was winding and extremely steep, and seemingly impossible when they first reached the lip of the canyon, but the guide steered them through an almost imperceptible ibex track. Once they reached the canyon floor, the men and women parted company for the sake of privacy. Aminah, the guide’s wife was reluctant to strip for a swim and merely hiked her robes to her knees, and sat on a rock beside the pool, dangling her legs into the water. She wiggled her toes, and the water called to her body to disrobe and swim free, but she resisted. Indeed, at first, she was disapproving of Miri’s nakedness, but the water of Ammon was more seductive than she had ever imagined. She had often come to the water’s edge, but not since she was a child had she swum in the river of Ammon.
Years of marriage had wrapped layers of repressed desire about her soul and she was afraid should she succumb even to the tiniest pleasure, the pinprick in the tough skin about her being would create a flaw that would burst open the floodgates of her passion. She knew this for the pressure within her dark robes sometimes threatened to rip the very cloth in shreds from her body to allow the unquieted heat to explode from between her legs in a fire that would turn her to a charred remnant of the woman she was.
Though she fought the temptation, her toes wriggling in the water began to draw her downwards and she gasped at the strength of the attraction that pulled her deeper,. Slowly she slid from the rock upon which she sat, and the water inexhorably crept over her calves. The water was neither hot nor cold, but the smoothness of its touch filled her with an irrepressible desire to part her knees and her legs spread, and the inside of her thighs ached to become immersed in the pool’s liquid embrace. She gasped as she sank deeper, and the surface of the green water rose closer to the furnace she had once thought to have burned out. As the lips of her labia first touched the silver stream, she thought she could hear the hiss of steam, and the humidity inside her robe became so humid, she pushed deeper and in a joyful rush the water rose and enveloped her belly and breasts, her throat and filled her mouth and nose. She slipped deeper and free of the bonds of her robes which remained floating upon the surface. Freed of their wrappings, her Soul flew free of all she had been and for a glorious moment of exstacy, she was one with the Soul of Souls, and she recognized Miri as the goddess she had held within.
They embraced and kissed. Their legs wrapped about each other and their arms enfolded about each other in an uncontrolled orgasm until there was no telling where one woman ended and the other began. Aminah broke the surface with a shriek of laughter, exhilarated and ecstatic. Miri surfaced nearby, eyes closed and smiled at Aminah, who suddenly quieted, stood up in the shoulder high water and stared quizzically back at Miri.
The golden horses were a gift for Haritar from Herod Antipas. The Nabateans were very impressed by the power and spirit of the twelve steeds, and each and every man in the camp when time permitted came to admire the animals. The marriage contract had been presented by an envoy of Haritar and a representative for Antipas, and witnesses for both sides signed the contract. It was impressed in a copper scroll and each witness hammered their seal into the agreement. Land had been exchanged and given by Haritar with the marriage of his daughter, and he relinquished all claims to land north of the Ammon River, split down the ancient frontier between the Ammonites and the Moabites. The land surrounding Machaerus was given by Antipas to Phasaelis, and included all the land that Haritar had relinquished to Antipas. As Antipas and Phasaelis were to be husband and wife, the ownership by Phasaelis of the disputed territory was a moot point, for her husband would be the defacto ruler of her estates.
Once the contract was signed, both Antipas and Phasaelis, standing for the ceremony broke a jar of scented oil upon the stone that served as the dais of their thrones. The air filled with the heady aroma of spikenard and myrrh. Both bride and groom sat upon their chairs and were soon shrouded by sacred incense lit by priests from both Rekkem and Yerushalayim. Antipas rose and lowered the bridal veil over the face of his bride, then returned to his seat. Phasaelis rose from her place and slowly sensually circumambulated him in seat seven circles. She had accepted her spouse immediately, for she was very much swayed by his wealth and dashing appearance.
As she took her seat, the chief priest from Yerushalyim passed an ornate gold ring and passed it to Antipas, who took the hand of his bride and slipped it upon her index finger. A great cheer rang out from several thousand throats and the wedding party began. Fires were lit and food appeared as if by magic. In the midst of the dancing, Aminah’s husband paid his respects to Miri.
“I am not sure what you said to my wife, this afternoon,” he said happily, “But she is a new woman!”
Miri smiled, but was not entirely sure what he meant until Aminah approached her.
“We shall call the child Miriam!” she said happily. “I cannot thank you enough!”
“How long have you carried this epistle?” he asked grimly. He held the parchment from Agrippina loosely in his hand.
“Three weeks and three days,” replied Miri.
“I am afraid this may have come too late,” said Antipas, “Germanicus, from what I have heard has taken ill, and may not recover.”
Miri was shocked. “Ill?” she asked incredulously, “But he was in the best of health! What malady could have taken him?”
“A liquid or powder administered no doubt by agents of Tiberius,” answered Antipas. “Tiberius would never challenge him to open combat, for the Legions would align with Germanicus. You have harnessed yourself to a burning cart.”
He seemed to notice her for the first time, and stood up. They were in his private chambers in the fortress Machaerus. Though there were cells within its walls and barracks that would put a Spartan to the test, the tetrarch’s living space was decorated with bright false marble painting. And reasonably comfortable furniture.
“I am well disposed to the family of Agrippa, and I think I may have a position for you. You speak Aramaic quite well. You have experience in any household or trade?”
“I have access to Eastern markets, and holdings in Alexandria,” replied Miri.
“Do you wish to return there?’
“I, uh,” Miri paused for a moment to arrange her words carefully. “I would prefer to remain in your jurisdiction for a while longer. Until the whirlwinds left behind by Germanicus settle.”
“I have property in a new city I am planning. I shall call it Tiberias, after the Emporer,” said Antipas, “If you would care to manage the estate, I would give it to you for a reasonable rent. You allow me fifty percent of the estate’s revenue, and you may dwell there indefinitely.”
“And if I decide to leave?”
“The property is still mine, why would I care? I would expect you to appoint someone in your stead. Pending my approval of course.”
“Why would I want to become a peasant farmer?” asked Miri. She instantly regretted the sarcastic tone of voice.
“You have no choice!” said Antipas angrily. “If I were to send this small letter to the Emperor, the ground upon which you stand would still be warm by the time your head rolled over it!”
The viciousness of his outburst caught her off guard. His eyes had blazed angrily for a the moment of his outburst, then softened into a mask of indulgent beneficence.
“You may accompany my new wife and I to Tiberias and I will have Cleophas write up the contract.” He was eerily pleasant. “I am sure you will enjoy your stay there. You will have time to get acquainted with your property as it is a Sabbatical Year, and the land lies fallow until the New Year. You will have time to hire labourers or buy a few Gentile slaves.”
His outburst and command had revealed his cold nature, and in a flash Miri despaired. She had seen the side of the man who was capable of deciding death over life for anyone who displeased him and she again wished she had stayed in Alexandria.
“I would like to travel to Yerushalayim,” she said.
“Of course!” declared Antipas, “I myself travel there quite often! Creating a new city can be extremely demanding.”
Miri made up her mind that as soon as she could, she would flee to Egypt. She withdrew from Antipas’ court with a promise to dine with him later in the day. She made up her mind she would make her escape from Israel and return to Alexandria at the earliest possible opportunity. Within minutes she realized it would not be possible, for an envoy from Haritar arrived bearing a gold coin, and she realized that both Haritar and Herod Antipas had trapped her between a rock and a hard place. Either one could have her in Imperial chains in less time than it takes to skin a cat.