For earlier chapters in The Book of the Prophet Joshua, look here: 1, 2, 3. There is a long, high hill in Hadochee. The people there call it Flower Mountain. Once a boy named Joshua had lived
There is a long, high hill in Hadochee. The people there call it Flower Mountain. Once a boy named Joshua had lived at the foot of the mountain, in a place called Nath. Now, he sat alone in the heights, in a meadow facing east. Even now, as close to home as he would ever be, the prophet dwelled apart. He had become, or perhaps always had been, a man of the wilderness.
Joshua oiled the falchion in silence. Twice it had drunk deep of blood since he sent out his message. But many dens of vipers yet remained. This sword had work to do.
A dark cloud fell across the hill. The pastures and wooded valleys below disappeared under its shadow. The prophet sheathed his sword. Thunder rolled and fire flashed all about him, hot smoke and cold mist mingling. Joshua rose and turned to look uphill. A shining figure stood above him. Its voice was like the sound of trumpets.
“The fear of the LORD goes before you, Joshua.”
“Good,” the prophet said. “The wicked should fear God’s justice. Those who oppress his people should tremble.”
A flame burst into brilliant glory behind the figure and faded, nearly blinding him.
“The LORD has heard their prayers! Hear me, Joshua. Go no longer from temple to temple of the heathen host. You will kill no longer, but you will testify. The Chief Justice will speak, and the high priest of the Serpent with him. You will answer them before the people, that they may know who sends you.”
At some point, the ground began to shake. When the angel stopped speaking and the earth grew still, Joshua looked up from where he had fallen on his face.
“I will do as the LORD commands. I will cast aside my sword.”
“Only leave it sheathed until the time appointed.”
Joshua bowed again. No words followed. The thunder receded with the retreating mist. The last trace of the apparition was the smell of incense.
The road below Nath followed Caney Creek. The canebrakes that gave the stream its name were thick and evil, a haunt of snakes and wildcats. Most preferred to take the high road east. But this path led to greater waters that merged into a river, and down the river to where the Chief Justice was.
Before many miles, a company of men met him on the road. They were all on horseback, and well-armed. One of them bore a repeating rifle. He was a grim-faced man, well into his middle years, with scars on his face and an air of authority in the way he sat his big, blood bay mount. Ammunition glittered on his belt. It took wealth and connections to keep a man in cartridges this far from the coast.
The man raised one hand and the other riders stopped. He eased his horse forward, reining it in twenty feet away.
Then he pointed to a shiny bit of brass pinned to his chest.
“My name is Alfred West. I’m the captain of these men. We’ve been deputized by the Chief Justice to bring a prophet by the name of Joshua before Congress. Would I be right in guessing that’s you?”
“What gave me away?”
“Nothing. I’ve seen you before. You were a lot younger then, and I was just a kid myself, but I remember you preaching. My mother said you had the fire of the LORD. Not like the other ones, with their snake oil.”
“Poor choice of words.”
The captain tilted his head as if pondering the thought.
“I’m not sure it is.”
The two stood there, staring at each another. The men behind Alfred shifted uneasily. They had heard the stories and knew they were no match for a god, or a man blessed by one. They kept a tight grip on their weapons. The prophet spoke.
“As it happens, I had intended to go before Congress. Maybe we can travel together.”
“It would be convenient,” the captain said. “Would you mind loaning me your sword while we do? I left mine at home.”
The prophet smiled again, his eye on that repeating rifle.
“With a piece like that, I can see why a man might forget his sword.”
Then Joshua loosed the sheath from his belt and handed it to Alfred, hilt first. They continued south.
The Congress of Hadochee met in the town of High Jasper, on the bluffs above the Neches. Most of Hadochee lay to the north of High Jasper, but the Neches was navigable down to the coast, and that meant trade with the Antian Empire. Trade with the Antians meant guns.
Joshua stood in the middle of a large room. Stands on three sides were loaded down with the Justices of every county, or the men deputized to vote on their behalf. Behind him, packed on rough benches, were ordinary men. They came to see what the prophet would say.
“Joshua of Nath, you stand accused before this Congress of multiple counts of murder. How do you answer?”
The Chief Justice, Eli Short, was heavyset, with a face like a bulldog. He had served in that office for years. He was generally an honest man, but he was also very shrewd.
“Your honor, I answer that I have done no murder.”
“Does this look like ‘no murder?’”
Across the open space, before the Chief Justice, stood a bald man robed in white and leaning on a black staff. In his other hand, he held up the forearm of someone who had been unfortunate enough to visit a temple on the day the prophet came. The Serpent’s high priest spoke for his people.
“Do I answer the Chief Justice, or the worm–priest?”
Eli had a staff of his own, and he slammed it on the wooden floor.
“This man is a guest of Congress, Joshua. You will not insult him during session.”
The Justice was red-faced and sweaty. He spoke to a man at his side, and that man gestured to others. Windows were opened and a breeze began to blow. Crowds outside drew closer to listen.
“Your honor, it is the law of Hadochee that those who hold a human being captive and force them into labor will be put to death. Has the law of Hadochee changed since I went into the west?”
“You are not a Justice, Joshua of Nath. It is not your business to enforce the law.”
“By the law of Hadochee, if a Justice refuses to enforce the law, it falls on free citizens to do so. Has the law of Hadochee changed?”
“The law of Hadochee!” spat the priest. “This is not a question of law, it is a question of justice! This man is a murderer!”
He held up the dismembered arm again, shaking it so the dead hand flopped limply back and forth. A few men outside shouted their support. Alfred, standing at Joshua’s side, now stepped forward, placing his body between the prophet and one of the windows.
“Has the law of Hadochee changed?” Joshua repeated.
The staff came down again. It thundered several times before the room returned to silence.
“It has not changed. But the priest is right. Your killing may have been within the law, but it threatened the peace of Hadochee.”
“Hadochee’s peace cannot be bought with the blood of the innocent. By the law of the LORD, when the innocent suffer, those who can must intervene.”
“Your god’s law does not hold here,” the priest said, walking towards the center of the room. Chief Justice Eli did not interrupt. “The god you serve has abandoned his people. Why do you think he sent you out into the wilderness? His power is broken! This land belongs to the Serpent now.”
“The LORD sent me out, worm, but He has called me back.”
“To do what? To murder free men seeking their own good? Very well, let your god murder us. Let him send down fire to consume me, here, before all these witnesses. Will he do it? Will he prove his strength?”
The room fell silent as the grave. No one spoke. No one moved. No one breathed.
“You see? By the Serpent’s law, the spoils go to the stronger, and your god has no strength. Let the law of Hadochee be what it is, you will answer for your crimes.”
Before Joshua could respond, people outside began to shout. There was a loud commotion. Then a black cloud burst through an open window and Alfred raised his rifle. It was just a flock of birds. They twisted about in the air, fighting one another. Feathers littered the floor and the heads of onlookers. The whole room watched as the birds chased each other around the room once, twice, three times over the Justices and onlookers. Halfway through the fourth turning, the cloud split in two. One half flew to Joshua, settling at his feet. The prophet looked down on their slim black bodies and iridescent heads. Grackles. There were twelve.
Across the room, the other half of the flock was diving at the Serpent priest. The man was shouting and cursing, trying to fend them off with his hands. He hurled his staff to the ground, where it began to swell and writhe. Now there was a serpent at his feet, and it struck at the birds overhead. After each strike, the serpent swallowed its prey, then struck again. One by one it devoured them, until it had consumed all ten. They had been crows. Then the serpent shuddered, turned belly up, twisted convulsively, and died.
Eli’s staff rapped feebly on the floor. It was a pointless gesture. Except for the harsh sound of grackles, the place was already silent. The Justice himself had nothing to say. Then Joshua spoke.
“Hear me, Hadochee! I am innocent by our law of any crime. Today when I leave this place, I go into the wilderness to await the day of the LORD. When that day comes, neither the Chief Justice nor Congress of all Justices will speak for you, but you yourselves will answer. In that day, you will stand witness in a great matter–whether the Serpent is God or the LORD is God.”
Not even the priest, panting and bloody, dared interrupt.
“Seek you all the LORD while you can. Come away from the Serpent and his creatures, and find mercy before Him, and in the midst of His people.”
The grackles rose and flew towards the door, causing men to shrink back in fear. The prophet followed.
In the silent room, before the people of Hadochee and the fearful eyes of her Justices, Alfred removed his badge and tossed it on the ground. Then he turned and went after the man who spoke in the name of the LORD.
He would not be alone.
To Be Continued…