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Chapter OneDelilah CIRCA 1200 BC
No women sets out to be wicked. I’m not sure I can say the same thing about men.
At present only two men are my daily companions: Adinai, a kind Philistine businessman my mother married three months ago, and his son, Achish, whom I distrusted immediately. Adinai displayed nothing but compassion and thoughtfulness as he moved Mother and me from our home in Egypt to his spacious villa in Gaza. Achish, however, has never uttered a kind word in my hearing.
One particular day began like any other. I slept the morning away and woke as the sun reached its pinnacle. Zahra, my handmaid, brought a tray of bread and fruit to break my fast. As I nibbled on a melon slice, she reminded me that I was to accompany my stepbrother and stepfather to a banquet that evening. “I’ll be back later to help you dress,” she said, giving me a shy smile. “One does not visit the ruler of Gaza in everyday clothing.”
I thanked her, then picked up another melon slice and closed my eyes as the sweet juice ran over my tongue. Fruits like this always reminded me of Egypt. Even when we struggled to feed ourselves, Mama had managed to find fruit for our table.
I broke the small loaf on my tray, then felt the pressure of an intruder’s gaze. I lifted my head and saw Achish, my stepbrother, lounging in my doorway. Some girls might have considered him handsome, but beneath the curled hair and smooth skin, his eyes brimmed with an unattractive resentment.
“What do you want?” I asked, not bothering to disguise my irritation. Achish and I had agreed to despise each other almost as quickly as our parents decided to marry. “If you want food, I’m sure your servant will get something for you.”
His upper lip twisted. “I’m not interested . . . in food.”
I knew he wanted to engage me in some sort of argument, but I refused to take the bait. “Run along then. I have nothing for you.” Anyone else would have scowled, but Achish gave me an oily smile and moved away.
I lowered my head to breathe deeply and calm my agitated heartbeat. Achish was a near-constant annoyance. Adinai had promised that we would be equals in the household, but Achish made little effort to hide his dissatisfaction with the current domestic arrangement. Mother kept saying that he would accept us in time, but she still viewed the world through the rosy haze of love. In six months, or twelve, I did not think she would be so tolerant of Achish’s rude behavior.
I finished my breakfast, then closed the drape over my door and moved to the washstand. I washed my face and rinsed my mouth and slipped into a clean tunic Zahra had hung on a peg. The Egyptian garment was simple, straight, and the color of washed sand, completely unlike the varicolored skirts worn by Philistine women.
I found my mother sewing in the sunny room that looked out onto a busy Gaza street. Wide windows at the north and south allowed the breeze to pass through, so it was the most pleasant room in the house. I bent to kiss my mother’s cheek and then sat next to her. Achish, who had arrived before me, sat in the opposite corner, wearing a colorful tunic and a bored expression. Since he obviously found our presence distasteful, I wondered why he didn’t go out and visit one of his youthful cronies.
“About time you got up,” Mama said, a note of reproof in her voice. “Don’t forget you are to attend the ceren’s banquet tonight. I would like you to wear one of the full skirts Zahra made you. And ask her to braid your hair into something . . . more elaborate.” She beamed at me while I resisted the urge to groan. “You’ll be the loveliest girl there.”
I gave her the most pitiful look I could muster. “Surely you don’t expect me to attend the feast without you.”
She tilted her head toward the couch, where Achish reclined on one elbow. “Your brother will be with you.”
I refused to look at him. “But Achish will be with the men. If you don’t come, I’ll have to eat alone.”
“I understand that the ceren of Gaza has many daughters, so I’m sure you will dine with them.” Mama reached out and cupped my chin. “You worry too much, Delilah. You are going to give yourself wrinkles.”
I made a face, then tucked my legs beneath me and frowned at the prospect of an evening with people I didn’t know and with whom I had little in common.
Across the room, Achish caught my eye and smirked. At eighteen, he considered himself a man, so he would not do anything to ease my way. Adinai would do his best to make me feel comfortable because he was good and generous. But once we reached the ceren’s home, custom would demand that he and Achish join the men while I went in search of the women.
“Why won’t you come with me, Mama?” I muttered the words in a low whisper, not wanting Achish to realize how much I still depended on my mother.
“Delilah.” She stopped sewing. “You know why I can’t go. I don’t want to make things awkward for your father.”
“But,” I whispered, “if the people of Gaza cannot accept your black skin, what makes you think they will accept mine? I am nearly as dark as you.”
She resumed sewing, sliding her needle through beads she was adding to a garment. “You are young, dearest one, and so breathtaking that everyone will think of you as an exotic flower. Go out tonight with Adinai and Achish, have a good time, and make friends with the ceren’s daughters. I will wait here, and tomorrow you can tell me all about the big event.”
I blew out a breath and stood, walked outside, and wandered in the moon garden. Citrus blossoms perfumed the spring air, along with several varieties of white flowers. I would have been perfectly happy to spend the evening playing my harp here, but my stepfather had insisted Achish and I accompany him to the banquet. Mother had added that Achish and I would honor Adinai in different ways. I would honor him with my beauty, and Achish would reflect his father’s strength and vitality.
I cared little about honoring Adinai. I admired the man, but why should I worry about his reputation among his Philistine peers? So long as he left me alone and treated Mama kindly, I would be content. “Mistress?” My handmaid’s voice filled the quiet of the garden, and I knew it would be futile to hide from her. In Adinai’s oliveskinned household, as in most of Gaza, Mother and I stood out like fleas on a linen sheet.
“Coming, Zahra.” I lifted my chin, took a deep breath of the fragrant air, and moved toward the gate.
“You think she lives there?” I studied the mud-brick building near the road. A stone wall enclosed the place, and animal troughs lined the wall. The perfect setup for an inn.
Rei, my manservant, crossed his arms and gave me a warning look. “You know this is a bad idea.”
“There’s no harm in visiting a woman.”
“One of our women, maybe. But this one is a Philistine and a heathen. Your parents—your tribe—will not approve.” “Can’t a thirty-five-year-old man make his own decisions?” “Probably not, in your case. You must consider who and what you are.”
Again with the reminders. I was not an ordinary man; I had been chosen and set apart. I was special. I was blessed. I was alien. And so on and so forth.
On days like this, I would have given my right hand to be like one of my brothers—completely ordinary.
“Can’t a judge,” I began again, “take a wife and have a family?
Other judges have done so.”
“You are rarely home. You are always traveling between villages, spending a night here, two nights there—”
“My wife can travel with me.”
Rei shook his head. “She will not want to travel once Adonai blesses you with children. And then what will you do? Stay home?” “Then people can come to me.” I looked down the road to where the morning sun stood like a dazzling blur against the sky. “I am lonely, Rei. Did Adonai not say that it is not good for man to be alone?”
After a long moment, Rei rolled his eyes, then gestured toward a spreading terebinth tree outside the wall. “If you insist on going inside, I’m waiting there in the shade. I’ll not sully my hands in a Philistine establishment.”
I snorted. “You’re too pious for your own good.”
“You should be more like me.”
“You should keep quiet.”
Leaving Rei to sit in the dust, I approached the sprawling red orange building with a wary step. Two bronze markers stood by the door, one featuring the image of Baal, the other the image of Ashtoreth, Baal’s wife. Baal held a scythe in one hand and a stalk of wheat in the other, signifying his control of fertility and the harvest. I snorted in derision and turned my eyes away. On my travels to the various tribes of Israel, I saw similar images in front of Israelite homes—another proof that many of my kinsmen had begun to worship the pagan gods of the Canaanites. If my chosen bride worshiped such idols, I would teach her the ways of HaShem, the one true God.
A half-dozen square windows looked out at the corral, where a few pack animals had been allowed to mingle—a pair of mules, a camel, and a beautiful black gelding. I whistled in appreciation and brushed the dust off my tunic. I hadn’t come to Timnah to admire horseflesh. I had come to admire a woman.
Confident that I didn’t look too bad for a man who’d been walking for the past hour, I stepped across the building’s threshold and entered a wide, open room. Several long tables occupied the space, and a half-dozen men occupied the benches—Philistines, mostly, several of them clad in the brass armor of Philistine warriors. I sat on a bench at a mostly empty table, nodding to the solitary figure at the other end. The man greeted me by lifting his chin, then stared morosely into his copper cup. At least he was sober enough to acknowledge a visitor.
I shifted my gaze as the innkeeper shuffled toward me. “What can I do for you, shepherd?” he asked, taking my measure in one disdainful glance.
I ignored the insult in his tone and continued to look around. I had hoped his daughters would be working in this room. I had seen one of them as she rode by my pasture. With a single glimpse of her shapely form, yellow hair, and white smile, I’d been smitten. After asking around, I’d learned that she was the daughter of the man presently regarding me as if I were something on the sole of his sandal.
“I’d like stew, if you have it,” I said, peering past the innkeeper for some semblance of a feminine form. “And wine.”
The man grunted. “And what have you brought to pay?”
From the leather pouch at my belt I produced a carved wooden whistle. I offered it for his inspection. “For calling the sheep. Dogs too.” The man gave the whistle a tentative toot, then laughed when every man in the room turned toward him. “Just the thing for calling my daughters. All right, but you’ll have to wait a bit.”
I turned to stretch my legs and take a slower survey of the room. At the table farthest from me, a group of Canaanite merchants were eating cheese, bread, and honey. They wore robes too garish for an ordinary day and were probably hoping to sell the colorful cloaks they wore.
The table next to them held a group of Philistine soldiers, by far the rowdiest bunch in the room. Judging from their level of inebriation, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that they had been sitting and drinking for most of the day. The five Philistine lords ruled from their respective cities, but joint cooperation enabled them to maintain mobile forces in the conquered Israelite territories. The foreigners had thoroughly occupied our Promised Land by robbing and raping, taxing and terrorizing.
But none of them had robbed or terrorized me.
Near the soldiers sat a pair of shepherds, and from the way they furtively dipped their bread in their bowls, I gathered that their flocks were nearby . . . and probably unguarded. They’d better eat quickly or one of the soldiers might claim a lamb for his dinner.
The only other guests were the morose fellow and me.
My pulse quickened as an odd thought reared its head. What if one of these other men had come about my woman? What if we had all been entranced by the sight of golden hair and red lips?
I refused to lose her due to a lack of initiative.
I straightened my spine, stood and went through the same doorway the innkeeper had used. I found myself inside a proper kitchen where a kettle bubbled over a cook fire near a table loaded with a bowl of dough, a platter of dried meat, a mortar and pestle. The young woman I’d seen stood with her fingers in the dough, and she froze at the sight of me, her eyes going wide.
“Don’t worry.” I lifted both hands to calm her fears, though my own heart did a double beat. “I’m looking for your father.”
“He’s . . .” She jerked a dough-covered finger toward another door. The man had probably gone outside to relieve himself.
“I can wait.” I leaned against a wooden beam and tried to smile, not an easy task in the face of such breathtaking loveliness. “I’m Samson, from Zorah.” I crossed my arms, feeling as awkward as a lad. “I saw you the other day—you rode by my field. On your mule.” “Did I?” She had begun to knead her bread again, but she glanced at me and smiled.
My pounding heart stuttered. I was accustomed to women—I had a mother, and half the girls in Zorah had fancied themselves in love with me ever since my voice deepened—but the girls of my acquaintance were shy and withdrawn, with low murmuring voices, quick flushes, and nervous smiles. In all my years, never had a woman looked me directly in the eye. Even my mother tended to be withdrawn in my presence.
But this one was different. My smile broadened. Maybe this woman didn’t see me as some kind of freak. She wouldn’t have heard the stories, so she wouldn’t treat me like an outsider. She saw me for the man I was, as I was, and she smiled at me.
By the time her father returned, I was ready to offer half of Canaan in exchange for his daughter.
“You!” He hurried toward me in a rush, his brows drawing together.
“You should not be in here.”
“In truth, I didn’t come here for stew,” I said, pulling myself off the beam. “I came to ask for your daughter. I saw her the other day, and just now I’ve spoken with her. She seems to like me, and I know I like her. So with your permission, I think we should marry.” The wide-eyed innkeeper backed away, then turned to his daughter.
“Is this true?”
The girl fluttered her lashes in my direction. “He looks like a good man. And he’s wearing a very nice tunic.”
The innkeeper studied me more closely. “Who are you, and where are you from? Who are your people?”
One question at a time, the easiest first. “My father,” I began, “is Manoah, and he’s a prosperous farmer in Zorah. We are Israelites, from the tribe of Dan.”
The innkeeper’s eyes narrowed. “We don’t get many Israelites in here.”
I shrugged. “Most of my people keep to themselves.”
“What about you? If I let you marry my daughter, will I ever see her again?”
“I’m not like most of my people.” I grinned at the girl, whose answering smile set a dimple to winking in her cheek. “And I plan on living in Zorah, so she won’t be far from you. I’ll take good care of her.”
The innkeeper looked at me again, then sighed and lifted his hands. “Who am I to stand in your way? If Kesi agrees, then yes, you may have her. But this thing must be done properly. Send your father to me, so we may draw up a betrothal contract.”
Kesi. A nice name.
I gave the girl a broad smile, then clasped her father’s hand. “It shall be done. I will go see my parents at once.” I turned and moved toward the doorway, but the innkeeper’s voice stopped me. “What about your stew?”
“Give it to the sad fellow at my table,” I answered. “And keep the whistle as a pledge of good faith. I’ll be back before you can train your dogs with it.”
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