Complete text of The Swordsman by Jay Waitkus
"HALT!” the stunned guards demanded repeatedly, as the horse and its rider galloped headlong toward the Moabite castle.
Despite the words of warning, the steed continued charging toward the front, pulling up abruptly at the exact instant the gatekeepers raised their weapons to attack.
“No need for that,” the rider exclaimed, settling the animal down. “I’ve come on a mission of peace, to pay tribute to your great king, Eglon.”
“Who are you?” one of the men asked him disdainfully.
“I am Ehud, son of Gera.”
“From the city of palms?”
“One of our territories,” the gatekeeper scoffed.
“Yes,” Ehud replied. “For nearly twenty years now.”
“Ever since our army defeated yours,” the Moabite trumpeted, with more than a hint of arrogance.
“I don’t deny it,” Ehud said.
“Dismount from that animal.”
“You’ve come to pay tribute?” the guard inquired.
“With silver and gold. Here, look for yourself.”
Ehud held open his satchels so the Moabites could see his gift.
“All-right,” the one in charge responded. “Give it to us. We’ll take it in for you.”
“No,” said Ehud. “I must see the king in person.”
“That isn’t possible, son of Gera. No foreigner gets in to see the king.”
“But I must.”
The guard, quickly becoming impatient with the proceedings, brandished his dagger, holding the weapon aloft near Ehud’s throat.
“I said no-one gets in. Now hand over your tribute, or I’ll take it from you and send your horse back to Jericho without its master.”
“Before you do that,” Ehud replied, “I should tell you that I have also come here to deliver an urgent message.”
“A revelation, actually.”
“Don’t talk in riddles,” the guard said, inching the blade closer to Ehud’s windpipe.
“I assure you that I’m not,” the foreigner responded.
“Then what are you —”
“Some information about Moab was imparted to our prophets this morning.”
“From God himself.”
“No,” said Ehud. “On my father’s name, what I have to share is of vital importance to Eglon and his kingdom.”
“Then tell us what it is.”
“I cannot. My instructions were to deliver the message to the king alone, and no-one else.”
“Oh, instructed, were you?”
“Yes, I was.”
“By these selfsame prophets of yours?”
“Then your prophets have doomed you,” the guard said, preparing to deliver the death strike.
“You would kill a humble emissary with a message from his Lord?”
“Not if he truly was who he claimed to be. But I would gladly kill an assailant to protect the life of my ruler.”
“That is what troubles you, guardsman? You believe I’ve come here, alone, to assassinate King Eglon?”
“Forgive my skepticism. But it would hardly be the first time such a trick has been attempted.”
“I am unarmed!” Ehud protested. “I could not commit such an act if I wished to!”
“You claim you’ve traveled to our land, alone and with no weapon, all the while carrying satchels full of silver and gold? You’re either a fool, or take me for one.”
“I’ve told you the truth!” said Ehud. “See for yourselves.”
The gatekeeper instructed one of his men to check the left side of Ehud’s robes for the long sword Israelite soldiers carried at their thigh.
“He has no sword,” the man said matter-of factly.
“Then check his belt for a dagger.”
The guard padded Ehud’s sash at the stomach and beltline, but once again found nothing.
“His boots, then, for a hidden blade.”
The guard knelt down to look, then rose shaking his head in denial.
“The foreigner carries no weapon, sir.”
The leader pulled his knife away from Ehud’s throat, then looked him over sternly, as if to penetrate his visage.
“Come with me,” he finally said.
Ehud did as he was told, wary of the fact that four of the others accompanied them to the base of Eglon’s roof chamber.
“Give me your tribute and wait here,” the gatekeeper demanded.
Ehud obeyed and stood unmoving.
A few minutes later, the guard returned, sending three of his lieutenants away.
“The king will see you,” he said to Ehud.
“Be mindful, foreigner. My charge and I will remain just beyond these doors."
“Understood,” Ehud responded, as the guards stepped aside and allowed him to pass through the entranceway.
Inside the door was a long chamber, forged of rock and iron, with a pathway that led to the top.
“Come,” said a booming voice Ehud had not heard before.
Walking along the cobblestone path, he looked to the back for the king, but saw nothing in the dimly lit space. A few more moments passed, and again the voice called out to him.
“I am told you have a message from your god, son of Gera.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Ehud, falling to his knees as he reached the end of the corridor.
The light was considerably better here, but Ehud remained motionless, his eyes staying fixed to the floor.
“Rise,” the voice commanded, and Ehud looked up as the approaching shadow enveloped both him and the ground below.
Standing nearly seven feet tall, and perhaps four hundred pounds, the Moabite king’s bulbous frame towered above his visitor, as indeed it did most everyone. Ehud had been told that Eglon was immense, but never had he expected a sight like this.
“My liege,” he said, fighting his shock, “there is indeed something I have been charged by the prophets of my land to tell you.”
Eglon came forward a few more steps.
“Proceed,” he instructed.
“I must warn you, sire. The message I have may be difficult for you to bear.”
“Let me decide what I can bear, Israelite. Speak.”
Ehud paused for a moment, then looked at the king intensely.
“Would his majesty mind if I ask him something first? I assure you it relates directly to my reasons for being here.”
“Do you remember how long it’s been since my city was annexed into your kingdom?”
Ehud’s eyes widened a bit. He was a little surprised that Eglon had so readily recalled the exact amount of time.
“And tell me, if you would, sire — do you remember why you wanted Jericho in the first place?”
“The same reason I’ve wanted many territories. For land. For riches. For glory. But what does that have to do with —”
“And when you sought to conquer my people, tell me, I beseech you — were you certain beyond a doubt that you would succeed?”
“Yes, I knew that it was inevitable.”
“The Moabite empire is strong,” said Eglon. “And favored by our god, Chemosh, in all things.”
“Yes, I understand why you would say that. In some ways, sire, our people are really not so different.”
“And why do you tell me this, Ehud?”
“Because for many years, my liege, Jericho, like Moab, was a great and powerful city. In fact, before your army came to our lands, we too were secure in the knowledge of the Lord our God’s protection — though in our case, it didn’t last.”
“And how does an Israelite city lose its creator’s protection?”
“I dare say we were too arrogant, taking for granted all the things the Lord had bestowed upon us during our years of prosperity and peace."
"And even then, merciful God, in his forbearance, was patient, continually blessing us with his bounty, even as greater and greater numbers of our people indulged in acts that were wicked in his sight. Eventually, though, a day of reckoning came, and our fabled city was delivered unto you, O mighty king. A great victory for Moab. But a divine punishment for us.”
“Is this the sum of your revelation?”
“No, my liege. In fact, it's not even a portion of it, for no prophet had to be invoked to make the people of my land understand why God had chastened them. Their transgressions had made it abundantly clear. Since then, however, a sense of humility and righteousness has returned to the city. For many moons, my people have sought repentance, hoping the Lord might bring his blessing upon them again one day. Year after year, we have looked — nay, cried out — for a sign of forgiveness for the past.”
"And has such a sign ever come?"
“No, not really. We hope and we pray, and we do as the prophets instruct, but in truth we have yet to see anything agreed upon by one and all.”
“As interesting as that may be, you said that your message has to do with Moab. Yet all you have told me about is your own land. So I ask you: what do your people’s past transgressions have to do with my kingdom?”
“Why, everything, my liege. Right up to the ending of the very story I’ve just shared with you.”
"But the story you've told me has no ending."
"Precisely, sire. Precisely."
And with that, Ehud unsheathed his sword, for the assassin (his proper title) was left-handed — not right-handed, as the king’s guards had assumed — and drew his weapon crossways from the scabbard strapped to his right thigh. In one fluid motion, he plunged the blade deep into Eglon’s belly and the stunned Moabite ruler dropped to his knees in agony.
Instead of withdrawing the weapon, Ehud allowed the layers of fat that had contracted when the king doubled over to close in around the steel. With an anguished gasp, Eglon fell dead in a pool of his blood and bile.
Exiting through a rear window and repelling down the back wall, Ehud quickly found another mount and made his escape from the stronghold. Several more minutes passed before the guards re- entered the roof chamber and found their leader’s corpse.
By the time a proper search party had been organized, Ehud had already reached the hill country of Ephraim, where he blew the trumpet that signaled his mission’s success. Having waited hours for their agent’s return, the emboldened Israelite army stormed into Moab, killing ten thousand of Eglon’s soldiers. With the king and his minions defeated, Jericho was quickly retaken. And it came to pass that the land had rest for many years thereafter.
Original Publication date: 6/2/2010
Reissue date: 5/12/2020
Publisher: Elizabeth River Press
Cover image: NZ Graphics