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Background

Erik has been taking time away from his work on the palace to give Vashti piano lessons. On one such occasion, something happens that puts him in a position to do something that he swore he would never do and something that puts him across a campfire from Oded on a regular basis.
 
The Thing I Swore I’d Never Do
 
During those last months of working on the palace, my orderly routine took a turn, and I’m not certain if I would label it as a good or bad one. It started one day while I was in Oded’s parlor with his daughter, Vashti, giving her piano lessons. Oded came in as she was practicing and told me he would be gone for a few days on official business. We said a friendly goodbye and then he left. A few minutes later Vashti needed a break, so we headed for the kitchen. As we entered, I saw Sari at the kitchen window, sniffling.
   “Sari,” I innocently questioned, “is something wrong?”
   She looked quickly at me and then just as quickly back at the window. I moved to see what she was looking at, and, as I did, I saw Oded, Darius, and the two officers who were the closest to him, Bigtha and Nasha, disappear over the crest.
  “He said he’d return in a few days, Sari. That’s not too long,” I said, trying to be encouraging.
   She shook her head. “It’s not the length of time he’ll be gone, I’m used to that. It’s the man he’s seeking. It’s not like when he was gone looking for you. He was gone a long time then, but the length of time didn’t bother me. After all, he was only going after a musician, so how dangerous could that be?”
   I swallowed and looked away from her, thinking, if she only knew.
   “I know this is his job,” she went on, “but sometimes it’s worse than others. This time, the man he’s looking for is a well-known murderer and has no respect for life whatsoever. I can’t help but worry about my husband, Erik—I can’t help but worry. I love him so much.”
   I felt horrible. There I was, safe in his home with his wife and children, and he was going to face this person who could harm him or even kill him. I thought of the conversation we’d had that night in my tent when he explained the reason for his job. He wanted to ensure that people would live in safety—especially his family. I knew I had the power to help him, but I simply stood there with his wife, too selfish to enter that forbidden arena.
   I looked back at Sari and tried to reassure her again. “Oded is wise and good at his job. Don’t worry about him. He’ll be fine.”
   She glanced up at me and gave a slight nod and then turned and disappeared down the hall. I stood there, looking at the crest and feeling simply horrible inside. Vashti came up to me and handed me a glass of fresh sweet grapefruit juice and then told me she was ready to continue. I followed her into the parlor and sat in the stuffed chair, listening to her practice. But my mind wasn’t there. It was with Oded.
   I began to question myself—what if something does happen to him? Vashti would be without a father and Sari without her loving husband. I thought about what a terrible person I was at one time and what I could have done to Oded if he came after me. I could have killed him easily. How could I simply sit there and let him confront that killer, especially when I possessed the knowledge and skill to help him? I got up and looked out of the window, fighting the raging battle within me.
   “Erik?” Vashti called. “Erik, was it better that time?”
   I turned toward her.
   “Vashti, I need to help your father. You’ve done enough for today, and you’ve done well.”
   I left her and made my way down the hall toward Sari’s room. Knocking on the door, I waited for her to tell me to enter. When I opened the door, I saw her looking out of the window again.
   “Sari, don’t worry. I’m going to find Oded, and I’ll make certain he returns to you in one piece and unharmed.”
   She stood there still looking out of the window for a moment before she turned and faced me, with eyes filled to the brim with tears, resembling dark pools in the night.
   “Thank you, Erik.  Thank you!” She ran to me and wrapped her arms around my chest. “Thank you.”
   I nodded and backed away from her. “Will you please see that Hegai and my foremen know what I’m doing and that they are to continue as planned? Please tell Hegai that I have Darius to care for my needs or he’ll worry.”
.  Then I left her and headed for the stable. While saddling Dechaine, I asked Shimshai to please take good care of my Molly. I stood at the fence and held her head, not wanting to leave her. We’d rarely been apart for even a day, and it tore at my heart to leave her for what could turn out to be a week. As I stroked her soft nose, my father’s words were loud in my memories about not working an older horse that hard. She was getting older, and I knew taking a different horse on such a ride was best for her.
   It didn’t take a great tracker to follow Oded’s trail, and before too long I was coming up behind him and the other men. They stopped and turned toward me with wide eyes.
   “Erik, what are you doing here? What’s wrong? Did something happen at the house?”
   “Yes, Oded,” I started. “There seems to be a great lady at your home who is concerned for her loving husband’s welfare. I wouldn’t want her to be sad if the love of her life were not to return to her unscathed, so I promised her I would make certain he returned safely.”
   He smiled and moved Mala closer to face me. “But I thought you said to me, on many occasions, that you would never ride beside me?”
  “Well,” I answered sheepishly, while shifting my weight in the saddle, “the feminine gender isn’t the only one that has the right to change their minds.”
   “But, Erik, you made it clear to me never to ask you to use your skills to help me in this way. Are you certain you want to do this?”
   I only nodded without a verbal answer, because I wasn’t sure if I’d made the correct decision.
   He turned Mala around and we started riding together. Then he asked, “Do you mind if I ask what changed your mind?”
   I looked into his green eyes for a moment before I answered, “Your eyes aren’t nearly as convincing as your wife’s.”
   At that precise moment, I realized I couldn’t rid myself of the cold Oded had spoken of—friendship. There was nothing I could do, except to allow our friendship to run its course to the end.  
   We rode on until past sunset, and he told me all he could about the man we were tracking. I also learned something about Bigtha and Nasha, and that knowledge wasn’t anything that made me feel comfortable. As Oded and I talked, I could also hear some of their conversation from behind us about my disputable expertise. At one point, I almost turned and looked at them with a few choice words, but, as I’d already learned, there were times when irrefutable behavior can make a much more powerful and lasting impression than even the most eloquent words. So I let their ignorant speech go uncontested until a later time.
   Once darkness made following a trail difficult, Oded stopped, but I encouraged him to continue in the same direction for a while longer.
   “This is our opportunity to catch up with them. They’ve probably stopped for the night, so if we keep going, we can find them. The darkness will be in our favor if we use it. We can see the light from their campfire and smell its smoke long before they can hear us. Let me lead us there.”
   He was hesitant, considering whom we were tracking, but consented anyway. So, while Darius stayed there with the horses to keep them quiet, I took the lead and moved us through the trees, slowly and cautiously. It was over an hour before we smelled smoke from a campfire, and only a few minutes longer before we could see the faint smoke in the treetops. Knowing then what direction we needed take, I placed my finger against my lips—encouraging silence.
   Silently, I moved only one step at a time, listening carefully between each step. It was less than half an hour later when I could see a faint glow in the distance. Once more, I placed my finger to my lips and pointed in that direction. Everyone nodded, and we stepped ever so softly until we could see the fire and the two men sitting beside it. I looked at Oded, and again, with my finger to my lips, I motioned to the men sitting by the fire and shrugged my shoulders, as if to ask if they were who we were tracking. Oded got my message and nodded. 
   One man was facing us while the other one had his back to us, and they both had rifles by their sides. One more time I placed my finger to my lips and then motioned with my hand for the three of them to kneel down. Oded frowned and shook his head. That stubborn Persian, I thought, as I took three lassos out of my pocket. While holding one in each hand, I placed one between my teeth, just in case I missed a toss.
   I looked at Oded strongly, shook my head, and again motioned for him to kneel. He finally responded, and the three of them moved from view behind the bushes. I slid my cloak off and laid it carefully on the ground. I needed to move closer to the men, and I couldn’t take a chance on my cloak catching on the underbrush and giving me away. Once I was close enough, I stood at the ready, waiting for the two of them to have their bodies and their heads in the perfect position at the same time.
   I only glanced over my shoulder once in the direction of Oded to make certain they were staying put. Then my attention was solely on the two men. I listened to the fire crackle and their soft speech, and then it happened. One of their horses spotted me and nickered softly. Instantly, the men concurrently raised their heads and looked toward their horses. 
   That was all I needed, and I let both of the lassos fly and they both hit their mark. While the men simultaneously jumped to their feet, only one of them went for his rifle. I quickly ducked down behind the bushes and looked behind me briefly to make sure Oded and his two officers were still concealed. Since they were, I gave my full attention to the strangling men.
   The one had both of his hands at his throat and had fallen to the ground on his knees, while the other one had one hand at his throat and the other hand on his rifle. I waited until he realized his weapon couldn’t help him and he dropped it. A few more moments and he fell to his knees. At that time, I ran toward him and kicked his rifle away from him, and then I kicked him in the back to send him to the ground completely.
   The other man was already lying on his back, gagging and grasping at the coil. I looked down at him and he looked up at me with sheer fright in his eyes. I grabbed his rifle from the log and tossed it into the underbrush. Oded and his men were directly behind me when I placed my boot across the back of the neck of the one man I’d kicked.
   “Which one is the one you’re after?” I question Oded quickly. 
   He pointed to the one under my boot, so I asked, “How do you want him, dead or alive?”
   Oded seriously frowned at me. “Alive, Erik!”
   I nodded and removed my boot from his neck while instructing, “Then take the coil from his throat.”
   I knew Oded wanted him alive, so my words about life or death were for his men, not him. Considering the conversation they’d had earlier about my skills, I merely wanted to prove a point to them while I had the chance. The point being, my ability easily permitted me to hold life and death in my hands, and I never wanted them to question anything I did while in such a precarious situation. 
   I turned my attention to the other man and released the lasso from his neck as Nasha started tying his hands behind his back. I looked at Bigtha, who was tying the other man’s hands, and at Oded, who was still struggling to release the lasso. I didn’t wait another second before I moved in and removed the coil from the murderer’s throat. Both the men were unconscious by that time, and I stood over them, watching and waiting for them to regain consciousness. 
   When the quiet moved in on me, I glanced around and saw Oded and his men, watching me closely. I didn’t pay them any attention at that time and looked back at the downed men to be sure they were breathing properly. When I saw that they were, I went to a nearby tree. Leaning against it, I coiled my lassos and slid them into my pockets.
   Once more I heard the quiet, so I looked at Oded and questioned, “What? Will someone please say something?” I motioned to the two unconscious men and went on. “They are both alive, Oded, just as you wanted. Why are you staring at me? Say something!”
   Oded walked over to me, and, while scratching his head, he gave an explanation. “I think Bigtha and Nasha are stunned. Remember, I had the opportunity of experiencing your speed and skill in your tent, as well as on the riverbank in Russia. But they, I think, were unprepared for what they witnessed. Give them some time. They’ll come out of it. As for me, I was thinking of the many lives that could have been saved if you had been by my side all these years—that’s all.”
   The look in his eyes as he said those words and the look in Sari’s eyes when we returned made it impossible to refuse him whenever he asked me again to accompany him on a mission. So, in addition to everything else I wanted to do in those last months, I then had the added responsibility of protecting Oded’s life. 
   After that first trip, at least once—and usually twice—a month, we would be on the road together. While I often grumbled about it to him, I did feel good about accompanying him. For the first time, I was doing something that was completely selfless and for the good of others, not only for me. Although I guess it wasn’t completely selfless, because I welcomed the extra time I spent with Oded, and our bantering conversations around a campfire.
   But no matter how much I grew to enjoy his company, I still had that apprehensive sensation in the pit of my stomach that nagged at me. On every ride, I had a foreboding alarm encircling my senses. It warned me about doing the one thing I swore I’d never do—ride alongside another man.