A Soft Breath of Wind
Sequel to A Stray Drop of Blood
A gift that has branded her for life
Zipporah is thirteen when the Spirit descends upon her, opening her eyes to a world beyond the physical goings-on of the villa outside Rome she has always called home. Within hours, she learns what serving the Lord can cost. Forever scarred after a vicious attack, she knows her call is to use this discernment to protect the Way. She knows she must serve the rest of her life at Tutelos, where the growing Roman church has congregated. She knows her lot is set.
Yet is it so wrong to wish that her master, the kind and handsome young Benjamin Visibullis, will eventually see her as something more than a sister in Christ? Is it so wrong to dream of seeing the world?
Samuel Asinius, adoptive son of a wealthy Roman, has always called Benjamin brother. When their travels take them to Jerusalem for Passover, the last thing he expects is to cross paths with the woman who sold him into slavery as a child–the mother he long ago purged from his heart. His sister, Dara, quickly catches Benjamin’s eye, but Samuel suspects there is something dark at work.
When Dara, a fortune-teller seeking the will of a shadowy master determined to undermine the Way, comes into the path of Zipporah, a whirlwind descends upon them all.
Only the soft wind of the Spirit can heal their scars…with a love neither divination nor discernment could foresee.
Her sister was the most beautiful woman in the world. Zipporah handed the bridal veil to their mother and then scooted back, out of the way. Anna sat before the polished bronze mirror, smiling as their mother draped the translucent white cloth over her face.
Samuel would be tongue-tied when he spotted his bride, Zipporah was sure. He would look at Anna in that way he did, with his heart in his eyes, that patient love on his face. They would stand together before all of Rome’s nobles—Anna, the just-freed slave and Samuel, the adopted-Asinius—and they would be the most beautiful couple ever to pledge their lives to each other.
Ima adjusted the fabric, but her smile grew strained. “Are you certain you are ready, Anna? They will judge you. You must know they will.”
“Ima.” Anna turned on the wooden stool and gripped their mother’s fingers. “Samuel was a slave once too, and now he is a joint-heir with Abigail and Titus’s other children. Why should they judge him for marrying me?”
They would not, when they beheld her beauty. How could they? They would whisper, perhaps, but one could not help the whispers.
Still…it sounded so strange to hear Anna call them Abigail and Titus, with no “mistress” or “master” before their names. How much stranger would it be if she began calling them Father and Mother, as Samuel did?
Zipporah backed up another step and reached behind her for the cool stone of the wall. Her sliding fingers moved into empty space. The window. She turned and pulled open the lattice just enough to see out without showing the world what lay within. Flowers’ perfume teased her nose. The sun streamed down, warm and steady and…so very bright. It seemed brighter than usual.
Perhaps even the heavens would celebrate with Anna and Samuel this day.
Zipporah closed her eyes, drew in a long breath, and sent a prayer for them winging upward. They would be happy. They must be happy. Anna had never wanted anything but to be Samuel’s wife, and he had never loved anyone but her. Please, Lord God. Please bless them. Bless their day. Bless their union.
A laugh brought Zipporah’s eyes open again and made her throat close off. The bridegroom was exiting the wedding tent, the sun gleaming off his golden curls and garnering the eye of many a guest. But it was not Samuel, beautiful as any statue of Apollo in Rome, who made her stomach go tight. It was not Samuel who laughed, but the eldest of his younger brothers.
Her fingers knotted through the lattice. Benjamin. She pulled back a bit, behind the shadow of the shutter. If he saw her, he would pretend he did not. Look the other way. Ignore her very existence, as he had done for months. And it would slice as it always did.
Her fault. She knew it, but what was she to do? She did not mean to look at him so that the whole world knew her heart. She did not mean to make things so awkward every time they were in the same room. She did not mean for anyone to tease him because of her affections.
They did. She knew they did, though she had never heard the exact words. Well could she imagine them though—the other young men in their late teens or early twenties jabbing an elbow into his side and saying, Are you ever going to take pity on ugly little Zipporah?
Samuel glanced her way. He probably hoped for a glimpse of Anna, but no disappointment clouded his features when he spotted Zipporah instead. He grinned at her and kept on walking. Just an hour ago he had drawn her into a hug and said how glad he was to be gaining her as a sister. He had clapped a hand to Mark’s shoulder and said how another brother was always welcome.
Zipporah could agree with that. Even as she called herself a fool for wishing he became her brother through her marriage someday, not just Anna’s.
But Benjamin Visibullis would never want Zipporah. Even were her face as perfect as her sister’s…even if her figure someday developed into more than a stick…even were she born free and wealthy like the noble women flocking the villa’s grounds today, still he would not want her. He was too good to put stock in superficial things. Too good to judge on social station or status. He just…did not like her so well, despite all the dreams they shared of the wide world beyond the villa of Tutelos. Of spreading the good news of salvation to the nations. He may go someday, but not with her by his side as she wished every night.
They disappeared around the corner of the house, and Zipporah closed her eyes again. Father God, please take this desire from me. I beg you. Fill me instead with your Spirit. A tingle swept up her spine. She had prayed it this morning too, had prayed it every day for months. She was thirteen, nearly the age when a woman was expected to marry and start a family. But she did not want to be promised to some man who would not even want her, who would wish she were her sister instead. She wanted to go, to spread her wings and fly the world over. To be like Paul or Timothy or Silas, preaching and teaching and making disciples.
Perhaps if she cut off her hair and wore the dress of a man. She pressed her lips against a giggle. Anna and Ima would be horrified at her even thinking such a thing. Though she could probably pass as a boy. She could stow away on one of Master Titus’s ships and…and…
She drew back from the window, pulling the lattice closed with her. The Lord did not often speak so clearly to her. Why he had to now, when she was only daydreaming…but she shoved those stray thoughts down, away, and drew in a long breath. I will not, Lord. I promise. I only want purpose. I want to serve you. But I would never run away. Just show me how to serve, please. Show me what you have for me. Show me…please, Lord, show me yourself.
She had prayed those words this morning too, as the brethren were gathered for morning prayers. Her eyes had been squeezed shut, her face tilted upward.
Then her father had put a hand on her shoulder. Perhaps he spoke in his prayer language, words she could not understand—or perhaps her ears had been too filled with the strange, crystalline song to know what he spoke. But she had felt it, that rush of wind the others had spoken of. That lick of fire through her middle.
She had felt the Spirit before when the church gathered, but always as a pressure, a lifting. Like she was just one member on a boat bobbing along on a sea, swelling when the others swelled, dropping when the others dropped.
This, though, had been different. Summer’s sun compared to a candle’s flame. A whirlwind compared to the gentlest breeze. The force of it had brought her to her knees and, when that had not been enough, down still more until her face pressed against the cool mosaic tiles.
The song had filled her. She had never heard the like, could name no instrument that sounded so sweet, nor could human voice ever raise such glorious strains. It had filled her, consumed her, seemed to lift her up higher the more she pressed herself to the floor. Hands splayed against the tiles, all else had ceased to exist.
But then she had risen, and the world had all come rushing back. It was her sister’s wedding day, and too many tasks awaited for her to dwell, to bask in whatever it had been. Even so. The lamps looked brighter. The sun shone as it never had. Her ears perked up, waiting for another wisp of that song.
Her mother smiled into the mirror at Anna’s reflection. “There. Perfect.”
Perfect. Zipporah smiled too. In another hour, her sister would be Anna Asinius, wife to a man who would love her all his days. Who would look at her with complete adoration, as his little brother would never do to Zipporah. She knew it. Knew it as certainly as she knew the sun would rise the next morning. Benjamin Visibullis would never want her. She knew it.
It just hit harder today than usual.
You are enough for me, Lord. More words she had said before. But never before had the memory of that song still filled her. Never before had her spirit still felt so strong from the breath of his wind. Never before had she meant them so fully.
A knock sounded on the door, and Zipporah scurried to open it. She expected to find Mistress Abigail on the other side, as she had promised to return shortly.
And indeed, there she stood, nearly as beautiful as Anna. Today Rome would remember why Benjamin’s father had risked his future to marry Mistress Abigail, though she had been but a slave. Today Rome would remember why, after Jason Visibullis’s death, Titus Asinius had fallen in love with her and married her despite his father’s ire.
The mistress smiled and reached out to tuck away the curl that was always falling onto Zipporah’s cheek.
Zipporah opened the door wider, noting her father was there too, behind their mistress. “I think she is almost ready.”
“Good.” But Mistress Abigail took Zipporah’s arm and pulled her out into the hall rather than stepping into the room. “But before the wedding begins, we need you for a moment, Zipporah.”
They needed her? Zipporah lifted her brows, aiming the question at her abba. “Does Sarah need something?”
Mistress Abigail laughed. “She has made a mess of herself chasing the younger children around, but that is a hopeless cause. No, little one, we need to talk to you. Come.”
Talk to her? Though both the mistress and her father smiled, still her pulse kicked up. Never in her thirteen years could she recall a time when she had been summoned for a conversation, unless it were when she had found herself in a bit of trouble thanks to her escapades with the other children. But never alone.
Abba slid an arm around her shoulders. “It is nothing to fear, Zip.”
“Indeed.” The mistress patted her arm and drew her along, down the hall of family bed chambers and toward a door that led outside. “Your sister’s wedding has just reminded us that we have yet to discuss your future with you.”
“Oh.” Her stomach clenched so suddenly, she nearly doubled over. Would they arrange her marriage now, to some other slave who would curl his lip at the thought of her? Or assign her a permanent task, like serving Sarah—not that Zipporah would mind that. Sarah was her dearest friend, but…
The mistress’s fingers ran a soothing line over her forearm. “You and your siblings are among the few people born slaves here at Tutelos. Many others have accepted our offers of freedom. But your parents did not.”
Zipporah glanced at the silver ring in her father’s ear, the one he had worn since he was little more than a boy, when he had chosen to serve the Visibullis house for life.
Abba leaned over and pressed a kiss to the top of her head as they stepped out into the sunlight. “Your mother and I both chose to serve, chose to bind ourselves for life to this family we love like our own. Mark has chosen to serve Benjamin all his days. Anna, though…Anna will tread a very different path.”
The knots in her stomach eased, though now her throat went tight. This, then, was their intention. They would offer freedom to her today, as they did all their slaves at some point or another. She could choose to bind herself to the Visibullis house with Benjamin as her master, or perhaps to Master Titus’s household—separate, though they lived here together on Benjamin’s estate. Master Titus had raised Benjamin as his own son but had always preserved the legacy of Master Jason—his friend and the father Benjamin had never known.
Zipporah could choose to be given papers testifying to her freedom but serve here still, in exchange for room and board, as many others had done.
Or she could be free. Free to go wherever she willed.
No. The word came clearly again, and behind it, above it, she caught an echo of that song. You are needed here.
Needed? Looking over at Mistress Abigail’s serene smile, Zipporah forced a swallow down her tight throat. She had never really been needed, not yet. She kept Sarah company, yes, and brushed her hair, helped her straighten her room. She lent a hand in the kitchen or the house when another hand was asked. But needed?
Yes, Lord. I want to be needed. I want to serve you wholly, fully. Use me however you wish…wherever you wish.
Movement caught her eye. Or rather, a quickly moving light, like the dance of sunshine on glass. She turned her head to follow it but saw nothing. At least, she did not think she saw anything. Just the sun glowing through the water of her eyes.
Was it not?
“Have you put the question to her?”
Zipporah started and faced forward again at the voice, his voice. Benjamin had joined them in that moment she looked away, and now he stood closer to her than he had in months. Wearing a strained smile, he still managed to avoid her gaze.
Oh Lord, help me. I beg you, please.
“We were just about to.” Mistress Abigail smiled at her son and then transferred it to Zipporah. “You have a choice to make, little one. When we purchase slaves at the urging of the Spirit or to fill a need, we always make it clear we view it as purchasing their freedom. If they do not want to serve here, they may go where they will. If they choose to stay, we welcome them to the flock. Some have chosen to remain slaves, like your parents, and so when children are born to them, we wait until they are of age and then let them decide what they will do.”
Of age. Was she of age? Sometimes, when she dreamed of making a life with Benjamin, she felt as old as any of the other young women now wives. Other times…times like these…she wished she could hide behind her ima’s skirts like she had done a few short years ago.
“You are younger than your siblings were when the decision was put before them,” her father said, his arm still around her. “But with Anna marrying Samuel today, becoming a mistress, it seemed cruel to leave you forced to serve.”
She shook her head and refused to let her gaze wander back to Benjamin, even though she wanted to soak up the image of him. “I am never forced to serve, Abba. It is my joy to do my part.”
The mistress’s fingers twined through hers. “And you are a bit young to be striking out on your own, we know that. But you can have your freedom, Zipporah. Benjamin has the document ready.”
Zipporah’s eyes would not obey her command not to look, not now when Benjamin pulled out a rolled parchment from his toga. She had to look at the document, at the strong hand that held it out. And then she could not help but follow his muscled arm up to his handsome face.
But he did not offer her the charming smile he gave everyone else he met, just that same tight, distant one he always gave her lately. Gone, it seemed, were the days where they could laugh together. Where they could wonder together what lay beyond the walls of Tutelos, beyond Rome, in those lands they read about in the letters from other churches. Gone was their friendship.
She had ruined it by wanting more. And now he would no doubt be relieved if she took that rolled parchment. If she were no longer his in any sense of the word.
Take it. The words slid into her ear, nearly sounding like the Spirit had. But they did not resonate as they should. A chill clawed at her. Take it and leave. Go see the world. Go. Go and be free.
Her arm lifted, her fingers reached out. Then a shadow caught her eye. She jerked her head to the right, trying to see what had cast it, but there was nothing that could have. No clouds in the sky to have whispered before the sun. Just a shadow crouching behind her. Like a…like a man. But not.
She eased closer to her father. As alluring as the world sounded, she did not want to see it alone. And had the Lord not just minutes ago told her to stay here, that she was needed? She let her arm drift back to her side and shook her head. “I will stay here. With my family.” With you, she thought but did not dare to add as she glanced up at her handsome young master.
Benjamin held the scroll out farther, nodded. “Of course. But you can still do that and be free. If you choose to bind yourself to my house, Zip, choose it of your own volition, you will be agreeing to be bound by my authority and my will. Do you understand that?”
Like a wife, promising to obey her husband. Not that they all did, but a home would not be at peace if two wills were always clashing—and their home, Tutelos, where so many Christians and Jews sought refuge, needed peace above all. She folded her arms across her middle lest she be tempted to reach out again. “I understand.”
For just a moment, old affection paired with challenge in his eyes, as it had used to do. “You will have to give up arguing with me.”
“I do not argue with you!” The moment the words escaped, she clamped her lips together, even as their parents laughed.
Benjamin eased a step closer, making him only three steps away. The scroll he held out was inches from her. “Stay. But be free, Zip.”
But she did not want to be free, not of him. If all the claim she would ever have on him was that he was her master…and really, what was the point? She shook her head. “I am a girl, Ben. I am under my father’s authority even if I take that parchment, and he is under yours.”
And she could trust him, just as she trusted her parents and his. She could trust him to make wise decisions that she would not chafe under. Trust him to go where the Lord willed.
Go. Take it and go. Adventure awaits. The world is at your fingertips. Take it and go discover what it has for you.
The shadow seemed to move—no, did move. She saw it slide onto her shoulder, and it moved with her when she shrugged. Unease scrabbled its way into fear. What was it?
Then a flash, bright and shimmering, and the song leapt through her mind. Gone before she could grasp its words, if there were any. Gone.
As was the shadow.
What had it been? Shadow and light…oily whisper and crystal song. As if…as if…
“Here.” Benjamin tapped her arm with the rolled parchment.
He had drawn even closer. Her throat went dry, and all she could manage was a shake of her head.
Benjamin sighed. “Must you always be so stubborn?”
“I am not stubborn.” And now she found her tongue?
His lips twitched into the beginnings of a smile. “You are arguing with me again.”
“Because you will it, Master.” From somewhere inside came the strength to grin, as if it were a year ago and she had not yet begun to dream of being more than his slave, his sister’s friend. As if they could still tease and talk.
His mother laughed and patted his arm that held the offended document. “It seems she has made her decision, my son. For now, at least. Perhaps we will revisit it in a few years’ time, hmm?”
Benjamin sighed again and put the scroll back into the folds of his toga. “Do you think she will be any less stubborn at sixteen or eighteen? Because thus far it has compounded with age.”
The mistress winked at her. “It is all a matter of what she has decided is right. Is it not so, little one?”
How could anyone help but smile in the face of Mistress Abigail? “And of what the Lord wants of me.”
“For you.” The challenge rekindled in Benjamin’s eyes.
“Of me. I am meant to serve him, not be served by him.” It was what they themselves had taught her, so why did they all stare at her so?
Abba shook his head and urged her back around, toward the villa’s door. “Sometimes, my darling girl, I think your faith is greater than any of ours.”
She chuckled, though her father did not. “You are being silly, Abba. I only believe what you have taught.”
He patted her shoulder as he led her back inside. “Exactly.”
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“You, girl. Refresh my wine.”
Zipporah paused, though her feet had been aimed toward the tent’s exit, and turned toward the deep Roman voice. She was not dressed to serve, not today. The mistress had provided soft linen for her and the rest of her family, not the coarser stuff that would not be ruined by spilled wine or food or the mud of the vineyards, if she were carrying water out to the workers. Today, she was supposed to be merely the sister of the bride.
Apparently, though, she still looked like the servant she had just an hour ago decided to remain.
Anna, her face glowing with joy, put a hand on Zipporah’s shoulder and turned her brilliant smile on the guest. “My sister does not serve today, Lord.”
“Sister?” The noble’s incredulousness came off him in waves. He all but sneered at Zipporah, his gaze sweeping from her uninspiring face down her shapeless figure. “Forgive me, Lady Asinius. She bears little resemblance to you. Though I confess, now that I see you I understand young Samuel’s determination to wed you.”
Zipporah left Anna to accept or parry the flattery and tried to convince herself it was amusing.
A familiar hand touched her back as she slipped out of the tent. Samuel did not try to halt her, just walked with her, looking down at her with that warm understanding he always offered. Though how he understood what it felt like to be plain when he had always been the most beautiful man in Rome, she could not fathom.
“Do not let him bother you, little sparrow. He is an oaf.”
“He is the fifth person today to be shocked to learn I am the sister of the bride they all agree is as fair as Venus.” She shrugged. “I suspect Anna wearies of defending me.”
He rubbed a soothing circle on her back. “There is nothing to defend. You may not look like Anna, but you are you, and you are beautiful.”
A breath of laughter slipped out. “Just because you are now my brother does not mean you must lie to me.”
He smiled, but his gaze drifted back toward the tent, where Anna beckoned for him to rejoin her. “I have no need to lie. All my sisters are beautiful, everyone knows it. All of them.”
“Samuel.” She gave him a friendly shove. He had only two sisters, but she would not argue with him counting her among them. She might have argued more about the obvious falsehood of her sharing their beauty, but now was not the time. “Go back to your bride before she grows irritated with your absence.”
“Anna? Irritated?” He grinned and tugged on her braid. “Sarah was running over by the fountain a moment ago. Go find her and play.”
She lifted her chin. “I am too old to play.”
Laughter danced in his eyes. “And yet I suspect you will suffer it.”
A grin stole over her lips. “Only for Sarah’s sake.”
He took a step toward the tent, but backward, so that he still faced Zipporah. “Tell her to be careful. I would just as soon not have to tend any scrapes or bruises today if she falls.”
She waved him on, back into the throng of laughing, gossiping guests. Her own feet she pointed toward the fountain, but she took only a step before she halted again. A zephyr stirred, snatching up the curls that escaped her braid and grabbing at her skirt. A gentle wind like any other, except that with it came another flash of golden light. Her eyes were quick enough to follow it this time. Through the air, across the land, over the road and toward the gate.
A plume of dust signaled a late-arriving guest. That explained why she spotted her father and Master Titus walking that direction. What it did not, could not explain was why she saw that streak of light stop and take form. Why she saw a shadow looming, darkening, until it too looked more like a crouching man-beast than some trick of light and cloud.
Her feet were running, though she did not recall giving herself the command. She had to reach Abba and the master before they reached the gate and that…that thing.
No, not just a thing. Her soul recognized it the closer she got, the feeling she had often experienced pairing with what her eyes now told her. The enemy. A dark one, a demon. She had felt this sticky unease many a time on the streets of Rome. She had felt it again just an hour ago, when that voice had told her to go away from all she knew. Now panic nipped at her, and she ran all the faster.
He was already all but at the gate, he and the master. And just outside it hunkered that inky black shadow-creature, where a man ought to have sat in the litter. Where a man did sit, twisted somehow through the shadow.
Her father turned, as did Master Titus, frowns on both their faces.
Zipporah pumped her legs harder. “Do not let them in!”
She saw their frowns, but only for a moment. Her gaze locked upon the man in the chaise.
Did she know the face? No. At least, she thought not. But she could scarcely even see it. It was as if…as if his face were but a mask, thin as the bridal veil Anna wore. She could see eyes, nose, mouth, chin—but those features, usually solid, shifted. And her eyes pierced straight through to the beast behind it.
Black as night. Ugly as sin. Seething as a tempest.
The creature hissed, spat something she could not hear, and then the mask-lips moved. “Is there a problem, Titus?”
Her feet pounded over the final stretch. “Do not let them in! Lord, hear me! They are the enemy—they are out to destroy us!”
Titus stepped toward her, hands out, palms down. “Zipporah, be calm. What is it? What is the matter?”
She flew a step past him, beside her father, would have gone another step still, but a flash of light came down. Halting, blinking, she followed it up. Up still more into a bare outline of a face that shimmered and gleamed, yet seemed no more substantial than a mote of dust dancing in sunlight.
Remain inside. The warning came as a whisper in her ear, deep as the sea and as echoing as a canyon. Quiet as the gentlest breeze.
Her breath hitched.
“Zipporah?” Abba put his hand on her shoulder, but he did not look toward the shimmer. “What is it?”
She forced her gaze back to the creature. “You cannot let this man inside our walls, Abba. The demon within him is gnashing his teeth, too eager to pass through the gates.”
Titus sucked in a gasp. Abba’s hand slipped away. “Demon?”
The creature hissed, and the man laughed. “Is this how the slaves all behave here, Titus Asinius? Claiming the land is theirs? Daring to speak against your invited guest?”
“Andrew?” Titus spoke in a murmur to her father, but his tone said much. Most of it a question.
Abba’s gaze felt heavy on her face. “She has always had good instincts, Lord. And would never dare speak against anyone unless she felt something very powerful.”
Felt? Perhaps in the past she had felt the peace from the being of light, felt the oily shadow of the evil ones. But this was so much more than feeling. Her fingers curled into her palm. “Please, Master. Please. For the sake of the flock.”
Silence pulsed, unbroken by anything but the singing of the flaming swords held before the gate and the hiss of the creature behind the man.
The mask snarled. “Titus, this behavior is appalling. If one of my slaves ever acted thus, I would deliver her to the arenas—and if her father defended her, he would find himself a eunuch by night’s end.”
Titus rested a hand momentarily on her shoulder and then stepped past her, putting himself between her and his guest. He looked about to take another step, beyond the beam of light, but halted. Did he see it? Sense that the protection ended there? “My apologies, Antonius.”
The man-mask turned in a smug smile while the creature chortled. “I will not hold it against you—though I expect you will at least make the girl serve me as recompense for her behavior.”
The way he looked at her as he said that—Zipporah’s stomach churned. She had seen men aplenty look at Anna so, any time they went into Rome. Hence why her sister was seldom allowed outside the villa walls—Mistress Abigail said beauty must be protected.
But Zipporah had never needed that kind of protection, and she knew well it was not the man lusting after her shapeless figure now.
It was the beast inside him, wanting to devour.
“No.” Titus held up a hand when Antonius climbed down from the chaise. “I was not apologizing for Zipporah. I was apologizing for having to refuse you entrance after first inviting you. I know it is a slight you will not soon forgive. But I must trust my people.”
The black figure lashed, screamed, lifted the man’s arms like puppets. Would he come at Master Titus? Would he dare advance to the sentinels?
But they stayed where they were, those columns of light, they did nothing, nothing to force the enemy back. How could they just stand there? Why did they not take the offensive?
The shadow-hand reached inside the man’s toga, red eyes flashing when the angels’ two blades of light crossed in front of him.
She watched Titus’s muscles coil, ready to move. But not backward, farther behind the protective guardians, forward. “Master, no! Stay within the gates!”
She meant only to grab his arm, pull him back. But somehow, when he moved in response to her plea, she overstepped.
As she passed through the light, the singing filled her. One glorious, frozen eternity of the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.
Then the wind rushed past.
Come back! Hurry!
She heard the cry, but before her feet could obey, the shadow loomed. Pounced.
Her own cry came out a strangled gasp as the man’s hand closed around her throat with demon talons. Helpless against the strength so much greater than her own, she could only kick at him. The next moment the world tilted, and the earth struck at her back.
Looking up, she could see those flaming swords above her, over her chest, repulsing man and beast from lunging at her stomach. But it came again, even as her father and Titus leapt at it. The sun’s dimmer light caught on the metal slashing toward her face.
She could only close her eyes and whisper, “Jesus.”
Samuel Asinius pulled the needle through the last bit of torn flesh, tied the wisp of silk, and snipped it free. Only then did he let himself look away from the ugly gash running from temple to chin and to the eyes of his new little sister.
When they carried her in, interrupting the wedding feast with their shouts and panic, she had been unconscious. A mercy. She had awakened while he stitched her face, and though they had offered her wine and a few herbs to dull the pain, stubborn little Zipporah had refused and just focused her gaze behind them all, on the low ceiling of the chamber she had always shared with Anna.
“There.” He smiled and stroked one of the few unmarked pieces of flesh on her face. Poor girl. She was fortunate, so fortunate Father and Andrew had been only a step away. One more slash, better aimed, and she may be in the bosom of Abraham. “All finished, little sparrow.”
On the other side of him, Miriam blinked back tears and held fast to her daughter’s hand. “Will it scar, do you think?”
Need she ask? He let his breath out slowly and shifted his gaze from the silent girl to her mother, and then over his shoulder to where Anna stood awkwardly in the doorway, her face perfect as her sister’s would never be. He dredged up a smile for them all. “Barring a miracle. But the scar will fade over time, and being on the side of her face as it is, I daresay it will scarcely be noticeable. She can cover it easily. And praise Jehovah he missed her eye. You are certain you can see clearly?”
Zipporah attempted a smile, though only a hint of it shone through the bruises and dried blood they had yet to scrub completely away. “Quite certain. And the scar is no matter, Ima. I have no beauty to lose anyway.”
“Oh, my sweet little bird. You have always been beautiful. And you shall be so still.” Miriam raised the girl’s hands and kissed her fingers, bathing them with her tears.
Samuel felt movement behind him and shifted instinctively to welcome Anna to his side. How very white her wedding garment looked, how pristine and unmarred in its embroidered splendor. He glanced again at her sister, whose linen tunic was stained scarlet with her own life.
“Anna.” Now Zipporah’s meager smile faded, and her eyes finally pooled with the tears she had yet to shed over her pain. She reached out her free hand. “I am so sorry. I ruined your day.”
With a trickle of laughter, Anna bent to her knees at her sister’s side and clasped her fingers. She, too, kissed the girl’s knuckles. “Yes, why did you not choose a more convenient time to be attacked?” When she closed her eyes and held Zipporah’s hand to her cheek, Samuel’s breath caught. He had seen her every day of her life, knew her better than he knew his own mind, but how long would it take to really believe she was his wife?
“I was so afraid,” Anna whispered. “When I saw Abba carrying you in, I thought…I thought you had been stolen from us. I could not bear that, Zip. You must be more cautious.”
A throat cleared from the hallway, and Samuel looked away from the women knowing well who would be waiting outside. Anyone else would come in, check on their injured friend. Only Benjamin, too aware of Zipporah’s infatuation, would stay away to keep from giving her false hope. With a nod to his bride to say he would return directly, Samuel rose and stepped through the doorway even as her brother Mark slid into the room.
Sure enough, Benjamin stood in the shadows of the corridor, his brow furrowed in concern. “How is she?”
“You could go in and see for yourself.”
“She would think nothing of it.” But Samuel knew, even as he said it, that Benjamin would shake his head.
“Just tell me.”
Samuel drew in a long breath and would have reached up to pinch his nose had his hands not still been in dire need of washing from his work upon her face. “The slash is deep. I did my best, but it will scar. Her eyes will be black by morning, she has bruising on her throat but seems to have no trouble breathing or speaking, praise the Lord. She is awake and no doubt in agony, but of course, this is Zipporah.”
“Stubborn little thing.” Benjamin drew in a deep breath and glanced again at the open door. “Father and Andrew will be here in a moment. Is she well enough for questions?”
“No. But I doubt that would stop her from answering them.” Their footsteps sounded from down the hall even now, but Samuel focused instead upon the ones from within. Anna reappeared in the doorway, her expression what he had expected it to be. Sorrow and concern, joy that her sister would survive, a bit of sickness from the sights and smells.
But there was another gleam too, one he hesitated to name as she reached for him but then stopped upon spotting his hands.
As the older men neared, Andrew’s pace increased to a near-run. He paused outside long enough to embrace his elder daughter and plant a kiss upon her head and then hurried through the door.
Father hung back, no doubt to give the family inside a morsel of privacy. He loosed a long breath and leaned into the wall. “Is she awake?”
“Yes, but she said nothing of what happened.” Though Samuel dare not touch his bride, he eased a step closer to her. “It was Antonius Merillius? Why would he attack her?” He had never particularly liked the wealthy merchant, but he had not thought him the kind to come at a slave girl for no reason.
“She accused him of having a demon.”
Anna sucked in a gasp, covering her lips with elegant fingers. “Why would she say such a thing?”
“Because it was true. I have encountered this occasionally over the years—when he came at her, it was not Antonius’s expression upon his face.” Father clenched his strong jaw, shook his head. “The way she spoke—I must talk with her. Do you think she is well enough, or should I wait until tomorrow?”
“Now, she says.” Andrew spoke from the doorway, motioning to the lot of them. “But Miriam wisely counsels us to be quick.”
“Wait for me!”
Samuel turned at his mother’s voice, reaching out an arm to welcome her to the group. She carried the clean bandages he had sent her for a few minutes earlier. As she was already bloodied from her ministrations, he hesitated not to put his hand upon the small of her back.
The tiny chamber nearly burst with all the people pressed around Zipporah’s pallet. It gave Benjamin a legitimate reason to hover in the threshold, to be sure. And Samuel rather hoped the rest of his siblings waited before coming back. Zipporah may be strong and stubborn, but having that many people towering over her…
“How did you know?” Father had crouched down beside her, and his voice was low, solemn. “You came running—it was no coincidence that brought you to the gate. You knew he was coming. How?”
“Did you feel something amiss?” Miriam smoothed the hair from her youngest’s brow. “You have always been so sensitive, especially these past years since you began studying the Scriptures.”
“Did the Spirit prompt you to come to us?” Andrew this time.
“Let her answer.” Mark must have been grinning, given his tone. And the tickling finger he ran over his sister’s bare foot.
Samuel marked not her smile, but rather the degree it reached before the pain flared in her eyes when the action pulled upon her wound.
Zipporah cleared her throat. And winced, making him think she began to feel the bruises inflicted there too. “It was not…not a feeling. I…” She paused and accepted the sip of water Miriam offered her. “The wind blew. And I glimpsed the light, so I turned, and…and they were there. The angels, guarding the villa. Stationed around the walls, just as we pray every day they will do. And then I saw the dark one.”
“Saw it? With your eyes?” Anna’s incredulity pulsed through the room, a perfect match to the way she had folded her arm over her chest.
Why had he not washed his hands before stepping out to see Benjamin? Samuel wanted—needed—to touch a hand to her shoulder, to remind her without words that the spirits within them could sense what lay beyond. Lessons she often forgot.
Lessons her little sister must have taken to heart. Samuel eased a bit closer, careful to tuck his soiled hand into the folds of his toga. “What did they look like? Light, you say?”
He had his own images, his own impressions. But an angel…he had never seen one, not clothed in heavenly brilliance. How terrifying it must have been.
She looked upward now, not in recollection, but focused. Focused upon the corner of her chamber. “Light, yes. Shimmering like a mote caught in sunlight. Even more fearsome in demeanor than Master Titus.”
A trill of shared laughter released some of the tension. Still, Samuel could sense the doubt too. From Anna, but not only. They all, it seemed, wanted to reserve judgment. He shifted to better see his new sister’s mottled face. Did she see them still?
She met his gaze, looking so much older with her bruises and blood. Yet so much the child with the shimmer of uncertainty in her eyes when she glanced at the others in the room. “I…I do not understand why they would not leave the walls to fight off the enemy. Why the protection ends at the gate.”
“We have only so much authority on this earth.” Father sighed and reached for Mother’s hand. “We pray it around ourselves and what is ours, but the evil surrounding us is so great…perhaps the heavenly forces, much like a legion, have to concentrate their efforts. And perhaps they must obey orders just as we do.”
The explanation seemed to do little to settle her thoughts, given her knit brow. “I did not mean to step beyond the gate. I only meant to keep you inside, Lord, but I…I am sorry. My carelessness ruined what should have been a day of rejoicing. Will you forgive me, Anna?”
“There is nothing to forgive.” Yet behind Anna’s words, behind her smile, Samuel saw the weariness. “Who is to say what would have happened had this…creature entered Tutelos? You may have saved us all.”
A murmur of agreement came from the others. Samuel edged his way around them until he reached the basin of water still waiting. “You have been given a precious gift indeed, little sister. We have been praying that someone among us would receive discernment beyond which we have thus far seen, someone to tell us what spirit is within each stranger who comes to our gates.”
“No.” Miriam’s quick objection brought his gaze up and around and to her frantic eyes. “No, she is only a child. She cannot be burdened so. Perhaps it was only today. Because of how urgent the need.”
Perhaps. But the twitch of Zipporah’s lip said she hoped her mother was wrong. Samuel at once hoped they were both right. Such a gift—it would change so much at Tutelos, if they all listened to her. Provide such protection.
And yet Miriam was right. What an immense burden for a girl of thirteen.
But Jehovah knew best where to send each portion of his Spirit. Perhaps…perhaps it required the faith of a child to see beyond the veil, to the world the rest of them too often forgot to remember.
“We should let Zipporah rest. Time will tell how this gift rests upon her.” Mother sank to the floor beside Father and leaned down to press a gentle kiss to the girl’s forehead. “Thank you for your sacrifice for us all today, sweet Zipporah.”
Zipporah opened her mouth but emitted only an “I…” before a fit of coughing overtook her.
Her throat—Samuel would pray it was only bruised, that after a few days’ rest she would feel the injury no more. Heaven knew she procured enough today that would never go away. “Everyone out.” As the closest thing Tutelos had to a physician, Samuel shooed the crowd through the door and heard no arguments. Everyone but Miriam filed back into the hall and to their duties.
There were guests here still, after all. And Father would have to see to the return of Antonius’s body to Rome. If Samuel unraveled the jumbled exclamations correctly when they rushed in with Zipporah, the man had turned his blade upon his own stomach when Father and Andrew flung him off the girl.
The girl who once again stared at the corner as if seeing something no one else could. Samuel promised to check on her in the morning, reminded Miriam to fetch him if he was needed in the meantime, and stepped out into the corridor.
Anna waited for him, that weary look in her eyes again. “You invite interruption on your own wedding night. Only you, Samuel Asinius.”
He chuckled and pulled her close, bent low so he could capture her lips with his. Heat swept through him. Yes, he prayed no knock would sound upon their door tonight. “Your mother would only come if it were an emergency.” He held her tighter still, let his hands run the length of her sides. “I am sorry violence visited us this day.”
Anna sighed and pulled away, weaving her fingers through his and tugging him toward the hall that would lead to his chamber. Their chamber. “We are all sorry. Do you…” Her feet did not pause, but her tongue did as she looked over her shoulder at him, her perfect face pinched. “Do you really think she saw such things? Perhaps the blow to her head—”
“The blow came after she accused him. No, beloved, I think your sister saw exactly what she said she did.”
Her rich, dark locks swayed when she shook her head. “Demons. Angels. I would just as soon focus on the world I can see. And I sincerely hope…” She stopped, let him bump into her, walked her fingers up his chest as she gave him a spiced smile. “…that tonight at least you will do the same.”
His lips pulled up. “That, beloved, will not be a problem.”
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