Tyrants and Traitors: Chapter One

Prologue

I

            This was the first step toward revolution, an adventure bards would retell for generations. It was also, technically, stealing.

My brother Isaiah and I hid behind a set of wine casks, the midday sun beating down on our necks. The covered, travel-worn wagon carrying our intended plunder waited at other end of the alley.

“Niklas,” Isaiah moaned softly, not wanting the cargo’s current owners to overhear us, “this is a bad idea.”

A smile split my face. “This is the best idea I’ve had all month.”

Sweat dripped into my brother’s eyes, forcing him to squint. “We have disturbingly different definitions for that term.”

Chuckling, I rested my curly black hair against the wood and playfully shoved him. “We’ve got this. It’s no different than any of our other plans.”

“Your plans,” Isaiah corrected me. “Ever since Mom nearly twisted off our ears for swiping a honey cake before dinner, they’ve always been your plans.”

In stark contrast to my older brother’s reservations, my fist clenched in excitement. “Think of what we could do with one of those weapons. There are only two swords in our entire kingdom.”

“And why is that?” Isaiah asked. His fingers began rearranging the simple three-piece puzzle box he took everywhere. Four times he made a mistake in solving it, a sure sign my brother’s sharp mind was terrified by my plan. “Oh, that’s right, because every time the Philistines catch one of our people with a sword, they drag him behind a horse for a week.”

“I’m not suggesting we go brandishing it about town,” I told him. “Subtlety would be key.”

The comment caused his vast belly to jiggle from laughter. “If this plan depends on subtlety from you, we’re already sunk.”

“That’s your job, ensuring I don’t get myself killed.”

Isaiah’s genuine laugh morphed into one of panic and his fingers stopped working on the puzzle. “You’re really going to go through with this, aren’t you?”

“Yep,” I said, peeking over the barrels and anticipating my next move.

We hid on the far side of an alley, the large, covered wagon parked at the other end. The owners of the cart, four traveling, scum-eating Philistines, sat on the street at the wagon’s front. Waiting for the heat of the day to pass, they had already guzzled down three flasks of wine.

We had discovered the weapons earlier. Our eldest brother Eliab had left to negotiate the price of this season’s wool, and Isaiah and I were off exploring the streets of Lachish when we overheard the Philistine thugs bragging about their cargo.

“With this new shipment of blades from Persia, we’ll finally be able to wipe the Israelite swine from our lands,” one of the travelers had boasted.

The comment got my attention, and I had hauled my brother after me to investigate. What we found was better than my most fantastical dreams: a topless crate, filled to the brim with steel swords, rested at the back of their cart. The mission was amazingly simple: a dash and grab that I practically perfected a year after I started walking.

I patted Isaiah’s shoulder. “You don’t have to do anything,” I assured him, “just keep a lookout and shout if one of them catches wind of me.”

“You’re meeting with Uncle Benjamin as soon as Eliab gets back,” he said, his hazel eyes pleading with me. “It’s not worth the risk.”

His sincerity was moving. For all of Isaiah’s constant worrying, his heart was always in the right place, and he didn’t want me to ruin my chance at an apprenticeship under our uncle. But this was bigger than my carpentry aspirations. Just one of those swords would almost double our nation’s fighting strength, and with so many blades, the Philistines wouldn’t even realize it went missing until they had returned to whatever backwoods cesspool they crawled out of. This was needed, and it was doable. Stealing wasn’t my preferred method of mischief, but I’d be lying if I said it was beneath me.

“This will take five minutes,” I said. “If things go bad, disappear down the side street. I’ll run straight out the back and make sure they follow me.” Then, before he could add another reason to abort, I ducked out from behind the casks.

Staying low to the ground, I crept up toward the rear of the cart. These lowlifes seemed so inebriated I probably could have walked up singing a dancing jig without them noticing, but for Isaiah’s sake, I played it safe.

I reached the cart without any alarms going off and considered my options. My hands just barely reached the top of the crate which held the swords, but I doubted one could be removed from this angle without it banging against the other weapons. If I climbed into the cart, procuring one became significantly easier, but I feared how much the wagon would creak from my weight. After a moment of thought, I decided climbing in would be the least likely way to draw attention to myself.

Mounting the back end of the wagon as gently as I could, my feet touched down on the platform without so much as a floorboard shifting. I pumped my fist in the air and shot a glance of victory to Isaiah, who in turn rolled his eyes and motioned harshly for me to hurry up.

I waved him off and took another step towards the crate, but my luck faltered. Wood groaned beneath me, and shivers of fright shot from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. I immediately lifted my sandal, frozen and awkwardly on one leg, like some kind of oversized bird, standing in a pond.

“Did you hear that?” said a slurred voice from the front of the wagon.

“Huh,” said another.

Feet scuffled. “I heard something in the cart,” the first man explained.

Terror produced sweat, and beads of water dripped over my eyes as I struggled against toppling over.

“Sit down, Backus,” said a new, arrogant voice. “It’s probably just our new pet getting bored. The Israelites wouldn’t dare provoke us. You could throw a pile of gold into the street, and as long as we ordered them not to touch it, a year from now it would still be laying in the middle of the road, waiting for us. A nation of cowards, every one of them.”

A burst of laughter erupted from the men, and I heard someone settle back to the ground.

Anger replaced fear, and I had the urge to grab one of the swords and see how cowardly the man thought we were with a blade in his gut, but I found smug satisfaction in doing precisely what he deemed us so incapable of attempting.

Staring down at the stash of weapons, my eyes went wide. I had never seen a steel sword up close, and before me there had to be at least fifty of the blades. They were as long as my arm, with simple, leather-wrapped hilts and edges that gleamed in the sun. My fingers tightened around one of the handles. The grip felt right, and I began lifting the sword out from the crate.

“All right, Lahmi,” said Backus, “we’ve carted it halfway across the continent. Will you finally tell us what’s under those blasted wrappings? My bet is some kind of spear.”

“Ha,” said Lahmi, the owner of the arrogant voice. “Fine, as long as you promise to keep your lips shut. It’s a surprise gift from King Achish. A weapon he commissioned to be crafted for my brother. A sword with no equal.”

“A sword?” said a new voice in disbelief. “It’s at least five feet long!”

“We all know my brother is unique. It’s his gift for slaying over one hundred Israelites. With it, I bet you he matches that number in the first year alone.”

Another chorus of howls went up from the men, but their voices were drowned out by my dark thoughts. For generations, the border skirmishes between our two countries had taken a heavy toll on our people. Almost every household had lost at least one of their own to a battle, and our family was no exception. Was my cousin one of this monster’s victims?

No longer was it enough to simply steal one sword of many. Our nation needed to make a more personal statement. I inspected the other contents in the wagon. There were a dozen boxes stacked unevenly towards the front, a set of thick, purple carpets propped up vertically in the corner, and a large square crate completely covered in a dusty burlap cloth was right behind me. Then I found it—pressed against the sidewall, a long bundle lay on the floor.

Kneeling down next to it, I reverently unwrapped the end. The golden handle stretched at least two feet, and the blade was nearly as wide as my forearm was long. My heartbeat quickened. With a weapon like this, a warrior could become legendary, and a legend could change the course of the entire conflict with the Philistines.

I threw the covering back on and tried to pick it up. Sacrificial lamb! The thing was heavy. Bracing myself, I tugged again, but realized it was lodged too deep. I needed a better grip.

I unwrapped the hilt again and grabbed hold with both hands. Pulling with all my strength, about three feet of the blade abruptly came free before it snagged again. The force flung me back, sending my body crashing into the covered crate behind me.

The crate turned out to be a metal cage, and whatever creature resided inside it did not appreciate being disturbed. It growled and then slammed into the other side of the bars. I let out a yelp, one that distinctly did not sound like that of a five-year-old girl, and clapped a hand above my mouth.

“An Israeli thief is in the wagon!” Backus shouted.

“No,” growled Lahmi. “It’s an Israeli corpse. We just haven’t informed his body yet.”

Score one for Isaiah. This was a bad idea.