The Guardian's Promise

By: Christina Rich

Chapter One

Near En Gedi, Judah

835 BC

Ari’s heart hammered in his chest as the horses thundered toward the groves. Instinct had him reaching for where his sword should have been, a sword he had discarded years ago when he’d traded his life of a warrior for that of a bond servant. He’d been a fool to leave his weapons hidden away when danger lurked close at hand, but he could not very well play the servant dressed as a soldier.

It would do no good to dwell on this lack of foresight, even if it had almost got him killed years ago. Instead, he picked up a curved lava stone and prepared for battle.

He peered around the corner. The queen’s soldiers brought their mounts to a halt on the dusty pathway, their eyes trained in the distance. Ari followed their line of sight and inhaled a sharp breath.

Sh’mira, his master’s daughter, stood at the edge of the grove. She cradled a white flower in her palm, her nose mere inches from the petals with her eyes closed. He knew she was lost in the fragrance as she was wont to do and completely unaware of her audience.

Hefting an empty pot onto his shoulders, he straightened to his full height. With the lava stone firm in his palm, he stepped out of the shadows and made as if he were about his everyday chores.

Perhaps his presence would discourage the warriors from their wicked intent, for their arrival could result in nothing but evil. Ever since Queen Athaliah had killed most of the royal family near seven years ago—her sons, daughters and grandchildren—the royal guards had terrorized all of Judah. Stories of their infamous conquests had reached even this remote village, putting fear into the hearts and minds of all. A fear that rivaled the fear of the fabled Leviathan and other sea monsters.

A horse snorted. Ari’s feet wobbled on the pebbles as he worked his way toward the grove. He’d never feared a battle before and although his warrior instincts thrummed through his veins, his years out of service shook his confidence. Perhaps, it was the crude scar on his thigh, a reminder of his last encounter with the queen’s men.

“You should not be here alone.”

Mira turned, her lips tight, gaze guarded. “Who are you to tell me such?”

He sat the clay pot to the ground and broke off a dying branch. “A servant looking after his master’s interest.”

“I am a grown woman, able to care for myself.” She jerked a withered limb from its mooring. “Just because I am maimed,” she bit, “does not mean I’m helpless.”

He dropped his hands to his sides. Her gaze a pool of desert water after a heavy rain. “I did not mean—”

This woman was far from helpless, he knew that.

“Did you not?” She tossed the branch into the pot. “You are forever following me around tending my duties. You would think Father bonded you to be my nurse.”

“I only think to repay your kindness for tending my wounds when I first arrived.”

“For seven years?” She let out a disgruntled sigh and walked farther down the lane.

“It has not been quite that long.” Ari grabbed her arm, turning her back to him. Her cheeks flushed and his warmed at the contact. He released her. Crossing his arms over his chest, he stepped back. He was nearing the end of his sixth year and beginning his seventh with her family, and he’d never touched her. The contact caught him off guard. “If not for you, I would have died. I would not have you meet the same fate.” He tilted his head toward the guards high on their mounts.

She leaned forward, peering around one of the trees, and then straightened. The length of her tresses brushed over his forearm like a feather. The flowery fragrance of henna blossoms tickled his nose. How had he not noticed this about her? Odd, one touch after all these years, and he was suddenly aware of how she smelled.

A whinny from the horse brought his head back to reality. He glanced over his shoulder and bit down on his tongue. The devastation left in the guards’ wake, remained fresh in his mind even after all these years. The young king’s mother had been badly used before they slit her throat. Fortunately, Jehosheba, the boy’s aunt and Tama, Mira’s cousin, who had been serving as a nurse in the palace, had the wits about them to take the babe from his dying mother, giving Judah hope for the future. A truth Mira did not know. “In their eyes, all women, young and old, are helpless.”

Mira’s gaze shifted toward the riders once again. “I will not cower before them.”

Her lack of cowardice was worthy of any warrior. However, it was not courage that fueled her attitude. “Would your pride see your father brokenhearted?”

She sucked in a sharp breath. “I wonder how a man of your wisdom became destitute enough to become a servant.”

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