By Sarah Levesque (Rated PG for violence)
“Holofernes is coming! Nebuchadnezzar’s general is invading! He’s got a huge army of Assyrians with him!”
A man ran past the house, calling his terrifying news out into the early morning air. He startled me so much, I dropped my mistress’ meal and it went all over the floor. Of course it had to land where the chamber pot had been spilled earlier – now it was inedible! I cursed under my breath in Egyptian – my native language. Deborah, the housemaid, would have my head for this! Hurriedly I scooped up the bread and meat, throwing a towel over the spilled honey so no one would step in it. Tossing the plate of ruined food onto the table, I hastily grabbed another plate and filled it. I took the stairs carefully – only last week I had broken three dishes and a tray by tripping on the staircase. I gained the roof without incident and, waiting outside the tent that took up most of the space on the flat roof, spoke to alert my mistress of my presence.
“Come in.” Her voice was low and musical, as beautiful as she.
I entered the tent. Though it was harvest time, the tent was dark, hot, and stuffy. Don’t ask me why, but Lady Judith had lived here year-round ever since her husband, Manasseh, died at the barley harvest three years before. She only used the house on feast days and only ate on the Sabbath and the day before. She amazed me by this – how could one who ate so little stay so beautiful? But today was the Sabbath, which was why I was bringing her food. I set it down on the small table before her and waited, hands clasped, eyes down, as befitted a slave, waiting to tell my news.
“Well?” Lady Judith said.
I took this as permission to speak. “Holofernes is coming! Here! To Bethulia! Now! Ma’am,” I added quickly.
“And who is Holofernes?” she asked.
I gaped. How could anyone not know who Holofernes was? Then I remembered – she stayed in this tent nearly all week, just praying, and she heard none of the news or the rumors.
“He’s Nebuchadnezzar’s general! You know, Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria? Holofernes has already marched against Damascus and razed it to the ground, and now he’s here!” I said, all in a rush.
“Hmm,” was my mistress’ only answer. She was eating the food I had brought for her, but this was not the answer I was looking for.
“They say he’s gonna raze Jerusalem, too!” I added.
“He has to get there first,” Lady Judith said calmly. “And who is ‘they’?”
“Everyone!” I said, exasperated at her lack of emotion. “It’s all over how an Ammonite leader named Achior told Holofernes that your God will defend you Jews, and how Holofernes had him bound and brought him to your wall – the guards went and rescued him, and he’s dining with Lord Uzziah tonight!”
“Perhaps this man will give us some advice on how to defeat Holofernes,” Lady Judith said practically.
“Why? Won’t your God protect you?” I asked sarcastically.
“Even David had to fight Goliath with his sling – the Lord needs your cooperation.”
“Wait – your omnipotent God needs my cooperation?” I was treading a thin line and I knew it – I had been sold many times for my sassiness. But my mistress did not react to my tone.
“Nothing good will come to you if you don’t cooperate with Him,” she returned.
“I suppose that’s why I’m a slave,” I grumbled under my breath.
I helped Judith dress, then brought her empty plate and tray back to the kitchen. The towel on the floor reminded me of my earlier disaster, and I cursed under my breath again – honey makes everything so sticky! And that plate of ruined food – what would I do with it to keep Deborah from finding out? Looking around, I realized the plate was nowhere in sight.
Just then Deborah came into the kitchen. “You!” Her mean eyes glinted at me craftily. “So the high and mighty Mara thought she could keep a plate of the mistress’ food for herself, did she? A slave girl like you doesn’t need such food!”
My mind was racing – what would my punishment be?
“What did you do with the food?” I asked the question aloud before I could stop myself – another trait that had gotten me into trouble many times.
“What do you think I did with it? I ate it!” the housemaid said, ready to relish my despair at losing a plate of fine food.
Noticing this, I acted as downcast as I could, but I was seething with inner laughter. Not getting the reaction she looked for, Deborah stalked out of the room. I burst out laughing, covering my mouth the best I could so she wouldn’t hear. Naomi, the kitchen girl and my only friend in this house, had been watching, and she came over to see what had sent me into such spasms of mirth.
Gasping for air, I told her, “I spilled food on the floor where I dropped the chamber pot earlier, and Deborah ate it!”
Naomi nearly fell over with laughter. As soon as we got control of ourselves, she helped me to clean up the spilled honey, and she kept telling me how lucky I was that Deborah hadn’t known what really happened. Little did I know that in only a few weeks anyone would have been glad to eat that spoiled food, for the siege started that day. No one was allowed in or out of the city – Holofernes’ huge army of Assyrians killed everyone who tried.
Five weeks dragged by. The food ran out and the cisterns went dry. There was a large spring outside the city, but Holofernes’ men were camped around it. The lack of food didn’t harm Lady Judith – she barely ate anything to begin with. But I could see that the thought of the starving children of the city was bothering her. So I went straight to her when I heard the news about Lord Uzziah, the town leader.
“Lady Judith! Lord Uzziah had promised the people that he will surrender in five days!”
Lady Judith looked up from her prayers – the woman was always praying!
“Lord Uzziah’s gonna surrender in five days!” I repeated. “What’s gonna happen then? Will they raze the city?” My real question was “what will they do to me?” but I didn’t ask it. How would they know that I’m just a slave girl who had no part in it?
I snapped back to Lady Judith, realizing it was the second time she had called my name.
“Yes ma’am?” I answered meekly.
“Go to Lord Uzziah’s house and ask him to dinner. Then go to the houses of the elders Chabris and Charmis and ask them to dinner, too. Tell all three that I would like to see them about Holofernes. Then come back and help me to dress.”
“You want Lord Uzziah, Chabris and Charmis here?” I asked, astounded. “You’re gonna have them to dinner? But you never give dinners!”
“That’s true,” my mistress admitted. “But my husband was good friends with all three. Besides, the Lord told me to ask them, and I believe they will come.”
“Your God told you to invite the town leaders to dinner?” I was openly skeptical – how could a god talk to anyone, and why a woman?
“Yes, He did,” Lady Judith said simply. “Run along, now.”
So I did. First I went to Lord Uzziah’s large house, to the servant’s door. It was opened by an old woman.
“My mistress, Lady Judith, wife of Manasseh, has bidden me to tell Lord Uzziah that her God wishes him to join her for dinner,” I told the old woman.
“Humph,” she answered.
“I’m to wait for a response,” I added – I was sure Lady Judith would want one, though she didn’t ask for one.
The old woman grumbled, muttering under her breath, “Oh you are, are you?”
She turned around and ordered a maid to pass on the message and get an answer. I waited, and after about fifteen minutes the maid came back and spoke to the old woman. She harrumphed again.
“Well?” I asked. The old woman’s sluggishness was annoying me, and she reminded me of Deborah – neither seemed to do anything.
“Lord Uzziah will dine with Lady Judith tonight, as it is the Lord’s request,” she answered grumpily.
I quickly spoke my thanks and a goodbye and left. Next I went to Chabris’ house, then to Charmis’, and both said that they would come. As I walked home, I saw gaunt children sitting like old men, too weak to play, and I realized why Uzziah had promised to surrender. But how many will die before the five days are up? I wondered grimly. And how many will the Assyrians kill when we surrender?
I reached the house and went to tell Naomi that she’d have three extra people to cook for.
“Where am I going to get the food?” she wondered aloud.
I left her trying to scrounge something to serve while I went to the roof and told Lady Judith the news. She seemed like she already knew they would come, which I thought odd. But maybe her god had told her this, too.
I brought her washing water, and helped her into a dark dress for dinner. Why great ladies needed help to get dressed was beyond me, but I did as I was bidden. Once she was dressed, I ran back down stairs – almost falling headlong – to open up the dining room. It was unused but not dirty, since Deborah insisted that it be cleaned once a week, a job that usually fell to me. But it needed a quick dusting before it was ready for company, especially company as important as the leader and the elders of the city.
After the dining room was spotless and the food was ready, Deborah sent me upstairs to change into my clean dress to serve the food. Lady Judith looked beautiful in her dark dress in the candlelight. She was speaking earnestly to the men, but I was too occupied in trying to serve the food without incident to pay much attention. I only heard snatches of the conversation, which was mainly one sided: “Why have you tempted God? … All Judea will lie waste… Go to the gates and I and my maid will go forth…” These phrases scared me, especially the last. Where is she going? I wondered. And why is she bringing Deborah with her? I stood behind the door, trying to hear more, until Deborah caught me and shooed me away. But she took up my position, the hypocrite. Not one of the men ate much, and Lady Judith ate nothing. When they were finished with what they did eat, I cleared the food away, hiding it before Deborah noticed. I took part of it to feed Naomi and myself, and the rest I planned to give to the starving children I’d seen earlier – the food would go bad soon anyway, despite the work Naomi had put into it. Eventually, near midnight, the men left, and Lady Judith called my name.
“Mara, bring all the coals in the fireplace up to my tent.”
This command confused me, but Naomi explained that devout Jews wore sackcloth and threw ashes on their heads when they really wanted something from their god. This made to no sense to me, but I shoveled coal into a bucket and brought it up to the rooftop. Lady Judith had already taken off her dinner dress, leaving only her sackcloth undergarment, proving that she did not need my help to dress. She had let down her beautiful, long, dark hair, and she was lying face down on the floor. I set down the bucket and left the tent quietly. I went to clean up the dining room and close it up again. Then I tiptoed up to the roof – Lady Judith was crying, praying aloud. Feeling bad for eavesdropping on her prayer I crept back to the house, to my bed.
Before sunrise I was up, looking for the children I had seen the previous day. When they came out, I gave them the leftover food from the banquet. They gobbled it up quickly. As soon as it was all gone, I returned home and brought Lady Judith her washing water. She was still lying face down on the floor, softly praying aloud.
Noticing me, she ended her prayer, stood up and said, “I need your help.”
The next few hours were spent in helping my mistress realize all her great potential in beauty. She had a bath, and we washed and brushed her long, dark hair until it nearly glowed. Then I put her hair up in the latest fashion, with a tiara she found among her jewelry.
Deborah had Naomi wash and iron Lady Judith’s best dress from before her husband died – it was a light blue color, made of a lightweight cloth imported from Egypt by the rich Manasseh. The dress still fit her, and she looked beautiful. She put on a tasteful necklace and matching bracelet, rings and earrings. Then she pulled out a basket full of fine makeups I hadn’t seen since I was kidnapped from Egypt. I clapped my hands when I saw them, and I carefully applied them onto Lady Judith’s face – not much, just enough to complement her natural beauty and bring out her dark eyes. We finished when the sun was nearing its peak. I was so hungry that my stomach growled loudly.
Lady Judith turned to me and said, “Perhaps we should eat before setting out.”
I was embarrassed, but my mistress just laughed. I hadn’t heard her laugh before, but it was as beautiful as her voice, and it was infectious. Soon we were both giggling like children, though I couldn’t help but wonder how I was even allowed to laugh aloud, not to mention with my mistress – I’d known girls who were beaten almost to death for laughing quietly in a corner while their mistresses were laughing.
When I got my breath back, I ran down to the kitchen ahead of my mistress. “Naomi! Quickly – Lady Judith is coming downstairs! Into the kitchen!! For food! Hurry – find something for her to eat!”
Lady Judith was not far behind me. She swept into the room and sat at the worn table.
“You needn’t set anything fancy,” she told Naomi. “Just some bread will do. But set out enough for each of you, as well.”
Naomi obeyed, but she looked at me, mystified. I shrugged my shoulders, just as confused. Naomi set out a loaf of bread and a jar of honey. Lady Judith cut the bread into large slices and, spreading a liberal amount of honey on each, handed two slices to me and two to Naomi. She took one for herself and bit into it. Naomi and I stood, holding the bread, wondering at the odd circumstance – not only was Lady Judith breaking her habit of only eating on the Sabbath and the day before, but she was eating at the kitchen table, with slaves!
“Go ahead – eat it!” she said, smiling at us. “And sit down, both of you!”
We obeyed automatically, sitting at the plain wooden table and eating our bread. It was very good, considering it was rather old – flour was nearly nonexistent in the besieged city.
Just then, Deborah passed the door to the kitchen. She backtracked and stood in the doorway in such a way that she could see both Naomi and myself, but not Lady Judith. She was outraged at the sight of us sitting down together and eating.
“What do you think you’re doing,” she asked, “eating perfectly good bread and honey? That is for Lady Judith! Have you even brought her washing water, you lazy girls? What would she say if she saw you making free with her good food?”
“I said that they can have as much as they want, Deborah,” Lady Judith put in.
Deborah’s jaw dropped, and she opened and closed her mouth a few times, like a fish in the Nile does when it’s caught.
“Lady Judith!” she finally managed. “I didn’t see you there! Please excuse my outburst – I thought that they… That…” she trailed off.
I kept my eyes on my bread, knowing if I looked at Naomi I’d burst out laughing.
“I suppose that you don’t think that they should be eating with me, or that I should even be here,” Lady Judith said. “It is unusual, but I see no harm.”
“Of course not, my Lady,” Deborah answered meekly.
“I see no reason why these girls, who do most of the work, shouldn’t get as much good food as you do,” my mistress added bluntly.
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Deborah faintly.
“Oh, and Deborah? I would like you to find Mara’s prettiest dress and iron it. No, wait…” She sized me up with a glance. “Go into my room and find one of my old dresses and iron it – I think she’ll fit into them perfectly. And while you’re there, get two or three for each of us, though you do not have to iron the others.”
I gasped, realizing what this meant. “My Lady… surely you can’t mean… you’re letting me… Are you serious?” I stuttered.
She laughed again. “Yes, I’m serious – I want you to wear one of my old dresses – we both need to make a good impression.”
She made a flicking motion with her fingers at Deborah, who went off in a huff. There would be trouble ahead for me because of this, I figured.
“An impression on whom?” Naomi asked, even more confused than I was.
“On Holofernes and his men,” Lady Judith answered.
“Holofernes? You can’t be serious!” I squeaked, my voice cracking in my amazement and horror. “Why?” I added.
But she was serious, and she wouldn’t say why. I wondered if this had to do with the events of last night. But soon I had forgotten this again, as I looked down at myself in Lady Judith’s gray dress. Naomi had pulled my hair up and put sandals on my feet.
“So this is what being rich feels like,” I said quietly to myself. I returned to the kitchen to find Lady Judith waiting.
“You look lovely!” she said to me.
I was surprised, and went to look at myself in the water bucket. I wasn’t as beautiful as my mistress, but I didn’t look like plain old Mara the slave anymore. I turned back to Lady Judith, and she handed me a large leather bag.
“Here,” she said. “This has our extra dresses and our food – I can’t imagine what unlawful things they eat in that camp.” She shuddered.
I realized she really was bringing me – me, not Deborah! – with her, wherever she was going. I wondered about the enemy soldiers and why we were going to their camp, but Lady Judith said no more, and I was afraid to ask. I shouldered the heavy bag and she led me to the city gate where three men were waiting. I recognized Lord Uzziah, Chabris, and Charmis, and I almost laughed aloud at their surprise – they barely recognized my beautiful mistress, and I knew they didn’t recognize me. I thought they’d fall down and worship Lady Judith, but they managed to compose themselves, though they were still wide-eyed. They had a brief conservation, then they blessed her, the gates were opened, and we walked out of the city.
We traveled without saying anything, and soon we heard the pounding and jingle of an approaching cavalry troop. Lady Judith kept walking until we reached the spring. There the troop of more than one hundred Assyrians overtook us and surrounded us. They were all typical Assyrians – tall, with dark curly hair, much like Lady Judith. I put down the heavy food bag as the leader – a captain – spoke.
“Who are you, and why are you here?”
He, as well as his soldiers, was obviously taken with my mistress’ beauty. I felt their rough gazes pass over me, but I stood as firm as my mistress.
“I am a Hebrew,” Lady Judith told him. “I’m leaving Bethulia because my people have been unfaithful to God by eating unlawful foods. He will punish them by allowing you to demolish them. God has told me to seek refuge with Holofernes so I will not be harmed. I can show you the passages through the mountains, but you have nearly starved the people out, and you will soon be able to take the city without a fight.”
“You will not be harmed – you’re much too beautiful!” the captain exclaimed ardently in rough Hebrew. I wondered if he realized how backwards his statement was as he finished, “We will bring you to Holofernes and you can tell him your story yourself.”
He dismounted from his horse and helped Lady Judith up, himself mounting behind another man. My mistress did not sit astride, but she sat well in the saddle, and I realized she must have ridden before, unlike me. Suddenly I was grabbed under the shoulders. I found myself sitting sideways on a horse in front of a young Assyrian. He smiled cheerily, his brown eyes merry. Unable to regain control of the situation, I turned my head away. He laughed and, taking one of my arms, snaked it around his neck. I automatically grabbed one hand with the other as the horse moved.
“My bag!” I cried, as he seemed to be leaving it behind.
“Someone grabbed it,” the soldier told me. “Hold on tight,” he added, laughing into my ear.
The horse picked up its pace, and I had no choice but to listen to his advice. I closed my eyes tightly and wondered how my mistress was getting on by herself. Had I opened my eyes, I would have seen her galloping the captain’s horse expertly, rejoicing in the exercise.
After a short ride at breakneck speed, we slowed down. I heard a challenge and an answer, and knew we had arrived at the camp. We soon stopped moving entirely, and I opened my eyes. We were in front of an extra-large tent, much larger than the one on Lady Judith’s roof. The captain got off the other man’s horse and helped my mistress to dismount. The man behind me disengaged my arms and slid off the horse, and without his support I almost fell off. But he took me by the waist and swung me down off the horse, steadying me for a moment before letting me go and standing back.
“There you are,” he said simply. His voice was deep, and his Hebrew was better than that of his captain, I noticed.
“Thank you,” I replied in the same tongue. “And my bag?”
Another soldier dropped it at my feet. I went to shoulder it again, but the man I had ridden with took it.
“I’ll give it back after you see Holofernes,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said again, and joined my mistress.
I hoped the soldier wouldn’t go through the bag, but he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would. Not that I was sure of that – I had only known him for a few minutes, and we had spoken all of six sentences.
The captain announced us, and we entered the tent, I two steps behind my mistress, as is fitting. The inside of the tent was dark, lit only by two silver lamps held by slaves. The man before us could have only been Holofernes, but he had obviously just gotten out of his magnificent bed. His blankets, hair, and clothing were mussed, he was blinking rather quickly and he had to stifle a yawn. What kind of man is asleep after noontime? I wondered.
Lady Judith lay face down on the ground in front of Holofernes, and I followed suit. Another slave – one without a lamp – helped her to get up, and I scrambled to my feet to stand behind my mistress. Lady Judith repeated to the general the story she had told his captain.
“You will be safe here,” Holofernes said in an oddly high voice. “I’ve never hurt anyone who served Nebuchadnezzar!”
“God will accomplish something through you,” Lady Judith said. “Achior the Ammonite was right when he told you about my God. But my townsmen have decided to eat what is forbidden, and He is angry at them. He will use you to punish them.” She continued to butter him up until he invited her to dinner.
“My maid and I will eat our own food, but thank you,” she answered sweetly.
“Oh, yes. You can’t have your god mad at you!” said Holofernes.
I thought I detected sarcasm in his voice, but I couldn’t blame him – why would a god care what his people ate? Holofernes gave us a good-sized tent on the edge of the camp, and the captain and my horseman escorted us there, leaving their horses with the other men. When they had gone away, Lady Judith gave thanks to her God that things had gone according to plan. As I fell asleep that night, I wondered what the next part of the plan was.
The next three days went by pretty quickly. Lady Judith would pray all day, leaving me free to go where I pleased. Each night, we would go to the spring. I stood guard while Lady Judith bathed, praying and purifying herself. My mistress offered to stand guard so I could bathe, but I felt too exposed. Then we went back to our tent and slept. I spent those days talking with the women of the camp – the wives, concubines, maids, laundresses, and the others. I noticed that I had an extra shadow most of the time – the soldier who I had ridden with seemed to be making it a point to know my whereabouts. He was pretty stealthy, but once you notice that someone is following you, you keep an eye out. He wasn’t doing anything obvious, just talking with other men, but he was there. On the third day, I decided to figure out what he wanted – after all, I didn’t know how long we were going to be here, though there was only one more day until Lord Uzziah surrendered.
I walked straight up to the soldier and bluntly asked, “Why are you following me?”
He looked at his feet, then looked me straight in the eye and said, “You make me think of my sister, and I wouldn’t want her wandering around a camp full of soldiers alone, no matter whose soldiers they were and what their general had said.”
“Do you think Lady Judith is in danger?” I asked him, worried.
“Holofernes keeps a guard near her tent, though you may not have noticed,” the man answered, smiling again. “My name’s Tigran, but the way.”
I decided I liked his smile, and I smiled back. “Well, Tigran,” I said, walking towards Lady Judith’s tent, “thank you for all your help. My name is Mara.”
“My pleasure,” he answered, walking with me.
“Do you ever stop smiling?” The question was out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Sorry, that was rude,” I apologized, embarrassed.
Tigran just laughed. “I don’t mind,” he said. “But yes, sometimes I do stop smiling – when I’m worried, or going into battle.”
“I hope there won’t be a battle,” I said. “Why can’t your army just leave us in peace?”
“Nebuchadnezzar had a war against King Arphaxad of Media two years ago,” Tigran said. He was no longer smiling. “The people of Judea, Damascus and Syria would not join his war, so now that the war is over he wants to give you a lesson.”
“So, he’s punishing us for not doing what he wants? He’s just a big bully!”
Tigran laughed grimly. “You think Nebuchadnezzar’s a bully, try being around Holofernes! He’s the real bully.”
“Why do you fight for him, then?” I asked, confused.
“For much the same reason as you serve your Lady Judith,” he answered. “Because I must.”
We arrived at Lady Judith’s tent, and I said goodbye. I thought about our conversation until I fell asleep.
The next day I once again spent talking to my new friends – the women of the camp – and to Tigran. We talked about his childhood and mine – how he had grown up on the Tigris River with his sister and his brother, and how I had grown up on the Nile with my older brothers. We tried to forget that he was here to destroy my town – for that was how I had come to think of Bethulia – and that I was here to keep him from it, though he was unaware of this.
I went back to our tent in time to prepare dinner for Lady Judith and myself. Soon after we had finished eating, a voice came from outside the tent.
“Excuse me, Lady Judith?”
I opened the tent door to see a man I recognized as Holofernes’ personal attendant.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“May I speak to Lady Judith?”
“Let me ask her.” I turned and looked at my mistress, who nodded. She went to the door.
“How may I serve Holofernes?” she asked.
“Lovely lady,” the attendant said, as if reciting a prepared speech, “the general invites you to his tent for some drinks. Come and enjoy yourself like the Assyrian women who serve in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. This is a great honor.”
“I shall be glad to accept,” Lady Judith answered. “How could I refuse? I will remember this happy night as long as I live.”
I thought she was laying it on a bit thick, but it made the servant happy. He gave me some lamb skins for Judith to sit on in Holofernes’ tent and left.
“This is good,” Judith said. “Now, I must be dressed as seductively as possible, though dressing immodestly, especially for the likes of this general, is disturbing. Perhaps we can layer it a bit, so I can take off a shawl or something to get his attention.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You shall see.”
Lady Judith would say no more, so I helped her dress in silence. Soon she was again dressed in a ravishing outfit, complete with jewelry and makeup. As she had requested, she had a shawl she could remove to show off her neck and arms. Then, I went to Holofernes’ tent to lay out the lambskins his attendant had given to my mistress, and to prepare my lady’s wine, so she would not have to drink the “unclean” wine of the Assyrians. The tent was well lit with many lamps, and there were already many men there. I looked for Tigris, but he was not among them. It seemed to be the end of a banquet for ranking officers.
Soon, Lady Judith entered the large tent. The talk ceased abruptly, as all the men turned to ogle her. Holofernes rose and went to greet her, but had trouble speaking.
Finally he spoke, slurring slightly, as if he had already had too much wine. “Join us for a drink and enjoy yourself.”
“I’ll be glad to, sir,” my mistress replied. “This is the happiest day of my life.”
She walked towards me and sat down on the lambskins. I served her wine that we had brought from home, and she drank little while appearing to drink much. The men all around drank copious amounts of Holofernes’ wine. I tasted it, and it was strong and bitter. It was not surprising that the men who were not already drunk soon were. Holofernes could not take his eyes off my mistress, and he got so drunk he was practically drooling over her. He kept trying to sweettalk her, which would have been repulsive even if he had been sober. Finally, when it was late, the officers started stumbling off in twos and threes until we were the only ones left. Even the servants had left, which was no loss, as they had been uncouth and rough, making coarse jokes and lewd references. Holofernes stumbled to his bed, tried to invite my mistress to join him, and began snoring.
“Thank the Lord,” Lady Judith sighed. “I thought this banquet would never end. Now, Mara, find the food bag, go outside the tent, and empty it.”
Confused, I obeyed silently. The bag was already nearly empty, and it took two minutes to take out what little remained. Lady Judith soon came out of the tent holding something I couldn’t immediately identify in the dark.
Then I realized it was Holofernes’ head!
She put it into the bag and gave it back to me. I felt sick – severed heads are nasty things. Then we walked back to Bethulia. I wished Tigran would come by with his horse, but we had to walk the whole way. Which was probably a good thing, considering he would have been duty bound to give an alarm.
When we finally reached Bethulia, Lady Judith cried, “Open the gate! Open the gate! Our God is still with us. Today he has once again shown his strength in Israel and used his power against our enemies!”
The gates opened, and we were soon surrounded by the townspeople, who looked gaunt after only being around well-fed soldiers for a few days. Naomi found me, and gave me a huge smile and a great big hug.
She asked me what had happened, but then our mistress shouted, “Praise God! He has used me to destroy our enemies!” She held up the head of Holofernes, and everyone gasped. “Here!” she cried. “This is the head of Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian army, and here is the mosquito net from his bed, where he lay in a drunken stupor. The Lord used a woman to kill him. As the Lord lives, I swear that Holofernes never touched me, although my beauty deceived him and brought him to his ruin. I was not defiled or disgraced; the Lord took care of me through it all.”
I had been tired when the gates had opened, but now my adrenaline was racing and I was as awake as anyone else. They all bowed down and prayed.
Then Lord Uzziah turned to my mistress. He praised her and their god. “May God reward you with blessings, because you remained faithful to him and did not hesitate to risk your own life to relieve the oppression of your people,” he finished.
Then some men brought Achior to Lady Judith to identify the head, and he fainted at the sight of it. When he came to, Achior bowed to my mistress in respect. Then, Lady Judith told the whole story of how she came to be holding Holofernes’ head. I nearly fell asleep against Naomi, as hearing the story was not nearly as interesting as living it. Besides, I had had a very long day. Finally, Lady Judith finished, and Achior professed his belief in the God of Judah as the only god. I still wasn’t sure that he was the only god, but I figured he was the most powerful one.
Then, Lady Judith gave the severed head to Lord Uzziah. “Hang it on the wall, and at sunrise, march out to attack the Assyrian outpost. Without Holofernes, they will be routed.”
At last, we got to go home. And oh! I slept so well that night, safe in my own house, in my own rough bed.
The next day was one of great rejoicing – the Assyrian army had gotten up to find their general headless, and they had all run away from Bethulia’s little army, just as Lady Judith had said. The armies of the surrounding areas fought the Assyrians as they ran, and inflicted heavy losses on them, as we learned when our soldiers came back. I hoped Tigran got away safely.
The whole town went down into the camp to gather all the valuable things the Assyrians had left behind, but we didn’t find everything until more than a month had gone by. Lady Judith received the largest portion of the spoils. She decided to dedicate all of Holofernes’ property to her god. We filled up lots of wagons and went to Jerusalem, along with lots of others from Bethulia. My mistress led the procession, singing and dancing and praising the god of Israel.
Not long after, Lady Judith set me free, but I continued to work for her for a few years, until a certain tall Assyrian with dark, curly hair and brown eyes came back and once more swept me off my feet and sat me in front of him on his horse.
It is unclear if Judith was a real woman or if she is simply a fictional character. The short Book of Judith in the Old Testament is full of names which don’t seem to match up to other historical sources. Because of this, the Book of Judith may be fictional or simply an allegory. I prefer to believe she was a real woman, particularly because I doubt the patriarchal society of the ancient world would have looked kindly on a fictional story about a woman doing what the men wouldn’t/couldn’t.
I did my best to keep my story as close as possible to the Book of Judith, but I did use my creative license to ignore details Mara would not have known and embellish areas that were skimmed over in the original, but would have been more important to a slave girl. I also changed a couple of small details and added a couple of scenes in order to make the story more believable with the characters I added. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. To learn more about Lady Judith, read the Book of Judith in the Old Testament or search “Judith of Bethulia” online.