The real commander of Israel’s army, Part III

Joab didn’t know which part of a raid he loved best: when the enemy realized all was lost, or when he and his men paraded through small villages loaded down with plunder, tossing bits and pieces to people who came out to greet them — to the women who sang his praises and twirled and played their tambourines. The women of Juttah had sung so sweetly that he’d given up several headscarves he’d planned to give his own wife.

Coming in to Hebron was up there, too, because it was home. He’d sent a messenger ahead, so their children would be waiting to be hoisted onto shoulders, their wives would be laughing and crying, and David’s servants would be readying the feast. They’d have started slaughtering the oxen and sheep by now. Tonight, no more dried rations, no more sour water.

They were within sight of the gates when a man sprinted down the road at them. It was his messenger. Probably bringing word from David. Joab’s high dipped a little.

“My lord.” The messenger was panting so hard he could barely speak. “Ab- Abner–”

Joab narrowed his eyes. “What now?”

The messenger gulped. “At the citadel. With twenty men from Benjamin, Dan and –”

That was all Joab needed to hear. He pulled his brother close under the pretense of giving Abishai his pack. “This is it. Take your twelve best men and wait for me outside the gates, by the huge atad tree. Everyone else should go in and celebrate with their families. Wait for my word.”

He barely paused long enough for the gate guards to recognize him, and sprinted all the way to David’s citadel. The royal guards let him right through without making him give up his weapons, which might come in handy, depending on what Abner came here to do.

The courtyard was still set up for the feast, so Joab skidded to a stop, flattened himself against the wall, and peered around the corner. More than twenty men sat in a circle. David, of course, Great-Uncle Jonathan, Benaiah, leaders from Hebron and other self-important looking men. No Abner.

Joab stalked over to David. “You should’ve sent a message.”

David didn’t even give him the courtesy of looking at him. He just pointed at the ground with his finger.

Joab frowned. He didn’t have time to sit. “Where is he?”

David crossed his arms and looked into the distance. He barely moved his mouth while he spoke. “They’re deciding on me. They say yes and you get the whole army.”

Great-Uncle Jonathan stood and walked past him, adding, “Do it right for once.”

Joab almost left. Someone else could tell him where Abner was. He didn’t need David for that. But he did need to stay as close to David’s good side as he could, especially if he was successful, so he gritted his teeth and jerked his head, sharp and no-nonsense, like a soldier. “My lord,” he announced for everyone’s benefit, “the Amalekites will think twice about bothering Beersheba. And they made a generous donation to the military fund.” He grinned, but it felt more like he was baring his teeth.

David stood and put his right hand on Joab’s shoulder. “Elders of Israel, this is my nephew Joab, the commander of my army, the man your fighters will serve under.”

Joab stumbled forward a few steps, thanks to a not-so-gentle shove from David.

“He’s returned from a successful campaign against the Amalekites.”

“Just a small raid.” Joab did what was expected of him and did the teeth-numbing meet-and-greet, boasted about the results of his army, listened politely as they trumpeted their tribe’s fighters and their skills, refrained from mentioning that their men weren’t such great fighters that his army hadn’t already beaten them numerous times in the last six months. Each and every moment, he knew that Abner might be slipping away from him. Again.

“My lord,” Joab said to David the moment the elders’ attention wandered. “May I have a private audience?”

“Of course.” David opened his arms to the group. “My servants should bring in the midday meal soon. Stay and enjoy.”

Once they were two turns of the hallway away from the others, Joab grabbed a fistful of David’s soft linen sleeve. “Where is he?”

“Let go of me.”

“Fine.” Joab let go as if he were throwing the material away, which flung David’s arm back.

The next thing Joab knew, David pinned him against the wall. He could barely breath thanks to the forearm pushed against his neck.

“You even think about going for your dagger and I’m shipping you back to Bethlehem in shame,” David said. “You will not manhandle me, either when we’re in public or when we’re alone. You will treat me at least with the respect due to your uncle. Better if you could at least bring it up to the level of our time in the desert.” He pushed harder against Joab’s windpipe. “Clear?”

Joab nodded, because that was all he could do.

David freed him and shook out his arms. “Abner was here. He’s gone to the northern tribes to secure their support. He’s behind me.”

Joab spat.

“You’re letting your personal feelings get in the way.”

“It’s not my feelings,” Joab said. “It’s Asahel’s blood that’s in the way.”

“It was a battle.”

Joab’s chest heaved with the effort of keeping in all the things he wanted to say and do.

“We’re operating on a different level now. Blood feuds are part of the old—”

Joab sliced his hand through the air between them. “It’s not about that. Abner is too crafty. He started this war and managed to turn it around on me and make it seem like my fault. His visit wasn’t a peace offering. He’ll twist your words and turn you into–”

“I am not a green boy,” David ground out. “I tested Abner myself and I asked the Lord to confirm Abner’s sincerity, which He did. I am satisfied.”

Joab pressed his lips together and shook his head. “I can’t believe you just let him walk away.”

“With my blessing.”

They stared each other down for several long moments. Joab broke eye contact first and left without saying another word.

Abishai and his men were waiting just where he’d told them to. Joab sent two of them to run north and bring Abner back. Abishai and two lieutenants stayed with him under the atad. The rest of his men waited behind some ancient olive trees; nearby, but not close enough to be apparent.

When Joab’s messengers came over the hill with Abner and his four guards, the sun was low, but it wasn’t dusk yet.

Joab and Abishai exchanged a look, but didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to. The plan was set.