“Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.”
The women had chanted those words in these very streets. David was anoited but short years ago, and crowned king only very recently, and yet the legend had already started to swell. Saul had been a good king to start, a decent king then, and finally an ex-king. David… Hah. King David. Hard to forget the image of the man who was king, stripping naked and dancing in rapturous ecstasy towards the face of the Ark of the Covenant. Yet, the people spoke of him as having slain tens of thousands. Saul did not slay thousands, Saul led armies that slew thousands… led armies that refused to slay thousands. David… hah. Like a skein of wool across the racks, the stories of David were growing so tangled and filthy, fetid and ruined. Nobody seemed to know any of the truth of David, but they were so very certain as to what the truth was. Saul was no more, and so now, there was David. David, David, David, the man whose name was chanted and sung. The man who had slain a lion. Slain a bear. Slain a giant!
Somewhere, that word ‘King’ created a ghost around a man. Samuel had been right, in a way – he could walk out to the edge of nowhere, find a nobody, and make him into a king, with the right assistance. Had David died somewhere between Jesse’s flocks and Jerusalem’s throne, it would have just been time to go anoit someone else, there’d be a chance to salvage it in the ruins. That’s where men like him came in. Men like him, and Avishai, and Elhanan.
…Yahweh, Elhanan. Somewhere in that man was tangled up another lambskin, hiding a core of hate. Whatever it was, Elhanan had made his hatred a weapon. Something had told him he was wrong, that he would never amount to anything, that nothing he did would matter… and Elhanan had taken that truth in his hands and bled on it.
Elhanan was the smallest giant in the world. Barely three and a half cubits tall, wielding a sword fully his own height, it was that sword that had bit the shoulder of Goliath, that monster of a man. Reared on red meat from his youth, the greatest soldier of a god of prosperity, Goliath was a testament to what war men could make with coinage. Towering over Elhanan, he’d swung that spear – blades on one side like a monster’s scythe – and the sight of it…
When he’d seen it, he’d been running down a hill, scree and dust flying under his feet as he sought to meet and help his friend. Far out of Goliath’s grip, he’d hesitated. In the blade’s reach, though, Elhanan had not. No – he’d stepped into the weapon’s arc, ducking under, turning as he did, swinging the first swing of his sword up into the beast of Gath’s thigh. That had been the dawn of death for Goliath… when he had faced down a man almost half his height.
Bloodied and battered, Elhanan had claimed the last of Goliath’s blood, his own hair and blood matted in those desert-burnt eyes. Elhanan stood over the form of the giant and brought his blade down on his neck. And then again… and again… and again.
It takes a lot of work to knock a man’s head off. Even a dead man’s.
Elhanan stood in the bloody carnage, that head held by its hair against the sand in one hand, and spat upon the gates of Gath. Whatever demons lay inside Elhanan weren’t quieted that day – because he went on to slay the champion sent to recover Goliath’s body – and the two more that came after him. No, with no food and only a lambskin of water, Elhanan had sat in the desert, watching the body of Goliath until the crows came to claim it, leaving with the head. Gath thought him crazy.
Hah, now they say that King David slew Goliath. Years ago. When he was a child. And King David said to his friend, his brother, the man who had brought him the monstrous, misshapen skull of Gath, Now bring me his brother.
Elhanan had done it, too.
Whatever roared within Elhanan’s chest, it did not still for mere fame.
A wooden door closed below him, and sitting in the lee of a window, he rested the handle of his wooden implement under his chin. Thoughts of then and what had been done slid further away. Elhanan was a good friend, and a great ally. His story was fast becoming another man’s myth, but Elhanan did not care. He should not let it bother him. Besides – these buildings did not get so many travellers in these days. It would be a waste to let an opportunity slip past him.
The wide highway stretched by the buildings, and the buildings on the aft. A set of lines strung over between them held ropes, on which were hung banners and flags, signals to the travellers. Ropes were stout and tight, anchored into the clay brick hard, which gave them strength to hold the large banners and strength enough to even hold a man’s weight. The wooden ring over his head gave a dull squeak, showing a shift in the wind.
Shaking his head, he braced his hand, held the wooden shaft in his hand, and lifted – pulling himself off the sill of the window. One foot, leather strips holding the flesh tight, hooked onto the line… and he moved. It would not be an Israelite who walked this road. No – they knew the secrets of the ways, now. This was his own little sliver of myth and history – able to watch it in his own time. He would not be Saul, whose greatest deed was his greatest sin.
There wasn’t a word for what Saul had been told to do. The old priest and prophet had been oh-so-hell-bent on it… never really understood why. A veteran of many things, he’d been there at the capture – young and fresh faced, back then – and he’d been there when the time had come for that order. That … insane order. There were strange things that lived in the pit of a man’s stomach, and whatever lived inside Samuel had come out in rare form that day.
“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
When Samuel had given that order, before the King, and before the arrayed host of his elite soldiers, the only thought in his head had been “Had he ever even seen a fight?” An old, silvered man, coiffured about with the elegancies of the temple, Samuel had seen battlefields after wars, had offered offerings before wars, yet not once in all his time hearing tales about the man had anyone mentioned Samuel taking a blade and walking into a war. The stink of it, the fire, the looting, the pillage, the young stupid soldiers wasting time on rape, the old and lazy soldiers wasting their time on more rape – to kill a whole city took time, it took will… will that in his heart of hearts, he was sure Samuel did not have.
Saul had done what a good general would do. He gave quarter to the Kenites. He gave the order at the start of the day, Samuel’s voice fresh in his ears, as to the slaying of the Amalekites. Yet in the going down of the sun, with the cries of dead infants in his ears, the plainitive wails of the children of Amalek’s sands all around him, Saul had balked. Saul had shown mercy. Saul had stopped himself from being the hand that committed the murder for which they were was no name. The normal response – round up the best, let the least go, leave something for there to be cleansed, something to grow anew, to teach the lesson to the people who had been slain of the people’s strengths – was what Saul had chosen. A reasonable desolation. There would be no more Kingdom of Amalek, Saul had said, as they road with the bound king Agag back to Jerusalem. There would be Amalekites, but the god of Israel had broken the back of that nation that day.
Samuel had not been pleased. Samuel had demanded not a broken back, but a bloody, ruined corpse. Samuel had demanded, claiming it the will of Israel’s god, everything. Not just men, but boys. Not just women, but mothers and widows. Not just children but the newborn. In his mind, he could almost see the mercy there – a newborn raised in the ruins of Amalek’s lands would have died of starvation. The blade was a mercy. Yet that wasn’t what Samuel had called it. Samuel had called it the Will of The LORD.
Samuel had spat in the face of the king. The Levite stood before the Benjamite, and showed that though the old man had not the will to fight a war, he had will enough to kill. The prophet did not want the King to imagine that the word of the LORD did not flow from his mouth, no. That was the great fear he had, that he could use against the kings of Israel, both now and future. Break the will of the yearling and the horse will not forget. The old Prophet, the man of Ephraim, the son of the tribe of Levi, the voice of God had taken a bound, imprisoned, helpless king of nothing, and brought Saul’s sword down on his arm… and his neck… and his leg, and his other leg… again, and again, and again.
Elhanan had been a small man hacking up a big body. Samuel was a very small man, hacking up a man who was almost nothing, in the presence of his King. The will to hold power was Samuel’s – and so Samuel had held it. Samuel chose the next king, even as Saul grew distant, as Saul went about the business of running the country, protecting the borders, ensuring the wars and building the highways. The business that nobody would remember, now – remembering only the mad fool that had been his ghost-hunting end.
Strange, really, how Saul’s fall had come. The falling out had been private, but the way the priests had culled his authority out from underneath him, that had been public. The almost orchestrated way in which Samuel, high priest, had made public Saul’s failure.
He’d chosen to show some temporary mercy. To not burn away the last that remained of the Amalekites. To not let a centuries old grudge from a story that was just as much myth as any of the others. That same sense of mercy had spared Anath, after all. Anath – the father that was not.
He could remember, at twelve years old, blood down his thighs, listening to his father’s words. The care with which they were chosen. “I gave you to your mother, boy, but I am not your father. I will die and the sand will have me, but you, son of this nation of kings, son of this Israelite woman, are a son of a prophesied people. Speak the tongue of Abraham, learn the ways of Caanan, and slay the foes of Yahweh.”
It had hurt. Perhaps that had been why he’d never had it in him, even when he slew soldiers, to rape their women. Everyone else did it. Well, everyone he knew but Elhanan, but the demons inside him seemed to sing during a pillage. The ritual had been painful and bloody and he hadn’t made it easy on his father. His father hadn’t made it easy on him either – the tradition was a small, sharp stone, and a small sharp stone it would be. Even if it was late, best to be part of the covenant than not. It was in this way that he had learned. This person he had become… the man who had seen truths and lies, seen as histories became myth, and seen as claims in the name of God had been made for political power.
The leather on his feet gave a creak, timed with the wind, flexing his feet to keep them supple. In his hand, the wood folded back upon itself with a softness. None of the chain links touched more than another link – pieces of wood to give it quiet, pieces of chain to give it flexibility. Beneath him, two Philistines, flanked on all sides by guards. Probably Kenites, given the way they needed coin. The Philistine armour was blatant – its proud red feathering was good for desert combat. Magistrates, perhaps?
The wind slid across the plains, and he slid with it to the next set of ropes, keeping above the men. So close together, he could leap from rope to rope, and if he timed it with a gust of wind, nobody would notice the dip in the flags. Clad in blue and black, up against the night sky, even if these men looked up, they would not see him. Lights set down by the sides of the highways were his allies – in a pool of light, all darkness looks the same.
Was that how it had been to Samuel at first? Saul had been a nobody, from the least part of Benjamin. Samuel’s own sons were just like their father – cunning and ratlike, keenly aware of the power they held over the people, speaking with the voice of God. Nor were they given to the useful vices. He’d met them, once – bastards to the core, they were the worst kind of beaurocrat. Some kings and princes loved blood and sex, and those were vices that were worth keeping hidden. Not these two – they were sneering and childish and revelled in reporting on others to their father as if to Yahweh himself. No, their cruelty and pettiness would have been fantastic vices for a prophet to have, but not for the prophet who ruled them. If he could trust them to it, Samuel would have just handed his power over at his death, but no.
He needed a tool, and that tool had come out of the sons of Kish. Saul had been perfect. Saul had been king when they’d met – hell, David had been his son-in-law when he met, at the wedding of Michael. Saul stood head and shoulders over most on the table, and Elhanan had murmured that he ‘ruled with his voice alone.’ Beautiful and powerful, Saul had the making of a proud king – but came from nowhere and nothing. A perfect pawn, in the eyes of Samuel. Too humble to decide for himself, too proud to admit ignorance. Samuel had expected, he was sure, just to whip Saul a few times and have a useful new tool for generations after.
Had Samuel been considerate enough to die, Saul and his sons might have been able to live out a good, sensible life. That was the great vice of it, really. Saul had been a hero who had grown old fast enough, and been strong enough, to become the villain of King David’s story. His father-in-law. David had been honoured, had been given a daughter, had been best friends with Jonathon, had played his harp for the king’s terrors, had… ugh. The whole affair had left a bad taste in his mouth. It didn’t matter, anyway. David was a king, and history would show him that way. It already was forgetting Elhanan, forgetting the good that lay in the soul of Saul. It was already speaking of Samuel as a saintly prophet.
Let them rot. He would construct his own history. His own myth – a story nobody could forget. Tradition held that Samson had slain a thousand men in one instance with a jawbone of an ass; lies that he and Elhanan had spread said that Avishai had slain three hundred with his spear. Those were numbers that could swell and shrink. Those were the lies of history. Not this one.
Every life claimed, he added a ring to his weapon. It had made a long way from the far east. The long straight handle had needed replacing. The flat, metal blade had needed replacing, too. The chain links? They had worn with time. Some kills were messier than others. They had needed replacing too. Yet it was his, and it did not matter what they called it – because what mattered was that, as it rested in his hands, he had a string of six hundred rings, carved into the wood, showing the lives of Philistines he had ended. His father had given up everything to make him a part of this covenant – the people of this nation. This sacrifice would not be in vain – and so, here, in the highways of the Kingdom of Israel, he plied his trade. An old soldier, too furious to die, crafting his own myth.
A twig, a stop – one of the Philistines turned away, to the Kenites, issuing them away so the men could discuss their business. Could scarcely be more perfect. His friend turned the other way, checking the shadows behind him – and when he turned back, he had no friend to turn to. The chains in his hands pulled tight, the wooden link against the Philistine’s windpipe with such force that not even a scream could push it back. A struggle – a strain – and then a sag. Not dead. Not yet. That would wait – because as the first turned, to look, to see nothing, and started to run, he swung the whole body in both hands, throwing it at the fleeing man.
The first body landed like a thunderclap, and he landed atop it. Hooked blade in his hand, handle in the other, the length of chain between the two pulled taut, his robes of black and his eyes of brilliant rage must have been something that even Dagon would fear. Leaning forwards, he spoke just one, simple word:
Blade bit into the man’s throat, yanked back so sharp and fast as to pull fibers apart. He’d bleed to death on the sand – and the blade then pitched into the back of his friend’s skull. Unconscious man spasmed, then became a dead man. Yanking steel from bone, he stopped, turned, and looked with a grin behind his scarf at the running Kenites, coming towards him.
The mantra repeated itself, in his mind, as he raised his exotic weapon, ready to repel then run: Let them sing the songs they wish to sing, let them tell themselves the deeds of their king; the Philistine’s fear is this halfblood’s fame, and come gehenna’s foul scent they will know my name.