For earlier chapters in The Book of the Prophet Joshua, look here: 1, 2. The prophet stood on a high bluff. A hot summer wind stirred the trees below, their myriad hues of green shifting like
The prophet stood on a high bluff. A hot summer wind stirred the trees below, their myriad hues of green shifting like the scales of a serpent. Along the spine of the valley was a brown river. The old folks called it “Turneddy.” Beyond that was Nindad. The new moon had come; Joshua was returning to his country.
He went down the bluffs and entered the shade of the trees. It was another world under the canopy, calm and twilit, beyond sun or wind.
When he had left Hadochee, there was a bridge over the Turneddy, a rickety wooden span maintained by the little village beyond. The inn brought in money for the whole town, so there was an interest in keeping the way open for outsiders. The prophet arrived at the banks of the river to see only flotsam and wreckage.
The greater part had been swept away with the current. Perhaps there was a flood. A few large, dark beams pierced with iron still jutted from the mud where the crossing had been. Green shoots were already growing on the rotting timbers. Where one long piece stretched out from the far side into the water, a river dragon sat sunning itself.
The new moon had come. The prophet must return.
Joshua weaved his way down the high bank, clinging to roots for support. When he reached the muddy shore, he noticed the river dragon was not alone. Dark, scaly backs jutted just above the surface of the Turneddy in a dozen places. They were deadly beasts that would seize a man’s leg and drag him under, twisting until the limb tore or he drowned.
The prophet waded into the river. Each step carried him farther into the tugging current and closer to home.
The river dragons drifted lazily, watching as he passed. One drifted in front of him. It was huge, at least twice as long as he was tall, the kind of beast the people of Hadochee told stories about. Its deadly jaws, stinking of carrion, were turned towards him.
He thwacked it on the nose.
The creature dove, and so did its brothers. Their thick tails churned the water as they dove, and the prophet watched as a dozen foamy wakes converged and rushed downstream. Even river dragons must bow to a prophet of the LORD.
As he continued, the water rose from his flanks, to his chest, to his shoulders. At last his feet came up from the bottom and he was forced to swim. His strokes were sure. The far shore grew closer. Then something slammed into his kicking legs, something large and smooth. Its wake tossed him forward and his head went under. When his feet found the river bottom and he broke the surface, he looked to see what was in the water with him.
It was no river dragon. A fin and part of a long, slick back cut through the Turneddy. That alone was longer than the great beast Joshua had confronted before. It was a fish, one able to swallow him whole.
The prophet stood in the water as the figure receded. Then he turned back towards Hadochee and continued.
Nindad was little more than a wide spot in the road where farmers met to exchange goods and gossip. What made that spot better than another was the Great Inn, a towering building of three stories, each with its own balcony wrapping all the way around. The Great Inn boasted a saloon with a dance hall, several private dining rooms, and kitchens that could provide any meal a road-weary traveler might want. It was built to serve the merchants who went out from Hadochee to trade in the Bear Hills and down across the Great River in the Southlands. But that had been old Nindad, before the priests of the Serpent came.
There was a well to one side of the old building. A woman stood beside it, watching the westward curve of the river road. Few came from that direction these days. Younger women would be on the eastern porch, and their dresses would be nicer, and they would be better fed. But this was her place.
A man clothed in skins came from the west, and mud clung to his garments. She watched as he trudged up the road, his face troubled as he seemed to ponder the ground at his feet.
“Can I help you, traveler?” she asked.
If her words startled him, her appearance confused him even more. She wore a short white dress with a plunging neck, pulled close to her waist by a scarlet ribbon.
“This is Nindad?” he asked.
“Of course. Come inside and relax. We have pleasant accommodations.”
His eyes were on that ribbon, the one that was the sign of her trade.
“I know the Great Inn, sister. I’ve been here before. What I don’t remember is women like you working at it. Does the place have a new owner?”
She brushed dark hair from her face, trying to catch his gaze with her blue eyes. He did not meet them.
“Yes. It’s a temple of the Serpent now.”
“I see. I’ll find my accommodations elsewhere.”
He turned to leave, and she reached out to catch his arm.
“Wait. You don’t like the Serpent?”
She took a second look at his clothes and his face. Her own grew pale.
“You’re a holy man, aren’t you? A prophet of the old god?”
“The LORD is the God of all ages. He still lives.”
Now her cheeks grew red and it was she who could not meet his gaze.
“Stop for a minute and let me draw you some water, father. Something clean to drink and wash your face and hands. There’s another path I can tell you about, one they don’t walk as much. You won’t be bothered.”
The old man’s brow furrowed.
“Thank you. What is your name, daughter?”
One gray brow rose in a high arch.
“My mother named me Rebecca.”
“Thank you, Rebecca. You’re very kind.”
“It’s my pleasure, father.”
Neither spoke as she lowered the bucket into the well, waited for it to fill, and drew it up again. Voices drifted from the eastern porch. He drank and washed. She lowered the bucket a second time.
“Your water skin, father?”
He nodded, thanking her. When she drew the bucket back up, he filled the skin and slung it back over his shoulder.
“Back the way you came,” she said. “The first lane on your right. At the old cottonwood with the lightning-split trunk, there’s a path. It will join the river road on the east side of town.”
“Thank you, Rebecca.”
“Bless me, father?”
He placed a gnarled hand on her head and prayed the LORD would guard the woman. Then he left.
Rebecca stood alone at the well, watching him go.
Joshua did not reach the cottonwood. A spirit stood in his path. It was a frightening mix of buffalo and mountain lion, with hawk’s wings. It was upright like a man, and gripped a sword. The blade shone so bright it burned the prophet’s eyes and forced him to look away.
The being was silent.
“What must I do?” Joshua asked, falling to his knees.
There was no answer.
“Why do you bar the way?”
Again, there was only silence. Then the other voice spoke.
“Nindad is unclean, Joshua. What do you think he wants?”
The prophet snarled. “Get behind me!”
“If I did, your way would be barred in both directions.”
He turned to answer that voice, but the lane was empty behind him. He looked back the way he had been walking. It was also empty. He was alone, and without clear direction.
Joshua went back the way he came.
There was a post on the western side of the temple, tall and rough. They tied Rebecca to it. Next, they pulled down her dress, exposing her back. Then the whip came, blood spattered on dirt, and she shrieked.
A bald priest in white robes stood beside the brawny acolyte who held the whip.
“Again,” he said. His tone was flat.
The whip lashed out. More blood and more screaming. Rebecca wept.
“What are you doing?”
A wild-looking stranger was running across the yard. The priest stepped past the acolyte as the whip darted out once more, eager for blood.
“Who are you?” the priest asked.
The man ignored him, rushing to the bound prostitute. He caught the next blow on his arm, seized the whip, and jerked it from the acolyte’s hand. Before the two men could react, he was advancing towards them.
“What have you done to her?”
“She stole from the temple.”
“M-my lord,” the acolyte stammered, “should I–”
“Yes,” the stranger snarled. “Stay. In the name of the LORD, the God of Hadochee, I conjure you to answer me! What have you done to this woman?”
“She stole from the temple and she is being punished.”
The bald priest stood his ground.
“Do you think I’m a fool, worm-priest? You are no Justice, you cannot punish. And the law does not whip a freewoman of Hadochee for the crime of theft!”
“She is no freewoman. By the Serpent’s law, she is bound to this temple. We will do with her as we see fit.”
“Bound? Are you telling me this woman is a slave?”
Rebecca wept, clinging to the post to stay upright.. The smell of blood was in the air.
“My name is Joshua. I am a prophet of the LORD, and a freeman of Hadochee. There can be no slaves in this country, not unless the Congress has passed new laws since I left. Is that what you tell me? That the Congress has established the Serpent’s law in my land?”
“Stranger, this is no concern of yours.”
“I am no stranger, worm. You are the stranger here. Answer me.”
“The Congress will do what the High Priest asks. If you oppose the Serpent, his fang will be on you.”
The acolyte’s hand strayed to his belt. A long, straight dagger hung there, sheathed in black leather. The priest seemed to notice, but rather than stop the young man, he began to draw his own knife. The whip cracked and the skin on his hand split. He screamed. The acolyte rushed the prophet. He was young and strong, but Joshua had experience on his side. He was already moving, his limbs a blur, and suddenly the acolyte lay on the ground and the prophet stood over him, dagger in hand.
“You will not move.”
His voice was stone, and the young man obeyed.
Joshua went to the post and cut Rebecca down. The priest was still shrieking.
“Can you stand?”
“They’ll kill us.”
“No. I need you stand. Can you do it?”
“Please, we need to go.”
She did, and Joshua led her towards the building that had once been the Great Inn of Nindad. As they passed the priest, the prophet leaned down, pressed the dagger’s edge against his throat, and pushed. He rose instantly. Joshua hauled him around to face the building with them and marched forward, holding him tight, ready to spill the man’s blood at the slightest provocation. Rebecca hurried in front of him and opened the door.
A guard was standing in the foyer, his back to the wide room that had once been the dance hall. There was a wicked looking falchion at his side.
“Draw it and the priest will die. Then you will join him.”
The man froze. For a heartbeat, nothing happened. Then Joshua stepped forward, shoving his captive before him. The guard backed up. Now the prophet could see the temple proper. An altar, with a bronze serpent raised above it, stood at one end. The priests had already offered sacrifice, and now they were cutting up the victim to be distributed among the worshipers. They were all rough looking men, the sort whose appetites had led them down a path of violence and plunder. None, though, were armed inside the temple.
All about, there were slaves. Young children of both sexes served sour beer to the devotees of the Serpent. One man carelessly kicked a boy no older than five on his way to the bench. Women with red ribbons sat beside the devotees, or led them through side doors, off to ply their trade. The young men among the slaves were few and hobbled. Whatever the priests or acolytes did not do themselves, the slaves did for them.
“You are one man,” the captive said. “What can you do to us?”
Again Joshua heard that other voice speak. No other could.
By now everyone in the room had noticed the disturbance. They were rising from the benches, turning from the altar, shifting to get a better view. Other guards came from other doors. Acolytes rushed out to fetch help.
The first guard drew his falchion. Joshua opened the priest’s throat.
Rebecca closed her eyes. The guard rushed them.
It came from above, and all around. In every corner, above the heads of the worshipers, men in armor, wreathed in lightning, with skin like bronze and eyes like stars. They flashed into view for a moment, brilliant as the sun, and were gone. In that moment, every guard, priest, acolyte, and worshiper was struck blind.
The man attacking Joshua tripped and fell face first to the floor. The prophet bent and, with a quick movement, opened his throat as well. Then he picked up the falchion with his free hand and turned to Rebecca.
“Today, the LORD renders judgment on this place. Go gather every slave who wants to leave. Lead them out of this place.”
“Me alone?” She spoke to the prophet, but her eyes were on the spreading pool of blood, and on the worshipers yelling and stumbling about behind him.
“You are not alone. No one will harm you. When you leave this place, follow the dove.”
“Rebecca. You understand my words. Go.”
She looked at him then, steadily, not as a frightened child looks at a parent, but as one parent looks at another when their children are suffering. Joshua’s God had sent him to help her. Now he sent her to help the other slaves. She nodded and went past him. No one touched her as she went.
Satisfied, the old prophet stepped out of the foyer and into the room. Some of the blind guards had found the walls and were following them in his direction. In what followed, pity never showed itself on that weather-beaten face.
An hour or so passed as the work was done. The woman went from room to room, delivering the good news of freedom, and gathering her people to herself. The prophet went from room to room, from corridor to corridor, along every stairway in the building, wherever any might hide, running men down and working butchery. When he was done, the innocent had already fled. But not every worshiper of the Serpent was dead.
To those few who remained, he gave back their sight.
And in their hands he placed the bloody pieces of a serpent priest, one he first divided before their eyes. Then he gave his orders.
“Go out to every snake pit in Hadochee. Show them this. Tell them what I have done. Tell them I will do this and more to every temple in all this land, until the people of Hadochee repent and cast out the Serpent and all who worship him. Tell them I am coming.”
To Be Continued…