Queenmaker

A Novel of King David's Queen

India Edghill

Picador

Queenmaker
CHAPTER 1
"Let David, I pray thee, stand before me ... ."
--I Samuel 16:22
 
My father Saul was not born to be a king. He was a farmer, as his father had been before him. He was a good man, too--so men said then.
We were Yahweh's people, and Yahweh's people were not like other nations; we had judges and prophets, not kings, to rule over us. This had always been enough. The priests and prophets said it would always be enough.
But our borders were now hard-pressed by the armies of kings, and our warriors, answerable to no one, scattered before them.
At last our people tired of losses and cried out for a king to lead them. First the people called for a king, and then the judges too thought a king would make us stronger. At last only the prophets spoke against it. And the prophet who spoke loudest was Samuel.
Samuel was the greatest prophet in all the land, and heard Yahweh's voice most clearly. Samuel told the people that a king would bind them and command them, tax them and work them, take their sons for his army and their daughters for his house. But in the end even Samuel saw it was useless. A king the people would have.
And so Samuel agreed to choose a king for them. Who else but Yahweh's most favored prophet should choose Yahweh's king?
 
 
Samuel was a tall man, and thin, with eyes that glowed with power--and, I think now, with shrewdness and cunning. Samuel's eyes were fearsome things the day he came to tell my father that Yahweh had chosen him--Saul, son of Kish--to be king over the people.
My father was sitting in the kitchen-garden, bouncing me on his knee, when the prophet came to him. I was barely three, but I still remember clearly the heat of the day, and Samuel's eyes, and how my father laughed, holding me tight against his chest so that the noise boomed under my ear.
"Me, king of Israel!" he cried, when he had done laughing. "Samuel, old man, you have been fasting in the desert too long. Come, let me have a place spread for you--fruit and wine, and in the shade. Michal, my little dove, run and get your mother, that we may do honor to the prophet Samuel." He set me down, but to go I would have to run past Samuel, and after I had looked far up at his eyes, I clung to my father's knee and refused to move.
Samuel lifted his heavy wooden staff and set it down with a loud thump. "Do not mock Yahweh or me, Saul son of Kish. You are to be king. Yahweh wills it so."
"Well and well," my father said. "Mind, Samuel, I think a king a good thing, and so I said when the judges asked us all. There must be one man to make the decisions in the field, or the Philistines will be supping in our houses in another year. But it was to be drawn by lot--or so my women tell me they are saying at the well." He patted my head absently. "And now you say Yahweh has chosen me."
Samuel nodded.
"Well and well," my father said again. "But I am only the son of a humble man, and a Benjaminite--from the smallest house of the smallest tribe in all Israel. Why me, Samuel? Because I was once lucky with my spear?" My father Saul was the only man who had won a great victory since the days of the great judges. He hadtaken up sword and spear and saved the city of Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites in the same year that I was born.
"Yahweh's ways are not for us to dispute, Saul."
"I don't dispute them, man--but if the oil's to be on my head there are plenty of men who will!"
A pause. "Send the child away," Samuel said.
My father laughed again and picked me up. I buried my face in his chest, for Samuel was looking at me. "What? My little Michal? Oh, very well. Down you go, my dove, and off to your mother." There was that in his voice that meant no argument, so I ran, to get past the prophet safely.
It meant I heard no more, but I did not care. That summer I was only three, and the word 'king' meant little to me. It meant more to my brother Jonathan, though. I was playing with him when our father came up to the housetop later that morning and told him what had been said.
Jonathan was not our father's oldest son, but he was, I think, his favorite. He was some ten years older than I, broad and brown and solid as Saul was. Jonathan was not quick, or clever, but he was kind and gentle, and we all loved him well.
Now he looked long at Saul. When he finished thinking, he picked me up, and held me close, his cheek against mine. Then he said, "I thought it was to be lots."
"It is to be lots, boy. But who rules the lots, eh? Yahweh."
Jonathan thought again. "You mean Samuel, Father?"
"Now, now, did I say so? But it's only sense for Yahweh to choose a man who's good with a sword, and who knows more of tactics than herding sheep. Sheep won't drive off the Philistines or the Ammonites, eh?"
Jonathan frowned. "But, Father--"
Saul swooped me out of Jonathan's arms and swung me high. "King, by heaven! Now there'll be something done about that miserable excuse for an army--army they call it! And Michal here will be a princess with gold to glisten in her hair. Will you like that, my little dove?"
"No!" I did not know what a princess was, but I had learned that 'no' was a safer answer than 'yes', for then I might be agreeing to all sorts of unpleasantnesses, such as baths and braidings.
My father laughed again, long and loud, and thrust me back at Jonathan. "No, is it? You'll sing another tune when you're older, won't she, Jonathan?"
"There's never been a king in Israel before," was all my brother said as he took me into his arms.
My father did not like this. "Well, by Yahweh, there's to be one now!" he bellowed, and stomped off.
Jonathan stared after him so long I became restless, and wriggled and demanded to be put down. I was sorry afterwards, for Jonathan took me off and left me to the care of the maid who was watching my older sister Merab. He didn't even finish making my leaf-and-flower doll for me, and when I complained of this the maid slapped me and bade me hush. The other two serving-maids had just come back from the marketplace and could chatter of nothing but the search for a king, and so no one had time for me. Even Merab, who was six, wished to listen, although it could have meant little to her either.
So I sat under one of the beds and sulked, and no one paid me any heed. A king, it seemed to me, was nothing but trouble for Michal.
 
 
And so the lots were cast, and Saul was king of Israel. My life was little changed, save that I saw my father and my brothers less. I still lived in my father's house in Gibeah; his two wives and his concubine Rizpah still wove and spun, and taught Merab and me to do the same. But I was called 'Princess Michal' now, which made me think myself of great importance.
For my brothers all was altered. Saul had seven strong sons, and he took them all to live with the army and fight our enemies.I thought it a fine thing to have brothers who were princes and heroes. I was proud of them, and twice proud of my father.
Everyone was proud of King Saul then--King Saul, who called the men of Israel and Judah to his banner and led them to victory after victory. All men praised the name of Saul in those days. All men save the prophet Samuel. But it did not seem to matter what one sour prophet said--not while King Saul held Yahweh's favor--and the borders.
Jonathan tried to explain matters to me once, when he had come home to visit us. That was when Jonathan told me that he believed Samuel had chosen the best warrior to be king, and now regretted his choice. I could not see why; my father had forged the chaotic hordes of Israel into a true army. When Saul's army fought, it won. Saul had defeated the Philistines, and pushed the Ammonites back and held the borders against them.
Jonathan thought long before he answered, as was his habit. "Because, little sister, our father thinks more of his own way than he does of Samuel's. He says Samuel is a prophet, not a general, and so should tend to the business of Yahweh and leave the ordering of the army to those who know better how to win battles and hold the peace."
That sounded like sense to me, and I said so.
"Yes, but Samuel says that the ordering of the army and the kingdom is the business of Yahweh," Jonathan said.
"And Father does not?"
"And Father does not," Jonathan agreed. I looked at him more closely; laughter danced in his eyes like sunlight over a brook, and I laughed too, hardly knowing why.
"It is nothing to laugh at, Michal," he said after a moment. I did not know why, for a moment before he too had thought it funny.
So I tossed my head, and the gold rings in my braids chimed and clashed. "Father is the king. What can an old prophet do to hurt him?"
Jonathan sighed, and put an arm around my shoulders. "Thatold prophet made him king, Michal, and now I think he wishes to unmake him."
"He cannot do that! Father is a great king and the people love him!" I was past eight now. I could not imagine a life where my father was not king--and I was not the daughter of a king.
"They do not love him as well as they love their own way, and Samuel loves him not at all. That time last year when Father would not wait, and made the sacrifices himself--you remember?"
I nodded, for all knew the tale. The Philistines had been massed and ready to attack, and Samuel and the priests had not yet arrived for the sacrifices and blessings. To prevent his army from slipping away, fearful of attacking without Yahweh's approval, Saul had made the sacrifices himself. He had won the battle, so his deed must have found favor in Yahweh's eyes--but Samuel had been very angry.
"Well, that was the start of it, I think. I was away with a raiding party, and by the time I returned Samuel was swearing that Yahweh would turn his face from Father for trying to be priest as well as king, and Father was shouting so they could hear him in Ascalon that Samuel--" Jonathan looked down at me and stopped, so I did not hear what Father had called Samuel. Nor would Jonathan tell me, for all my teasing.
He would not talk of his own deeds, either, for Jonathan was a modest man, for all they sang his name in the streets. If I asked, it was always the same; Jonathan would smile and tug one of my braids and shake his head, saying, "It was nothing, little sister. We fought--I lived--others died. I was lucky."
"You were brave!" I cried. "Everyone says you are a great hero, Jonathan, and killed twenty men at a blow!"
"Go listen to 'everyone' then," he would say, and no more.
But there were many others who were happy to gossip before me. Once I knew there were tales to listen for I learned to sit and keep silent, and soon the house women--and the men, too--would forget I was there, and they would talk.
And so I heard, not only of my father's victories over our enemies,but of his bitter quarrels with Samuel. These quarrels grew worse as my father grew older. As he gained more knowledge of kingship, he was less and less willing to let priest or prophet say him nay.
When I was a girl, I thought that my father was a great king. I know better now. Saul was a great warrior, but that is not enough to make a ruler. Saul's way was to fight hard when attacked and beat foes back beyond their borders.
"Hit a man hard enough and he'll stay down. Hit an army hard enough and it'll stay home, eh?" Saul would laugh, and so would his war-captains--all save Abner, his cousin and war-chief, second in command only to Saul himself. But Abner was a man who kept his mouth tight always, and laughed seldom, so no one minded.
I thought it a valiant saying then, and wise. Well, brave my father always was. Wise? I think he was that, too, once. But that was before Samuel poured the sacred oil on his hair and made him king of Israel.
Now when my father was home he smiled less and shouted more, and swore a great deal. This made us all keep well away, when we could. I still remember how sometimes the very stones in the walls seemed to quiver, and people became still as he raged, crying to heaven that he would tolerate Samuel's interference no longer.
"Who is king in Israel, Saul or Samuel? I am, by Yahweh, and if that dusty, dried-up old man thinks he rules here--we shall see what happens in the next battle! If it's kingship he wants, well--let him take the field against Moab and earn it!"
There was always much more of this, for even my quiet brother Jonathan seemed to have lost the trick of calming him.
But it always passed, in the end, and Saul would greet Samuel in peace once more, and the prophet would smile upon him and bless him. Samuel could do little else; Saul's name was still sweet on men's tongues.
But Samuel's smiles were sour things, now, and his blessings sounded grudging.
 
 
I heard the final quarrel myself. All the household did, and half the town as well, for it took place in the open courtyard, and my father was never one for quiet words.
It had promised to be a day for feasting and finery--my father had won his greatest victory. For this time Saul had taken the Amalekite army, and the Amalekite king as well. The Amalekites were rich in grain and cattle; this time there had been no slaughter. This time there would be talk instead. The Amalekite king was to come home with my father, and sit at his table. A treaty, Jonathan had said. King Agag would pay us well to return his men and land; he would be King Saul's friend and pay him tribute.
I was on the rooftop, having my new-washed hair combed dry under the noonday sun. When the shouting began I ran to the edge and looked down.
Samuel stood in the courtyard below me. He was silent, but my father was not.
"Man, are you mad? Throw over a prize like that? Well, I won't ask my men to do it! Do you hear me, prophet?" My father bellowed like a stalled bull; only the dead could fail to hear.
The prophet flung back his head and pointed his staff. "You mock the words of Yahweh, Saul. Take care." His voice was low, but it carried clearly to the ear.
"Yahweh's word or yours?" My father yanked the staff from Samuel's hand and flung it away. "Who took the Amalekites, eh, you or me? Well, I'll tell you plain, old man--it was me and mine, and I'll be damned if I'll put all our prizes to the sword! I say I won't do it! I say King Agag will be as my brother--are you so blind now you can't see this will bring wealth and peace?"
"I see you take too much upon your shoulders. Who are you to think you know Yahweh's will? I warn you again, Saul--Yahweh demands the extermination of the Amalekites, man and woman, ox and ass, to the last grain and sheaf. Spare Agag and his wealth at your peril."
"And I tell you you go too far! Who do you think the people will follow, eh? Their king, who gives them victory and spoils, or you, you canting hypocrite?" This last was shouted louder than all the rest.
There was a silence. Samuel looked a long while at my father. I could hear the sharp buzz of insects in the roof-arbor, and the softer hum of noises from the streets beyond the house.
"Shall we put it to the test, O great King?" the prophet said at last. His voice was a venomous thing, to wither the ear his words fell upon.
Something in those words made my father swallow his anger and pride. I watched him do it, and did not understand. When he spoke again I could not hear him, although I leaned over the wall as far as I dared.
His words seemed to please Samuel. There was no more shouting, and after a few moments they both went away.
Saul bowed to Samuel's will. King Agag was slain by Samuel's own hand, and all the Amalekite wealth in flocks and herds was offered up to Yahweh instead of being given out among Saul's men.
All should have been well, then. But it was not.
Samuel watched all done as he had ordered in Yahweh's name, and then walked away from Saul. We did not learn where he went until long after, and then it was too late.
My father, bitter as tears, nursed his anger until it turned inward, and poisoned him.
And in time, to heal him, came David.
 
 
I was nearly ten, and growing tall, when I first heard his name.
"King Saul has a harper to give him rest at night," they said. "Jesse of Bethlehem's son David--he makes music sweet and the king calm."
My father was seldom home now, spending all his time withhis army, and I had not seen him for many months. But I could not imagine his angers soothed by any harper, however sweet. I said as much to Jonathan, when he finally came home to visit us.
"And so I said too, little sister, when his servants said that music would ease him when he was troubled. But then they brought David--and his music." Jonathan smiled in a way that made my heart leap, although I could not tell why. I had no interest in harpers. My marriage-dreams were all of heroes mighty in battle, not of men who dealt in music and soft words. I did not know then that words and music are more deadly than any spear.
Perhaps my face showed my thoughts, for Jonathan laughed. "Not all men can be warriors, Michal. No, do not toss your head at me--we have over-many who know nothing but how to hurl a spear and taunt an enemy. A king needs men with many different skills about him. And David--"
"Has many skills?" I was not sure I liked the way Jonathan's voice changed when he spoke of David. It did not alter so for me, or even for his wife, though he loved her as he should.
But Jonathan was never one to be baited with sharp words. He only smiled again and reached to tug my braids. "He can sing words of honey and play music of gold, and speak with wisdom and tact. He can also tend sheep and never lose the smallest lamb." Jonathan's eyes were soft. "Someday, little sister, you may see for yourself."
Then I did toss my head at him, all the king's daughter. "How should I see him? Will the king bring this shepherd's son home from the war-tents to eat at his table?"
"Oh, so high, Princess Michal!"
I scowled and stamped my foot. I had some of our father's temper, and all my own pride. "He will not," I said. "You know he will not!"
"He may yet," said Jonathan, solemn as a new-anointed judge. "David sings songs our father delights to hear--and a king's hall needs a harper, even as it needs a king's haughty daughter!"
Then I knew he teased, and I flung myself at him in mockrage, to beat at him with gentle fists until he took back his words. But he would not, and called me prideful and vain, and chased me round the pillars of the outer court to tickle me until I begged him to stop.
He did, and then would have told me more about David, but I would not hear. I had more important things to think of than a shepherd's son--"Even if he has killed a lion and a bear, which I do not believe! Harper's tales," I said, and thought it keen wit.
"Wait and see," said Jonathan. "Wait and see."
And we spoke no more that day of David and his talents.
 
 
But David did not remain only my father's harper. He sang so well that he was given the post of the king's armor-bearer. And, so said the gossip, that was not all he had won. For he had found high favor not only with the king, but with the king's son. It was said Prince Jonathan loved David well--some said too well.
Our other brothers were not best pleased, but there was nothing to be done; they even said that, to give him his due, the shepherd's son had sought no advantage. King Saul had raised David up, and that was an end to it. No, the blame was all for King Saul's moods, which grew inconstant as the moon.
But not so inconstant that he failed to keep our enemies at spear's-point. For all the prophet Samuel's complaints, Saul's army had beaten all nations but the Philistines back from our borders, and held them back, too. The Philistines we had always against us; clashes with them were too common to even be worth much mention at the wells.
So when word came that the Philistine troops were mustered for war at Socoh, we paid little heed to the news. Men would fight, some would die, the Philistines would go home for another season. Then a messenger arrived gasping out a tale hard to believe, and the story of that battle was to be on men's lips forever.
The Philistines had taken their stand on one side of a valley,facing my father's camp, and then, rather than do battle, they sent forth a single champion. He was a man called Goliath, and he was a true giant, two heads taller even than my father. The messenger swore by Yahweh that this was true; when our men returned they swore the same, although some would have him three heads taller. This giant challenged all Israel to produce a man to face him in single combat for the victory.
They expected the king himself, of course. In the old days Saul would have moved like a hill lion to face the challenge, and sent a spear through Goliath's heart even as he swaggered and boasted. But Saul was no longer a young man, and his captains feared to let him try his might against a giant. I thought they were wise, then; later I was not so sure. I do not think my father thanked them for their caution, in the end.
The messenger was all smooth words and spoke all around the coal at the story's heart, but even I guessed, from what he did not say, that King Saul had not taken their interference kindly, and had gone into a rage. In such a temper no man would have been able to hold Saul back; he would have flown like a thunderbolt at the giant, had it not been for David.
While others wailed and pleaded with Saul as if they were women and he a wayward child, David acted. No one had noticed until he stood across the valley from Goliath, shouting that he was the king's champion.
"And the Philistine giant looked upon him and laughed," the messenger told us as we all pressed close and stretched our ears to hear. "For David is young, and wore no armor, and carried neither sword nor spear. But the giant did not laugh long, by Yahweh! While he still mocked, David killed him."
He waited the tale there while he drank deep of the good wine my mother had given him with her own hands; I suppose he fancied himself a harper or a bard, and wished to delay until we begged the ending, to show the value of his tale. In truth, he had chosen his words well, for I could not bear to wait another breath or heartbeatfor the finish, and would gladly have shaken the rest from him, had I been close enough.
Others were as eager, and many demanded to know how a man might kill another--and that one an armored giant--and yet carry no weapon. When the courtyard echoed as if a flock of starlings chattered there, he was satisfied.
"A stone," he told us. "David killed the giant Goliath with a stone flung from a shepherd's sling. And when the giant fell, the Philistines ran, leaving their camp open to us. We chased them all the way to the gates of Gath, and they left forty times forty dead. David brought the giant's head to King Saul. The king has made him a captain of a thousand, and Prince Jonathan has kissed him before all the army and called him brother, and given him his own robe to wear."
As if all this were not enough to stretch our eyes wide, there was more. For this time the Philistines had been made so low in the sight of all men that they would surely cower in their own cities for many seasons. And so my father was to come home again--and he was to bring David with him, to live in his house and show all Israel how King Saul loved him.
The shepherd's son was to sit at the king's table after all. But now the king's daughter did not toss her head in willful pride, for my heart and mind had been caught in the net woven of David's deeds and the messenger's words. When my father's army came through the gates of Gibeah to march the streets in triumph, I too leaned far over the rooftop wall, calling out and waving flowers. I had done this before, but this time it was not my father and my brothers I looked for. Like all the others, I longed to see David.
I do not remember now what I expected to see. A war-song's hero, I suppose, spear-tall and armor-hard. But he was not like that.
At first I thought that my father had left David behind, for I saw no one who impressed me. Then Jonathan looked up and waved to me, and the man beside him looked up too. Jonathanturned and said something to him, and then the stranger waved at me too, and smiled, and I knew that it was David.
And I knew another thing as well; I would love him until I died. Yes, that is what I knew that day, when David first looked upon me, and smiled. Between one beat and the next my heart was wax to his sun, and I could not bear that he should not know it.
So I called out his name and flung my flowers at his feet. The blossoms did not stay in the hot dust, for David bent and caught some of them up, and waved my flowers back at me, smiling all the while. Then he spoke to Jonathan, and they both laughed, and moved on so that others might see them.
The rest of the women stayed to cheer the other men, but I did not. I wished to be alone, to clutch my new joy close and cherish it, for it was strange, yet already dear to me.
So I ran to sit behind the arbor at the far end of the roof and wait, and count upon my fingers the hours that must pass before I could seek out Jonathan and make him speak to me of David.
 
 
Of course I was not let to sit and dream as I wished. There was much to be done to make all ready for the men's feasting and comfort, and even a king's daughter must be of use in the house. My sister found me out, and I was sent here and there and back again on this errand and that. I will not say I found much pleasure in it, but it kept my hands and feet and eyes busy and made the time pass. I knew I would not be able to see Jonathan until long after the men's feast was over, and perhaps not even then.
I was fortunate, for much later I slipped away from the women, and when I went to Jonathan's courtyard he was there, and I did not even have to ask his servants to find him. So much was luck, and I would have run to Jonathan--but then I saw that David sat beside him.
It was almost more than I could bear. David's beauty caught and held me fast; I could do nothing but stare and admire fromafar. It seemed to me then that I could look forever and never grow tired of his face. I stood in the shadow of the pillars like a ghost until David looked up, as if drawn by my eyes, and set aside his goblet.
"Your sister would speak with you, Jonathan." David had seen me; David had remembered one girl out of all those who had called out to him that day. "I will come again later, if I may."
David's voice was water flowing in the desert, honey dripping golden from the comb, wind sighing through the spring grass. I was lost forever; stones and butterflies filled me and I could not move, or think, or speak.
"No, David, do not go. This is my little sister Michal, of whom I have told you much. Come in, king's daughter, and meet a shepherd's son, if you are not too proud."
Jonathan wished only to tease, but I was too young for such a jest not to slice deep. I grew hot, and said that I would go, as they were busy with men's matters.
Jonathan knew me well, and saw that he had hurt me, and so he rose and came to put an arm about my shoulders. "No, no--I am sorry I teased you. Come and greet David, who is as a brother to me. I would have him dear to you as well."
All words scattered beyond my grasp once more, and so I looked down at the flagstones. I could not bear to look at David, for I knew he must think me a silly and tiresome thing, and wish me gone.
"If you are my brother, Jonathan, then Michal must be my sister, and I will be glad of it--for my father has many sons, but no daughter left at home to tend us." David did not sound as if he mocked, or thought me foolish, or wished me gone. He took me by the hand and made me sit beside him. "Stay with us, and we will talk and laugh together, and you will smile for me. Come, be my obedient sister in this."
"I will be as obedient to you as I am to my true brothers," I vowed. I would have sworn anything, done anything he asked of me. That night I could imagine no greater joy than to have David call me sister.
Jonathan choked on his wine, and laughed. I would have been angry, but then David laughed too. His laughter did not sting, but somehow called mine as well; the three of us sat there laughing until Jonathan's servants came to see what caused the noise. We must have sounded like jackals in the hills.
And when the laughter stopped I stayed with them, and listened as David and Jonathan talked. When I asked questions, I found that David would not speak of himself, any more than Jonathan would do his own boasting. But each would willingly praise the other, and so I heard much to their credit--although each would deny he deserved any; it was all the other. To hear David tell it, he had done nothing in all his life to earn any man's praise.
"What, Michal? Goliath? Oh, that was nothing--a giant is dull-witted, and slow. There was never any danger. I saw no reason for King Saul to waste his time on so unworthy a foe; I was enough."
"You were so clever, to think of the stones and the sling!"
"It was habit, nothing more. A sling is what I used to chase the bears and the wolves when I tended my father's sheep, and so comes readily to my hand. And the giant was no more than another beast to be kept away. Anyone could have done it."
Later still he sang for us, just for Jonathan and me. That was the first time I heard the song he had made about the slaying of the giant Goliath. "From the claw of the lion did Yahweh deliver me; from the paw of the bear did Yahweh deliver me; from the spear of the giant would Yahweh deliver me. My trust did I place in Yahweh; five smooth stones did Yahweh put into my hand ... ."
David sang that, and he sang other songs, too. The servants came to light the torches before we realized how dark it was, and how late.
Jonathan sent me off before the women came seeking me there. I kissed him, and I kissed David too, as he was my brother now. I was bold enough when I set my lips to his cheek, but then I grew shy again, and ran away before he could say anything.
 
 
QUEENMAKER. Copyright © 1999, 2003 by India Edghill. All rights reserved.