Jerusha lifted the jar to her shoulder and opened the door, singing another chorus of the wedding song as she walked down the hill to the well. "I am my beloved's and he is mine'" The new day was fresh and clear, the sun warm but not yet high enough in the sky to be hot. It would be a beautiful day for a wedding.
By the time Jerusha returned with the water, balancing the pot daringly on her head, Maacah was out of bed and dressed, helping their mother rekindle the fire. Jerusha sang as she worked, her chores a familiar daily routine--but with a special reward at the end of them today. When Abba came in from outside, he bent to kiss her cheek.
"What makes my little bird sing so sweetly this morning?" he asked.
She smiled as she cut the goat cheese into thick slices for their trip. "You know why, Abba--we're going to the wedding today. I'll get to see Serah and Tirza and--"
"And maybe Abram, that handsome son of Eli?"
"I wasn't thinking of him at all," Jerusha replied too quickly. Her face felt warm as she handed her father a lump of cheese that had crumbled off. "But . but he'll be there, won't he?"
Jerimoth laughed as he popped the cheese into his mouth.
"What's so funny, Abba?" Maacah asked.
"Nothing, my little one." He gave Maacah's braid an affectionate tug. "It's just that your sister has grown into a woman already. Look at her--as slender and graceful as a young willow tree. She'll soon make a lovely bride."
"But she's not getting married today," Maacah said with a frown. "Serah is."
"I know, I know." Jerimoth circled an arm around each of them and pulled them close. "How I wish I could keep my daughters here with me forever. How lonely we'll be without our Jerusha-bird to sing for us! But Abram's land isn't so very far. Maybe she'll fly back to visit us once in a while, eh?"
Jerusha looked up into her father's face, loving every line and wrinkle in his weathered skin. "Abba, you talk as if I'm already married and gone. How do you know that Abram even wants to marry me?"
"How do I know? Ha! If he had his way, you two would be getting married today instead of Serah and her groom. I'm the one who's making him wait. I'm the one who doesn't want my little bird to leave the nest."
Jerusha stared in surprise. "Did he really say he wanted to marry me?" She couldn't hide her excitement and hoped her father wouldn't laugh at her again.
"Yes, of course he did," Jerimoth said with a sigh. "And I can see that it's time I listened to him. After the wedding I'll talk to Abram's father. We shall see about a betrothal."
Jerusha threw her arms around her father and hugged him tightly. "I love you, Abba! Thank you! Thank you!" Jerimoth returned her hug in tender silence.
It seemed to take forever for Jerusha's family to finish their chores and load the oxcart with wine from Jerimoth's vineyard and the food that they had prepared for the wedding feast. Jerusha could hardly contain her excitement as they journeyed over the terraced green hills to Dabbasheth, and she longed to run down the road to the unwalled village ahead of the plodding oxen. But at last they arrived at Uncle Saul's house, tucked behind the shop where he fashioned and sold his pottery. Jerusha let the married women unload the cart and arrange all the food for the banquet--she had been asked to serve as one of the bride's attendants.
The girls talked in excited whispers as they helped Serah get ready, listening all the while for the sound of the groom's procession. When the bride was finally dressed in her brightly embroidered wedding gown with garlands of flowers in her hair and scattered around her chair, Jerusha gazed at her cousin with envy. "Maybe the next wedding will be mine," she sighed. "Mine and Abram's."
Then they heard the music of flutes and cymbals and tambourines. The groom was coming to claim his bride, leading his procession through the streets of Dabbasheth. Villagers streamed from their homes to celebrate with the happy couple and to watch the wedding ceremony in the courtyard behind Uncle Saul's house. Afterward, as Jerusha followed the bride and groom to the wedding banquet in the village square, she eagerly scanned all the faces in the crowd, hoping for a glimpse of Abram.
But above the music and gaiety of the procession, Jerusha thought she heard a rumble of distant thunder. She glanced up, hoping a storm wouldn't spoil the day, but the sun blazed in a cloudless sky. The rumbling grew louder, closer. Gradually the merriment died away as others paused to listen.
Suddenly it seemed as if a dam had burst as hundreds of Assyrian warriors on horseback poured into the village square. Screams of terror replaced the sound of singing and laughter as the villagers tried to flee, running in every direction. The Assyrians' swords flashed in the sunlight as they cut down everyone in their path, their horses' hooves trampling anyone who stumbled and fell beneath them. Within minutes the cobbled streets ran with blood and dozens of bodies lay sprawled in the streets.
"Run, girls! Run!" Uncle Saul cried above the din. Jerusha heard his warning but she stood rooted in place, too stunned to move, frozen in shock by the horror and bloodshed all around her.
"Run, Jerusha!" he begged. "Run! Now!" She watched in a daze as her uncle shoved his daughters down an alleyway toward their house. Jerusha looked around for Serah's new husband and saw him lying motionless on the ground in a spreading pool of blood. The grisly sight finally broke through her shock. She turned away to stumble down the alley behind her uncle, her legs moving beneath her as if weighted with heavy stones.
But just as Jerusha willed her lumbering feet to move, two Assyrian horsemen suddenly appeared at the far end of the alley, blocking their escape. The girls tried to turn back, but the soldiers thundered toward them, leaning over in their saddles to swoop Jerusha's cousins off their feet. The girls screamed in terror as the soldiers pushed them facedown in front of them across their horses' saddles.
Uncle Saul tried to grab one of the horses' bridles to stop them, pleading with the men. "Don't take my girls! Please, I'll pay any price--any ransom you name, if only you'll let them go! Please, I beg you!"
The Assyrian drew his sword and in one powerful slash chopped off Uncle Saul's hand. Jerusha nearly fainted at the sight, but Abba suddenly grabbed her from behind. "This way, Jerusha! Hide under the cart! Hurry!" He swung her around and urged her back toward the square, pointing to an oxcart parked several yards away. She saw her mother and sister cowering beneath it. A few yards away, an Assyrian soldier snatched a baby from a woman's grasp and hurled it beneath his horse's hooves to be trampled.
Screams and shouts and thundering hooves roared in Jerusha's ears as Abba pushed her toward the cart. It seemed a hundred miles away. She moved as if walking under water, her body refusing to obey her commands. Tears blinded her vision as she staggered the last few yards toward the safety of the cart. She was almost there. Her mother reached for her hand, then suddenly shouted, "Jerimoth, look out! Behind you!"
Jerusha glanced over her shoulder and saw her father facing yet another Assyrian soldier. "No! Get away from her!" Abba cried. He gripped the horse's bridle with both hands to try to turn the animal aside, ducking to avoid the man's slashing sword. "Run, Jerusha, run!" he yelled.
She made a final, desperate scramble for the safety of the cart and heard her mother scream again, "Jerusha, watch out! Behind you!" Out of nowhere, another mounted solider appeared alongside her. She tried to fight him off, flailing her fists and clawing his arms as he reached for her, but he scooped her up effortlessly and threw her facedown across the front of his saddle.
"No! Oh, God, no!" she screamed. "Abba, help me! Save me!"
Jerusha struggled to free herself, but the soldier held her down, pressing his hand against her back. She managed to lift her head as the horse wheeled around and saw her father running toward them. Then she heard the soft swish of metal as her captor unsheathed his sword. She remembered the blood and horror of Uncle Saul's severed hand and shouted, "Abba, no! Stay back!"
The Assyrian leaned sideways in his saddle and slashed out toward Abba with his sword. Jerusha saw a crimson gash appear across her father's forehead, and he sank to his knees, his face covered with blood. Then he disappeared from her sight as the horse pounded up the road, away from the village.
Jerusha screamed as the horse sped faster and faster, away from the village of Dabbasheth, away from her family and safety. They galloped for several minutes, then the horse slowed and the soldier slapped Jerusha, shouting angrily at her in his strange language. When she didn't stop screaming, he struck her again and again until she finally stifled her cries. She felt numb with pain and fear.
"I don't want to die--please, I don't want to die," she whimpered. A few minutes later they stopped near a grove of sycamore trees beside a farmer's field. Several other horses were already tethered there, and Jerusha heard muffled screams and coarse laughter coming from among the bushes. Her heart pounded with a new terror as she realized what was about to happen.
"No . no . please don't," she sobbed. The soldier dismounted and pulled Jerusha off the horse, throwing her over his shoulder like a sack of grain. As he carried her into the woods, she saw her cousin Serah fighting with all her strength against the soldier who was trying to pin her to the ground. When Serah wouldn't stop struggling, the soldier beat her with his fists until she no longer moved.
Jerusha knew it would be useless to fight. The blows her captor had already given her throbbed painfully. She wanted to live through this nightmare and find her way home, so she decided not to struggle. Jerusha knew it was the right decision, but she couldn't make herself stop crying. Her terrified screams blended with all the others until the woods echoed with the sound. Even the wind seemed to shriek with fear.
Finally Jerusha's captor halted and threw her to the ground. The smell of his unwashed body made her gag. She turned her face in revulsion, and he slapped her again, yelling at her angrily.
"Oh, God . I don't want to die," she sobbed. "Not now, not like this. Please, God, please--I don't want to die!"