11.30.2018

Judith Slays Holofernes, Pt XXVI

The men fell all over themselves to help her, then, praising her for her bravery in traveling all alone at night (I contained my snort of derision), for her wisdom in coming to Holofernes.  One took her arms reverently to assist her steps and the other, looking annoyed, took the lamp from me. The two of them led us straight to the camp, then through tidy rows of small tents towards one nearly as large as our house.  It was certainly large enough to house the Command Center of such an army. Heads popped out of those orderly rows to watch us pass, and soon we were leading a procession of men. I could hear them whispering about her beauty, her grace, her mystery.

Our escort announced us to the guards outside the large tent, and I heard someone in the crowd joke that if all Judaean women looked like my Slayer, her people would be impossible to hate.  Another responded that if all Judaean women looked like her, the army would be better off killing every last one of them, before they could ensnare the troops. After that I heard a blow, and scuffling, but then I was being searched roughly by the guards for weapons.  My Slayer was handled with much more deference- but then, she was wearing thin silks and no pack.

At last we were led into the tent, which had an entryway, and still more guards.  And then Holofernes walked in, and I had a better idea of what we were dealing with.

If he was an ordinary mortal-  which I doubted- he surely had giant blood in him, for he stood over seven feet tall, with none of the strange proportions you see in full-blooded humans who get to that size.  He was broad as an ox, and his eyes shifted strangely in color, appearing one moment to be green-brown, the next blue-gray, reminding me of nothing so much as the waves of a lake washing up on a rocky shore.  He turned those strange eyes on my Slayer, and his full lips parted in faint surprise. He was handsome, as far as those things go, but something about him raised the hair on my neck, and I took an involuntary step backwards, out of the flickering lamplight.

My Slayer, on the other hand, threw herself prostrate before him.

“Great Holofernes,” she cried, and I wondered how she managed to enunciate so clearly with her face pressed into the thick carpets.  “Please take pity on this most unworthy woman, and grant me the chance to prove my usefulness to you and your King!”

The servants looked horrified at this display, and even Holofernes blinked.  He signaled with his hands and the servants rushed to help my trembling Slayer back to her feet.  I concentrated on remaining unseen, trying to discern what Holofernes really was.

“Don’t be afraid, little one,” Holofernes said gently, and as he spoke I heard water rushing powerfully across the land, destroying everything in its path.  My stomach dropped, for at last I knew how he had stopped Bethulia’s water supply, how he had flooded all of Babylon.

Holofernes was a water demon.

11.29.2018

Judith Slays Holofernes XXV

(I've had a rough week, so rather than properly format things day-by-day, you're getting all the days' writings at once.  Because I'm an adult, and I do what I want!  It does, however, make for one hell of a long entry, soooo... sorry about that?  I'm starting to really itch to go back and rewrite things, but that just has to wait... I mean, we haven't even gotten to Holofernes yet!)

***

It has been thirty-four days since Holofernes appeared at our gates, and still they have not attempted parlay.  Truth be told, they do not need to; our water supply is almost gone, and the eldest and youngest amongst us are beginning to sicken.  Every day I have sat with Uzziah and the other Elders on behalf of my Slayer, and every day the town has become more panicked, with no hope of a solution.  I am not powerful enough of a magic user to counteract whatever it is that Holofernes has done, and so I keep silent and continue to think.

Today a mob came before the council- men, women, children- crying out that their god was surely punishing them, and they must surrender.  That surely it was better to be slaves to the Assyrians than to die in such a terrible way, and demanding that Uzziah open the gates of the city and be done with it.  The mothers were particularly fierce, saying no fate could be worse than watching helplessly as their children died, knowing that they might have lived if only Bethulia had bent the knee to Senacherib.

Uzziah, for his part, seems to have aged a lifetime over the past month, and he was no youth to begin with.  He managed to calm the crowd somewhat by telling them they must be patient a little longer.

“Five more days, my people, we can survive five more days!  Surely the God of gods will take pity on us before that time, and if he has not…” he bent his head sorrowfully, then continued, “If he has not then indeed I swear by His unspoken name that I will do as you have asked, and surrender us to Holofernes.”

***

For my part I returned swifty to my Slayer and told her, word for word, what had been said.  I had to make her see sense: we could not afford for her to be captured by the enemy, and we must find some way of making our escape.  But as soon as I told her what Uzziah had said about waiting five more days, a strange look settled over her face.

“Ku-Aya, you must bring the Elders to me.”

This brought me up short, for she rarely summoned people outside her own household.

“The Elders?  Why?”

“I would have words with them.  Bring them, Ku-Aya.”

Her tone was much sharper than she would normally use, so much so that I didn’t think so much as merely responded, making my way back to the town meeting place, and gathering up the Elders.  They were as surprised to receive the summons as I was to deliver it, and came along meekly as lambs. When we returned my Slayer was as I had left her, sitting upright before the house’s altar, dressed in the black of her mourning, incense wreathing her head.  But there was a fierceness about her presence that was unsettling. I looked at her with fresh eyes, trying to imagine not having seen her for the past three years, and realized just how beautiful she must appear to these men, sackcloth or no. The Elders bowed deeply to her, and I understood the impulse.

“Listen to me, leaders of men,” she said, and her voice had a ringing command to it I had never before noticed.  “You have done a terrible thing. You have sworn an oath that sets the God of gods to a timeline you have devised, rather than being obedient to the one He has set for us.  You must be fools, indeed, to put the God of gods to the test!  You, who, for all your age and experience, cannot understand the hearts and minds of mortal men and women- how could you begin to understand the plans and purposes of He who created us?  Why would you provoke His anger by pretending to try?”

***

“He has the power to protect us for as long as He’d like, even if it is not His will to deliver us within the next five- or five hundred- days.  We are the gate holding the wretched Assyrian army back from the entire kingdom of Judea, we keep our people from being slaughtered and enslaved, we are being tested by the God of gods even as He tested our ancestors, as He tested Avraham, Yishaq, and Yaakov.  He used those trials to search their hearts, even as He uses these trials to search ours. And with your declaration of a timeline you are showing Him faithless hearts, cowardly hearts!”

I thought for certain the Elders would rebuke her for such harsh words, but instead they hung their heads to a man, and admitted she was right.  And then they begged her to pray on their behalf!  To beg their God of gods to send rain to refill their wells.  After all, they said,she was so devout, so perfect in her adherence to the Law, that surely their god would listen to her.  I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing at this further attempt to shift their responsibility, but my Slayer… she drummed her fingers on her knee, and then said,

“I will act as I see fit, as the God of gods guides me, and before the five days are out the God of gods will make use of me to deliver us.  But you must question me on my actions- I will not reveal them to you until they are done. Do you understand?”

They did, although I did not.  They bowed to her repeatedly as they left, saying that surely their god would show her way, and that neither they nor anyone else in the town would make any move to interfere in her actions.

Once they were gone from the house entirely, I turned to my Slayer and raised an eyebrow.

“And just what is it, precisely, that you plan to do?”

Her face was grim, as she began to remove her clothing.

“We have proven we cannot get into the enemy’s camp by stealth,” she said.  “So we must go in with boldness. Now send all the other servants away, Ku-Aya, and then return to help me with my hair.”

***

I did as she bade me, still trying to decipher her strange words.  We spent the next several hours in the bathing chambers, washing and oiling and gilding her hair and body, much as had been done for her wedding day.  She opened the great treasure chests and brought out necklaces, rings, bracelets, and earrings, all of gold, and put them on with as much ceremony as a man would his armor.  And then she had me bring her fine silks out of storage, rich and colorful in the golden light of the afternoon. Her body had blossomed over the past three years, and the robes clung in a way that was indecent by Judaean standards, but she covered them all with a heavy black cloak.

“You cannot fight in any of this,” I remarked.

“Not in the way you mean,” she smiled, and painted her eyes with kohl.  “But it is as a woman, not a warrior, that I will be welcomed by the enemy, and it is as a woman I will break their pride.”

“This is not how a Slayer fights,” I said, but with no real conviction.

“A Slayer fights how a Slayer must,” she replied, gazing into the polished bronze of her mirror.  “A Slayer fights with the weapons she has been given. And the God of gods has given me this face, and this body, and this tongue.  And I will use them.”

***

The sun was setting as we approached the main gate.  The people of Bethulia watched us as we passed- watched her, in her regal glory- and whispered to one another.  We carried no weapons with us, which had me on edge, but my Slayer had pointed out- rightly- that to do so would be a death-sentence.  What we did carry- rather, what I carried, since I am the servant, was provisions.  Judith had demanded the finest of cakes and wines that might be hidden away in the town, and they were delivered to her by servants in speechless awe of her beauty.  They were now tucked safely in a pack strapped to my back. In my hand was a lantern burning with a clear white light, to make absolutely certain we would be seen by the enemy.

The people continued to watch even after the gates were shut behind us, even as we walked into the deepening night.  The lantern’s flame danced as I picked my way carefully down the mountain trail, causing a greater dance of shadows around us.  The darkness was complete by the time we reached the edge of the valley, and we no sooner stepped into it then we were stopped by sentries who held a spear to my throat and snarled in terribly accented Judaean:

“You!  Old woman!  What do you think you’re about?  And you! Dark one! Come into the light where we can see you!”

Old woman, indeed.  My voice shook with an odd combination of indignation and fear, but I  managed to answer, “We come- my mistress comes seeking sanctuary!” And I held the lamp higher as my Slayer stepped forward, to better light her face.

“Oh-” the spear at my throat dipped, and I watched the two young men blink as though dazzled by sun on water.

She said nothing, but held them with her level gaze, dark eyes glittering in the lamplight

“She is a great lady of the Judaeans,” I said, “From the city of Bethulia.  She did not care to remain in a place that will soon be enslaved.”
“I have information for Holofernes,” she spoke at last, pitching her voice higher than it’s normal range, making her sound younger, more vulnerable.  “Information that could help him capture the city without any further loss of life.”

11.24.2018

Judith Slays Holofernes, Pt XXIV

The reports of Holofernes marching with 110,000 men were wrong.

He marches with at least 150,000.

The city is as surrounded as it can be, given the mountains that cradle us.  They have even sent men around to block the back gate, although they must have been sent as advance scouts a month or more ago.  I will say this for Holofernes- he has a flair for the dramatic that probably saves him quite a bit of battling. Most cities that woke up to such a display would probably surrender right then and there- but most cities do not have our resources, and so Bethulia, while perhaps gripped in a sort of nervous quietness, nevertheless goes about her business.

My Slayer has spent the morning praying to her god for guidance, whereas I have spent the morning on the walls, examining the troops, for what- I’m not certain.  They are eerie in their stillness, their discipline. They have made no move to actually attack, yet have also sent no one over to parlay. It makes me very nervous, indeed, to see men standing beneath the hot summer sun as though made of stone.  It is unnatural.

But then, unnatural threats are precisely the ones Slayers are called to face.

I see no obvious demon faces among them, but that makes no difference, because some demons are capable of taking on human appearance.  There is, however, a certain… oppressive tang to the air that tells me magic is being worked.  A large, powerful magic, and one that has shrugged off all my novice attempts at divining it.  It requires further investigation.

Tonight we must Hunt.

***

Every night for the past week we have attempted to infiltrate the enemy camp, but there is no way in to that damned place!  Their scouts are too good, their wards too well-placed. Holofernes, whatever else he may be, is no fool, and there is no sneaking in.  There are too many to go in on the offensive, and so each dawn we creep back into our city, to strategize another attempt for the following night.

But this morning something has given us a new urgency.

As we made our way through the aquifers back to the tunnel that leads to our house, my Slayer paused.  “Ku-Aya,” she said. “Does it not seem the water levels have… dropped?”

“What?”  I said, and looked back over my shoulder, aiming the mage-light I carried at the dancing waters.  At first they seemed the same as they always do, but the more I looked, the more I realized she was right.  There was a dark line above the waters, showing where they had been.  It was only an inch or two above the surface, but considering the size of the lake…

“It can’t be,” I whispered, horrified.  But when we returned to our chambers I cast a spell and discovered that it absolutely is.  Somehow, Holofernes has blocked the water, and what has renewed itself from time immemorial is now slowly, inevitably, draining away to nothing.

“We have perhaps a month, certainly no longer,” I said grimly to my Slayer.  She nodded, fingers drumming in thought against her thigh.

“We must tell the Elders,” she said at last.  “Or rather, you must. I will send you to them with a message, telling them the God of gods has revealed our peril to me.  They must begin to ration immediately.”

11.23.2018

Judith Slays Holofernes, PtXXIII

At the risk of repeating myself, again I must say- there is no question.  My Potential is Potential no longer, but truly a Slayer Called. She accepted my diagnosis with the same calm demeanor she has always accepted everything, and we have intensified her training accordingly.  It is truly a wonder to behold the physical feats a Slayer is capable of, and it makes me realize that loyalty to her people or not, she cannot remain in Bethulia.  There is nothing here for her to fight, and while I might personally prefer to keep her in an environment where she might live forever, it would be a disservice to the world, and more importantly to her.  It would be a waste, and my Slayer hates waste. As do I.

In a way the timing could not be more perfect, with Holofernes all but at the gates.  I think perhaps we will go on a scouting mission of our own, and discover the truth behind the rumors of his demonhood.  I find myself hoping they are true, for it is very clear what a Slayer must do when confronted with a demon, but less so when confronted with a mortal man.

The Elders are meeting almost daily now, preparing for the seige, and I make it a point to be an invisible presence at the meetings, that I might report back to my Slayer.  Her need for sleep has diminished sharply, whereas mine remains the same, and the day will soon come, I fear, that I confess to her I cannot keep up this schedule. It may be time for her to show herself once more to the people of Bethulia.  She may not be an Elder, herself, but she is much respected among the populace for her piety, and I know they would not begrudge her a place at the table, to listen if nothing else. Perhaps I will broach the subject tomorrow.

11.22.2018

Judith Slays Holofernes, Pt XXII

There is no question- Holofernes is, indeed, marching on Judah, and nestled as we are in a convenient mountain pass, Bethulia will surely be among the first of his targets.  The scouts put the army at perhaps a month out, and so the city prepares itself for seige. The people are surprisingly calm- but then the Judaeans have a long history of being on the sharp end of an invader’s sword.  They are reserves aplenty, and of course water is of no concern with the aquifers beneath the city. The walls are thick and the paths treacherous, and the Elders feel confident that Holofernes will decide it is easier to find an alternate route through the mountains than to waste resources on a city that can easily go for a year or more without a single person needing to leave its boundaries.  I wish I shared their confidence, but I was there when Babylon was destroyed. This general is determined, ruthless, and clever. If there is a way to crack the nut of Bethulia, he will be the one to find it.

I considered briefly whether or not to spirit my ward to safety, perhaps out of Judah entirely, but dismissed the through almost as soon as it occurred.  She will not leave her people without just cause, and she does not consider an invading army a just cause.

“There is no need for concern, Ku-Aya,” she told me this morning, apropos of nothing.  I raised an eyebrow and she gave me a little smile. “I can see you running numbers in your head, calculating how long we can outlast a siege.”

“I was not,” I protested, although I was.

“Still,” she said.  “Bethulia has been very faithful to the Law, so we need not fear the onslaught of any army.  The God of gods has always protected us in such circumstances, so long as we remain in compliance with His will.”

“Mmph,” I said, but without quite as much skepticism as I might have shown three years ago.  It is true that Bethulia seems remarkably well-insulated against the darker things of this world, but whether that’s due to divine intervention, or some strange, naturally occuring phenomena within the mountains- perhaps a mineral deposit?- eludes me.  It is a question which requires further investigation and which, truth be told, it seems unlikely to find a proveable answer.

My ward simply laughed and returned to her sword forms, moving the blade smoothly from one dancer-like pose to the next.  It seems to me that over these past few weeks she has become even more graceful, even more fast, and I have noticed her eating enormous quantities when we sup.  These are all signs we are told to watch for in a Called Slayer, and it makes me wonder… but surely she herself would have said something, if she felt any different?

11.21.2018

Judith Slays Holofernes, Pt XXI

Today marks the third full year since Manessah’s death.  As in the years prior to this one, I left my ward in solitude.  It still seems… not right… to ask her to train on this day. I have spent it in my own quiet contemplation, dwelling upon Fate and what we can and cannot do to avoid destiny, and our own part in it.

I received word from the Council in Exile that the Egyptian Slayer has fallen, although by the time the news reached me it was months old, so obviously my ward was not her successor.  I think it likely, however, that she will succeed this current Slayer- said to be Median by birth, and old to be Called- nearly 19. I wish her a long lifetime, but is that for her sake, or my own?  Because I do not want to feel the grief… We are warned against this, at the Academy, told to keep ourselves emotionally distant, not to get too attached. But I wonder how any Watcher can spend three years molding a girl into a woman and not become attached?  Truth be told I think I loved her before that first year passed… and now, to imagine her falling, in battle or not… my insides threaten to seize up, and so I never imagine it at all.  I must keep that part of myself that loves her separate from the rest, and instead focus on the duty and the honor. If she dies for the greater good, if she dies well, that is the most I can hope for.  I must imagine no other outcome than that.

There is talk in the market that Sennacherib’s army is marching through the former Kingdom of Israel.  They say he has Judah in his sights, and will not rest until it is punished for its insolence in refusing his summons.  They say nothing less than the death of every last man, woman, and child will satisfy him and his monstrous pride. Privately I think it more likely that Ascending to godhood requires a monstrously large blood sacrifice.  Either way the result is the same- death and destruction rained down upon these people, as it was rained down upon mine in Babylon. I listened in on a meeting of the City Elders, and reports have the army numbered at 100,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 mounted archers.  It seems impossible that anyone would have the resources to move such a mass of humanity, but perhaps it’s a little thing in comparison to Acension.

Leading this army is a general called Holofernes- I believe he also led the assault on Babylon.  His name is spoken in terrified whispers, and they say he has made some sort of pact with demons, or perhaps is a demon himself.  I almost hope it is true.

Demons, at least, I know how to handle.

11.20.2018

Judith Slays Holofernes, Pt XX

It is hard to believe that more than a year has passed since I first came to Bethulia, and yet I look around at the household preparing for the barley harvest, and I know it to be true.  Life has become very simple, in a way- we study, we train, and we hunt.

Not much comes of our hunts, however- the area around Bethulia remains strangely void of the supernatural, although once my ward did kill a wolf that had been stealing from the city’s flocks.  Knowing she had protected her people from an actual threat gave her a glow of satisfaction which lasted for days.

More recently an Alukah wandered into our territory, but it was young and stupid as bloodsuckers go, and she was able to dispatch it without much trouble.  I could have wished she’d left it alive a little longer, so that I might have questioned it regarding the whereabouts of its sire, but ah well.

I  have heard nothing from the Council in Exile for months, not since I received a tersely worded message thanking me for my information regarding the rising god, and bidding me continue in my duties.  No comment on the fact that I’d received a prophecy regarding my ward, no additional resources. It frustrates me that they give us no support, not even intel. You would think they’d at least send research to us, so that we could be better prepared for the trouble rising in the north.

But I must no dwell.  My energies are better spent working with my ward, who is becoming quite proficient in any number of weapons, to my pride.  She has a gift for the sword, and I think the time has come for me to start focusing more of our training on honing those particular skills.  After all, there are very few creatures- demon or otherwise- that cannot be dispatched via beheading, and it requires a great deal less accuracy than, say, a stake to the heart.