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Authors: Nicholas Guild

The Ironsmith

BOOK: The Ironsmith
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For my dear son Michael

 

⌠ πα℘, γέvoιo πατρ∈ς ε⇔τυχέστερος

Sophocles, Αιας, 550

 

PROLOGUE

The horsemen appeared without warning. There were eight of them and they wore the chain mail corselets of the Tetrarch's soldiers. With the sun behind them, they lined the bluff above the riverbank, implying that both resistance and escape were impossible.

It was just after dawn, and cold. The only sound was the whisper of the Jordan as it passed over its rocky bed.

“They must have ridden half the night,” the Baptist said. He knew, of course, that they had come to arrest him. He felt no fear, which surprised and pleased him. The end was always worse in expectation than as an actual presence.

“We can escape across the river. It isn't more than a few feet deep, and on the other side we'll be in Judea.”

The Baptist shook his head and tried not to smile. Only Joshua could imagine they would have a chance.

“A horse can move through the water faster than a man. They would ride us down before we were halfway. Besides, even if we reached the other shore, why would they hesitate to kill us in Judea?”

He glanced around at his other disciples and saw their fear. They were crowded together under an acacia tree and seemed to be trying to disappear into its shade. There were ten of them altogether, and they were his only legacy.

Joshua alone stood with him. Joshua alone seemed afraid for something beyond his own life. Perhaps the legacy had dwindled down to only one.

“I don't suppose they plan to arrest us all,” the Baptist went on, giving the impression that he thought of it as an abstract question of tactics. “They didn't bring enough men. Still, they look as if they are waiting for us to take flight so they can have a little sport. I had best go to them.”

“You can't simply let them have you,” Joshua murmured tensely, his hand closing around the Baptist's wrist. “John, the Tetrarch will have you killed.”

The Baptist merely shrugged.

“You can't let him.”

Gently, the Baptist freed himself from Joshua's grip.

“We've talked about this,” he answered, smiling with apparent serenity. “We knew it was coming. My life isn't important. Only the ministry is important, and if the rest of you die with me, the ministry is over. Now, trust in God, as I do, and let me meet the destiny He has prepared for me.”

That was the last his followers saw of him, walking slowly toward the bluff where the soldiers waited.

 

1

Noah, an ironsmith and a resident of Sepphoris, the old capital of Galilee, was at the forge when Hiram, his senior apprentice, came to tell him he had a visitor.

“He says he is your cousin. He's waiting outside.”

The ironsmith set down his hammer and wiped his face with his right hand. He was wearing nothing but a loincloth and sandals, since at the forge, clothing had an annoying tendency to catch fire. The muscles of his arms and powerful chest gleamed with sweat. He did not seem pleased by the news.

Except for his sister, who lived with him, Noah had no relatives in the city. He had a distant cousin in Jerusalem and, for the rest, everyone who could claim kinship lived in a village an hour's walk to the south. So family visits usually meant bad news.

He looked at the bar of metal he was holding with a pair of tongs and buried it in the hot coals. It would have to wait. He reached down and dipped his hands into a bucket of water he kept for the purpose, scooping up enough to rinse his face and rub a little over his chest.

“Let's go see,” he said.

Hiram followed him to the workshop door, which stood open. There was a man crouched outside. He was covered with dust and appeared utterly spent. With what seemed great effort, he looked up and smiled weakly at Noah, who recognized him at once.

“Go bank my fire,” Noah told his apprentice, never taking his eyes from the visitor. “When you're finished, we'll be in the scrub room.”

He waited until Hiram was gone, and then he reached down to help his cousin to his feet. It pained Noah to see him in such a condition.

“They arrested the Baptist,” Joshua said, as soon as he was standing. “Soldiers came and he gave himself up. He didn't even try to get away.”

Noah could only shake his head. John was a distant figure, someone he had heard spoken of, but no more. It was the narrowness of Joshua's escape that filled him with dread.

“Are they hunting you?”

“I don't know.” Joshua raised his hands in a helpless gesture.

“Come with me.”

Noah put his arm around his cousin's waist, partly out of affection, for they had been close friends since childhood, and partly to make sure Joshua kept his feet. The contrast between them could not have been more pointed—Joshua tall and slender and Noah a solid block of muscle not quite reaching his cousin's shoulder.

Noah led him into a small room with benches against three of its stone walls and a tub of cold water in the center of the floor. It was where he and his apprentices cleaned up after a day in the heat and smoke.

When Hiram came, Noah already had Joshua stripped and was washing him, since he seemed too weak to do it for himself. He sent Hiram across an alley to his house to fetch some food and wine.

“How long have you been on the road?” he asked.

“Two weeks and more. I've lost count of the days.”

“How have you lived?”

It seemed a reasonable question since, as a disciple of the Baptist, Joshua wouldn't have had any money.

“People along the way took me in and fed me, sometimes.”

“How long since you've eaten?”

“Three days—no, two. The day before yesterday an old woman gave me a fig.” Joshua smiled. The recollection seemed to amuse him. Then, quite suddenly, the smile disappeared. “If I can stay here the night, tomorrow I'll be on my way again.”

“Where are you going?”

“To a place called Capernaum. It's a fishing village on the Sea of Kinneret. I have a friend there.”

“What will you do?”

“Carry John's message. What else is there to do?” Joshua shrugged, but there was something of defiance in the gesture. Noah understood and reached across to pat him on the knee.

“Well, you won't be leaving for Capernaum tomorrow,” he said. “You'll need at least three or four days to gather your strength. In four days it will be the Sabbath and you can come back to Nazareth with me and see your family.”

“No. I'll keep the Sabbath here, if it's all right.” Joshua made a weak gesture with his right hand, as if warding off a blow. “You know what my father is like. At least here no one will tell me that I'm a fool and ought to go back to being a carpenter.”

“You're a fool and ought to go back to being a carpenter.”

They both laughed.

*   *   *

When the food came, Joshua was too weary to eat, so Noah took him to his house and made up a bed for him. Once Joshua was asleep, which was almost instantly, Noah went downstairs to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of wine.

It was early afternoon and his sister, Sarah, would soon return from her errands. He needed to consider what to tell her—and, more importantly, what to do.

With the Baptist under arrest, the question became whether his disciples would then attract the Tetrarch's interest. It seemed wisest to assume that Joshua's name was on their lists.

It did not fail to occur to Noah that Joshua's presence in Sepphoris involved certain risks for him as well. If Joshua really was a fugitive and he should be found in this house …

The thought made him feel ashamed. Joshua needed time to rest and recover. The risks would have to be borne.

But it was also true that the danger was greatest in the cities, where the Tetrarch concentrated his power, so Joshua's plan of seeking refuge in some obscure fishing village had a certain merit. If he had friends there he would probably be safe enough. In the countryside, Herod's tax gatherers and soldiers were regarded as an invading force and were hated accordingly.

They would not have arrested the Baptist unless they meant to execute him and, once he was dead, perhaps in a few months, the Tetrarch would grow forgetful.

The problem thus became getting Joshua safely to his place of hiding.

Noah saw no point in keeping any of this from Sarah. She would have to know that Joshua's presence in their house had to be kept a secret, and therefore she would have to know why. She was neither foolish nor hysterical, and she could even be of use.

As for Hiram, he did not even know the stranger's name, and he was a good sort. A word would keep him silent.

While Noah sat alone in his kitchen, his fingers touching the rim of a cup of wine he had not yet tasted, his thoughts were the prey of recollection. He had spent his childhood in Nazareth, but he had been born in Sepphoris, in this very house, where his mother had died giving birth to Sarah, early enough that his mind held no memory of her. His father had remarried a year later. Then his father had died and, as his stepmother had not wished to be encumbered with children not her own, brother and sister had been given over to the care of their grandparents in Nazareth.

Thus, he had known Joshua all his life. As children they had learned their letters together, had played together, had sometimes quarreled, and then missed each other bitterly during their short estrangements. Each had stood as the other's friend when each took a wife, and when, only a few months apart, each had watched helplessly as his wife suffered and died, they had grieved together. What had they not shared?

And now Joshua had come with a new trouble. Well, to whom else should he have come?

BOOK: The Ironsmith
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