But it made the move a fatal second too late. Internal pressures split the octohedron crystal on a fault line, neatly dividing the stone. Half- vaporized in a flash that blinded all, man or beast, who happened to look that direction, the half-stone shot away, circling the planet, but still reluctant to leave. So it did not withdraw completely but with basilisk sensors looked for and found a habitat, on Atlantis II, even more to its liking than the first.
Besides this problem he had others. At this time another star-stone sought refuge, following the trajectory of the Diamond.
The initial display was impressive, even with the other Stones for comparison. Holding the center of a jetting cloud of fire and smoke, waves of orange ran upwards and downwards across tendril-like, corkscrew streamers of purple and red. Then pink and green flowers formed at the extremities, gradually folding back into the center, recoiling all the noise, color, and fire into the point of origin.
The roaring at the center jewel contrasted violently with the delicate waving streamers. It reached a deafening pitch that drew attention across the wide Earth. Suddenly, the fifth destroyer plummeted earthward to join the Fourth. But for some reason it too found the Bethlehem locale inhospitably “hot.” It flew to a quiet district farther to the north amidst the tribe of Ephraim.
The new invader settled in Ramathaim-zophrim, a village with an impressive name but otherwise known as “Ramah.” Ramah held three or four hundred people in the best times and was devoted to rural pursuits: sheep raising and grain cultivation. What could be more peaceful and unsuspecting a host? But that was what the intruding, cryptozoic stars sought: an unsuspecting, gullible victim. In that way the latest OP compared with the dangerously powerful Topaz, which was still eluding his detection.
What exactly was the new Stone of Fire? he wondered. He knew he had to keep close watch on events in the sleepy hamlet it had chosen for its residence. After all, it was chiefly by behavior that he ascertained what specific threat he faced on the gameboard. As for FC, if past performance said anything, FC might also be involved somehow too. But FC followed a different agenda. Would FC intervene or refrain from active participation?
“If only I had been programmed to deal with the spiritual dimension!” Wally thought, utterly frustrated. The Stones of Fire, he knew, could operate freely in it, and so he was playing with a severe handicap. Nevertheless, he was, despite setbacks, still in the Wargame. But how much longer? At the rate the star-stones were zeroing in on Earth, he might find the opposition overwhelming at any moment.
“Where are you, Subfile Programmer Pikkard, when I need you?” Again, there was no answer from the memory-banked files of his great mentor. Alone, a big blue butterfly flitted through Ramah and the surrounding countryside, looking for the hidden enemy.
With an evil trinity of three OPs loose on the gameboard, Wally was determined to lock horns with the situation.
“I’m going to find you if I have to search every house and sheepshed in the village!” Wally thought. Actually, that was not a daunting task, since Ramah was so small.
But what would he do if he found the alien and potentially hostile intruder? He had no idea. THAT was the daunting aspect, not the scale of his search. If a Cray could have perspired, he would have been drenched. After having a good time torching a good half of the Universe, the Sardius, once tagged “ Cv X-**/-”, sailed off to parts unknown, with Earth left still vulnerable to invasion by equally malignant brothers and sisters. Which was worse? Wally had good reason to ask. A single OP of galactic-sized power and ambition, or this proliferating swarm of stellar snakes?
For some days she had in her heart to gain some clinching advantage in the domestic sphere and now fate favored her cause. A gleaming object on the ground caught her eye. She liked gold, and wore a lot of her dowry in bracelets on her arms and ankles, but this was not gold. It was colored like something she had seen on a necklace of a passing tradesman’s First Wife (the disdainful tradesman was so wealthy, in fact, he didn’t bother to stop and display his stock). Not that Elkanah, if his name meaning “God-Possessing” had anything to do with it, would have bought anything so grand for her! No, he was always so careful about his wealth! She snatched it up, despite the strain of holding the heavy baby in one arm.
Her own eyes gleamed in response. “A gemstone!” she exulted. Not even the First Wife had such a fine jewel as this! She looked both ways down the little, winding street between the few houses that Ramah could boast. There was no sign of any tradesman.
“Perhaps they passed this way again and a stone worked loose from the neck of that tradesman’s creature,” she reflected. At any rate, the other woman’s loss was her gain now. She clenched the stone tightly in her hand, then put it away in the house with some of her prize jewelry which she wore only when they went up to Shiloh for the great Feast. Easily eclipsing her rather common, countrified gew gaws and baubles, the great jewel would not be there long. They would be leaving in a few days. Peninah thought about the problem. This was just the thing, she realized, to give her the edge she needed against her rival. Bearing sons was good when her adversary bore not one, but this jewel was her token for good, a sign that God had set his seal of approval on His handmaid.
How might she get a skilled man set it in gold and attach it to a gold chain? Little Ramah had no such gem dealer. Jebus, Gath, Ashdod, Askelon, Ekron, Gaza, Acco, Sidon, Tyre, Babelen, and Nineveh had hundreds and even thousands of such dealers, but that was no help to her in little, out of the way Ramah. No, she would have to do the work herself somehow. The stone was just too attractive to leave behind. How it would draw everyone’s eyes to her in Shiloh when she wore it as a pendant with her best robe! Could anyone deny then the injustice of her being Second instead of First?
Taking it, she walked down the street and climbed the slope to the spring bubbling into a small rock-lined pool. Despite that Ramah’s numerous grazing animals had eaten all the grass and killed the trees and flowers, the refreshing sound of the water in the morning and the bright sun lifted her spirits a little.
She lay her pot down in the water to cool before she drew it up. Elkanah liked a fresh draught of cold spring water every morning before the women did laundry, and she--who was barren and bore no sons--thought she could at least do that for him. As for Penninah, with three sons and one in arms, she could not be bothered though the task was traditionally hers.
Of course, she had never wanted to do it, even before her sons arrived, but she told the First Wife she would do it as soon as she was through bearing children for Elkanah.
When that would be, she intimated, no one could tell. Truly, Elkanah’s prolific second vine showed no sign whatsoever of letting up on fruitage.
The old one attempted a bow and nearly fell.
“Oh, well, quit staring at me and take him!” Peninah cried crossly, thrusting her infant at the old woman who nearly fell backwards under the load.
Going to a corner of the house where she kept her valuables from prying hands and eyes in a hole in the wall, the Second Wife took out a gold chain, examined it and decided it would have to do.
She would have liked one made specially for the stone, but that would have to wait. But how was she going to attach the stone?
The stone was glowing as if it were too hot to touch. “A miracle!” she thought. “The Lord who had blessed me, his humble handmaid, with so many sons and smitten the First Wife barren is now fashioning a worthy necklace for rewarding me!” Indeed, it seemed so.
When she ventured to pick up the chain, the stone remained attached to the gold, exactly as if it were made to do so. Overcome with the thought, she fell down on her face before the jewel, worshipping.
“By the blessed paps of Lady Hibishu! What a holy thing I have found!” she thought. “It must have fallen from her starry crown in heaven!” Surely, such a sacred gem ought to be displayed before the multitude at Shiloh when they went up to the feast. She was determined that she would do just that.
“Dear wife, are you getting ready for the house of El Elyon? We must start in a day or so with the others from the village.”
Hanna turned away, biting her lip.
Her husband’s eyes grew troubled. “I will keep Peninah close to the front and away from you,” he said. “Perhaps then the journey will be more pleasant for you than beforetimes.”
“Perhaps,” was all Hanna could return, without weeping then and spoiling his new day.
She flinched. “How you divine my thoughts!” she burst out.
“I feared it might be so,” he muttered, drawing on his sandals and a fresh robe.
He gazed at her with mingled solicitation and tenderness.
“But you must go with us, dearest wife! It is the Holy One of Israel we go to honor with our vows and sacrifices! Leave your troubles at home and go and feast and worship with us! It will do you much good. And I cannot bear the thought of you here alone while we all are feasting and dancing before the Lord God and His sanctuary.”
She soon maneuvered her donkey next to Hanna’s.
Though she had said countless cutting things to the First Wife before, her voice had gained a new edge that drew blood with every word until the victim felt she was being flayed, Assyrian-fashion.
“Why are you coming with us anyway?” the Second Wife began. “Do you have no shame? I thought this time you would have more sense. What will the other women say at the holy place, when they see you strut up to another Feast without a son at your breasts? I really suspect you have no feeling at all, to inflict this scandal and ignominy on me and my sons and my beloved husband! Why, you’ve made yourself a gazingstock, a byword among the people!”
Hanna, her face flushing red, bit off her angry retort.
Peninah, the Onyx pendant on her breast glowing with beauty, laughed. “That’s what I thought! You have no answer to my words, do you? You are shameless! And I have to suffer this indignity, day after day, year after year, being unequally yoked with one such as you! Ai ai ai!”
Peninah leaned toward the shrinking, ashen-complected Hanna. “Why, you are nothing but a sinner!” she hissed, shaking her fist in Hanna’s face. “You bear God’s reproach, while I bear all his blessings! Isn’t that so? If it is not, why then do you have no sons? Tell me! Say, you reprobate! Say!”
Peninah’s voice was now so loud the men at the head were looking round at them. The Second Wife, triumph on her comely, fat face, laughed.
“You have nothing to say, that is why you keep silent! Well, keep silent as a stone! You will burn like fire when I tell the priests and the temple women exactly what you are up to! I will tell them your fine secrets, why God is reproaching you and blessing me! Don’t think I haven’t noticed the teraphim you hide under your bed and the nasty sacrifices you make to them to get sons from your withered womb! Yes, go and hide in your booth like you always do when we get to the holy place. You can’t escape the truth! I’ll tell the whole world what a slave to vice you are! Then perhaps my husband will listen to wisdom and send you back to your father’s house where you belong!”
The Second was not one to wait for another day to seize the main chance. Going about as the aggrieved party, Peninah soon let the whole encampment of Israel know that all was not well with Elkanah’s household.
The splendid jewel on her bosom shone all the more in marked contrast with the sackcloth of pious mourning she affected when Elkanah was not looking her way.
To anyone who inquired about it, she claimed it had fallen straight from heaven and attached itself to the gold chain at her breast--which was truer than she knew. Those who did not inquire, were told straight out. “It is an infallible sign that high heaven has heard the voice of weeping, and the time to favor the afflicted one has come!”
Who, gazing upon the wondrous stone, could disagree with that? None its like had ever been seen in the lands of the children of Jacob. Considerable numbers of women commiserated with her when she shared what it was like to be the sorely oppressed and unresisting Second Wife.
Nodding her head, Peninah wailed all the more. “Ai ai ai! It is my eternal disgrace and sorrow that such as she has been unjustly raised before me so that her scepter can exact upon the righteous!”
A wise woman from Mount Carmel interposed at the right moment. She considered herself adept at discernment of attitudes.
“And, pray, mark her insolence of attitude!” said she, stroking the gold-beaded and platted hair of Peninah’s lowered head. “God will not bear with her forever! There comes a time of fierce and fiery reckoning for such malefactors who puffeth themselves up against the innocent as she hath done!”
“Oh, bless you, holy sister and mother of Israel!” cried Penninah, beside herself for joy. “Bless your womb and the paps that give suck to your noble sons!”
Carmelite sagacity nodded her elect head, accepting the rather rustic but sincere tribute though it edged perilously close to vulgarity, and passed on to her elegantly blue-cushioned booth besides which a spotless white ass was conspicuously tethered.
“How dare she go up to the House of God with us holy women and mothers of Israel!” one cried.
“It’s an outrage!” agreed another. “Look how she flies from us, just like a shrinking sinner!”
“Yes, she is that!” remarked Peninah. “I’ve caught her many times fondling and petitioning her foul abominations, clay figurines of Chemoth, Chillilu, Hibishu, and some others fashioned in ways a lady of our refinement ought not to describe.”
The women accompanying Penninah fell back aghast, though a fair number cultivated such images in safe places in their houses and shouldn’t have been amazed.
“She ought to be cast out from the holy congregation for that!” the Carmelitess sniffed again right on time. “Just the thought of her brazen wickedness spoils the pristine quality of vow-giving for me! But your husband, the good Elkanah, does he not notice what she is up to?”
Though accounted the official authorities on such matters, the priests showed little knowledge of proper sacrifices and sacramental ceremony, which added to the confusion from year to year as to what sacrifices should be offered at what times and what festivals. So it was the Carmelitess and her husband had brought a waive offering to Shiloh, or at least their idea of one.
A waive offering, after all, saved sacrificing something more valuable, such as a bullock or ox.
True, there was small cattle--which were popularly defined as anything from sheep to conies and crows--but it was difficult to bring living small cattle so far, and the Carmelitess favored travelling light in sacrifices so that she might take along more personal baggage and changes of apparel.
Grain, then, was the best they could do, she and her husband decided. But the grain was supposed to be wheat, the finest of the harvest.
So far they had done that part correctly, carrying a bag of excellent wheat to Shiloh. But between the camp and the shrine things could happen that might compromise the purity of the offering. The Carmelitess herself was one such thing.
She supposed it would be an unconscionable waste of good wheat to make loaves and then see the ruffian priests gobble them up before they could be burnt on the altar, so she got up early before the others and took from the offering out of the bag and gave it as provender to her white ass.
Then she put barley back in the place of the wheat, mixing the two and adding some sand and wood dust to cover over the loss.
Later, her maid-servant made thirteen loaves of this adulterated grain and her husband and she presented the loaves to the priests. The high priest’s sons took them and then, what they didn’t seize for their own gluttony, they cast on the flames of the altar, only to find that the loaves, miraculously, were not consumed by the fire but remained intact.
He took one of the waive offering loaves and broke it open. Sand and sawdust poured out on the ground.
“Just what kind of filthy rubbish do you country people think the Most High will accept anyway?” one son of Eli railed at the gathering.
“Lightning could come down and consume us, if He happens to be looking this way and takes offense when he sees the unclean offerings. Do you want to get us all killed in our prime? Now we’ll have to think of something to please him and take his mind off what just happened. That could cost us a bullock or two! And then the sacrificed bullock’s pretty cow would die of lovesickness, for want of--”
It was just as well for her that she left when she did. Others of her sex were not so fortunate.
The women made their vows before one or the other of the high priest’s sons, their menfolk presented the animals for slaughter and sacrifice.
High up on the sanctuary altar the bulky figure of Eli the high priest stood flinging incense on the smoke and flames.
When the women returned to the camp from the grand solemnities, some did not return with the others and later complained.
“My dear, Eli’s eldest son forced me to do his pleasure! What could I do? He is the son of the high priest!”
“Yes, I was afraid it was going to happen to me this year again, but he favored you instead, for you are younger. Are you going to tell your husband? It won’t do any good. Your husband will just beat you, thinking it was your fault for inciting the holy priest!”
“Of course, I won’t tell him! It would bring shame upon the holy sanctuary, and anyway the priests would laugh at me and say I had enticed him. I’ve seen them do that to other women who’ve complained. Besides, he will be high priest presently, and may remember me--”
After the vows and sacrifices, it was time to really cut loose with celebration and feasting. It went on for days and days. The camp contained upwards of ten to twenty thousand, so there was a great deal of making merry, and money changing hands in unending games of strength and cunning, and the usual trysting and love-making under cover of night--then, not even at night and carelessly, in sight of everyone.
Shiloh rocked from the noise, day and night. Eighty five priests of the sanctuary, their duties discharged, mingled freely with the people.
From their behavior, no one could have told they were priests if they had not worn temple robes. Eli the high priest, old and fat, deaf in one ear and lame in his knees, apt to sleep most of the day, must not have noticed.
Once upon a time he did. He tried to change things, particularly when his sons robbed the pots of meat given to the Lord, knocking down any worshiper who protested, but he got nothing for his efforts. His sons mocked him behind his back and continued on as before.
And when they grew tired of the money-hungry Ken’anite and Philistine harlots that hung about Shiloh’s camp, they went boldly into camp seeking out the youngest, most attractive women, willing or not.
The best bulls and oxen had been set aside for the feasting, and these were now slaughtered, roasted over open hearths, and then distributed along with skins of green wine that could snap and bite like a viper.
The combination of so much strong meat and wine was powerful and electric on a people who subsisted mostly on roasted barley cakes, greens, a little oil and vinegar, and spring water.
The most handsome and agile of the lusty young men, fired up in the dance, carried on hour after hour, and the music-making was just as ferocious, until the din could be heard miles distant from Shiloh.
Eyes trance-glazed and muscular bodies glistening with oil and sweat, the dancers whirled about like adept Ken’anite votaries with horns and tails of slain bulls and oxen in their hands.
At last assured of marital supremacy, she had put off her ugly sackcloth of mourning and clothed herself with gladness and much gold, not to mention her crowning jewel, the pendant Onyx between her milk-heavy breasts.
“Hibish--ah--the Lord of hosts has turned my mourning into dancing!” she declared to her fellow dancers as she led the pack in frenetic gyrations.
Secluded in her booth, Hanna lay sleepless and distraught. She could not rest as the tempo and noise mounted to the point of fever and madness.
Where was Elkanah? She had not seen him for days, and she knew he did not like the merry-making any more than she did, though he did his best to accommodate himself to the people’s ways.
Just after the celebration had begun, he had come to her, saying, “Hanna, why are you weeping? And why aren’t you eating with the others? And why is your heart so grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”
She had to step over grunting couples and elude the grasping hands of would-be lovers to get away from the camp. Priests garbed only in loin-cloths dashed by her, trying to catch screaming young matrons and even the virgin daughters of Israel.
Some people said the unearthly nightly illumination was due to the Stone of Noah, the Sacred Carbuncle which had lighted the great Ark during its forty days upon the waters of destruction. The priests, when asked, never denied it, yet refused to explain the mystery light issuing from the roof.
Hangers-on, or loafers who caged their living from the pilgrims, said the strange light had fallen one night out of the sky and taken up residence in the Holy Place, but who could tell if they really saw such a thing happen? They would say anything to extract a coin or two.
Bathed in the eerie blue light, she seemed to hear the old, angry voice hurling charges and see the clenched fist in her face as she had all the way from Ramah to Shiloh.
It had been bad enough on the road.
Now she felt assailed with unendurable pain and vindictive fury until she felt her head and heart might burst.
Worse than that, her faith faltered sickeningly as the blue light deepened and sank into her soul.
Standing on Shiloh’s consecrated stones in the presence of the Covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, she felt pulled in an entirely opposite direction, and her knees turned to water and she nearly fell prostrate. She reeled first this way and then that, at her wit’s end.
If she had held a sheepshearing knife at that moment, she might have plunged it into her heart to end the agony.
She staggered to a column at the corner of the porch and clung to it for a few moments, and then the trouble of her soul burst out in words to the Lord.
“If you will just look on the affliction and distress your handmaid has suffered, and not forget her! If you will only have mercy on me and grant me a male child, I will give him to your service here all the days of his life, and no razor will touch his head.”
An old man’s shrill voice suddenly spun her about! “How can you come here drunken!” She had been speaking in her heart, her lips moving silently with her eyes closed, and so she had not seen the high priest sitting against the same stone pillar. She nearly lost her grip on the pillar when he continued.
“How long will you be drunken?” he carped. “Put away your green wine, young woman!”
“No, my lord,” she said, “I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord God. Don’t take me for a daughter of Belial, for out of my great grief and trouble I have made my vows to the Lord.”
Eli’s head was beginning to sink with the infirmity of his great age and the dead weight of obesity. He lifted a trembling, age-blemished hand from his robe and extended it in the customary benediction.
“Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant you your petition that you asked of Him.”
There was a hideous, wailing, mortal shriek from the camp--a man’s? a woman’s? a savage beast’s? a devil’s? But neither heard it, nor the insane, cackling laughter that followed.
Hanna rose slowly. Had she heard aright? He had blessed her and her petition! For the first time in years something--was it hope?--dawned in her nightmare life, lighting her path.
She did not know that Eli was no longer listening and had fallen asleep. “Let your handmaid find grace in your sight,” she replied, bowing low and scarcely able to keep from collapsing.
The high priest’s head nodded lower from his thick, fat-swaddled neck, however, and she took that to mean his approval.
With tears of joy in her eyes, delivered from the evil that ruled the night, she turned away and stumbled back to her booth in the shrieking, blood-spilling, rioting camp.
Having kept apart from his women during the Feast, a fasting that few of his peers observed in those times, he bitterly disappointed the eager Penninah who beckoned him to her chamber when he chose Hanna instead.
And they would parade it in triumph through their pentarchy of allied city-states until a ferocious plague outbreak forced them to return it.
Even then the Ark of the Covenant would not be easily gotten rid of.
Forcing out the blue invader, a terrifying white light from within the Ark blazed so bright that the flesh of Philistine priests melted off the hands and arms as they attempted to move it to a cart for transport to the Hebrew hill country.
About that time Elhanan the deliverer--later to be called “Dawid” would arise to fight the Philistine champion, a giant of Gath. But this was all yet in the future.
Eli was struck speechless, whether by the incident or a loss of memory. Nevertheless, he took the boy into his charge for priestly training, and let the boy sleep in a small chamber close by the Ark of the Covenant so he could hear if El Elyon called to him.
But before going away, the fully vindicated Hanna prayed a prayer so powerful the sated, infirm Eli was forced to give her full attention.
There is none holy as the Lord, for there is nothing that stands beside you, neither is there any Rock like our God.
“Talk no more so proudly, let no arrogance come from anyone’s mouth, for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are judged.
The bows of the mighty warriors are broken, and they that weakly stumbled in battle are strengthened over their adversaries. For I have observed how those that were well fed hired out for bread, and the starving granted more than they could eat.
“But more than this: look what he does! The barren woman has borne seven, while she who had many children is grown worn out and feeble. The Lord kills and gives birth as he pleases!
He tosses some into the grave and restores others to life! He brings men low, and lifts others up!
He makes one man poor and another rich!
He raises the poor out of the dust itself and the beggar from the dung-heap, and sets that man among princes and noblemen, establishing his line and dynasty.
For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s, and he sets forth the world as we find it.
“He will preserve his people, but the wicked will be shut up in a booth of bitter darkness where they drink the gall of the poppy, for by strength shall no one prevail against the righteous.
“ The adversaries of the Lord will be vanquished, and heaven will thunder against them. God judges them, and he gives strength to the people’s leader, and promotes him above deadly rivals.”
And Hanna, once her womb had been opened and blessed by El Shaddai, bore three more sons to Elkanah and also two beautiful daughters.
Meanwhile, the envious Second Wife found no joy in her rival’s happiness and was continually crying and complaining.
Abruptly one day she fell silent, her mouth stopped, except that she gnashed her teeth.
Drooping about the house and environs, she let her hair and appearance go, and her flesh melted away on her bones.
Thin and wraithlike, she grew so bitter that one day she seized on the cause, she thought, of all her misfortune.
She yanked at the pendant gem with such force she broke the chain.
Starting off with some choice curses, she meant to fling the stone as far as she could into the gehenna accumulating outside the village, a sink of dung and village rubbish that had once been a king’s marble-lined pool.
When Peninah’s absence from home grew prolonged, Hanna sent a servant. The horrified handmaid found a wide, scorched area the size of Ramah. Within the blackened pit a smoking litter of bones and burnt clothing and a smear of gold was later identified as Penninah, but what had happened to her no one could tell.
Everyone knew that living people did not just explode in fire and burn up like combustible wood and stubble and leave only a few bones and charred bits of clothing.
Local people who knew the family well said beyond Elkanah’s fading ears that it was the Angel of Death that avenged Hanna for Peninah’s mistreatment and disrespect shown her. The Second Wife had brought her sorry, puzzling and unnatural end on herself.
Mystery it was, but an explanation would have to wait. There just wasn’t time to perform a proper investigation. But even if he could not look into it, as in previous cases, Wally was left wondering how much of a hand the mysterious FC had played in making things too hot for the Onyx.
And he was also distracted by something that could be just as important. What was that talk about a “Stone of Noah” residing at the Shrine of Shiloh? Had he missed sighting and identifying a new OP? But he had no time to spend on this question either and would have to let sleeping dogs lie.
What else could he do? He was faced with the thing he hated most: having to play war on a double front. And with Shiloh’s Carbuncle, was it a triple? An appalling thought!
Insidious and all too real, the Topaz was lurking somewhere. And who or what could avail now that Assyria’s destiny was linked to--heaven forbid!--the fury of a wounded Half-Diamond?