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Sarai: Wives of the Patriarchs, Book 1

Sarai looked up at the great ziggurat of Nannar and took a step backward, overwhelmed as she always was at the enormity of the temple to Ur’s patron god. The steps rising upward, forever upward, drew her gaze to the triangular peak, its god’s-eye view gazing down at her, watching. She shivered, certain the feeling came from more than the soft breeze blowing down from the north.

Abram would not approve of her being here. Even protected by her male slaves and accompanied by her maid, Lila, her niece Melah, and her servants, Abram would still consider Ur unsafe for his beautiful wife. And if he knew her reason . . .

Why had she come?

“Did you bring the likeness?” Melah stopped on the cobbled street and turned to look at her. Her niece’s face, still rosy with the freshness of youth yet well tanned by the sun, held a glint of

“It’s here.” Sarai patted the pouch at her side, tucked into the pocket of her robe. “But I still don’t see what good this will do.” The image was carved of olive wood, a pregnant likeness of
Sarai with crescent moons --- symbols of the god --- painted into the clothing designs. But could the gods really give Sarai the child she craved or the son Melah longed for --- one who would live? While Abram’s brother’s sons lined his table like olive plants sprung up beneath an ancient flowering tree, Abram’s own table stood quiet, empty.

Sarai would sacrifice her beauty to fill that void, to give Abram a son.

Melah frowned, crossed her arms over her chest. “It won’t do any good at all if you don’t believe, Sarai.” Her gaze dropped to Sarai’s flat stomach. “Obviously you need help.”

“Obviously.” She couldn’t keep the sharpness or the sarcasm from her tone, especially in front of this upstart niece, or the pang of guilt and sadness from piercing her heart.

“Nevertheless, you should have done this years ago.” Melah’s patronizing tone made Sarai bristle. “You can’t ask others to do the sacrificing and petitioning for you. The goddess wants your devotion. If you want a child, you must worship the mother goddess. For even Inana came by her fertile power through her mother Ningal. You’ve known this since childhood.” Melah turned, then looked back again. “Of course, if you’d prefer Inana’s fertility rites . . .” She smirked as though the thought amused her, whether because she disdained Abram’s faith or because she could not imagine Sarai submitting to Inana’s sexual practices. Probably both, considering Melah’s blatant interest in the love goddess and her impassioned ways.

Sarai lifted her chin and tilted her gaze away from Melah. She nodded to her slaves and continued around the ziggurat to the streets behind until she came upon the courtyard fencing in Ningal’s temple. Columns stood on either side of the gate with steps leading to two great, sculpted doors, where bulls carved into the wood gave silent otherworldly protection to all who dwelled therein. Incense, the breath of the gods, burned spicy-sweet in tall sconces on either side of the doors, where real guards in bronze helmets and brass greaves held tall spears at attention. From their vantage point, they saw every movement in the courtyard.

Sarai stared at the scene, taking in the gleaming gilded columns. The dappled light made the bulls appear to move, their horns bent forward as though to strike. The temple seemed to pulse with its own breath, making Sarai’s catch in her throat. Her sandals felt suddenly weighted, stuck to the stones like dried mud to baked bricks.

She shouldn’t be here.

“Are you ready?”

Sarai slipped a hand over the image in her pocket and slowly turned to look at her niece, the wooden image burning the flesh of her palm as though heated by the sun’s sharp rays. Had Ningal’s son Utu come to block their path? The gods were always bickering over one thing or another. Perhaps the sun god did not want them to pay homage to his mother. And what if Melah was right? Inana was the goddess of love. Was she the one who could answer Sarai’s prayers for a child? But the rituals involved . . .

She shook her head, releasing her grip on the image and letting the pouch hang from the belt at her side. Never! She would not resort to such practices, even if she paid someone else to do them for her. Still, Ningal did not exact such a cost.

She looked at Melah. “I . . .” She what? Words would not form. What did she want but a child? But was this the best way? “I didn’t come all this way to have you change your mind on me,
Sarai. Do you want to keep your vow to Abram or not?” Melah flicked a gaze in Lila’s direction. “Or perhaps you should just give him your maid and be done with it.” Her scowl drew her narrow eyes into slits, making her forty-plus years look far older than Sarai did at twenty years her senior.

“Abram wouldn’t hear of such a thing.” She lifted her chin, but the action was more to put Melah in her place than to assert her confidence. If Abram knew where she stood right now, what she was about to do . . . might he take another wife? She glanced at Lila, who had become more like a daughter than a maid to her. Abram would never agree to such a thing.

The sundial in the courtyard moved a notch, and Sarai glanced at the sky. Clouds skimmed the surface of blue, pushed along by the increasing breeze. She braced herself, her hand closing over the pouch with the image once more. She must act, one way or the other.

“Well?” Melah tapped an impatient foot, hands on her ample hips. “Do you have the coins? Are you going to do this, or did I waste my whole afternoon, not to mention the months it has
taken to convince you I’m right?” She gave Sarai a pointed stare, then turned to walk toward the temple doors. Melah would offer a sacrifice whether Sarai did so or not, so the day really wasn’t as wasted as she’d like Sarai to believe.

Sarai stifled a smile. Despite Melah’s hasty marriage to Lot and the subsequent loss of their firstborn, Sarai had come to accept Melah, even carried some measure of affection for her, though she could be as ornery as a she-goat sometimes. Both Melah and Milcah believed in Ningal and Inana and worshiped frequently at one or both temples. Both women had borne children, though in Melah’s case only one infant daughter still lived.

The breeze brought the scent of incense toward her, and the chant of worshipers clustered to her right broke into her thoughts, sealing her decision. She lifted the image from the pouch and stared at its pregnant likeness. Once she paid the hefty sacrifice—coins she had taken from the dowry her father had given her years before—the priestess would take the image, set it before the goddess, and offer prayers on her behalf until the new moon waned. Time enough and, hopefully, prayers enough to invoke the goddess’s favor and grant her a son.

She drew in a slow breath, willing courage into her bones. She could do this. Her promise to Abram was at stake, and time was not in her favor. She had to do something, anything to procure a child. If that meant a sacrifice to the mother goddess, despite Abram’s certain disapproval, she had to take the risk.

Excerpted from Sarai © Copyright 2012 by Jill Eileen Smith. Reprinted with permission by Revell. All rights reserved.

Sarai: Wives of the Patriarchs, Book 1
by by Jill Eileen Smith