The Brother's KeeperThe Brother's Keeper
Tracy Groot

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What would it be like to be the brother of an itinerant prophet who preaches passionately, heals the sick, performs miracles, and rises from the dead? In this fictional re-creation of James's life, Groot takes you inside his mind and heart as he struggles to come to terms with who Jesus is. The recent discovery of James's ossuary makes this a timely tale! 320 pages, softcover from Moody.
     

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Prologue

James. Seek James.

The madness was upon him once again. It prodded when his steps lagged; it prickled when he stopped. It drove him as it had the first time, a time when Balthazarís companions knew its pursuit and had none but to heed as well. No glowing orb in the sky accompanied the madness this time. His eyes drifted to the place it had once hung.

Alone now. Driven from all familiar, thrust into mile after mile of barren strangeness. Alone, save the madness.

"I am too old for this," Balthazar muttered to the purpling heavens. He gained the top of the knoll and paused, as much for breath as to survey the patterns of the sky. He rubbed the back of his hand over a crusty mouth.

"I could do with some water, let alone a lamp in the sky."

It was easier then. Follow the star, the madness had told him. Where the simple injunction had lacked ceremony, he himself made up for it: The drivemasters wanted to know where their journey lay, so he threw grass to the wind. He listened to crickets. He turned in a circle three times while chanting some nonsense, then consulted the charts and pointed imperiously: west. Much more credible than pointing to a lamp in the nighttime sky.

Now he had no star. No charts. All of his companions were gone, presumably. Gasparian for certain. Probably Melkor. Alazar had not returned with them from the first journey. And a fourth, Baran had never arrived.

The old man sank to the earth and from his shoulder bag pulled out a waterskin. He loosed the fitting and rubbed a few drops of water over his ridged lips. Very different, this journey. Very different from that of long ago.

* * * * *

They had found Baran a day outside of Susa. He was nearly dead when a scout came back with the news that a traveler lay on the roadside, part of his leg eaten by wolves. Melkor was not for stopping; the poor wretch would be dead within the hour, he said. It was not the first time Melkor had been wrong.

Balthazar had cursed six different gods and their uncles when he saw Baranís wound and realized he had left the medicaments at home. The young man was well into the bone fever, past fetching back, by the time the entourage reached him. The scout had sharp eyes; only a scrap of wool alerted him to the man wedged in the rock and debris. How the poor, miserable creature had come to these straits, they never learned. He spoke few words before he died, and nothing of his circumstances. No explanation save "wolf," no travel gear or possessions save a box wrapped in cloth, protected by his ravaged body.

Extracting the wretch from the rocks was less painful to watch than his pathetic attempts to keep the box at his side.

"Balthazar, have you your herbs?" Gasparian asked in a low tone as Alazar and Melkor tended the man. "Alazar left his, and I would not give a shining beryl for what Melkor has in his bag."

"Nor I," Balthazar agreed, though he had to add, "Mine are home as well."

If Gasparianís raised brows had annoyed him, more so the bag heíd left behind. It was new, recently made for him by his mother, a length of cloth with several little pockets sewn in three rows. Ties were sewn at the ends; he could neatly roll his powders and herbs and secure the bundle with the ties. He had filled it with all he could gather and dry and grind and prepare in the little time he had to do itó and then forgotten it.

Forget a blanket; forget a packet of bread. To forget his medicaments vexed him to the roots of his teeth. Eight weeks out of Zabol, and still it vexed him. But the herbs left his mind as he grew aware of Melkor.

Melkor stood unwrapping the square bundle, taken from the dying man. Balthazar heard the whisper of a groan and watched the young man feebly reach toward his possession.

"What have we here?" Melkor mused as the cloth fell away. Balthazar blinked as the sinking sun caught the box in a silver gleam. Curious, the box, but he did not look long. His eyes went from the wasted form on the ground to Melkor, who did not seem to notice the feeble, reaching arm.

"MelkorÖ

"This looks like lapis lazuli." He brought the box closer to his eyes. "It is lapis. Some of the finest I have seen."

"Melkor, give him back his box," Balthazar said.

Melkor regarded the man at his feet. "Maybe he stole it from somebody."

In two quick strides, Balthazar reached Melkor and snatched the box from his hands. He paused long enough to make sure Melkor saw his glare, then knelt and placed the box on the manís chest. He took the manís arm and circled it about the box, and saw gratefulness deep in the tortured eyes. He smiled back, then looked down to the leg, where Alazar was gingerly pulling away cloth. Alazar hissed softly and sat back on his heels.

It was likely the stench of rotting flesh as much as the sight of the grievous wound that set Alazar back. Balthazar winced at it, then met Alazarís eyes. Alazar sighed grimly and rose to consult with the others.

One of the drivemasters arrived with water and dribbled some into the manís grime-coated mouth. His face was waxen white, like a dirty candle. Balthazar brushed grit from the manís chin, then realized he was trying to speak. He leaned closely.

"Wolf," the man whispered.

Balthazar nodded and patted his shoulder. "Do not speak, my friend. Save it for getting better." This brought a stare from the drivemaster, which he ignored. "Perhaps you are far from home, as am I. A nasty business, traveling on these strange roads."

"Baran," he whispered.

"Your name is Baran?" He touched his fingertips to his forehead. "I am Balthazar, in the company of the strangest lot of miscreants ever assembled under the heavens. I would tell you of our business, but you and I both would not believe me."

"Balthazar," Gasparian called behind him.

He gave Baranís shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I will be back." The drivemaster trickled more water into his mouth.

Alazar, Melkor, Gasparian, and one of the drivers stood apart in consultation. Balthazar knew the outcome from five paces away. By Gasparianís dark look and Alazarís sad one, and by Melkorís folded arms, he knew they meant to leave him.

Balthazar stopped short and lifted his chin. "His name is Baran," he said, feet planted apart.

"An unfortunate wretch," Melkor murmured. His eyes drifted to Baranís wound.

"The wretch has a name," Balthazar said evenly.

"We cannot stop," Melkor replied.

Balthazar could feel his teeth clench. What was it about Melkor that set his molars to grinding? His teeth would be powder at the journeyís end. He looked at the others. Only Gasparian met his eyes.

"I think Melkor is right," Gasparian said, doing little to conceal his reluctance for the decision. "We all feel the urgency to move on. You know of what I speak."

"But the light in the skyó"

"It is more than that," Melkor cut in.

"That is not what I mean!" Balthazar hissed. Yes, the urgencyÖthe unseen prodding to move on... yes, it was there. They all felt it. "What I am saying is, do you suppose the one who put that light in the sky would mean for us to leave this man at the side of the road? He shook his head. "I will not believe that." They all began to talk at once.

"Our commission," Alazar began pleadingly.

"We have a responsibility as emissaries of our people," Gasparian started.

"We cannot fail." Melkor pulled himself up.

Balthazar put himself under Melkorís nose and glared contempt into his cool, dark eyes. "We have failed already if we leave this man to die alone."

Why couldnít the universe have left him to his herbs? He was not made for this, this madness. He turned away from the others, unsure where to go, then simply began to walk and walk fast.

They would send Gasparian, he knew, because Gasparian was the only one he trusted.

And indeed, presently Gasparian puffed alongside him. "How about slowing down for an old man?"

"Not until I do not want to kill Melkor."

"Ah, you will keep this pace until Judea?"

Balthazar couldnít stop the smile. "Perhaps there and back again. All the way back to my village." The thought of his village brought a pang of homesickness, and his steps slowed.

He looked at the hills surrounding them, shaking his head. Every day he saw something new. Every day he hoped Reuel lived long enough to hear of the wonders beyond their village border. The mighty fire altars at Nakshi-Rustem; a giant-sized statue of Cyrus the Great.

"Do you wonder what we are doing out here, Gaspar? In my village, I was an herbalist and a second-rate priest. The gods strike me, I had no desire to guard the holy fire of Ahura Mazdah." He looked sideways at Gasparian. "You did not hear that from me, understand?"

When Gasparian nodded, he continued.

"Our high priest was too old for the journey. It was heartbreaking. I never saw such longing. Reuel had the gift, as no one in our village has ever had before. He spoke often of a coming omen, a great portent from the west. No one really listenedóuntil the star appeared and the council came to our village. Then suddenly, a humble old man no one gave a wormroot for is a hero. He was selected for the journey, but everyone knew he would never make it a week outside the village." Balthazarís steps stopped altogether. "Reuel thought he was doing me a favor."

Gasparian looked over his shoulder, down the road to the waiting entourage. "BalthazarÖ," he began gently.

"I do not know if I believe, Gaspar. Worse, I do not know if I care. What do you think about that?"

"I think we have to be going," the older man said. "Baran will die. Melkor thinks he will not last an hour. We can make him comfortable." Doubtfully, he added, "Melkor has a few powders with him that can ease the poor manís pain."

"I would not give his powders to a murdering zealot. Melkor may be a first-rate priest, but he is no herbalist."

"Come, young friend. You may not believe, but I do.

Balthazar cocked his head. "Enough to leave a man to die alone?"

Gasparianís gaze did not flinch. "Yes."

Balthazar looked away and said, "Now, that is passion. Reuel would be proud."

"Balthazar."

But he was not listening anymore. He looked down the road at the stopped entourage. The drive-masters were checking supplies, adjusting cinches, and inspecting ropes and stays. Alazar was kneeling next to Baran. Melkor was rummaging in one of his packs. Shortly they would be on the move again. Two months of this, from sunup to well into the night, with nothing but the star and the madness. Two months and many more ahead.

Ahriman take him; he was done with it.

He started for them, aware of his grinding molars, aware of the long journey back home. A solitary journey and unsafeóhe might end up like Baranó but he would be free. Back to his herbs, back to everything normal, back to where things made sense. To a place where a man with a name would not die alone.

"I know that look," Gasparian said, hurrying to his side.

"You have never seen this look."

"I know it well. Do not make a hasty decision, my friend."

He stopped short to scowl in Gasparianís face. "You do not seem to realize there has been a mistake. This was Reuelís mission, not my own."

Gasparian returned the look thoughtfully, shaking his head. "There has been no mistake. You have been chosen for this. As was I. As was Alazar. And Melkor. We must press on."

Balthazar felt the anger recede, replaced by something worse. He had thought Gasparian was different from the rest. Ahriman take him, he thought.

"I want no more of this," Balthazar said hoarsely and turned away.

Melkor was tapping a fine, sage-colored powder into a cup. He swirled the cup and watched the powder dissipate. He looked about for a twig and stirred the mixture thoroughly. Balthazar watched, keeping his disdain hidden.

"Coralwort?" he asked, almost pleasantly.

"Mancow," Melkor replied, in a tone that said it shouldnít be anything but. "Mancow, with bitters. A pinch of fiddleleaf."

Balthazar nodded. Fiddleleaf. The idiot.

Melkor rose, but Balthazar placed a hand on his shoulder. "Do not trouble yourself further. I will give it to him." He held out his hand.

Melkor looked at the hand, a trace of suspicion crossing his face, but he gave him the cup. He shook his cloak free of dust and said, "We ride shortly. Make haste."

Balthazar gave a tight smile, which vanished when Melkor turned away.

Alazar was wiping Baranís face with a damp cloth when Balthazar knelt beside him. He glanced at the cup in Balthazarís hand.

"I will tend him now. Melkor says we ride. Perhaps you should make ready."

Alazar nodded. He clapped his hand on Balthazarís shoulder, then used it as leverage to rise. Balthazar watched him head for his mount. He glanced quickly at every member of the party, making sure each was occupied, then dumped the contents of the cup behind a rock.

"Mancow, with bitters," he mocked under his breath. "A pinch of fiddleleaf." Well and goodóif one wanted to hasten the delivery of a womanís first child. Not many days ago Melkor had given a paste of crushed limestone and olive oil to one of the drivers for a rash on his shins. Better to mix it with the flour for bread. The man claimed it worked, but he feared Melkor. Probably feared he would get a nasty tonic if it did not work.

Balthazar settled himself on the ground next to Baran. The young man was muttering, weakly moving his head back and forth. Balthazar placed his hand on Baranís shoulder to let the man know he was not alone. From habit he began the death prayer, consecrating Baranís soul to the next life. From habit only. His belief in Ahura Mazdah had dwindled long before this journey. He decided to direct the death prayer to the one who fired the star in the sky. Reuel believed in this god. Balthazar believed in Reuel.

A shadow fell across Baran. Melkor stood beside him and, after listening to Balthazarís soft murmur, took up the chant with him. It contented Balthazar deeply to know their prayers ascended to different gods. They intoned through the first set, the second, and the fourth, seamlessly omitting the third. The third set in the dirge was for kinsmen only. Baran would offer the third later, when the entourage had left, in the stead of the relatives this man would never see again.

The fourth set ended, and Melkor reached for the box on Baranís chest.

"Leave it," Balthazar growled between clenched and aching teeth.

"We may encounter someone who knows of him," Melkor protested, though he drew his hands back. "We cannot leave this to thieves."

"He is not dead yet. It is sacred to him."

"Not deó? How much of the cup did he drink?"

Slowly, Balthazar rose. He deliberately took two fistfuls of Melkorís tunic and yanked him down, eye level to himself. "What else did you put in that cup?"

"Bristlebane."

Balthazar released him with a shove. Melkor staggered back, gained his balance, and smoothed his garments indignantly. Gasparian came to stand warily apart from them, looking from one to the other. Alazar appeared at his side.

"BrothersÖ" Alazar began uncertainly.

"Bristlebane," Balthazar mused, nodding. It would have killed Baran in moments. Then Melkor would have taken the box from a dead man, not a dying one.

He nodded again and shifted his jaw, then looked away to the sky. He stared at it a moment before he realized his eyes sought the place where he had last seen the star. It was habit, for all of them. When stopping for meals in the broad of day, when gazing at strange rock formations and new landscapes, it was not long before a look flickered to the sky, to the place of the star.

One evening he had lost himself in the daze of the glittering nighttime sky, muttering an absent prayer of thanks to Tishtrya for the glory of the night; then he looked for the star and did not immediately see it. Disoriented, alarmed, then panicked, he leapt up and whirled about, searching, frantic, until he saw it again and allowed its soft glow to soothe him.

It was the first star to illumine the seeping twilight, the last to fade at dawn. He would try to guess where it would appear and learned the guess grew more accurate if he tried to sense the location first. Once on a visit to the brush, he made sure no one was looking, then closed his eyes and turned in a circle until insensible of direction. Eyes tightly shut, he drew a slow breath, held it, quieted his heart, smoothed his mind, and spread his arms wide... then slowly raised an arm and pointed. He opened his eyes, gazed straight down the length of his arm and pointing finger, and there, balanced on his fingernail, was the cool white glow of Reuelís star of portent.

Follow the star. The injunction had become a part of him. It pulsed along with the beat of his heart, as if he had been born with its mystic force. He sought the star for solace, as his tiny nephew sought his thumb. He sought the star for reason, for times like this when the only thing on earth that made sense was not on earth at all.

He found the place where it would soon appear and knew he gazed at it dead-on.

"Brothers?" Alazar said again.

"I am staying with Baran," Balthazar said softly. "And then I am going home." He and the unseen star regarded each other while the others regarded themselves.

Melkor stalked past him without a word. Gasparian looked as if he would speak but held his counsel and turned away. Only Alazar tried to dissuade him, and that not for long. Balthazar shut out his words, and Alazar finally gave up.

He settled down next to Baran and watched the party prepare for departure. Though his eyes were mostly shut, Baran seemed to watch too. The drive-masters did not appear to notice the tension in the camp as they readied themselves to depart, though one of them looped an extra waterskin to the cantle of his mount. Melkor threw Balthazar an occasional disgusted look, probably for the loss of the silver box. Alazar was clearly distressed, and Gasparian he could not figure out.

Balthazar slowly reclined against a rock, hands clasped behind his head. "The sad fellow there, that is Alazar," he told Baran cheerfully. "He is decent enough; I think you would like him. I will miss beating him at knucklebones. I will not miss his snoring. The one over there in the orange-and-purple-striped robe, the one who fancies your box, that would be Melkor. First-rate priest, Melkor is, straight as an arrow. Strange, thoughóI do not think Reuel would like him." When he came to Gasparian, his cheerful tone softened. "The one slipping the extra loaves of bread into my day pack would be Gaspar."

The silent party mounted and left, with only Gasparian looking long over his shoulder in goodbye. Balthazar watched them until they disappeared, swallowed up by the road that reached for Judea.

By habit he looked for the place of the star. Soon it would appear. It would be his only comfort in the lonely, anxious journey back to his village. Oddly, though his direction would be opposite, he knew Reuelís star would shepherd him home.

"I enjoy a good riddle, Baran. Gaspar and I have discussed long into the night one peculiar and engaging puzzle: How is it, during the times of cruel doubt in the madness of this venture, we seek the star for solace, when the star is the very reason for the journey?" Balthazar chuckled softly; then his smile slipped away as he gazed down the empty road. I will miss you, Gaspar.

Baran moaned, and Balthazar moved to tend him. Alazar had draped a length of cloth over the wound, as much to hide its distressing visage as to reduce the repulsive smell. Balthazar peeked under the cloth and tried to think of a few more gods to curse. If they had found Baran a few days earlier, if Balthazar had his medicaments...

Baran was trying to speak. Balthazar leaned close, patting his shoulder. "I am here, my friend. Baran. I am here."

"Gift. . ." The word came in a long whisper from the dried-up mouth.

"Gift?" Balthazar asked.

"Gift."

A motion caught Balthazarís eye, and he looked down to see Baran erratically patting the box on his chest.

Balthazar sighed. "I think Melkor would have liked your gift, Baran. Me, I am not worthy to accept the gift of aó" He caught himself in time. He had nearly said dying. He swallowed and tried again. "óof a, a man of such obvious, ah, dignity as yourself."

But Baran was shaking his head no.

Balthazar said gently, "Then I am afraid I do not understand. The box is not a gift for me, but it is a gift?"

Baran moved his head fractionally in a yes.

"It is a gift for someone special?"

Fractionally, yes.

"For your wife, perhaps? For your betrothed?"

Fractionally, no. The dying man moaned again, distress now visible in his pallor.

Balthazar wet his lips. Baran would soon sleep with his fathers. He leaned closer and tried again. "Baran, do you wish for me to deliver the box to someone in your stead?"

Tears began to seep from the nearly closed eyes.

"Ah. We understand one another. Consider me hired, and you are in luck, my friendómy services are free to all who wear indigo. Itís my favorite color." He patted Baranís arm and added gently, "Rest a minute, Baran; then you can tell me who it is for." He sat back from him, momentarily relieved.

But Baran was not for resting. His hands twitched restlessly. His breath came harder. It seemed as though he were summoning strength. He raised a thin, shaking arm and pointed.

Immediately Balthazar was at his side, looking with him down the length of his arm. "That hillside over there? A village is beyond it?"

Baran weakly shook his head. The arm trembled and stayed where it was.

Balthazar swallowed. Ahriman take him, he did not understand. "Uh, the hillsideÖ the box goes to someone past the hill. A name, Baran. I need a name."

But Baranís arm still pointed, trembling harder.

"Save your strength," Balthazar pleaded. "I need a name.

Still Baran pointed. Balthazar felt the bloom of despair at the root of his stomach.

"Please, Baran, please save your strength! You need it to tell me the name."

Waxen pallor gave way to scarlet in Baranís strained face. His eyes were tightly closed, teeth bared in furious effort. A low growl began in his throat. His arm shook violently, and Balthazarís despair agitated to a groan.

"I do not understand! Ahriman take me, I do notó"

From habit, for comfort, he sought the place of the star... and saw... Baranís outstretched arm.

He dropped cheek to cheek with Baran and stretched forth his own arm. He squeezed his eyes shut, held his breath, quieted his heart, and opened his eyes.

In the newly twilight horizon, balanced on the tip of his fingernail and Baranís, was the soft cool glow of...

"The star," Balthazar breathed.

Baranís face cleared. His arm dropped.

And now Balthazar began to tremble.

* * * * *

The old man replaced the fitting in the waterskin and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He studied the sky and chose a star low on the horizon to be his old companion Gasparian.

"You were not surprised to see me, old friend, when I caught up with you the next day."

Reuelís star was now gone, but the comforting madness that had accompanied the star had never left him. That same comforting madness had him here again to trek the journey of old. There was no star to follow this timeóonly the memory of a silver box inlaid with lapis lazuliÖ and a name.

"The name guides me as the star did, Gaspar."

He pointed west to show Gasparian. It was as if the name hung in the sky, above the place of his destination.

"I am not sure what I am to do with the box once I find it again," he admitted to Gasparianís star. "Surely the frankincense is gone by now."

He rummaged in his pack for bread, tore off a piece, and began to eat.

"You know," he said with his mouth full, eyebrows quirked, "it was a fine-quality frankincense.

Melkor would not have known that. But I knew. You see, Gaspar, old friend, in my village some came to offer frankincense to Ahura Mazdahís flame. The greater the adoration"óhe shruggedó"or the richer the adorer, the greater quality the frankincense. Baranís frankincense was fine indeed, first harvest. He paid a small fortune to fill that box." He smiled, pausing mid-chew. "Maybe it took a first-rate herbalist and a second-rate priest to know." He glanced about the sky and chose another star to be Baran.

"I wish I knew if you had made the box yourself. Such exquisite beauty. Such workmanship. The young woman, she was amazed. A gracious thing she was; you would have liked her, Baran. And the childÖI think he liked your gift too."

He finished his meal and brushed away the crumbs, then stood and shrugged on his shoulder bag and took up the waterskin. He bent to pick up his walking stick and leaned upon it to gaze at Gasparianís star.

"The other riddle we puzzled over as well, did we not, Gaspar: how the star for which men left another to dieÖis the star the same man died for."

His eyes flickered to Baranís star, and slowly Balthazar smiled.

"A great company I am in on this grand and splendid evening," he declared as he started down the knoll. "A great company indeed."

His journey lay west and north, to Galilee this time, to find the silver box inlaid with lapis lazuli and the one the comforting madness calledÖJames.


Excerpted from:
The Brother's Keeper by Tracy Groot
Copyright 2003. Published by Moody Publishers
Used by permission. All rights reserved.