Dusk was setting on the desert land. Throughout the city, torches and lamps were being lit to give the inhabitants light for their evening meals. In the palace, it was the same. Along the vast hallways and inner chambers, bare feet making soft footfalls were rushing from room to room as whispers spread rumors among the servant ranks.
"The king, the king," they said, "the king is very ill. The king might not last much longer. The king, the king..."
Several well-known figures and a few more obscure were guarding the royal bedchamber, waiting for the physician to emerge with the expected news: King David, ruler of Jerusalem, defeater of Goliath and protector of the nation, is dying.
Finally, Eliphaz the physician came. He asked those waiting outside to come in. Nathan the prophet, Zadok the priest, Zattu, David's personal servant, and the advisors Shimei, Rei and Benaiah, all filed through the door. Hagar, a middle-aged widow who served the queen, was there as well, on orders to bring the queen news on her husband. They walked inside to find King David lying in bed, asleep, his lined face untroubled by the anxious expressions surrounding him.
"I am afraid that his highness may not be with us much longer," Eliphaz began. "A few months, perhaps. Maybe even weeks."
Silence filled the room. There was no shock, as this news was not unexpected, but rather the quiet resignation to the inevitable. Hagar slipped quickly out of the room, passed by Adonijah, one of the younger princes at 17 years old, on the way in. He walked over to the small group of people standing at the foot of the king's bed.
"How long?" Zattu asked quietly.
Eliphaz heaved a sigh. "It is difficult to say. He is not getting enough food or rest."
"Those foul slaves," Rei said. "How dare they not serve the King now that he must rely on them so much."
"That is not what I said," Eliphaz replied. "His strength is sapped during the day so that he cannot eat, because he is so cold in the night his body has to work hard to keep from freezing to death. It wouldn't have to work so hard if he were strong enough to take more nourishment during the day. It's a cycle, he can't eat to give himself stamina when he sleeps at night, and he hasn't the strength to eat when he is awake."
Suddenly the doors burst open as Solomon and his mother, Queen Bathsheba, came rushing in, followed closely by Hagar. Their robes billowed as the sprinted to the king's bedside. Bathsheba's hair, normally neatly braided down her back, was flowing freely like a cape behind her, long dark locks mixed with silver strands. Her barely lined face was taught with emotion, and her gray eyes bore into Eliphaz.
"What is this I hear?" the queen cried. "My husband, our King, is not going to last the month?"
Solomon bent over his father and studied his face with a worried look. His chiseled form dwarfed his father's shriveled one. He looked to Adonijah for explanation, but Adonijah merely shrugged.
"What have you been doing? What have you not done?" the queen demanded "Why can you not save him?"
"My queen," Eliphaz said, keeping his voice steady. "I did not say that our king would not last the month." He gave Hagar a withering glare. "I said that he may not be with us much longer, but for how long, I cannot accurately say."
Bathsheba blinked. Her eyes were shining with tears. "But, you are sure he is..."
Eliphaz nodded. "I am afraid so."
"Is there nothing that can be done?" Soloman asked, turning to look at Eliphaz, kneeling by David's bedside.
Eliphaz paused. "He convulses in the night due to cold. This eats away at his energy through the day, prevents him resting at night, aging him even more quickly. If there was some way of keeping him warm at night, then maybe he might be able to rest and regain some of his vitality during the day."
"We are all ready feeding him warms meals at bedtime," Zattu said.
"But he does not eat much of it, does he?" Eliphaz said. "No, food alone would not do it."
"A warm bath before bed?" suggested Zadok.
"Would still not last him through the night," Eliphaz replied helplessly.
"There may be one solution." Nathan, the revered prophet, had been silent till now. His frail body leaned on a small walking stick, and the high emotion in the room had no effect on his calm expression.
"What, then?" Bathsheba insisted. "Whatever it is, we will provide it." Bathsheba trusted Nathan, even though he was the one to expose her affair with King David 30 years earlier. She knew, in spite of that, she could rely on his words being given to him by Jehovah El-Roi.
Nathan was turned toward the sleeping king, his back to the rest of those gathered. He studied David, lying there, peacefully asleep. He was no longer the sinewy youth who had fought lions and giants. Nor was he the virile, handsome king who had seduced his current queen from her first husband. He was now a spirit, a person inhabiting a shell that was abandoning him.
Nathan steadied himself before answering. "The king needs warmth, enough warmth to keep him through the night and into the morning. This kind of warmth can only be generated one way."
He turned to face Benaiah. "I recommend finding someone, someone who loves the king and is loyal to him, to sleep in his bed with him every night. Find a young virgin free from political influences," his eyes flickered between Solomon and Adonijah as he continued, "and let her lie with him at night and be a comfort to him during the day."
The advisors looked to one another, cautious not to reveal their reactions. Hagar's eyes widened. Solomon was shocked, though by the Nathan's instructions concerning his father or by his implications he and his brother it was impossible to tell. Bathsheba was livid.
"What? Another wife for him now? He is too old and weak to bed a wife, and would only disgrace himself by leaving her childless."
Nathan shook his head. "No, no, I did not mean a wife."
The group began protesting. Shimei gasped. "A whore? You would tell us to bring a whore to the king?"
"Certainly not," Nathan insisted. "I mean only to get a young girl to come and comfort him, to sleep in his bed to provide him warmth. Perhaps then he may be given the strength to survive a little longer."
The group of people began muttering to each other, until finally Solomon spoke over their voices. He stood next to his father's bedside, his strong body pulled to its full height. "If it is our only option, what choice do we have? Nathan speaks for the Lord, so we can acts on his word. Perhaps through this, Jehovah-Rophe will see fit to sustain my father's life."
The others went silent. Finally, Benaiah nodded. "If this is what we must do, then we will do it." Solomon walked over to
Adonijah, his younger brother, and put his arm around him. Adonijah's expression was unfathomable.
Solomon looked him intently. "Are you all right?"
Adonijah nodded, but did not take his eyes off of the sleeping king. Solomon had always felt about him more like a son than a younger brother.
"Don't worry," Solomon said, patting Adonijah on the back. "If Nathan tells us it will work, it will work. We will be able to have our father with us a little longer."
He pulled Adonijah through the large wooden doors and walked him through the hallway, trying to comfort his brother, who remained unresponsive.
The following day, Zattu was sitting on David's bed, explaining to him the plan Nathan presented.
"...and so," he concluded, "they have decided to look in the region of Shunem for this young woman." He shook his head. "They want her to be more than just a bedwarmer. They want her to take my place with you, to serve you as I would. I will be cast into the streets."
David, sitting in a gilded chair next to the settee, spoke softly, his voice not carrying the melodic energy it once did. "Now, Zattu, I would never leave you to a life of poverty. This will not change anything. You have been very loyal to me in my last years, and I am grateful."
These few words spoken by the elderly king were all it took to pacify Zattu. Still, he could not release the feeling of foreboding he had felt from the moment Nathan suggested this outrageous plan.
"My King, it makes no sense. How will they find an honorable woman willing to sacrifice her name and family reputation to come and share a bed with a man not her husband, even a king? It makes no sense."
David turned and looked out the window towards the city. The high walls surrounding Jerusalem almost blended into the pale sky. It was a strange idea, he admitted to himself. Unheard of, but still, Nathan had been the one to suggest it. And though his words were sometimes difficult to hear, they were never anything but true.
"For all we know, she could be bribed by one of your enemies to murder you in your sleep," Zattu muttered.
David chuckled softly. "That would be entirely a waste of energy. Even with this young woman, there is no guarantee I will live to see the next festival."
Zattu began to respond, but there was a knock at the door. He rose and opened the large door. In came Benaiah, Shimei and Rei, all of them red in the face. They approached David, gave short bows, and then simply stood.
David sat with his hands folded in front of him. He studied their faces, seeing the angry looks they were giving him. Or were they giving them to him, or simply relaying the purpose of their visit?
"Yes? You must have come here for a reason." David tried to put as much volume and strength into his voice as he could in front of these men. He had very little to do with the running of the country anymore. These three made the bulk of the tedious decisions and judgments he once did. However much he trusted them, though, he would not allow himself to lose face even in these last days.
Benaiah finally burst. "Treason! It is treason! The boy is mad, you must stop him!"
David's eyebrows pointed downward. "Who?"
"Adonijah!" Rei exclaimed. "He has gotten a gang of men together and they are parading around the city declaring him the future king, the 'soon to be' future king!"
David's straightened his neck and looked at Zattu. Zattu looked stunned. Apparently, he had heard nothing about this. Benaiah went on to describe scenes of drunkenness and destruction.
"You must do something," Shimei insisted. "You must stop him!"
David paused, then turned to Zattu. "Find Solomon and bring him to me."
As Zattu obeyed, David looked back at the three men in front of him. "He has always had more influence with Adonijah than I have."
Shortly, Solomon came into the room, preceded by Zattu. He walked over to his father and knelt, taking his hand.
"What did you want, Father?"
"Solomon, these men have brought some disturbing reports about Adonijah to me."
Benaiah interrupted him. "Disturbing, to say the least. He is speaking treason!" Benaiah retold everything to Solomon.
"Oh, Father, he is just a young man," Solomon said. "He has high spirits. I'm not saying this should be overlooked," he added quickly, for the benefit of Benaiah and the others. "But I hardly believe he intends to speak treason against the king. Call him here yourself. We will ask him together."
Benaiah's lips tightened, but he gave a short jerk of his head agreeing to Solomon's suggestion. Solomon looked at Zattu, and Zattu left.
"As to the other matter," Rei said. "We have appointed Michaiah ben-Abner to assemble a team to search for this woman Nathan spoke of."
David nodded. "Michaiah ben-Abner...he used to be a commander in our army, am I right?"
"Then it is a good choice. I remember him. Driven. Trustworthy."
"Yes, sir. He will accomplish the task quickly, we hope. He wants to look in his home region of Shunem for your...helper." Rei's voice trailed off at this last word. Indeed, what were they to call her?
The five men continued talking for a few minutes until Zattu returned with Adonijah.
Adonijah was tall, as tall as Solomon, and just has handsome. He was covered in perspiration, as though just finishing the parading Benaiah had described. His shoulder-length hair was matted and curled from the sweat, but his face shone from the effort.
"Yes...Father..." he said between puffs.
Solomon approached Adonijah.
"Adonijah, there have been reports of you and your friends causing some commotion in the city. Chariots being driven through the street vendors' stands, property destroyed."
Adonijah's breathing slowed, the broad smile faded from his face. He looked at Solomon, to David, then back at Solomon, his engaging grin back in place.
"Oh, you know how guys can get when they have had a bit too much to drink. No one was hurt."
"So then you weren't proclaiming yourself as king?" Benaiah exclaimed.
Adonijah looked shocked. "King? When my king sits before me?"
"So then, you deny it?"
Adonijah's face went hard.
"How dare you suggest such a thing. You know how much I love my father and my brother, Solomon." He turned to face Solomon again.
"One day, Solomon will be king. And on that day I will be glad to bow my knee to him in loyalty."
Solomon's eyes shined with pride. "There, you see?" He said to Benaiah and the others. "How can you accuse him of treason, my own brother?"
Solomon clapped Adojinah's shoulder. "There now, that is settled. Come, let us forget about this."
Adojinah slid out from Solomon's grasp. "I must leave, Solomon. I have agreed to meet some friends soon, and obviously, I need to wash up."
Solomon nodded to him in acknowledgement. Adojinah looked to David and gave a deep bow. David simply looked back, his eyes glazed over. Adojinah took a step back, turned and left the room.
As he walked down the hallway to his room, his boyish grin and pleasant attitude dissipated. He stalked into his room and kicked over a chair facing a window.
"Those....those men..." he growled. "I cannot let them interfere now, not when I am so close."
"But someone else has already interfered. He thought to himself. Nathan, Eliphaz, they have come up with a way to drag the old
man's life out even longer."
"Let them. They cannot fight old age. Even with this tramp they will find, he cannot last much longer. They are just prolonging the inevitable."
"Yes, but the longer he lasts, the more may come to Solomon's side."
"So? Many have already pledged their loyalty to me. They do not like the priests and their laws any more than I do. They won't side with Solomon, pious, hypocritical Solomon."
Adonijah stood at the window and gazed out towards the West Wall of the city. Yes, he was meeting friends later.
"Those idiots. They need to be more discreet, to stop proclaiming their future plans after a few cups of wine. Word is spreading, as far as the king's ears himself."
He remembered the way Solomon looked at him a few minutes ago. Trusting, believing, na•ve, gullible. Adonijah shook his head.
"I have been his pet all his life, and I am sick of it. With David now near the end of his life..."
Yes, Adonijah remembered the way David had looked at him, too. Vacant, unaware.
But was he really? Or was he attempting to hide what he was really thinking? Is he suspicious? Does he even know what happened from one moment to the next anymore?
He saw so little of his father that he did not even know his true condition. But then, had he cared, he would have made the effort to find out.
The sun was high in the afternoon sky, shining down on the clay and stone buildings inside the city walls. The heat rising from the rooftops gave a fluid, mystical look to this proud, powerful fortress known as Jerusalem. Adonijah leaned on the balcony rail in front of him.