Chaim cupped his hands closer to the fire. His rough weather-worn hands were sticky with blood. “Rem!”
A bristled man turned to him with a sly grin. “Yeah, Chaim?”
“Throw me that mutton leg.”
Rem tossed a gnarly slab of meat at Chaim. “That’s a lot of hard-earned meat for one man, don’t you think?” A crooked grin smeared across his sweat-drenched face.
Chaim glared at him. “That’s fair since my sweat and blood earned it.”
“Your blood?” Rem cackled. “I believe yours wasn’t the primary blood sacrifice for this meal.” He took a step back as Chaim flinched at him. “Easy, easy, I didn’t mean any harm. Can I help it if my bum leg was acting up?”
Chaim shifted back toward the fire, sinking his teeth into the fatty meat. “If you want to earn your keep, go fetch me that wine skin,” he muttered between bites.
“Why o’ course your mightiness.” Rem stooped into an exaggerated bow.
Chaim rolled his eyes. The cave entrance darkened as a group of men entered with the spoils of another raid. The outskirts of Samaria always brought in profitable hauls.
A voice broke over the rumble of the men. “A whole bag of gold! The old miser wasn’t too happy about giving this up.” Roars of laughter followed.
Another exclaimed. “He’d be happy to know he gave his life for a worthy cause—feeding us fine gentleman.” The ruffians hooted even louder.
Chaim slumped over. Couldn’t they lay off for one evening? He tried to shut out the ruckus. The fire cast dancing shadows on the stone ceiling that lulled his eyelids closed even as he was still eating. This was not at all what he had expected life to be like when he was hired on as a shepherd.
Rem jolted him awake, swinging a wineskin in his face. “Will this do for you, sir?” He said in a sing-song voice.
“Just hand it over,” Chaim said, clenching his jaw.
Rem huffed. “Touchy.”
The rest of the men began to tear into the meat like wild animals.
That’s all this is. Chaim thought, taking a swig of wine. Nothing but a den of blood-thirsty beasts. Chaim thought back to when he first was hired on. Eleven years old. An orphan, no money, no skills. He had no choice but to become a shepherd. His mother would be heartbroken if she knew he had been driven to this. Not good for anything except leading a rich man’s sheep around from town to town—getting most of the money and food from the townspeople and travelers on the road. Chaim’s eyes snapped open. It wasn’t safe to fall asleep just anywhere. He glanced around at the men burrowed in this cave. Young, old. Some were finely dressed, but most wore rags. O’leg was the oldest shepherd Chaim had ever seen—forty-five years old! Most men in this business died young. Some died on raids, others from starvation, and others were hunted down killed by townspeople, or crucified by Romans.
Chaim’s gaze rested on Cecil—the youngest one. He would never admit his age and tried desperately to act as cruel and obscene as the best of them, but Chaim could see the youth in his face and guessed the boy could be no older than twelve or thirteen. Every so often he caught a look of horror on the boy’s face. It reminded him of himself when he had first joined the rowdy band of shepherds.
Chaim furrowed his eyebrows and looked away—forcing thoughts of his family out of his mind. He stood up, swaying, and stumbled to a dark corner, taking the wine with him.
“Where is Chaim?”
Rem looked up from his meat pickings. “Asleep,” he said, jerking a thumb toward the back of the cave.
The crusty ruffian scowled. “Go get him up.”
Rem turned his head to the side, scratching his whiskers. “I think he’s had too much wine.”
“Did I ask for an explanation? Go get him.”
Rem looked at him, and let out a slow breath. “Gershom, Chaim’s been crankier than usual.”
Gershom’s black eyes caught the light of the fire. “How is that different from usual?”
“You’re working him too hard. He’s up all hours of the night, and—”
Gershom grabbed at the rags that hung around Rem’s neck. “Did I ask how Chaim is doing?”
Rem grasped at Gershom’s gruff arms. Gershom threw him to the ground. “You know, Rem, a soft thief is a worthless thief."
Rem clutched at his throat, and coughed, “Not soft, just wondering if it’s wise to treat your most valuable man that way is all.”
Gershom snorted. “Bring Rem to me.” He turned and walked out of the cave in large swinging strides.
Rem spit and pushed himself up. He limped back to where Chaim was sleeping—back to the wall, knife in hand. He kicked him hard in the ribs and jumped back.
Chaim glared up at Rem, too full of wine and lacking in sleep to react with any speed.
“Gershom wants you.” All spark vanished from his voice.
Chaim closed his eyes again. Was it too much to ask to get a night of sleep?
“You better hurry up, sloth, if you want to stay on Gershom’s good side.”
Chaim’s eyes flew open into a glare. No one in the band of thieves could get under his skin like Rem. He was like a horsefly, buzzing and biting at the neck. Chaim resisted the urge to groan as he stretched up and sauntered over to Gershom. “What do you want?”
Gershom was leaning on the wall of the cave opening. “Caravan stopped up the road by the north bend.”
Chaim straightened now fully awake. “How big?”
“Around twenty-five, but I don’t want to do the normal raid routine.”
“No? What then?”
“I sent Cecil out earlier to scout out the guards.”
Gershom looked out into the night. “And there are ten--”
Chaim smirked. “That’s...foolish.”
Gershom continued. “It’s a foreign tradesman. He is loaded with the money from his business dealings.” He turned to face Chaim. “I want you to sneak in, cut the purse from his belt, and sneak out.”
Chaim stared at the pebbles scattered around the cave floor. “What if he, or the guards, wake up?”
Gershom stared at him with a stony eye. “Then you are not the man I took you for and deserved to die.”
Chaim grit his teeth as Gershom turned away with his confident stride. He snuffed and wiped his face on his sleeve, then he stalked into the night.