Chapter One can be found here.
Judith peered through the window and saw nothing. Moon and stars had been obscured by a blanket of clouds. Bethlehem had been plunged into darkness.
“When will Papa get home?” asked Rachel, tugging on Judith’s sleeve.
“Soon,” said Judith, and began to pray silently that her husband came home alive.
The Roman census had made Bethlehem a dangerous place. Bandits multiplied, eager to make a profit from the travelers flooding the roads. Hungry and desperate, many travelers were not above stealing anything they could to survive. It was a time for citizens of Bethlehem to bar their doors, wait and pray for God to guard them.
Judith had spent the day preparing for her husband’s homecoming: baking, cooking, cleaning and not daring to lapse into idleness. Idleness meant worry. Judith kept busy.
Someone hammered on the door, and Rachel flew to open it.
“Wait, child,” said Judith, and called, “Who knocks?”
“It is I, Benjamin, your one and only husband,” called a voice she knew. “Kindly open the door.”
Rachel threw open the door, cried “Papa!” and leapt into Benjamin’s arms. He tottered a few steps backward.
“My dear child,” he said, stroking her hair. “Judith, my love, I am home.”
“You are very late,” said Judith, and grinned. It was hard to be upset with Benjamin.
Benjamin carried Rachel inside. “We have a guest, my love.”
“Any guest is welcome,” said Judith.
Jehu stepped inside.
For an instant, Judith’s face betrayed disgust and fear. Then, speaking in a strained, quiet voice, she said, “Any guest but this one. He must go.”
Benjamin sat down on a cushion with Rachel on his lap. “My love, Jehu has come all the way from Jerusalem. We cannot turn him out into the cold.”
“Yes, we can,” said Judith.
“The night is dark, my love. The clouds covered the lights of heaven as we came into Bethlehem. I cannot leave my cousin to sleep in the streets on a night as gloomy as this.”
“I cannot allow a member of the Sicarii in my house,” said Judith. “He must go.”
Rachel looked up at Benjamin. “Papa, what does Sicarii mean?”
“You need not know,” replied Benjamin, biting his lip. “It is not a matter for children.”
“Tell her, my husband,” said Judith. “Rachel deserves to know what sort of man you have brought into her home tonight.”
Judith may not have been the head of the household, but she always had her way in arguments. Benjamin sighed, as usual, and submitted to his wife’s decision.
“You may sit, Jehu,” he said, making an effort to delay the inevitable. “There is no need for you to stand lifeless in the corner like an idol. For the moment, you are welcome here. Make yourself comfortable.”
Judith glanced fiercely at Benjamin. He held his daughter close and said, “Rachel, do you remember the stories of Joshua and David and the other great warriors of Israel?”
“A Sicarii is a warrior who fights in secret. That is all, my daughter.”
Judith smiled. “I love you, my husband, for making the best of an ugly truth. Rachel, my child, the Sicarii are the dagger-men, murderers with sicae up their sleeves—secret blades to steal the lives of their enemies.”
Rachel stared at Jehu. “He has sicae in his sleeves?” she whispered.
“Well, Jehu?” said Judith. “She asks. Answer my daughter.”
Jehu reached up his right sleeve and withdrew a curved blade. “Just one,” he said. “One is all I need.”
Rachel gazed at Jehu, the grim stranger with a sword at his waist and a knife up his sleeve. “Papa, please let me go,” she whispered.
“My child,” said Benjamin, but stopped as his daughter squirmed in his arms.
“Please let me go,” she whimpered.
Benjamin released his daughter, and Rachel scuttled into a back room.
“Even children fear you, Jehu,” said Judith.
He scowled. “Your daughter fears the dark, dreadful dagger-men of your imagination. You frightened Rachel, not I.”
“Why have you come?” demanded Judith. “What brings you to Bethlehem?”
Jehu smiled, but his smile was darker than his scowl. “The Roman census, of course. Everyone is here for the census.”
“Do not lie to me,” snapped Judith.
“Your husband seemed an easy prey to bandits,” said Jehu. “I could not allow my cousin to travel alone.”
“Closer to the truth, yet no less a lie,” said Judith.
“Is this how you receive guests in Bethlehem, old man?” inquired Jehu. “Your child flees, your wife pries and you sit blinking like a drunkard.”
“Quiet,” said Benjamin, and a shadow of fear came over Judith. She had never heard such anguish in his voice.
“Josiah the priest was murdered yesterday,” continued Benjamin, speaking as though in pain. “A servant of the Most High, stabbed and left to die in the streets. Jerusalem erupted. Riots broke out. By the time the uproar had been quelled, the assassin had vanished. I know now where he has gone.”
“We both know Josiah was the governor’s puppet,” said Jehu, not looking at anyone. “A servant of the Most High? No, old man. A servant of Rome.”
“You killed a priest of God!” cried Benjamin, springing to his feet. He stood a moment, breathing heavily, and then sat down again on his cushion.
“I eliminated a traitor.”
There was a long silence. Judith opened her mouth to speak, but remained silent at a look from her husband. Benjamin, a soft man, seldom asserted his authority. When he did, Judith obeyed. Glaring at Jehu, she said nothing.
When Benjamin spoke, the anger had gone out of his voice. He sounded tired. “Jehu, what have you become? My cousin was not a man with blood on his hands. He was a good lad with bright eyes. Your eyes have become dull, Jehu. They are a drunkard’s eyes. You are intoxicated with blood, and it makes me sad.”
“I fight for our freedom,” protested Jehu. “I fight because I must. Rome grinds Israel into the dust. We must retaliate! What else can we do?”
“We can survive,” said Benjamin. “As we have done for hundreds of years, we can endure. It is not for us to overthrow empires. That is God’s business. We must await the Messiah who will set us free.”
“Will he come?” asked Jehu.
“What are you saying?” demanded Judith. She could not remain silent any longer.
“Will the Messiah come? We have waited hundreds of years. There are no more prophets. There are no more prophecies. The teachers of the law stoop to petty legalism, and God’s own temple is rebuilt as a political maneuver by a pagan king.”
“Do you plan to deliver Israel by murdering her priests?” asked Judith.
Jehu made no reply.
“It is best if you leave,” said Benjamin. “I am sorry, Jehu, but this is no place for you. God’s grace go with you, and may he lead you to a life of peace.”
“Get out,” said Judith.
Jehu opened the door and faded into the night. The lights of heaven had not rekindled, and the darkness was absolute.
Chapter Three can be found here.
When my old man told me about the Sicarii, the Jewish dagger-men who murdered their enemies in broad daylight and disappeared into the crowd, I was fascinated. Never mind Assassin’s Creed—this is history!
According to my old man, the Sicarii actually carried concealed blades. They would sidle up to their target in a crowd, slip the blade between the ribs, puncture the heart, withdraw the blade and slip away before anyone noticed them.
My tale of zealots and daggers may seem a bit grim for a Christmas story, but I don’t think it is. The Nativity is depicted as a bright, joyous event, but it came at a dark, dreary time in Jewish history. That’s partly why people were so excited about the Messiah. He would make everything right! He would restore Israel! In the meantime, the Sicarii and the zealots fought back. Everyone else endured, and waited, and hoped.
Nothing defines Christmas more than hope, I think.