The sun hung in the sky with not a cloud surrounding. It beamed its rays of heat down to toward the peaceful valley: happy, independent, and proud. On most days, Salome welcomed the sun and it’s life-giving warmth, but today her clothes clung to her back and legs, damp from sweat. Salome longed for a cool breeze to cool her burning skin as she finished her morning chores. When it was hot out, it didn’t matter how lightweight her clothes were, she sweat.

Salome grabbed the rope dangling inside the water well and heaved it up, hand over hand, her muscles aching, until the bucket full of fresh water surfaced. She caught her reflection in the water and shook her head. Though her massive curly brown hair was held back by a red headband, it still kinked and frizzed in every direction. Other strands clung to her red forehead and cheeks.

Hiding under the strands, she gazed at the small marking on her forehead. A tattoo of a six pointed star with the north, south, east and west points elongated into a cross. When the image first supernaturally appeared on Salome’s forehead, she was terrified and annoyed. Where had it come from? Was she marked by a demon? And why the forehead of all places? As she discovered more people who’d received the mark, she realized it was actually a special mark, a seal of protection to all believing Hebrews.

Salome dumped the bucket of water carefully into her own clay jar before lowering it back down again for another round. A cool breeze blew across the lake to the north and provided some brief relief. Salome closed her eyes and breathed deeply. That breeze was a reminder that autumn was approaching. Soon the leaves would give way to vibrant colors and the temperature would drop to something more pleasant.

After pulling up two more buckets of water and pouring them into her own jar, Salome wandered her way through the market place and toward her cabin on the south side of the village. It didn’t take long to get there and drop off the water jug in her one-room wooden cabin. Really, it was more of a barrack, long buildings divided into multiple units. Each unit contained a bed, nightstand, a table, and a small kitchenette complete with shelves, counter space, and a wash basin. It was modest but efficient. And given it’d only been six weeks since the Notzrim arrived in the valley, they worked quickly.

Salome dropped her water jug off, grabbed an apple and then headed back out. Today was her day to teach another basket weaving class. Since the Notzrim arrived and Aryeh – the leader of the Hebrews and Salome’s people – finally allowed them to stay, Salome and her father David spent tireless hours teaching the Notzrim everything they needed to know to survive in the valley. While there were several in the group that knew how to construct homes, dig wells, and sew clothes, there were even more that knew nothing about this life. They were raised with convenience, technology and consumerism. She understand their dilemma. Nine years ago she was in their exact position, only, her people didn’t have anyone already established to teach them. They had to learn everything on their own by trial and error. It was a grueling first year in the valley. They never knew where their next meal would come from or if they’d be warm enough when winter hit. Salome didn’t want the Notzrim to go through what she did, so, she took it on to help teach them. Salome was both exhausted and yet energized by helping them and seeing all their progress. Yet they still had a long way to go.

In the center of town, the Notzrim had set up an outdoor stage with benches for their worship and town hall meetings. On this morning, Salome found a group of children and a few mothers gathered in the amphitheater. At the center of their attention was an older man with long stringy black hair streaked with gray strands. His beard, in contrast was short, but just as streaked. Salome smiled and decided to stop and watch for a while.

Father Stephen, the Notzrim’s holy man was engaged in a story as the group around him listened earnestly. When he spoke, he flailed his long fingered hands about, and incorporated his entire body. It was hard not to be engaged when watching him.

Salome noticed Mo standing along the edge of the group, alone. She approached her new friend, but didn’t say a word. She didn’t want to interrupt. Story time for the children occurred daily in the Notzrim village. It gave the children the entertainment they craved while offering parents the break they needed.

A gentle elbow nudged Salome in the arm.

“Do you see?” Mo asked in a whisper.

“See what?” Salome looked as if expecting to see a deer or a rabbit hiding in the bushes.

“Look closely at who’s in the group.”

The group, made of children between the ages of three and probably ten or so, seemed usual. A few mothers modest dresses sat on the benches with the young ones in their laps. Most of the children sat still, enraptured by the story and Father Stephen’s boisterous personality. A few were fidgety and had to stand up or move. One little boy started petting another little boy’s arm and then put his head on the other boy’s shoulder. The second little boy shrugged him off. There was an exchange of words between the boys that Salome couldn’t hear, but the scowl on the one boy’s face let her know they were arguing. Eventually the first little boy started to cry. A mother with short brown hair quickly waved the crying boy over so she could comfort him. When he stood, Salome caught a glimpse of his forehead. Her mouth dropped. The little boy clearly had the marking of the Hebrews.

“There are Hebrews in the group?” Salome said more as a question than a statement. She was trying to wrap her head around what she was seeing. “How long has this been going on?”

Mo shrugged. “One day when I came to find Emily she introduced me to her new Hebrew friend Miriam. That was just yesterday, but I imagine they’ve been coming for a while. It got me thinking.”

Salome looked at Mo, eyebrows raised. She didn’t like the tone in Mo’s voice. While it was true Aryeh, the leader of the Hebrews, allowed the Notzrim to settle in the valley and the Hebrews provided some supplies to help the Notzrim get started, he warned the Notzrim to stay away. He had no interest in the two groups ever coming together as one.

“We shouldn’t have to live separate.” Mo spoke, her enthusiasm rising. “If we were to come together as one unified family, we could really help each other.”

Salome’s stomach dropped. While delighted in seeing the Hebrews there, she couldn’t help but wonder what other Hebrews would think. They were wary of outsiders and rightly so. Ever since the Great Desolation, persecution and prejudices were more volatile. No longer could someone choose to live outside the popular beliefs without being treated harshly. That’s one reason the Hebrews fled to the mountains. Staying hidden away from judgmental eyes was safer. Not only that but Aryeh was unpredictable. If he found out what was happening, who knew what he’d do.

“I don’t know Mo,” Salome breathed. “I do love the idea, but Aryeh is allowing the Notzrim to stay under the agreement that we stay separate.”

“Yes, but what good does that do any of us? The Notzrim need the extra help, and I’m sure we have much to offer them as well.”

She was referring to their religion, Salome knew that because Mo had made it abundantly clear to her before. And while Salome was contemplating its teachings – that Meshiakh was the true messiah – she wasn’t completely convinced.

“Mo, Aryeh is a finicky man. If he knew we were trying to go against his wishes, I don’t know what he’d do, but it wouldn’t be good. I think it’s better if we stay separated.” An image from her recurring nightmare brushed across her mind’s eye. A blazing fire with no way out and the gloating face of Aryeh standing on the other side.

“I disagree. Unity is always the better option. Accepting and loving one another for our differences and working together to build on one another’s strengths. That’s how Sabaoth intends for us to live.”

“Amen!” The group shouted triumphantly.

Salome’s head snapped toward the group as her stomach fluttered. It took a moment for her to realize the amen was in regard to Father Stephen’s prayer, not her and Mo’s conversation.

The children quickly dispersed, running off together in groups laughing and playing tag. One little girl tossed a ball to the ground and started kicking it around with a few of her friends. Many of the mother’s stayed to chat while their children played. Salome had to admit, it was nice to see them getting along so well.

Off in the distance a little girl with long sandy blond hair waved at Salome and Mo. She had a big grin on her face. Mo and Salome waved back at Mo’s daughter, Emily.

“I really think this is the right thing to do, but I can’t make it happen without your help. Isn’t this what you want, too?”

“Of course it is, Mo, but-” Salome stopped. Why was she so against it? It was the right thing to do. Bringing the two groups together would only make them stronger and more protected. So why was she so hesitant?

Mo lowered her chin a bit and gave Salome a concerned look. “Are you still worried about your dream?”

The nightmare flashed again in her mind. Just thinking about it made her shiver. Salome took a deep breath. “What if it’s more than just a nightmare? What if it’s a prophecy or a warning?”

“I think it’s just worry. Trust Sabaoth. I believe he wants unity to happen. And if so, he’ll bless it.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Salome crossed her arms, still watching the children play.

“Just think about it, please.”

Salome didn’t want to turn her friend down. Mo cared a lot for her people and for the Hebrews. Salome trusted she wouldn’t request anything she herself hadn’t thought long and hard about first. Salome gave in. “No, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Aryeh’s request is unreasonable. We are better together. It’ll make us stronger and likely more protected. There’s strength in numbers, right?”

Mo smiled. “So you’re in?”

“I’m in. Let’s plan something.”

“Oh that’s so good to hear. This is going to be really great, I promise.”

At that moment Emily shouted from across the way. “Mama, come see what we’ve done!” She waved Mo over to her group of friends huddling around a pile of rocks.”

Mo looked to Salome and spoke again before heading over to Emily and her friends. “I’ll see you tonight for dinner.”

Salome waved goodbye and then looked at the sky. She needed to get to her class, the women would be waiting on her. As she turned to leave, something in the bushes caught her eye. A figure hunched low, staring at her. Salome’s heart leaped as she drew in a sharp breath. What in the world? Salome stared for a long moment as the eyes stared back. At first she thought it was an animal, but the longer she stared the more she realized those were human eyes staring back.

The hair pricked at the nape of Salome’s neck. Slowly, she took a step closer. Her heart quickened. The figure still stared. She took a second small step, her muscles tightening with adrenaline. Suddenly, a branch swung in front of the prying eyes. Without thinking, Salome ran toward the bushes. Breaking through the brush she stopped. The image was gone. Salome spun in a circle looking around, but there was no sign of them.

An eerie feeling trickled down Salome’s spine. Someone was spying on her. But why? Salome let out a nervous laugh as she backed away. Eventually she turned and continued to make her way to the far north side of the village. It was probably nothing. Just some kids playing hide and seek. She tried to dismiss what she saw, but she wasn’t convinced.