Intertribal jangling and discontent would be reduced to a minimum. Viewed from the main entrance to the King's encampment the undulating plateau was a rich pasture on which a thousand newly shorn sheep, indifferent to the rough nuzzling of their hungry lambs, grazed greedily as if some instinct warned that there might be a famine next season.Nor was a famine improbable, for the distribution of snow was unpredictable.But—let the tale be half fact, half fiction—it accounted for the bitter hatred of these people.
Surely the wedding would be soon, they thought, for the Princess had recently celebrated her sixteenth birthday. Of course there was nothing strange about the arrival of a courier with a message. But this courier—she had seen him riding away—was apparently from afar.
The tribesmen, who rarely agreed about anything, were unanimous in their approval of this alliance. He was attended by half a dozen servants with a well-laden pack-train. After the courier had departed, the King had retired to his own quarters.
It was a calm, early summer noon in the southern mountains of Arabia.
Sheltering the King's well-guarded domain, a mile above and a dozen miles east of the Dead Sea, motionless masses of neighbourly white clouds hung suspended from a remote blue ceiling.
Arnon laughed softly and pressed her cheek against her father's short, greying beard. 'You have something very serious on your mind, haven't you, father? 'Herod wants me to meet him for a private conference a fortnight hence, in the city of Petra.' 'How fine for you, father! 'You've always said you were going to visit that beautiful city! ' inquired Kedar, implying that his sharp old eyes had observed the royal insignia on the accoutrements of yesterday's courier. 'We will take only the equipment we commonly use when we visit the tribesmen.' Kedar bowed his grey head, his seamed face showing disappointment.
' Quickly noting her father's lack of enthusiasm, she inquired, 'But—you're going, aren't you? He wanted to say that if the event was of high importance the King should make a better show of his royalty.
' 'Perhaps it is something that concerns Petra, too.' There was an interval of silence before Arnon spoke again. What ma02er of emergency could have induced the proud and pompous Herod to ignore the age-old enmity between their nations?
'Is this not the first message you have ever had from the King of the Jews? The first that has crossed our border for...' Aretas paused to reflect. For fifteen centuries, notwithstanding they were neighbours according to the map—their frontiers facing across an erratic little river that a boy could wade in mid-summer—the Arabs and the Jews had been implacable foes.
' 'Yes; it sounds important.' 'Is it not a long journey from Jerusalem to Petra? He was turning away when Aretas spoke again, quite brusquely: 'And, Kedar, though you may have conjectured about the nature of our errand in Petra, if anyone should ask you what is afoot you will reply that you do not know.
I wonder why the Jewish King wishes the conference held there? And that will be the truth.' Retiring to his private quarters, the King resumed his contemplation of the conundrum.
Presently her wide-set black eyes lighted as she saw her father coming up the well-worn trail, at full gallop, on his white stallion. Emerging from the shade, Arnon stood beside the bridle-path with her shapely arms held high. The Councillors will have had their instructions from Ilderan.