Chapter One

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—Late Summer, 598 B.C.

“Answer me!”
Ebed-Melech knelt on the cold prison floor, his thick, black-skinned frame hovering over the well of the prison. Where was Jeremiah? It was impossible to see him with only the glow of a single lamp finding its way through the narrow opening and casting little light on the reason for the silence below.

A rope disappeared into the well and somewhere in the shadows the prophet Jeremiah lay tied to the end of it like an ox in a harness. Ebed pulled on it with both hands. There was no play—nothing but dead weight taking out the slack.

“Do you hear me?” The stench of rotted mire stung tears from Ebed’s eyes and he turned his ear to the muddy chamber. There should at least be a whimper, a sigh, or some sound of life rising from this hellish place, but the only answer was the relentless drip of water seeping through the subterranean foundations of the palace. Something was gone terribly wrong. Ebed balanced his feet along the edge of the hole, took hold of the rope and—

“Not down there!” The former jailer—the man Ebed replaced by order of the king—held a torch ahead of his stride. Since the day Ebed took the man’s post he did nothing but wander in the shadows of the prison, following Ebed wherever he went, watching him like a spirit that never slept. The man never offered a word of advice, never showed Ebed about the prison, why he didn’t even bother to introduce Ebed to the prison guards. The old jailer could be of help—he knew the prison better than any of the guards or prison hands—but how could he trust the vengeance that burned in the man’s eyes?

Ebed said, “He’s not stirring.”

“That’s how they all go. Real quiet. Not much life left in them after so long in the well.” The old jailer walked with his shoulders hunched forward and his words whistling through the wide gaps in his teeth. He held the torch to the opening, close enough the searing heat flashed across Ebed’s face. “It won’t be long. Another day or two and the chills and sickness will have him.” The old jailer sidled in next to Ebed and tugged on the end of the rope. “Lift the corpse out with this.”

“I won’t let him to die.”

“Fool. That’s why they sent him here.”

“Then why not a sword and be done with him months ago?”

The old jailer lowered his chin into his chest and whispered, “For fear of his spells.”

“He’s no sorcerer.”

“Tell that to the chief elder.”

“Give me that.” Ebed snatched the torch from the old jailer and forced the flame through the opening in the floor. Dirty water pooled around the form of Jeremiah. His legs were entombed in a layer of mud, his body slumped forward, and his face stuck in the mire. He lay still, without the rise and fall of breath in his shoulders and Ebed shoved the torch back into the old jailer’s hands, took hold of the rope and stepped to the edge of the pit.

“Go down there and you’ll curse us both.” The old jailer took Ebed by the arm. “You weren’t in Jerusalem the day Jeremiah conjured a curse of death.”

“Faith is the only curse Jeremiah cast on anyone.” Ebed pulled free of the Jailer’s grasp. “That isn’t anything to fear.”

Ebed scaled down the rope, landing in mud up to his knees. He struggled across the dark pit to Jeremiah and pulled him out of the earthen tomb, his mouth and nose stopped by the foul mire. He steadied Jeremiah’s frail frame over his shoulders before climbing the rope, his powerful arms slowly lifting them cubit by cubit, his feet working against the wall and his toes finding the crevices in the mortared seams between the giant foundation stones. Ebed cleared the opening and laid Jeremiah’s thin, mud-covered body on the floor.

“Free we are.” The old jailer waved the torch close to Jeremiah’s face. “Free of his curses.”

“Breathe!” Ebed pressed against Jeremiah’s chest, emptying and then filling his lungs with air. “For the love of heaven, live!”

“Leave the dead be.” The old jailer started down the corridor. “I’ll fetch the help to bear away the body.”

Jeremiah’s arms lay lifeless at his side. His eyes stood shut and his body still, but when Ebed set the wooden ladle to the prophet’s lips and the first drops of cool water fell on his tongue, his lungs heaved and water sprayed from his mouth.

“Curse you. Look what you’ve done.” The old jailer limped back to Jeremiah’s side. The breath of life filled the prophet’s body, chasing away the gray in his cheeks and replacing it with a red hue. “You’ll anger the Chief Elder for this.”

“Better him than God.” Ebed removed the harness from around Jeremiah’s slight frame and lifted him from the floor, the prophet’s body hanging limp in his arms. He started through the catacombs past a lamp mounted on a giant stone pillar and the brightness startled Jeremiah’s eyes open. He reached for Ebed’s hand and said, “The time is come.”

“It’s another of his curses.” The old jailer hurried alongside Jeremiah and leaned his head in. “What time is come?”

Ebed said, “Ask him once he’s bathed and fed and resting in the upper prison.”

“There isn’t time to rest.” Jeremiah tightened his grip on Ebed’s arm. “The day for God to begin to remember his covenant with Israel is come.”

“We’ve done nothing to you.” The old jailer hurried around in front of them and back-stepped ahead of their walking, his gaze shifting between Ebed and Jeremiah. “Tell him we’re innocent. You. Me. We’ve done nothing but follow orders. Tell him before he curses us with something more terrible than the affliction he sent Hannaniah.”

Jeremiah’s mud-soaked hair fell down into his lips and the ends played over his words. He said, “God will do a marvelous work among his people.”

“There was nothing marvelous about it.” The older jailer shook his head. “They found Hannaniah dead in his house.”

“Yea, even a marvelous work and a wonder.” Jeremiah spoke with a trembling voice, telling the old jailer of the covenant given to Moses and recorded on the brass plates locked away in Captain Laban’s treasury. He insisted the record was to be taken from the city and copied by another prophet into a record fashioned of plates of gold. He said, “In the last days, the covenant will be read upon the housetops and all things shall be revealed unto the children of men which ever have been among them and which ever will be even unto the end of the earth.”

“Mad he is.” The old jailer pulled back. “Mad enough to curse us all.”

“Let him alone.” Ebed held Jeremiah close.

“You haven’t heard him when he’s lost in one of his deluded fits.” The old jailer stood in the center of the corridor with the torch raised in the air, blocking Ebed’s way through the shadowy catacombs. “He’s possessed by Captain Laban’s relics, thinks he’s going to steal them.”

Jeremiah said, “Twenty-eight days shall pass away and then God will remember his covenant written on the brass plates.”

The old jailer counted the days on his fingers before slowly lifting his gaze and whispering, “What evil do you plan for the Day of Remembrance?”

Jeremiah said, “It is written in the Hebrew calendar.”

The old jailer spit on the ground. “Curse the calendar Moses invented.”

“Moses didn’t invent it. God revealed it to him.” Jeremiah raised his voice enough to cut through the wheezing in his throat. “God gave him a vision of the great time-keeping orbits and revolutions of the planets in the heavens. Every feast celebrated among the Jews was appointed its day according to that which was ordained in the council of heaven before this world was created and the Day of Remembrance holds a sacred place among the most holy of days.” He leaned higher in Ebed’s powerful arms, his gaze moving slowly about the dark ceiling of the prison like a wise man scanning the night sky. “The heavens with all their planets and stars and the revolutions of this earth are a great timepiece, more accurate than the most precise water clock and the time appointed to preserve the records of the covenant is come.” He took Ebed by the forearm. “Every feast among our people was calendared in the heavens. The Babylonians and the Egyptians and the Chaldeans have their calendars, but they do nothing more than track the passing seasons and the rising and setting of the sun.” Jeremiah held his hand to his mouth and coughed before saying, “Hidden in the calendar given Moses is the appointed day for the record to come forth in the fullness of times.” Jeremiah lay back in Ebed’s arms. “I must ready the brass plates to have part in that future Day of Remembrance and curse any man who seeks to stop me—curse him to death.”

“He’s threatening Captain Laban.” The old jailer raised his torch higher, the orange-yellow light casting over the prophet’s frail frame. “Just as he threatened the prophet Hannaniah. He killed the man. They don’t know how, but he did it.”

Ebed said, “He isn’t well.”

“He’s well enough to curse us.” The old jailer backed toward the entrance to the catacombs, the torchlight growing faint with each step. “Curse us all he will.”

“Jeremiah hasn’t the strength to harm anyone.” Ebed held the prophet close.

“His strength comes from another world.” The old jailer fumbled for the key to the prison, pushed open the iron gate with his boot and started up the circular stairs, but before he disappeared around the turn he pointed the end of his torch at Jeremiah and spoke through the oil smoke rising from the flame.

“Twenty eight days and we’re all cursed!”

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