Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 13

NEWS OF JEREMIAH’S dire speech to the village elders ran on a hundred tongues through Anathoth.

When he had gained the will to stand, Hilkiah left the mulberry tree and trudged home. There he closed himself in his room, winding himself tightly around the shame inflicted upon him by his son in front of his peers. Every whisper of the wind, every creak of the tree branches sounded to his ears like accusing voices. “There is old Hilkiah,” they said, “the priest who raised a wicked son with a tongue like a jailer’s scourge. He lacks even the respect due a father from his son.”

The old priest began to decay from inside. He wanted to die for disgrace.

Libnah, for her part, felt torn between the opposing camps within her breast. She was wounded by the pain of her husband; Hilkiah was a good man who had always done his best. He did not deserve such dishonor in the days of his old age.

And yet—with a mother’s certainty she knew Jeremiah would not say such terrible things solely for effect. His feelings always lay too close to the surface to let him gratuitously tread upon anyone, much less his own father. She felt anger at her husband’s plight, but also fear that her son’s oracle was true.

That night’s dinner gathering was a desert of resentment, a sterile plain of closed glances and words left unspoken. Hilkiah concluded the benediction in a voice devoid of inflection or vitality. And so supper began: his family shared a room, yet was divided by barriers harder than stone, higher than the walls of Jerusalem.

Of all those gathered around the cheerless board, only Lemuel felt anything other than confused anger or distress. It was about time, he thought. About time that everyone else saw what a foolish, selfish, muddle-headed dreamer Jeremiah was. Lemuel’s face wore a sardonic smirk as he saw with satisfaction the mess Jeremiah had managed to make of things.Image

Yes, it was about time.

He glanced at his wife. Hannah’s face was indrawn. She wished deeply to retire from this field of battling wills, but could not decently do so.

She raised her eyes to look directly at Jeremiah, who brooded in his place, unaware. He appeared to be studying the table before him with great concentration.

In her puzzled sorrow, she lost her customary caution, forgetting to hide past and present feelings beneath a drab, dutiful exterior. In her gaze now was a ghost of the old look, mingled with a knit-browed confusion at the distress caused by one she knew to be tenderhearted and true in his deepest self, despite the hurt he had cost her.

A slap across her face from the back of Lemuel’s hand sent her sprawling onto the floor, bloodying her lip.

“You whore!” shouted Lemuel, leaping to his feet in a frenzy. “You sit there making moon-eyes at this … this … ” He pointed angrily at Jeremiah, stuttering in his wrath. “ … this idiot?”

Shocked out of their solitary grief, the family sat roundeyed and aghast as Lemuel stormed on.

“You’ve never forgotten him, have you? Despite all the hurt he caused you, despite the way he deserted you, knowing full well how you felt; despite all that, it is still he you love, and not me! Do you deny it, you ungrateful wench?”

Hannah sat silent, her eyes wide with fear, blood running down her chin.

“Is it he you think about in bed?” screamed Lemuel, his face purple in fury. “Do you lie with him in your mind, while I feed you and shelter you and clothe you? What is the charm of this wretch, that those on whom he inflicts the most harm willingly offer him sanctuary? By the names of all the gods, it shall not be so with you!” He started toward Hannah, raising his fist to strike her again.

Joash leaped from his place, grasping Lemuel’s arm as it descended toward Hannah’s unprotected face. The sinews bulged on his sun-darkened forearm as he squeezed Lemuel’s wrist, forcing him away from the now-sobbing Hannah. Lemuel grimaced and strained, trying in vain to break his older brother’s iron grip. At last he won free and bounded from the room and out of the house with an animal cry of frustrated brutality.Image

Joash stood panting, looking after him for a moment. Then he turned to stare at Jeremiah in bewilderment and distrust.

“WHY, LORD?” Jeremiah prayed, sitting outside in the starry autumn evening, chilled by more than the cool air. “Why do I spread distress and woe at every turn? Why do my words fall like sword blows on those I love?”

The house was dark. The family had drifted away from the meal in a dazed, uncomfortable silence. No one spoke to him, no one looked at him. It seemed they wanted only to be out of his presence.

He was more lonely now than when he had walked the roads and byways of Judah. He felt turmoil inside like a storm cloud, whipping his heart in a cold swirl of doubt and anguish.

He slid off the rough stone wall and wandered into the night like a lost soul, absently pulling his cloak tighter. The breath of impending winter whispered about him, and winds of apprehension wafted treacherously through the open windows of his mind.

“I’M TELLING YOU he ought to die!”

Lemuel’s face was livid as he brought his fist down on the table of the dimly lit room. His voice had by now risen far above the conspiratorial whispers in which the conversation had begun, and the four others in the room glanced nervously at the door and windows, hastily motioning their overwrought colleague to keep quiet.

“Lemuel!” one of them hissed, “he is your brother—your own flesh and blood!”

“Aye,” murmured another, “and he preaches in the name of Yahweh. If Josiah’s agents learn of our complicity in his death, we are dead men!”

“You are all old women!” sputtered Lemuel, getting louder again. “He is a disgrace! He has no support! He insults the elders of Anathoth, my father among them, and threatens the worship of Chemosh! Do you wish to stand idly by and allow this troublemaker to stir up more noise about what we are doing, we who have remained faithful to the gods of the earth and the sky?” Lemuel held their unwilling eyes with his dilated, angry look. “Why should this muddled wanderer, who goes off for years at a time, be allowed to upset our way of doing things? I say we take care of this misfit now, and I care not a fig whose brother he happens to be!”

“And I say there is more to your words than jealousy for the reverence toward Lord Chemosh,” said another of the men. “Your ire burns hot toward your brother for something else—a woman, perhaps?”

“That is none of your concern!” shouted Lemuel, his fingers curling into claws at his side. “What matters is silencing this fool, and soon! Or do you wish to share the fate of the priests and worshipers of Ashtaroth at Nob, just up the road?”

The group fell silent as they remembered the chilling event: Josiah’s guards had slain thirty men and women with the sword, then burned their bodies and scattered the charred bones on the ruined high places of the gods. Such a desecration was frightening to contemplate. Since then, devotees of the baals and asherim had been careful to conceal their religion from any not known to be sympathetic. The worship went on, but discreetly, amid hope for better days.

“Well,” conceded one of them finally, “it may be that your counsel is sound, however flawed its motives. Very well—I will support this action. Who will stand with Lemuel and with me to slay the troublesome preacher?”

Slowly and quietly, all three of the others placed their hands atop those of the speaker and of Lemuel, who wore a hard, glittering grin of triumph.

Just outside the house where the plot was being laid, the wandering Jeremiah had stopped, hidden in the darkness. Hearing the incautious voices, he stood frozen in dismay. For as long as he could remember, Lemuel had despised him. Now, for the first time, he knew why: It was the night in the soul of his brother which hated the light of the Eternal in his own heart.

Each of the brothers was an instrument, a tool. And there could be nothing but enmity between them forever. Their hostility was born of the ancient war between the ruling forces of the two brothers’ lives—one good, the other evil.

Jeremiah remembered the words of his calling: “1 chose you while you were still in your mother’s womb … “ Could the dark architect of Lemuel’s malevolence also make such a summons?

He did not return to his room that night, cloaking himself instead in the darkness among the ravines of the surrounding countryside, seeking some word, some counsel to aid in treading the ever narrower and more treacherous path he walked.

THE NEXT MORNING the house of Abiathar gathered for breakfast in apprehension, feeling in different ways the brittle tension in the air. Lemuel sat in his place, looking even more dour and disgruntled than usual. Hannah, her eyes red-rimmed and dark from lack of sleep, sat downcast, afraid to look up.

The door slammed open, and in strode Jeremiah, his clothing still wet with the dew of the autumn morning. Without a break in his step he paced directly up to Lemuel, whose slack, open-mouthed stare bespoke his surprise at the change in his younger brother. Jeremiah had none of the defeated, brooding demeanor of last night, but rather a hard, set look, a talisman of urgent purpose chiseled across his face. With his accusing finger pointed directly between his brother’s wide eyes, his voice rang out:

“I know of the plotting in your heart. I know you have laid plans to take my life, because of the words the Lord bade me speak. I had no blood on my hands toward you, my own brother, but you have conspired with evil men to kill me, to blot out my memory from this place.

“Now, therefore, listen to what the Eternal, the Lord Most High, says about you and those with whom you devise your wicked schemes: ‘I will punish you. Your offspring will die by the sword and by famine. Your memory will be completely erased from the land, and I will bring disaster upon you in the time when I judge this nation.’”

For a moment he held his pose, his finger aimed at Lemuel like a thunderbolt from the hand of God. Then he turned on his heel and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

He had gone perhaps twenty long paces from the house when he first felt the fire in his veins begin to cool. His nostrils ceased flaring, his heart slowed its angry, racing gait. The pain of what he had said began to wrap his chest in dull, aching cords of regret. Another twenty paces, and he felt tears running down his face.

He had thought it would bring him fierce joy and a sense of vindication to pronounce the Lord’s judgment on Lemuel and the men of Anathoth. But the scene burned into his mind was not the death of Lemuel, deserving though he was. Nor was it the punishment of the baby-slaying idolaters. Instead, the faces of Hannah and his mother wavered before his tear-veiled vision, and the faces of children and families caught in the winnowing fork of God’s wrath. Prophesying judgment brought no satisfaction, nor did it lighten his burden. But he could do nothing else.

He walked into the broken country east of the village until the middle of the morning. Weak from his overnight fast and soul-weary from the questions in his mind, he crawled beneath the shelter of a heavy copse of scrub cedar and lay on his belly, his face in his arms.

“O Lord God,” he moaned, “I am cut to the depths of my spirit by the pain I carry. Why must the wicked do as they like, despite Your warnings and Your displeasure? Why, instead, do the righteous suffer at the hands of sinners?

“I am pinned beneath Your will; I feel it crushing me between You and my enemies.

“I cannot ignore the fire You have kindled within me—it blazes, and no matter how I try to hold it in, I cannot. But when I speak, my enemies gather round like wild dogs. I am a lost lamb surrounded by a hungry pack whose only wish is to tear and rend. Hear my cry, O Lord! Deliver me from the teeth of those who oppose me! Fulfill Your promise, which You made when You called me, saying, ‘I will make you like a bronze wall against your enemies.’”

His words spent, he lay silent, overcome with grief, and with longing for—he knew not what.

The wind, sighing through the pungent green cedar branches, slowed and stopped. Even the sparrows in the brush ceased their busy chatter. And the Voice was within him.

Jeremiah. “

One word. His name. Never before had the Voice spoken his name. And in those few syllables, resounding repeatedly through the hallways of his soul, he heard his entire being described, known, spun out like a thread of flax in the hands of a master weaver—seen through and through.Image

Jeremiah. Yahweh knew his name—and everything else.

The Lord God knew his hurt, his anguish; knew the pain of pronouncing death on those he loved; knew the sorrow of being alone; knew the lash of unjustified hatred; knew the piercing misery of being abandoned by those closest to him.

And He knew more. He knew Jeremiah’s pride, his self-will. He knew the dark, secret places where Jeremiah imagined himself a lofty figure on Judah’s landscape—a seer, a tower; perhaps even a Moses. The Lord God Almighty knew the traces of contempt that sometimes peeked from the corners of his vision as he beheld the sin of the people. He knew the unholy, blood-red lust for revenge that sometimes made his thoughts crawl like snakes in a vat of excrement.

Yahweh knew. He knew. And Jeremiah cried out in silence with a wail beyond weeping. He flung his arms over his head as if to hide from God’s face. He was unworthy—wholly unworthy. Yet again the Voice was within him.

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how will you compete with horses? If you stumble in the plain, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”

Jeremiah’s inner cry was cut off now, abruptly hushed by the power of the knowing One.

“My beloved will be given into the hands of her enemies. My inheritance has become like a wild beast—therefore I despise her. I will bring others to spoil My vineyard. My beautiful fields will become like a wasteland, because no one cares.

“So bear your shame, Jeremiah. My anger will cause this bitter harvest. But know that after the time of tearing down will surely come a time of building up. After I uproot Judah, I will again have compassion on her. If she will turn and renew her love for Me, I will bring her again to her own land, each family to its own home. In this hope, you may find your hope.”Image

His senses numbed, Jeremiah fell into the deep sleep of utter exhaustion. When he awoke, feeling hungry, the sun was dragging its gold-and-purple train down the western sky. He slowly sat up and looked below the colors, back toward Anathoth. He could think of but one place there where he might find shelter and comfort.

He crawled out from under the cedars, and set out for the hut of Mahseiah the scribe.

This chapter is from the novel Jeremiah: He Who Wept by Thom Lemmons, copyright © 2013 by Homing Pigeon Publishing. If you’d like to download a full version of this book for your smartphone or tablet, please visit www.homingpigeonpublishing.com.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 25

THE MARTIAL ANNOUNCEMENT of the trumpets was lost in the huge roar of acclamation that rose, as if of a single immense throat, from the vast crowds thronging the walls of Aibur Shabu.

From between the massive, dragon-emblazoned columns of the Ishtar Gate—as if the strength of Babylon herself had somehow given him new birth—rode Cyrus the conqueror astride a jet-black Nisayan charger. He was surrounded on all sides by the bristling hedge of his bodyguards’ lances.

As he rode through the deafening wall of adoration, Cyrus fancied the mob’s exuberance was not entirely feigned. He had correctly interpreted the currents of mistrust and hostility engendered by Nabu-Naid’s misguided policies and the coarse harshness of his son. As in Ecbatana, he was looked upon as a deliverer, a people’s king, a remedy to the oppressive hand of a tyrant. And he knew, with the instinct of a performer, how to draw their even greater admiration for this, his latest conquest. Before this day was over, he would be enthroned not only in the Great Hall of Babylon, but also in the hearts and minds of her citizens.cyrusHorse

The cortege moved slowly along the Processional Way, showered with the praises of Babylon. As he drew near the huge archway of Esagila, Cyrus reined his steed to a halt and dismounted. The throngs quieted, watching attentively as their new monarch, now leaving behind the diligent phalanx of his bodyguards, walked into the huge plaza of the House of Marduk. In the center of the courtyard a company of priests awaited the coming of Cyrus. At the forefront stood the chief priest of Marduk, who watched anxiously as the solitary, commanding figure strode purposefully toward him.

Cyrus reached the priests and received their obeisance. In a loud voice, he said, “I greet Marduk, the great lord, who has brought me safely and peacefully within the walls of this city. It is my wish that all men know of my reverence for the gods, and I hereby order the immediate return of the holy ones to the cities and temples that are their proper residing places. Let it be done!”

He turned on his heel, striding back the way he had come. He heard the gratified sighs of the priests at his back. Permitting himself a tiny smile, he continued toward his waiting bodyguard.

LATER THAT DAY Cyrus entered the throne room, as the waiting courtiers fell to their faces. With measured tread he paced toward the Dragon Throne, carefully eyeing the facade behind the dais. His Aryan sense of proportion was gratified by the four stylized palm trees and by the striking contrast between the deep blue of the glazed-brick background and the bright reds and yellows of the trees themselves. He seated himself upon the throne, resting his palms upon the cool gold of its carved dragons’ heads. His amber gaze imperiously roved the vast chamber as his subjects quietly rose from their obeisance.

By ones and twos they came, the nobility and other leaders of Babylonian society. Merchants, generals, landowners, shaven-headed representatives of the god-houses—all making the quiet pilgrimage of devotion to their new lord. Quietly they whispered the formulas of homage as they knelt before the Dragon Throne. Gravely Cyrus received them, nodding his mute benediction upon each of them in turn.

Adad-ibni, as chief seer, was responsible for producing the chronicle of Cyrus’s conquest in accordance with the approved signs and portents. He was acutely conscious of the importance of this first interview with the new emperor, and he felt his palms sweating as he approached the dais, his head lowered in respect. When he reached the edge of the platform he knelt, holding before him a clay tablet covered with script in the Old Babylonian language, used in court since the days of Nebuchadrezzar.

“My lord Cyrus, please accept the humble labor of your servant Adad-ibni, chief of his majesty’s seers, soothsayers, and mages,” came the wrinkled voice of the black-robed old man. “As my lord Cyrus knows, his coming was foretold by the mighty gods themselves, writ large in the skies for all to see. Your humble servant has made a history of these omens and foreshadowings, and he now offers these to the mighty Cyrus, for his reading, approval, or amendment.”

Cyrus stared down at the shaven, parchment-like scalp of the venerable mage. Is this a veiled insult? he wondered. Did the Chaldeans, so prideful of their ancient learning, attempt to tweak him subtly for the illiteracy of his Parsi heritage? He looked up at Gobhruz, standing near his right shoulder. The commander returned his gaze stoically, as if to say, “You have sought the kingship of this place. How will you respond?” The gray beard of his mentor twitched, but he offered not a word, not a gesture.

“Bring me the tablet,” he commanded, and an aide jerked forward to place the proffered document in the king’ s outstretched hand.

Cyrus made a show of scanning the tablet, his mind furiously churning to find a way past this dilemma. The request had been couched most eloquently by the old man; he had not seen any previous hint that the Chaldean nobility or priesthood wished him anything other than the utmost respect. Yet his pride bridled at openly displaying the disadvantages of his semi-nomadic legacy. He was ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever known! How could he admit, in this renowned seat of age-old knowledge, that he could not read even the Aramaic spoken by all his vassal lands, much less this archaic language of dead Chaldean kings?

The notion of such an indignity was so repugnant to him that in desperation he decided upon a brazen bluff. Handing the tablet to the aide, he indicated that it should be passed back to Adad-ibni. Without looking up, the chief seer accepted the tablet and bowed himself backward from the dais, returning to the silent, deferential ranks of the courtiers.

In a ringing voice, Babylon’s new ruler said, “This writing pleases us. Be it known to all that I, Cyrus, the Great King, the king of lands, monarch of Sumer and Akkad, and the One ascribed as Darius the King of Medea and Persia, say this: The word of the Medes and Persians, which shall henceforth govern this place and all places that lie under our beneficent rule, shall not be broken, nor may they be changed. Once written, the word of the Medes and Persians shall stand forever. So let it be babylonScrolldone.”

Carefully Cyrus studied the manner and bearing of the Chaldean courtiers. They had received the bold proclamation in awed silence; no glimmer of anything other than submissive acceptance showed in their faces or attitudes. Good, he thought. They shall see that I respect the written word as much as any trained scholar. A look of calm satisfaction spread across his features—until his eyes found the face of Gobhruz.

The old Mede would not look at him. Eyes averted, his air was one of mute reproach to the presumption and dissimulation of his king. Invisible to all but himself and Gobhruz, a trace of the satisfaction left Cyrus’s features. Chastened, he turned his attention toward another nobleman who now approached the dais mumbling, as had the many preceding him, the contrite litany of subservience to the great King Cyrus.

“BUT WHEN THE SEVENTY YEARS are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their guilt,” declares the Lord, “and will make it desolate forever. I will bring upon that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations. They themselves will be enslaved by many nations and great kings; I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands … ”

Daniel laid aside the scroll, a deep sigh surging upward from his roiled soul. For the first time in many years the sad, noble face of Jeremiah rose up before him. How amazing it was to contemplate: Though his body had lain in an anonymous crypt in Egypt for scores of years, that great, troubled man of God still spoke to Daniel’s spirit, just as surely as he had spoken on that Syrian night so many lifetimes ago! Daniel gently stroked the scroll of the prophet’s words, as if by doing so he stroked the beard of the long-departed man who had striven to bring comfort to a frightened boy.

And how surely the sweeping scythe of God reaped the very harvest foretold by Jeremiah during the days of Daniel’s youth! The downfall of the nations opposing Nebuchadrezzar, the ruin of Zion … And then, the fall of the lineage of Nebuchadrezzar—indeed, of the entire Semitic hierarchy! The rise of the Persian nation, and its great king, Cyrus. All shown to Jeremiah so long ago.

But the words that haunted Daniel, that summoned the heartsick, nameless storms in his soul, were the last ones he had read:

I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands …

Who could stand before the righteousness of the Almighty? With a melancholy certainty, Daniel knew the uncleanness of his own heart, the craven desire for self-preservation, the words withheld that should have been spoken, the passivity when action should have been taken, the secret enjoyment of the power and prestige of his rank.

And he knew his experience was not unique. Ezra, Shemaiah, and others of the elders and teachers of the Hebrews had discussed this painful subject with him at length. All felt the disquiet—sometimes vague, sometimes as pointed as a red-hot dagger—of the immeasurable chasm between the fitful glimmerings in the soul of a man—even a good man—and the white-hot, unapproachable purity of Adonai Elohim.

How then was it possible that this God, this utterly blameless Presence, could tolerate the proven faithlessness, the wearily redundant disobedience of this people Israel? Why should He rebuild Jerusalem and bring them back from the myriad places to which He had scattered them, if they were so powerless to maintain His standards? Why should it be any different this time?

A deep, soul-wrenching moan tore at the moorings of his spirit. Daniel fell face-down on the floor of his room. His arm reached beseechingly toward his window, through which the burnished light of the setting sun cast its fading glory—reaching west, toward Jerusalem. Crying aloud, the words crowded past his lips in a surge of shame.

“O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps His covenant of love with all who love Him and obey His commands: We have sinned and done wrong; we have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from Your commands and laws. We have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, You are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where You have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to You … ”

The sun sank on a purple and gold cushion into the west, and still Daniel poured out the groanings of his soul before the Lord. Against all hope, against all the contrary tide of his own unworthiness, Daniel pleaded mightily with the God of his people, begging earnestly for a fate he knew with all surety was better than they—or he—deserved.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of Your servant. For Your sake, O Lord, look with favor on Your desolate sanctuary … ”

He thought of the emptying of the temples of Uruk, of Nippur and Opis, and of the deep resentment the foolish proclamation of Nabu-Naid had engendered. How much more terrible, how much greater the anguish spawned by the desolation of Zion! And that was done not by the edict of an addled old king, but by the severe, burning hand of the True God Himself —as if the stench of His people was so great that He must unremittingly cancel all evidence of His habitation with them, even to the extent of ravaging the house of His own Name!

A black wail of misery gushed from between Daniel’s lips, as his prayer continued. “Give ear, O God, and hear; open Your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears Your Name. We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy.”

agedDanielDrained of words, emptied almost of thought itself, he concluded with a plea the more impassioned for its directness. “O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For Your sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people bear Your Name.”

Almost insensible with grief and exhaustion, he buried his face in his arms, still prostrate on the floor of his suite. As he drifted toward a black chasm of unconsciousness, a diamond-hard spear point of light stabbed into his aching brain. And for a third time he felt the terrifying, onrushing precursor of the Eternal’s presence within his mind.

Again the ringing, thundering voice of the Guide called his name, in tones as huge and frightening as eternity. He spoke to Daniel of the rebuilding of a city, of the passage of ages and seasons, of the wickedness of kings and the coming of an Anointed One. The brilliant hues of the Almighty’s grand tapestry absorbed him, drew him helpless into its dazzling vortex. It swirled about him with wonders beyond understanding, visions beyond retelling. Finally it ebbed away from him, casting him ashore on the familiar shoals of his own overburdened senses.

And then Daniel slept.

HE AWOKE with the early light of dawn tracing its pink hues along the walls of the palace. Looking down, he realized he had fallen asleep fully clothed. He lay half on his couch, half on the carpeted floor beside. Rising, he winced at the stiffness of his old joints, made the more severe by the awkward position in which he had lain. As he sleepily rubbed the back of his neck, a knock came upon his door.

A page entered, holding out a message cylinder sealed with the winged-circle impression of Cyrus’s royal signet. Taking the cylinder, he scanned the Aramaic script and heard the ominous muttering of fate at the back of his skull. The emperor wished to see him. Today. Alone.

CYRUS PEERED into the highly polished brass mirror on the wall of the chamber. Though his thick, straight locks still retained much of the robust, sandy-brown shade of his youth, the white filaments of age proliferated more and more. Only to be expected, he realized, in a man who had passed three-score years.

And yet his vigor was unabated. He still felt able to ride and to wield the lance and scimitar as well as ever. Why might he not continue to rule for many years over this vast kingdom he had forged?

Behind him came the sound of shuffling feet and the tap of a cane. He wheeled about to see a stooped, white-bearded old man enter and make obeisance—as best his feeble knees would allow.

“My king, I am Daniel, who is called Belteshazzar,” the old fellow was saying. “I have answered the summons of the king.”

“Ah, yes,” replied Cyrus, taking his seat on a nearby cushion. “Please rise, Vizier Belteshazzar—or do you prefer your native name?”

Visibly pleased at being asked, the old man answered, “Daniel, my king. It is the name my father gave me, and it gives me much pleasure to hear it spoken aloud.”

Cyrus smiled in an open, boyish way. “Very well then, Daniel. You must be curious as to why I have called you here alone.”

The dark, watery eyes of the old man blinked, but he made no other reply.

“A king is but a man, Daniel,” began Cyrus. “He sees only what is visible to a man. Yet his eyes and ears must be all about. He must be able to hear the words of his people, even those that remain unspoken. And he must see what will happen in the future, as well as what is happening in the present.” Remembering the words spoken so long ago by another counselor, Cyrus mused, “A king, if he is to remain a king, must be ever attentive to those he governs. When he ceases to be so, he ceases to be a king. He may remain in power, may continue to exercise authority by force of arms—but he is no longer a king.”

Daniel, gazing down the long corridor of his memory, nodded to himself. Then Cyrus was again speaking.

“A king must be a student of men, Daniel. I have examined many men under many different circumstances. Even in this court of Babylon I have closely observed the nuances of expression, the subtle outward suggestions of what some might wish to conceal. I know there are many within these ancient walls, Daniel, whose words and professions of loyalty mask motives that have little to do with allegiance to me.”

Now Daniel stared directly into the probing eyes of this perceptive, engaging conqueror.

“I have heard men speak of you, Daniel,” the king was saying. “It is said you have a wisdom beyond that of ordinary men. If this is true, I will have need of your counsel.”

Daniel bowed his head in respect. “My king has but to command, and his humble servant obeys.”

Cyrus studied the downcast face of Daniel for ten long breaths. In some ways this old fellow reminded him of Gobhruz, his lifelong servant, friend, and mentor. He found himself wishing to strike a deeper chord of familiarity with this venerable veteran of the Babylonian court. “My father gave me a name, too, Daniel,” said the king with a smile, changing his tone to a lighter, more intimate timbre in an effort to establish some bond with Daniel beyond that of king and courtier. “Do you want to know what it is?”

A premonition of inevitability turned a page within Daniel’s mind. His nostrils flared with the fragrance of the Eternal. Silently he nodded.

“In these parts they say ‘Cyrus,’ but in Aryan my name is ‘Kurash,”’ the king said. “In the language of the Persians, it means ‘Shepherd.’ That is what a king ought to be, Daniel. Not a butcher who terrorizes the herd, but a shepherd who guides his—” He stopped, frozen in mid-thought by the entranced expression on the face of Daniel, whose mouth opened to speak.

“ … who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited … ”

The old man was half-whispering words in some strange tongue, intoning in awe an incantation summoned from some memory too powerful to be suppressed. As Cyrus listened in curious confusion, Daniel went on:

“ … who says of Kurus, ‘He is My shepherd, and will accomplish all that I please … ’”

Now Daniel was staring at him with eyes glittering with import, with the suggestion—or perhaps the realization—of some momentous purpose. For some reason beyond conscious decision, Cyrus asked, “Those words you said just now—neither Aramaic nor Chaldean. What language were they?”

“I spoke Hebrew, my king—the tongue of my people.”

“You are not Chaldean? Your appearance is similar to that of the rest—”

Daniel shook his head. His white, bushy eyebrows protruded toward the king, his intense gaze honing his words like carefully chosen weapons. “No, my king. I am a Hebrew. Like the men of Chaldea, we are children of Shem, but scores of ages ago our clans diverged. Our most ancient father Abraham was called out of this country to go to the land promised him by the Most High.”

Suddenly, unaccountably, Cyrus felt less like a king examining a vizier and more like an infantryman who sought to pass some hitherto-unknown muster. With the disconcerting sense that his next words were expected, perhaps ordained, he asked another question.

“Why, then, are your people here, Daniel? And how did you, a foreigner, come to be in the high councils of the kings of Babylon?”

Daniel smiled. His head cocked as if he were listening to another voice, he waited long before replying. Finally he said, “The Almighty One, the God of heaven, caused us to be brought here from our own land because of our disobedience. It is He who has placed me within the halls of the kings of this place.” His eyes drilled into the very core of Cyrus’s being as he concluded, “And it is He who has brought you here, O my king, to accomplish the further unfolding of His will.”

For ten heartbeats, then twenty, the eyes of the king and those of the old man were frozen in a stare as inexorable as the tides of time. Cyrus found himself remembering the face of the holy man at the mountain shrine—remembering his words about a calling and a purpose, and his restless, beyond-seeking vision. The gaze that now gripped him was like that of the priest of Ahura Mazda, only more potent—as if what Diravanya sought so relentlessly had been found at last by this man who now spoke to him …dragonThrone

With a start Cyrus pulled his eyes away, striving to regain control of his emotions and the conversation. “Many gods have brought me to this day, Daniel,” he said, his words ringing false, even to his own ears. “Already the priests of Marduk have commissioned a stone tablet celebrating the Sun Lord’s sponsorship of my victory.” He pressed on: “And in every temple in Chaldea my name will be associated with the triumphs of the local deity.” Willing his face to remain impassive, he stared coolly at the old man. “Now you are telling me that your god is the next in this long line.”

Daniel shook his head, still smiling his enigmatic smile. Patiently, as if teaching a child, the vizier said, “My king does not understand. The astrologers and seers come to him with portents and omens reinterpreted in the light of what is already known.” Leaning forward on his cane, Daniel’s next words came in a whisper as focused and brilliant as the light in the eye of a god. “The words I quoted were written by a prophet of my people—almost eight-score years ago.”

The king’s mind reeled. Eight-score years! Was it possible? How could a man so long dead, living in a land neither Cyrus nor his fathers had ever seen, ascribe him service to a god whose name, even now, he knew not? The expression on Daniel’s face, the incontrovertible aura of holiness emanating from his every feature, told Cyrus more surely than the endorsement of a hundred witnesses that the words spoken by the aged vizier were dependable.

Cyrus’s next words were spoken quietly, without inflection, as if in that intimate striving of visions he and his servant had changed places, reversed roles—as if he, and not Daniel, must now attend to the wishes of the King.

“What, then, does your God require of me?”

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 24

BY THE TIME Daniel and the page arrived at Esagila, most of the places at the banquet tables were vacant. An apprehensive pall hung over the place like the echo of a mourner’s wail. With deliberate steps, Daniel approached the dais where Belshazzar huddled in dejected confusion. A small knot of priests and astrologers were gathered about him.

As Daniel paced toward the platform, his eyes swept across the legend charred indelibly into the wall. Four words. A heaven-sent motto whose meaning, even now, budded within his mind like a harbinger of fate.

Stepping onto the dais, his eyes took in the scene: the careless clutter left in the wake of the carousers; the sullen, motionless images of the city-gods; the nervous, untoward expressions on the faces of the facesmages and seers. Even Adad-ibni was here; like Daniel, he had been summoned hastily by the panic-stricken Belshazzar. As his eyes glided over the visage of the chief mage, Daniel noted the sullen resentment that festered in the eyes of Adad-ibni like an old wound.

Then his glance fell upon the upturned cup lying in a puddle of spilled wine atop the table where Belshazzar and his wives had sat. A surge of anger rippled outward from his stunned heart, bringing a flush of heat to his cheeks. Though he had never seen it during his childhood in Jerusalem, he knew the style and design of the jeweled gold chalice. Like the other Hebrews of Babylon, he had grieved over the reports of Nebuchadrezzar’s sacking of the Temple, his pillaging of the sacred utensils from the Holy Place. And now Belshazzar had brought the cup and its mates to this place of abomination, using that which was dedicated to the Holiness of Israel to drink a polluted toast to the images of Marduk, Ishtar, and Nergal!

As if hearing from a distance, Daniel realized that the crown prince had spoken to him. Reluctantly, striving to veil the righteous indignation in his eyes, Daniel pulled his vision away from the spoiled Temple utensils, and made a grudging salute to Belshazzar.

“I have heard,” the prince was saying in a nervous voice, “that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, Belteshazzar; that you have insight and wisdom. These”—he gestured vaguely toward the mages and astrologers huddled nearby—“could not read the writing that appeared on the wall. Can you?”kingface

Adad-ibni ground his teeth in impotent rage. Again! Once more he must stand idly by while this foreigner garnered the glory! The dull fires of lifelong resentment burned acridly in his stooped old frame as he listened on.

Daniel had made no reply to the prince’s anxious request. Still he stood, staring from the words on the wall to the chalice on the table, his jaw tensing and relaxing as if he would not willingly answer Belshazzar.

The prince, discomfited even more by Belteshazzar’s reticence, moved a half-step closer to the old Hebrew, his voice rising to a strident pitch of desperation. “If you can read this writing, Hebrew, I shall reward you richly! I shall give you … ”—he cast about within himself for an adequate enticement—“a gold chain! And … and a purple robe!”

Still Daniel made no answer.

“I will make you the third ruler in the kingdom!” Belshazzar crowed in despair. “I must know what this message means!”

Adad-ibni could not believe his ears. Third ruler in the kingdom! Was the prince mad?

Daniel’s fingers reached out as if to caress the toppled gold cup, then pulled back. As his stature lengthened and stiffened, his eyes shifted to Belshazzar’s face. A force burned outward from Daniel, a radiant aura of holy power that at this moment gave him absolute command of every ear and eye in the room.

“You may keep your gifts,” he said with quiet vehemence, “and reward someone else. But I shall read the writing for you, Prince Belshazzar, and give you the meaning.

“El Elyon, the Most High, gave Nebuchadrezzar, your master, sovereignty and greatness and splendor. Because of the regency given to him, peoples from every land and tongue learned to fear him. He held the power of life and death over them, the power to make great and the power to abase.” Daniel leaned toward Belshazzar then, so close to the prince’s breast that none could have prevented him from plunging a dagger into the heart of the heir to Nabu-Naid. But such was the power of his presence that even the prince’s bodyguards could do no more than listen, mouths agape, to the steely words of the aged counselor.

“But when Nebuchadrezzar grew haughty,” Daniel was saying, the last word spoken like a lash, “he was deposed from his throne. The great and powerful Nebuchadrezzar”—Daniel’ s tone signified that the one he now addressed could never dream of being the equal of the long-dead emperor—“then squatted among the weeds like a brute beast. He ate fodder like an ass and the dew of heaven soaked his beard, handwritinguntil he learned to fear the Most High who is sovereign over the kingdoms of men, and who makes and breaks kings as He pleases.” The next words came in a near whisper that seemed to crackle throughout the whole courtyard of Esagila. “And you, Belshazzar, have learned nothing from the example of your betters! You have set your face against the Lord of heaven!”

Daniel seized one of the defiled goblets from the table, shaking it in his fist as he continued. “You have taken these cups that were consecrated to the service of the Most High, and have drunk wine from them to the honor of these deaf, dumb, and insensible images of silver and gold and bronze!”

The priests standing nearby looked stricken, but were as powerless as the others to interrupt the adamant old man.

“You have allowed your wives and concubines to defile that which was holy to the Lord,” Daniel continued, “and you have not known Him who holds the very threads of your life in His hands. This is why He has made this inscription—for you.”

At the awful intimacy implied by Daniel’s words, the crown prince staggered backward a half-pace. Daniel glared at him for two breaths, then turned his face upward, toward the giant letters above their heads.

“The first two words are these,” he pronounced, in a voice that rang out like a warrior’s cry. “Mene, mene.” Turning a dour eye upon the quaking prince, he said, “This means that God has counted out the days of your reign like the minas of silver in the hands of the bankers, and He has declared your debt due and payable.

Tekel,” Daniel went on, “means that you have been weighed on the balances of God’s justice—and your measure is faulty.”

Parsin,” Daniel finished, as Belshazzar gasped like a wounded man, reaching limply for the shoulders of his bodyguards, “means that your kingdom is no longer yours, but is parceled out to the Persians. Your time is finished—theirs has begun.”prophet

GOBHRUZ RODE NORTH at a swift walk along the Street of Nabu. With each step his mount took, clumps of moist river mud fell from its fetlocks to be trod upon by the company of foot-soldiers who paced quickly behind their commander. They had forded the muddy canal and passed along the riverbed, entering the city beside the Borsip Gate. Thus far, they were unchallenged.

The commander glanced up to his right. Above his head he could see the silhouettes of his men against the stars, marching rapidly along the tops of the walls. Their mission was to secure, as efficiently and quietly as possible, the command posts and fortifications situated at intervals along the broad surrounding ramparts.

He turned west onto a broad thoroughfare, then north again between the corridor walls of Aibur Shabu. Unlike in the days of Nebuchadrezzar, the Processional Way was dark now, its torches extinguished at the beginning of the second watch of the night. Only the razor-thin crescent of the moon and a shining riot of stars lit the broad avenue along which he and his handpicked troops patrolled, their every sense wound to a taut-string pitch of readiness.

His task was to secure the citadel. They had awaited the dead of the second night watch before entering the city by the newly opened paths created by the draining of the river. Babylon would awaken with the dawn to find her new masters in control of every fortification, every street, every rooftop—or so ran the plan. As many Babylonian commanders as possible had been bought or otherwise neutralized, but conquest was inherently an inexact science. Thus far no opposition had been encountered, but Gobhruz did not imagine this state of affairs could last.

They came abreast of the walls of the huge Esagila complex. As they neared the silent gateway of the temple, Gobhruz’ s vanguard sighted an armed band hurrying toward them along the intersecting Avenue of Marduk. Gobhruz’s fist went to his sword, then relaxed as his men signaled; the approaching patrol was their own, having entered the city by the Marduk Gate.

The combined forces swept along the broad street. Crossing the Zababa Bridge before the gates of the palace, Gobhruz counted a mere handful of guards standing sentry. These few, seeing all too clearly the futility of their position, threw down their arms and prostrated themselves before the eerily silent armed horde that poured into the courtyard fronting the gate.

His archers standing guard with arrows notched against an ambush from behind or above, Gobhruz watched impatiently as his troops went to work on the sealed gates of the palace. Sinews straining, the men pried and grunted, driving wedges into the crack between the two halves of the massive ironbound doors. They made noisy, splintering progress—and still no sentry challenged, no defender impeded their efforts. For all the outward evidence, they might have been forcing their way into a house of tombs entrysafeguarded only by the restless spirits of the dead. When at last the soldiers won through the final barricade, the huge portals swung open upon a courtyard huge, imposing—and empty.

Gobhruz pointed to three lieutenants. “Each of you take a hundred men apiece. Search the palace and citadel for—” Hearing the noise of a shod foot against pavement, the commander glanced above him. He could see the shadowy figures of men moving along the tops of the barricades. Softly one of them called out—in Parsi. He gaped in wonderment. Could his men have already encircled the entire length of the city’s walls? Had there been no Chaldeans on guard? He sent a runner to summon one of the men to him.

“No, my lord,” panted the infantryman softly, when he had clambered down into the courtyard where the amazed Gobhruz waited. “We saw no one, heard nothing. It was … ” The fellow’s brow wrinkled in thought as he searched for the words. “It was as if the hand of a god went before us. Time and again we came upon the guard stations along the walls, only to find them abandoned, with weapons and armor lying on the floor. Something has happened to them—all of them.” The eyes of the men standing nearby rolled white, staring about in superstitious dread at the vast, empty courtyard.

“Steady, lads,” growled a grizzled old sergeant in their midst. “If the gods want to wipe out Chaldeans for us, why not let them?”

Nervous laughter stuttered from the throats of the men as Gobhruz smiled grudgingly at the well-timed joke. He turned to the lieutenants he had chosen earlier. “Off with you, then. Look sharp!”

The three companies of men moved off in different directions, each disappearing into a separate corridor of the palace. Gobhruz watched them go, rubbing his beard in wary bemusement. Could it really be this easy?

DANIEL PACED BACK AND FORTH in his chamber, as sleepless as if it were midday. As he turned beside his couch, he again spied the robe of purple linen, the heavy gold chain lying atop it.

He snorted with disgust. After he had arrived back at his suite from Esagila, a timid knock had come at his door. A messenger from Belshazzar entered, meekly bearing the bribe of the crown prince. As if the word of the Almighty might be averted by paltry gifts! Shaking his head, the aged vizier resumed his pensive pacing.

He heard the scuffling of booted feet outside his door. Going silently to the portal, he laid his ear upon its planking, listening carefully as a seemingly interminable succession of footsteps scooted past in the corridor without. He heard whispered voices speaking in the exotic tongue of the western mountains. So! The Persians were in the very palace! His heart pounded with the enormity of the realization. Again the ominous tolling of the words on Esagila’ s wall resounded within his mind. Only four words—and the world was changed.

FROM THE RICH FURNISHINGS, the lavish murals, and the decorative cast of the wall lamps, the lieutenant knew his patrol was in the wing of the palace where the imperial family resided. Nervously he loosened his sword in its sheath, for he fully expected to be met around the next corner by a company of bodyguards. The torches borne aloft by the men behind him cast black, wavering shadows at his feet as they moved along the darkened corridors.

Ahead was a large portal, the door sheathed in tooled bronze and the surrounding wall inset with gaudily colored glazed bricks. Gods and cherubim festooned the archway in which the door was set, presumably affording divine protection to whomever sheltered within. The lieutenant reasoned that this was the emperor’s private suite. His mouth dry with apprehension, he scanned the corridors on either side, stretching mazelike into the darkness beyond the torches’ flickering light. Nothing. Only the same eerie emptiness and silence through which they had moved since entering this huge, puzzling city.

Drawing a deep breath, he stepped aside, nodding to the four burly men bearing the battering ram. The four men lunged forward, the ram striking the door with a fearfully loud crash. Again and again they dashed the thick pile against the door, until at last the hinges gave way, groaning as the battering ram’s blows drove them from their sockets in the walls. The door caved inward, falling forward into the room with a resounding crash.

The soldiers spilled into the chamber, swords drawn. The lieutenant bolted forward behind his men, as they searched the folds of the silken hangings and plunged behind the tapestries, searching out a foe that did not appear.

“Sir!” one of the men shouted. “Come here!”

The lieutenant followed the sound of the voice, finding the infantryman standing beside a gold-sheathed mahogany couch. On it lay an old man—or the dried-out husk of what had once been an old man. His eyes gaped glassily in death, while his tomb-pale hands gripped a golden scepter; it was as if, even in dying, Nabu-Naid could not willingly surrender what he once had seized.

BELSHAZZAR HEARD THE TREAD of many feet outside his door.cyrus

Where are my sentries? The villains have deserted—everyone has deserted!

Panting with fear, he picked up a sword in clammy, nerveless fingers. He heard the strange voices, the fearful gabble of Persian words that announced his impending doom. He did not want to die! Why had the gods turned against him?

“Father!” he shrilled as the ram clanged against his door. “This is your doing! Your stupidity has brought this upon me!”

The ram smashed through into the room, and the door fell inward with a crash that raised a cloud of masonry dust. With a shriek of madness, the prince rushed forward toward the black hole that had opened into the corridor. He saw the dark, shadowed faces of the invaders, and the points of their arrows aimed at him. There was a screaming, crimson flash of pain. Then nothing.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 23

“THEY’RE DOING WHAT?” Belshazzar cried, incredulous. A wild burst of hope careened about within his breast, his face flushed—for once—with other than beer or wine.

The courtier bowed even lower. “They have halted their march toward the city and are engaged in the construction of some sort of earthworks near the Depression of Eshunna.”

Belshazzar, struggling to contain the bubbling enthusiasm that was threatening to breach his control, pondered frantically the unimaginable reasons for the stalling of Cyrus’s advance. Did the fool think that Belshazzar would sally out of Babylon to engage him on the plains by Eshunna? What possible reason could he have for building fortifications in such wide-open, indefensible terrain?

For so long Belshazzar had felt the impending arrival of the Persian host as a constant, overhanging shadow upon his every thought. The coming of Cyrus was certain, imminent. And until this moment he had seen no alternative course—given the manifestly uncertain disposition of the general populace—other than to prepare for a long siege. Within Babylon he could maintain a strict, enforceable control. He had hoped the virtual impossibility of overrunning Babylon, coupled with the need to maintain a large army to enforce the siege, would debilitate the Persian, allowing opportunities for cracks to develop in the control of his far-flung satrapies. This would buy Belshazzar the commodity he most craved—time.entry1

And now, this! Was it possible that the invincible Cyrus was capable of miscalculation? That he would waste his resources and dissipate the energies of his men in constructing unneeded fortifications?

“See that the developments in the Persian camp are observed closely,” ordered the prince. “In a few days I will hold my banquet. Then we shall see what may be done about Cyrus and his earthworks.”

THOUSANDS OF TORCHES illumined the great central plaza of Esagila, making the courtyard almost as bright as day. Though row upon row of banquet tables groaned under the weight of the richest meats and cheeses, and though the wine of Syria flowed like water in the courtyard of Marduk’s house, the god’s priests were nowhere in sight. Instead, Belshazzar and scores of representatives of the noble houses of Babylon laughed and cavorted, guarded on all sides by dour-faced bodyguards.

The prince had gone far beyond the bounds of decency in the misbegotten ordinance of his festival. It was less a banquet than a debauchery, a carousal. Temple prostitutes, their perfumed limbs tantalizingly visible beneath the gauzy fabric of their gowns, sauntered among the rows of revelers. Belshazzar had even brought his wives to Esagila, to sit in plain view of other men, eating and drinking like common feastharlots! Despite the tight-lipped disapproval of the priests, the event had been carried forward; no matter how huge their disdain of Belshazzar and his crude tastes, the priests were little able to avoid the spectacle in the plaza, as long as the palace guard’s armed and menacing presence prevented interference.

As if the impious frolicking were not disgraceful enough, the prince had ordered the gods to be brought out of their guarded chambers within the citadel and had them set up all about the courtyard of Esagila—divine witnesses to his folly! All about the perimeter of the plaza the regal images looked on. Full-hipped Ishtar watched as her laughing female servitors pandered to the drunken, lustful nobles. Ninurtu gazed on in grim disapproval at the uncustomary merriment. Shamash, Adad, Belit-Nina, even Lord Marduk himself—all were silent observers of the crown prince’s vulgarity.

The high priest heard the echoes of the orgy, his lip curling in disgust. Though he had walked to the side of the temple complex farthest away from the revolting scene in the courtyard, still the noise of the hated feast carried to his ears. He walked along the river wall in the darkness; below him was the Euphrates.

A foul odor wafted to his nostrils from the darkness at the base of the wall. Puzzled, he paused and peered downward. The moon was full, giving sufficient light for him to see—and to gasp.

The river was vanishing! The smell that had attracted his notice was spawned by hundreds of dead and dying fish, stranded in the strangling air by the retreating waters of their home. The slow, broad stream of the Euphrates was now no more than a stone’s toss wide!

His face froze in apprehension: Surely this was the anger of the gods, the manifest consequence of Belshazzar’s folly! Chest pounding in urgency, he began to run back toward the temple. If the wrath of Marduk rained down on Belshazzar, they might all perish in its fury. He must gather the priests and singers. It was time to pray.

KURASH NODDED in satisfaction. The operation had worked exactly as he had envisioned. Three days ago, the canal connecting the Euphrates with the Depression of Eshunna had been completed. He had signaled the workers to strike down the bulkhead restraining the river waters from the newly built ditch. The brown Euphrates shunted eagerly into its new pathway, coiling quickly toward the bottom of the ancient, dry lakebed.

With the lowering of the river’s level, a whole host of gates into Babylon would be created. Outside the city walls his men, stationed in the darkness beside the canals and along the banks of the Euphrates, would be able to walk easily into Babylon. The river that had nourished her for so many generations would be the means of her undoing, the pathway of her conqueror.

“Gobhruz,” he murmured to the armed and mounted Mede whose charger stood quietly beside his own, “I shall allow you to be the first to enter the city. Since you despise the effects of too much civilization, you shall have opportunity to decide which of its edifices will stand and which will fall.”

The old man grunted and looked away. “Foolishness,” he muttered. “I will do nothing that my king does not command. This is your city, not mine.”

Kurash grinned in the darkness.

“MORE WINE!” bellowed Belshazzar, his arm twined about the waist of a dark-eyed temple courtesan. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. This banquet, which he had originally imagined as a massive insult to his feeble father, had taken on for him the air of a pre-victory celebration. After all, was not Cyrus at this very moment squatting at Eshunna, unaware of the absurdity of his position? Anything is possible, thought Belshazzar, guzzling another cup of the rare Syrian wine he had ordered for the evening. In his gorged, wine-fogged imagination, he had persuaded himself there might yet be hope. And none of the revelers who reeled from table to table in the courtyard of Esagila did anything to dispel his notion.

Lurching unsteadily to his feet, Belshazzar called for a fanfare from the nearby trumpeters. The brassy flourish produced a pause in the noisy gamboling among the tables. Bleary, sated faces turned expectantly toward the dais. Framed by the two huge glazed-brick dragons on the wall behind him, Belshazzar held up his arms for silence.revels

“My lords, who have gathered here for this, my feast day,” he shouted, “look about you! Salute the gods, who bless you this night with their mighty benediction!”

A drunken cheer rippled across the courtyard, as Belshazzar seated himself unsteadily. Quickly the rowdy revelry began anew.

Looking about in confusion, the prince queried a nearby page, “Where is the god of that western province—Judah, is it? What image signifies his presence?”

The page shook his head in consternation.

“Have you failed to carry out my orders, you wretch?” bellowed the prince. The courtesan in Belshazzar’s embrace tittered with amusement. “Find me the god of Judah,” the prince went on, “or I will gut you on this very table!” Nearby, one of his wives blanched at hearing such a threat. The slave took to his heels, the raucous laughter of the prince chasing him past the gate of the courtyard.

Soon the boy came racing back, his arms laden with cups and goblets of gold, inlaid with precious gems. Spilling them upon the table before prostrating himself at the feet of the prince, the runner panted, “My lord, these are all I could find that belonged to Judah. A scribe in the citadel vault told me these utensils were sacred to the god of that place—I know no more!”

“Sacred, eh?” mused Belshazzar groggily, hefting one of the gold flagons. “Well then, I suppose these will have to do … ”

CAUTIOUSLY THE MAN looked about him to make certain he was not followed. Satisfied, he sidled along the wall of the house on Adad Street, slipping like a shadow into the entryway. The gatekeeper studied him carefully, then nodded and allowed him to pass into the central courtyard.

From the doorway to the main room, the flickering light of a single tallow lamp shone. The man followed the light across the packed earth of the courtyard, peering around the comer of the portal.

Around the low table in the center of the room sat Ezra, Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Jozadak, and several other leaders of the Hebrew community. Each brow furled in concern, they huddled in a low-voiced conference while Ephratah, the widow of Azariah, looked on from a corner. Their faces lifted to acknowledge the latecomer. Ezra rose from his place at the head of the table, opening his arms to greet the one who had just arrived.

“Daniel! Thank you for coming! You know of the reason for this gathering?”

The old man nodded, his eyes silently greeting each of them, lingering a moment longer on the face of his friend’s widow. Then he hurried to the table as the others shuffled about to make room.

“My brothers,” Daniel said in a low voice, “matters at the palace have become fearfully grave. The emperor does not leave his chamber—no one, not even among his body-servants, has seen him for the past two days. The crown prince is beyond the reach of sensible men. He follows some course of his own choosing, hearing only what he wishes to hear, seeing only such things as his drink-befogged vision allows. No one in the palace or citadel seeks anything but his own way—there is no authority. Belshazzar yet controls the palace guard, but many of the generals—though they would deny it with their mouths —have made secret peace with the Persians.” Aiming a significant look at each of them in turn, Daniel concluded, “The days of the royal house of Chaldea are drawing to a close, my brothers. We have arrived at a time of great change.”

“Did you notice the river when you came here?” asked Sheshbazzar.

Daniel nodded. “The Persian is cunning. Let us pray he is also benevolent.”

“One king or another, it makes little difference,” observed Jozadak darkly. “No matter how clever Cyrus may be, still he is an infidel, an unbeliever. How can his coming improve our lot?”

“The Lord says, ‘I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity,”’ quoted Zerubbabel softly, peering intently at Jozadak’s scowling face, ‘“and will rebuild them as they were before … ’” Cutting his eyes toward Sheshbazzar, he continued, “‘David will never fail to have a man to stand before Me … ’”

Sheshbazzar—who traced his lineage to the royal house of Judah—ducked his head, an upsurge of emotion forcing tears from his eyes.

“The prophet Jeremiah also said this,” mused Daniel after a moment’s pause:

Babylon will be captured;

Bel will be put to shame,

Marduk filled with terror …

A nation from the north will attack her

and lay waste her land.

No one will live in it;

both men and animals will flee away …

The men fell silent, each contemplating the momentous events swirling about them and wondering whether the morrow would bring deliverance—or disaster.

A BAND OF JUGGLERS dazzled the crowd in Esagila’s plaza. The bright-colored tunics of the performers shimmered in the torchlight as they tossed painted sticks, torches, sharply glittering knives, and even—to the uproarious delight of all but the unfortunate victims—drinking cups filched from the lips of the celebrants. With consummate skill they caused the objects to hurtle through the air from hand to hand. As the jugglers exited to the enthusiastic salutation of the feasters, a conjurer leapt upon the dais and began drawing feathers from the sleeves of his robe and brilliantly dyed silken scarves from behind the ears of Belshazzar’s surprised and delighted wives. A skillful illusionist, the fellow awed the throng with his dexterity. Tossing fistfuls of powder on a nearby brazier, he produced bursts of colored smoke and flame, to the appreciative applause of the prince and his courtiers. To the clamorous accompaniment of the musicians at the foot of the dais, the performer deftly entranced the gathering, proceeding apace to more and more dazzling feats, to greater and more enthralling pyrotechnic stunts.

As the magician’s display drew to its frenzied climax, a finger of flame lanced from nowhere toward the wall above Belshazzar’s head, leaving a burning, smoking tracery of letter-like markings in the glazed bricks. The awed throng broke into loud, riotous applause, plainly astonished, even in the dregs of their wine-steeped merrymaking, at the astounding skill with which this last breathtaking illusion had been accomplished.seeing

Belshazzar, cheering with the rest, looked at the face of the conjurer—and froze. The magician, staring white-faced at the fire-chiseled characters in the wall above him, was quaking with fright. Even to the drunken prince, the fellow did not display the attitude of one who had successfully executed a stunning sleight-of-hand. Rather, he appeared as one who stared into the shimmering, fearful terrain of the Unknown. When the magician turned tail and fled the dais like a whipped dog, Belshazzar felt the chilled breath of fright stinging his nostrils.

Slowly a sobering realization began to dawn among the banquet tables: The glowing letters on the wall of Esagila’ s courtyard had not been produced by the conjurer. As they saw Belshazzar stagger upward from his place, yelping in helpless panic, they began to murmur among themselves. A party of armed guards raced pell-mell from the dais toward the dwelling halls of the priests. Staring about in superstitious dread at the encircling figures of the gods, the now subdued mob pondered the enigma etched in flame upon the huge wall. And the cold, clammy fist of fear slowly tightened its grip about the throats of the revelers of Babylon.

“LET US BIDE, THEN, my brothers,” Ezra was saying. “Perhaps the wind at the backs of the Persians comes from the Eternal. It may be that Cyrus comes at this precise time to accomplish the purpose of Adonai … ”

Daniel, listening carefully to the words of the priest, suddenly remembered a shabbat meeting in a palm grove, and how the gold of the sunset splashed upon the robes of this man as he read from the scroll of Isaiah. With a breathtaking rush of clarity, he relived the scene, hearing once more Ezra’s reading:

I am the Lord, who has made all things …

who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited,”

who says of Kurus, “He is My shepherd … “

Cyrus!liberation

Daniel felt his heart slamming against his ribs. He knew the clarion-call, no less awesome for its familiarity, of El Shaddai. Again the summons had come. As he stiffened, listening with the ears of his soul to the cascading, torrential muster of the Almighty, a small moan of awe escaped his lips. The others stared at him, their eyes widening in alarm.

At that moment, a runner dashed breathlessly into the room, followed by the protesting gatekeeper. Ephratah lurched to her feet, staring an unspoken question at the intruder.

“I tried to stop him, mistress,” apologized the hapless doorman, “but he threw me aside. He says he has come—”

“Lord Belteshazzar!” the herald panted, falling beside the still-seated Daniel and clutching at his robes. “You must come at once to Esagila! The crown prince has summoned you—his wife has said you are the only one who can help!”prophet

The others stared in gaping wonder from the messenger to Daniel. After a frozen moment, Daniel rose, an expression of dire purpose on his craggy, wrinkled face.

His eyes shining with a calm, brilliant urgency, he nodded at the runner. “Take me to the prince, boy. There are things that must be said.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 21

THE SMALL KNOT of priests and astrologers stood just within the Marduk Gate of Esagila, arguing heatedly among themselves while worshipers and temple functionaries scurried busily in and out of the temple complex.

”Well, at least the Festival can be kept this year,” insisted a shaven-headed star-watcher, “and that, I say, is all to the good.”

“Oh, certainly,” scoffed another. ”But only when the prince-regent bawls loudly enough to his addle-brained father about the coming of the Persians does Nabu-Naid finally see fit to return to the throne he usurped. He scurries back inside the walls of Babylon, loudly proclaiming his loyalty to Marduk, as if this miraculous change of heart might spark the forgiveness of the Great Lord—or his priests.” The priest spat loudly onto the pavement, barely missing a beggar who sat in the gate. “That is for the emperor—”marduk

The discussion broke off suddenly when a squadron of soldiers paced by. After an uncomfortable pause, the murmuring counsel resumed. “Marduk is not swayed by such double-tongued devotion as the usurper gives. Festival or no, I say the winds of change are blowing in the land—and the sooner the better.”

The gaggle of robed priests and scholars moved deeper into the temple courtyard, the debate continuing with cautious vehemence and frequent guarded glances over shoulders. As they moved out of earshot, the beggar rose, dusted himself off, and limped away toward a narrow alley between two mud-brick buildings.

Making certain he was unobserved, the beggar dodged quickly into the dark, vacant recess. Swiftly he pulled a scrap of parchment out of his clothing, making a series of deft marks with the burnt end of a twig. Tucking the missive securely beneath his tattered robe, he sauntered back into the thoroughfare, glancing at the angle of the sun. Mid-morning, he observed. Not long until he met his Persian contact by the Gate of Sin. He would have much to tell.

EGIBI STARED round the chamber at his sons. “So then: How many loans have we out to members of the royal court or to the royal family itself?”

The four sons looked at each other, their brows wrinkled in puzzlement. Clearly they had no inkling of what their father intended by such a question. Gradually their eyes returned to the face of their sire; they were plainly at a loss to answer the unexpected query.

“You don’t know.” Egibi shifted impatiently on his tapestried cushion, shaking his head in vexation. So old and crippled was he that he rarely left this apartment now, yet he still knew more of the outside world than did his four able-bodied sons. He sometimes despaired of teaching them anything.

”Well, then, tell me this: What is our rate of collateral coverage on silver loaned to the nobility—especially the military commanders? Have you any idea?”

The sons, confused and slightly piqued by the patriarch’s accusative tone, kept their eyes stonily fixed downward. Does he think we’re children? they wondered. Does he suppose his is the only mind capable of running the business of Egibi and Sons?

“My sons,” the old man wheezed finally, when the hostile hush had lasted long enough, “I do not seek to anger you. But have any of you thought what might happen when the Persians come to Babylon?”

The oldest yanked his eyes upward, a startled expression on his face. Smiling with his eyes, Egibi nodded. “Yes, Bel-Adan, at last you begin to see.”

Bel-Adan’s three brothers slowly began rubbing their beards, a look of comprehension gradually dawning on their sullen faces. “When kingdoms change,” Egibi was saying, “it is well to look carefully to your affairs. Laws that may protect you today could cease to exist tomorrow. A prudent lender never willingly accepts risks which cannot be assessed.”

“Perhaps we should order a current reckoning of the accounts,” drawled the oldest son, ruminatively.

“Yes … and if I’m not mistaken, Lord Nabu-iddina is a trifle tardy with the payment of his debt,” mused another. “1 should look into the matter … ”

Their father nodded appreciatively. “Caution, my sons,” he agreed. “In times of change, caution should be an amulet about cuneiformyour necks.”

A discreet knock sounded at the door, and a young man of perhaps twenty summers entered the room. Face lowered in submission, he said, “My father wishes to know if he should allow the doors to be opened. The sun is above the walls of the city.”

Glancing from Egibi back to the youth, Bel-Adan replied, “Yes, boy. Tell him to permit them to enter.” Glancing a final time at his father, Bel-Adan concluded, “We are almost finished here.”

The son of Jozadak bowed, and closed the door as quietly as he had opened it.

“Very well, my sons,” said Egibi, eyeing them all around. “It is time to earn our bread for another day.”

NABU-NAID FIDGETED NERVOUSLY with the fringe of the silk tapestry. He stared out the window, in the direction of the Sky-Garden of Nebuchadrezzar, then glanced back toward the still, black-robed figure seated on the low stool in the comer of the room. “Is this the best succor you can bring?” the old king asked, his mouth set in a petulant scowl.

Adad-ibni shrugged, his face a wrinkled, inscrutable mask. “My king, I do not create the omens,” he said. “I only read them.” The mage smirked inwardly. In the years he had spent in Teima, Nabu-Naid had become less a presence than the absence of one; now back in Babylon, he was almost an irrelevancy.

Belshazzar, the prince-regent, was the reality, the ironhanded, mean-spirited commander of the people’s obedience, if not of their wills.

The pathetic old man in front of him might be king, and his return to the capital might allow the observance of the long-slighted New Year Festival, but Adad-ibni knew the mood of Esagila and the murmurings of the merchants along the quays of the Karum. In his long absence from Babylon, Nabu-Naid may have achieved his aim of tweaking the beards of the powerful priests of Esagila, but he had not weakened Marduk’s hold on the soul of the empire.

Furthermore, reflected the seer, though Belshazzar clutched the military—and thus, the city—in talons of steel, the hearts and minds of the populace were rapidly slipping through the fingers of the cruel, brutish prince, just as they had for his doddering old father. The process having clearly begun, Adad-ibni did not need his star-charts to tell him the days of Nabu-Naid’s house were numbered.

Nabu-Naid tasted, smelled the half-shrouded contempt of the wizard. ‘“Fetch a tablet, you,” he snapped, balling his fists uselessly at his sides. “I wish to make a proclamation in connection with the New Year Festival.”

Impassively, Adad-ibni slouched over to a low table on which rested a moist clay tablet and a stylus. Retrieving the supplies, he waited, his hand poised, to record the words of the fading king.

“This command will be carved on slabs of basalt and taken by royal courier to the major cities of our domain,” began Nabu-Naid. “It will be announced within the walls of Nippur, Borsip, Sippar, Uruk … ” He listed the major municipalities of the river-lands, as the mage dutifully copied them all down. ‘“The proclamation herein stated shall be announced before the waning of the moon,” continued the king. “Immediate compliance with our imperial and holy orders shall be expected.”

Nabu-Naid paused, taking several deep breaths. Since his return, and his reluctant realization of the state of affairs within the walls of his city, he had contemplated this drastic step. Such a thing had never been done, nor even attempted. But he saw no other way to stem the growing tide of the people’s ingratitude and disaffection. Now was the time for his final gambit. He resumed speaking with a firmness he did not feel.

“The gods, the holy ones themselves, shall be brought out of their houses in the temples. Ishtar, Adad, Belit-nina, Nabu—all of them shall come to Babylon, to the shelter of the strong arm of Marduk, Lord and King of All. There, with their lord and under his protection, they shall celebrate the Festival of the New Year … ”festival

Adad-ibni dropped the stylus from his nerveless fingers. His face was a stiff, stark mask of unbelief. Could this muddled old man actually mean what he was saying? Did he truly intend to take the gods hostage?

“You have stopped writing, lord mage,” noted the king, a sly, mad leer stealing slowly across his wizened face. “Are you unable to hear my words adequately?” Knowing he had gained the upper hand in the struggle of wills, for the moment at least, Nabu-Naid intended to press his advantage to the breaking point.

‘“My king, I … Surely you do not intend—”

“If this proclamation is not read aloud in these cities within the time of the moon’s waning,” growled the king, “the imperial guards shall have orders for your head.” A canine grimace parted the lips of the desperate king as he glared at the anxious astrologer. Adad-ibni lowered his head and began to write in jittery, swift strokes.

“I trust, of course,” said the king, his voice smeared with self-satisfaction, “that you shall in your final draft add some suitable language about omens, portents, and so forth?”

“Yes, my king,” mumbled Adad-ibni, miserably.

ONCE MORE Daniel prostrated himself toward the open window—the westward-facing window. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe,” he prayed, “who hast preserved Thy people … ” Thinking again of the final words of Azariah, he concluded, “And return us, O sovereign Lord, to Jerusalem, in accordance with Thy steadfast love.” Rising, he watched as the molten rim of the sun dipped below the western horizon, the sky ablaze with the gold-blue-purple heraldry of evening. A knock came on his door. Without turning his head, he called, “Come in, friends. I am here.”

Mishael, old and fat and puffing with the exertion of hauling his bulk about, plodded heavily into the room, followed closely by lean, ascetic Hananiah. The two old men greeted their friend, who now motioned toward the low table surrounded by linen cushions. “Will you eat? I have plenty.”

Hananiah silently shook his head, while Mishael said in his wheezy, high voice, “Well, since it’s such a long walk over to this side of the city … ” Selecting a handful of dates from the wooden bowl on the table, the wattle-necked eunuch settled himself across several cushions.

Daniel plucked pensively at the leathery hide of a pomegranate. “What do the Levites make of the coming of the Persians?” he asked, carefully watching the faces of his comrades. Mishael shrugged, reaching for another handful of dates.

“Opinion seems to be mixed. Some see Cyrus as the righteous judgment of Adonai upon the wickedness of this place—-they seem to think it will be tom to the ground, as Jeremiah predicted. I don’t know if they have asked themselves what their lot would be in such a circumstance.”

Hananiah shot a dour glance at the eunuch then looked away, shaking his head at such flippancy.

“Others,” continued Mishael, “seem to care little one way or another. They keep their noses in the scrolls and rarely come out except on the day of Shabbat, to lecture the congregations. That, and they wait to be told to return to Judah. If they have an opinion on anything else, it is difficult to tell.” Mishael wiped his fingers on his robe.

Daniel looked outside, where purpling shadows fell across the streets and houses of the Old City. In his study that day, he had read from the scrolls of Ezekiel. All evening the taut, severe visage of the prophet had hovered before him. Just before his guests arrived, he had read these words:

This is what the sovereign Lord says: “I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land … ”

But when? For so many years he and the other faithful Hebrews of Babylon had been posing this same question—to themselves and to the Eternal—and always the answer seemed to be, “Not yet.” Now the world was in flux. And would it matter? Would the Persian conqueror, at last, be the catalyst, the fulfilling agent for the word God had announced through His tortured, persecuted servants, the prophets? Daniel wanted to believe this, and yet … So many alterations had taken place already; so many kings, so many visions in the night—and still the people of God were here, trapped in Chaldea like oxen mired in a swamp. Could the rumblings from the north be the harbingers of impending change? He hardly dared allow himself to hope.praying

THE MOON was a quarter-sized crescent in the spangled sky above Babylon. It was the second watch of the night, a time when most, if not all, of the city’s denizens should have been in bed.

But in the central dwelling house of Esagila, a lamp burned in the center of a large table. Gathered about the smooth-polished surface of the oak table was a hushed, grim council of the topmost echelons of Marduk’s priesthood. The flickering lamplight made bobbing shadows on the ceiling of the chamber, casting into eerie, shifting relief the creases on foreheads and faces. The men listened to the reading of a parchment held by their master, the High Priest.

“And because of my great reverence for the Lord Marduk,” the message continued, “I am deeply distressed by the sacrilegious acts of your so-called king. I know that the Sun Lord has summoned me from my mountain home to right the injustices done to His people by the cruel oppressor, Nabu-Naid. As my pledge toward this end, please accept this small offering as a token of my devotion.”

The senior priest paused significantly, hefting from the floor beside him a camel-hide bag. As he placed it firmly on the table, the bright rattling of much silver could be plainly heard. The shaven-headed priest peered at each of his colleagues in turn. “Can we doubt, in the face of such generosity, that Marduk has touched the soul of this one who comes at such a troubled time?”

He let the parchment slip from his fingers, to fall upon the table. It was sealed, the priests could clearly see, with the winged-circle symbol of Cyrus the Persian.cyrus

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 20

PRINCE BELSHAZZAR GRASPED the glazed-clay drinking bowl, still half-full of frothy ale, and hurled it against the far wall of the chamber. Striking the baked-brick wall with a loud pop, it shattered into shards, splashing the wall with the remnants of the brew. Shocked, the others watched in dumb, feigned fascination as the white beads of foam ran in tiny rivulets down the seams between the bricks. All faces were averted, for the only alternative was meeting the furious eyes of the prince-regent.

“I ask for reports, and you bring me dung!” Belshazzar was shouting, his full lower lip quivering in rage. “Rumors, and the whisperings of foolish old women.” He spat, glaring at each of them in turn. None of the counselors dared show his eyes to the son of Nabu-Naid.

Still furious, the broad-shouldered prince clutched both fists into the front of the nearest vizier’s robes, half-lifting the astonished and frightened older man out of his seat. “How can I keep my father—and your king—apprised of the movements of Cyrus if the messengers you send are too fearful to make contact with him?” He shook the nobleman like a truant schoolboy. Dropping the courtier with a disgusted grunt, he turned toward the rest of them. “Must I wait until his army is encamped outside the lshtar Gate before I can know with certainty what his intentions are?”angry

“My lord prince,” ventured some foolhardy soul into the black curtain of silence, “Sardis is a far journey. We only dispatched the couriers two months ago, so surely they will soon—”

“I must know now!” Belshazzar bellowed, crashing his fist to the table in front of the white-faced vizier. “The illiterate fool has already toppled Ecbatana without so much as drawing a sword! He has rolled up the territories east of the Tigris like a worn-out carpet, and now he challenges the might of Croesus!”

Clawing at his face in furious frustration, the prince-regent strode to and fro like a caged tiger. “Croesus has appealed to Babylon for aid,” growled the prince-regent, “and I sit here like a fat ox, with crows cawing in my ear.”

“Egypt has also received an embassy from the Lydian capital,” meekly ventured one of the nobles.

“Egypt!” sneered Belshazzar. “Egypt had her teeth pulled at Carchemish, in the days of Nebuchadrezzar. She won’t answer the call of Croesus.”

“What has the king said of these matters?” asked another counselor.

Belshazzar halted his furious pacing, glaring at the speaker. “The king … attends to other matters,” he grated hesitantly, deciding that the words he really wished to say were best left unuttered. He resumed his striding, muttering to himself—or perhaps to his infuriatingly absent father. “If Sardis falls to Cyrus, he will have completely outflanked us to the north and south. How long can it be before he turns his attention to the cities of the Two Rivers?”

He halted his feverish pacing, aiming another thunderous scowl at the huddled, silent group around the table. “Well?” Belshazzar demanded. “Do you have tongues in your heads, or not? Speak, fools! Your sovereign’s regent commands it!”

Chests heaving with tongue-tied anxiety, the counselors looked at each other, then at the top of the table. What could be said when all answers were wrong?

PUTTING THE STYLUS ASIDE, Daniel took many deep breaths, trying to calm the trembling in his hands spawned by the still too-vivid memory of the terrifying visions that had burst across his sleeping mind. Even now, with the sunlight of the spring morning drenching his chamber, the blasphemous words of the dream-beast’s eleventh horn chilled his heart with a midnight darkness. Despite the gay, reassuring chirps of the sparrows in the garden outside his window, he bent only unwillingly to the task of recording the images of the frightful demons in his dream.

It was a vision of kings, this dream of his. He began writing what a Guide had explained to him of the vision:

The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—

His breast swelling with grateful emotion, he wrote for emphasis: Yes! Forever and ever!

Despite the appalling fear he had felt for the winds and for the huge and dreadful beasts, the end of the dream had shouted peals of hope, of certain victory! The people of the Lord would triumph.

Daniel’s hand paused in its writing. He remembered the sense he had had in his vision—the aura of vast, uncounted multitudes of victorious saints, rejoicing in the sovereignty of the just rule of the Eternal, and the vague, irrepressible intuition that the salvation promised by this triumph of righteousness would roll like a flood far beyond the borders of Judah—indeed, of Chaldea! Somehow this victory was a vindication for all creation; every piece of Adonai’s handiwork would rise up together in a great shout of joy for the defeat of wickedness.

While he pondered these unnameable thoughts, a pounding came on his door. Glancing quickly about, he covered his tablet with a damp cloth to preserve its moisture, then hid the tablet behind his couch.

Opening the door, he found, to his astonishment, one of the sons of Azariah. With tears streaming down his face, the young man said, “Uncle Daniel—come quickly! Father is dying. He asks for you.”

IN A DAZE, Daniel entered the house on Adad Street. The son had told him, on the swift journey through the streets from the palace, about Azariah’s sudden, piercing cry of agony that morning at table. He had clutched at his chest, collapsing in a helpless heap upon the floor. Each breath he now drew was a battle dearly won, and the sudden, awful knowledge came unbidden to them all that he would leave them very, very soon.

At last they reached the portal. Mishael and Hananiah, already there, met his disbelieving, helpless stare with sad shakes of the head and tear-stained glances. Through the main room he walked, all sound roaring together in his ears, all sight blurring into a shapeless glare, except for the face of Ephratah and the miserable, lost faces of Azariah’s children.

He entered the bedchamber. Azariah lay panting on his couch, clutching at his chest. Through pain-wracked eyes, he spied his old friend. Weakly he patted a place beside him, indicating that Daniel should sit. The vizier leaned close to his friend’s lips.

“A pain … here,” whispered Azariah, tapping his breast. “Like a camel sat on me … fully loaded.”

Daniel, the tears draining unheeded from his eyes, nodded at Azariah. “You should not speak, my friend,” he whispered hoarsely. “You should save your breath for your family.”

Azariah, impatient even on his deathbed, shook his head. “Already told them … all,” he muttered. “Wanted … you.”

Daniel forced a wavering smile to his lips. “Well, then … here I am.”

Azariah’s eyelids fluttered. Daniel, fearing the end, could not draw breath until again he saw the focused gaze of his dying friend on his face. “You need … ” Several labored, wracking breaths interrupted his words. “ … need to forget … before.”

Daniel stared at Azariah as a decrepit host of painful memories chased each other across his face. The dying man’s eyes held a knowing, reproving look. Daniel, choking on his emotion, could only nod. Again he saw Azariah gathering himself, at almost oldunbearable cost, to speak.

“But never forget … Jerusalem,” he breathed.

Again Daniel could make no reply, other than a vigorous shake of his head. Gripping the hand of his lifelong comrade, he rained tears upon the front of Azariah’s robe. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he turned to see the entire room filled with the family and friends of Azariah/Abed-Nabu, son of Judah, counselor of Babylon.

The man on the bed moved his head slightly, taking them all in with his gaze. Then, with a tiny smile of farewell on his lips, the pain-creases on his face softened, his eyes closed. The ragged, tortured breaths halted. It was over.

Accompanied by Ephratah’s soft sobbing, Mishael intoned, in a grief-clogged voice, the psalm he had uttered by the tomb of Caleb.

Do You show Your wonders to the dead?

Do those who are dead rise up and praise You?

“No, my friend,” interrupted Daniel, suddenly remembering the victory hymn of the rejoicing multitudes in his dream. “Have you forgotten what else David says?” Daniel rose, gripping the arms of the eunuch.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, You are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,

and fly to the uttermost parts of the seaeven

there, Your hand will guide me,

Your right hand will hold me fast …

Hananiah raised his face to Daniel’s, an other-worldly gleam in his dark eyes. His chin quivering with the effort of speaking aloud rather than with his beloved harp, he chanted.

I will exalt You, O Lord,

for You lifted me out of the depths …

O Lord my God, I called to You for help

and You healed me.

O Lord, You brought me up from the grave …

STANDING ON THE HIGHEST BATTLEMENT of the citadel of Sardis, Cyrus turned to the Lydian prime minister standing at his elbow. “Well, then, Lysidias; do the terms sound agreeable to you?”

The nobleman nodded limply, unable to believe the evidence of his ears. The conqueror of Sardis proposed to leave Lydian society almost exactly as he had found it. No pillaging. No enslavement or forced relocation of masses of people. Lysidias would remain in his post, but now would report to Cyrus as his kshatra—satrap, as the Lydian tongue styled the odd Aryan syllables. And Cyrus said he would have allowed Croesus the same opportunityhad the Lydian king not taken the unfortunate and untimely expedient of immolating himself in the private courtyard of his suite.

The only traces of conquest Sardis would be forced to accept were the inevitable tax and the continued presence of a Persian as chancellor of the treasury and commander of the armed garrison in Sardis—a light enough load for a people who, scant hours before, had feared for their necks.

Feeling himself almost reborn with relief, the Lydian knelt before the breeches-clad king with the amber eyes. As a scribe made notation of the event, Cyrus peered toward the western horizon and remarked, “This tower commands quite a view. I suspect Croesus spent much time enjoying it, eh, Lysidias?”

The newly created satrap of Lydia replied, “No, my … my king. The king—er, that is to say, Croesus—passed most of his time in the gardens, or in the treasury. He did not concern himself overmuch with the view from the towers.”

Kurash chuckled at the pungency, intended or otherwise, of the Lydian’s remark. Shading his eyes, he could spy the faraway sparkle of the sea, and beyond that, a dark smudge on the most distant line between earth and sky. “What is that land yonder, Lysidias?” he asked. “There, beyond the sea.”

The satrap glanced in the direction of Cyrus’s gaze. “That would be the isles of the Greeks, my king. Not far from the mainland of Hellas itself.”

“Hellas … ” The name had an odd tingle on Kurash’s tongue. He felt a curious struggle within his breast. He wanted to press on from Sardis, to encounter these Greeks and see what sort of men they might be. And yet … some small corner of his soul recoiled at the thought. Some barely audible voice—his fravashi, perhaps—whispered that elsewhere lay destiny for himself and his empire. Destiny … and eventual danger.

DANIEL WAS IN A LARGE, empty courtyard. A broad, limpid canal flowed through the courtyard, its waters weirdly silent. The vacancy, the utter absence of the noise of feet or even the most distant voices cast a pall of eeriness over the place. And yet there was something familiar about the citadel enclosing the huge plaza—as if he should recognize his whereabouts, but couldn’t, quite; as if he were remembering something he had not yet seen.

He heard a footfall behind him, but not the sound of a human foot. Turning about, he saw a magnificent ram; its pelt was of glistening white wool, its hoofs and horns of gold. The nostrils of the lordly beast flared red, and dark fire flashed from its eyes. One of the beast’s horns, he noticed, was larger than the other, as though it had grown in earlier than its mate.

As he watched, the ram snorted, lowering its head and charging to the east, the sinews bunching mightily along its back and hindquarters. Wheeling about in a cloud of dust, the animal bolted back in the direction it had come, raking the deadly horns along the ground as it fiercely asserted mastery over its domain.

To the four directions of the wind the ram charged, halting at last, hot breath blowing out its nostrils. With head held at a high and imperious angle, the beast surveyed its surroundings, staring through Daniel as if he had no more material presence than the air.

As he stood admiring the ram, he heard the bone-chilling sound of a bellowed challenge, the adversarial battle trumpet of the rutting season. Glancing to his right, he saw a he-goat prancing impossibly through the air as it passed over the high western wall of the courtyard, coming to rest a stone’s toss from the ram.

The two beasts blared their battle cries at each other, pawing in the dust and shaking their heads in a naked display of brute hostility. Daniel noticed that the he-goat had but one horn, albeit a large one, and it was queerly placed—in the center of the goat’s forehead. The nerves in his spine unraveled as he watched and listened to the challenge and counter-challenge. Clearly there would be but one survivor of the impending clash.

Presently, the he-goat rushed violently at the ram, which lowered its head and bounded forward to meet the attack. When the charging beasts collided, a peal of thunder rang out; Daniel fancied the daylight dimmed several degrees. When he could uncover his ears and open his eyes, the mighty, milk-white ram lay dead. The he-goat straddled its carcass in triumph.goatram

No sooner had this happened than the large, single horn of the goat shattered, and in its place grew out four grotesque horns, pointing north and south, east and west. And in their midst, another horn grew forth. As the small horn bulged outward in awful urgency, Daniel felt the blood freezing in his veins.

For he knew its kind. He had seen this before, in the eleventh horn of the Fourth Beast. Even as the horn grew and grew, becoming a living thing, he knew what would happen. With the dreadful surety of a remembered nightmare, he listened to the blasphemies and watched the horrendous, uncontested progress of its loathsome evil.

And then a Voice was speaking, with a sound more dire and commanding than the clash of the king-beasts. He knew the resonant tone of his Guide and listened with all his soul, for the victory of the arrogant Fifth Horn had profoundly disquieted his spirit.

“These animals represent the kings of Medea and Persia, and the king of the Greeks to come,” his Guide was saying, “and the vision you have seen concerns things which lie far in the future—in the time of the end … ”

Daniel wondered to whom he should tell these things. Should he speak to the king, to warn, to chasten?

“No!” said the Guide to his unspoken question. “These things are true and trustworthy, but you must seal up this vision, for many seasons and kings will pass before its fulfillment … ”

As morning light seeped beneath his eyelids, he clutched his hands to his breast. His heart pounded as if seeking explosive release from his body. His eyes were open, but the room swirled about him as for one who had drunk too much rich ale. Again, he reflected, a vision of four! This time four horns, and the four kings they represented. Like the ten horns of the Fourth Beast in his earlier vision, the four horns of the goat were followed by a horrible fifth. Kings of Persia, and a king of the Hellenes! The frightful imagery, the tolling, diamond-hard words of his Guide swam before his fevered memory. He felt himself trapped in a sickening, helpless vertigo, drowning in the overpowering elixir of the Eternal’s soul-flooding revelation. Daniel moaned, covering his face with his hands. His clothing and divan were drenched in the cold sweat of his fear. Panting with exertion, he raised himself trembling on one elbow, then fell limply back. Gathering the tiny vestiges of his strength, he moaned aloud the name of his body-servant.

The page padded quietly into the chamber, approaching his master’s bed with a worried, quizzical look.

“I … I am ill,” Daniel wheezed. “I cannot appear in the court today … ”

KURASH STEPPED OUT of the low-gunwaled boat, his leg sinking calf-deep into the miry swamp. In the distance he could see rocky hills rising. “What is the name of this country?” he asked, turning to the Greek who had piloted the small craft to the mainland.

“Macedon, my lord,” the wiry, dark man replied in the harsh, clattering accent of Hellas.

“Macedon,” mused the Persian. He grunted with the exertion of pulling his feet out of the muck in which they disembarked.

Each step made a loud sucking noise as they slogged their way toward higher ground. “Is all of Macedon’s shoreline such a quagmire?” laughed Kurash. “I shouldn’t think the people of this place would have energy enough to do anything save walk from one house to another, if the whole country is such a sea of clinging mud!”

“It would not do for you to speak so to the Macedonians, my lord,” cautioned the Greek. “They are a quarrelsome lot, and they don’t take reminders of their backward ways lightly.”

“Have they frequent occasion to be reminded of their … lack of advancement?” queried the horse-king.

“Oh, the dramatists and philosophers of Athens and the other cities of the Attic peninsula delight in satirizing the Macedonian hill folk,” said the guide. “It’s all a sport to them. But we who live closer—in Thermopylae and in the north and east of Epirus—don’t treat the Macedonians so lightly.”

When they had lurched a few steps farther through the mud, he continued. “The folk of Athens can comfort themselves with their walls and their citizen armies. But we must live cheek-by-jowl with the Macedonians. One day they will tire of being seen as clowns and buffoons. And then … ”

Kurash carefully noted the muted respect the Greek paid these supposedly crude Macedonians. How well he remembered the disdain with which the “civilized” Medes had jibed their mountain cousins, the Parsi! So the Athenians derided the Macedonians, did they? He fell silent, partly in thought and partly to conserve his breath for the next step through the pitchlike mud of the bog.

THAT EVENING, as the reconnaissance party bivouacked in a ravine between two flinty hillsides, Kurash called Gobhruz to him.

“Old friend,” said the king when the gray-bearded Mede bowed before hlm, “what say you? Is it time to turn back—toward Babylon?”

The older man mumbled something in his beard.

“What was that?” pressed the king. “I couldn’t hear you.”

The Mede stared into the flickering light of a nearby campfire for several moments, then glanced at the king. Unable to hold the eyes of his sovereign, he looked at the toe of his left boot, mumbling, “I said, ‘Babylon has had many others; why should you be any different?”’

“What is this, Gobhruz?” asked Kurash, chuckling. “Have we come to the very western end of the world, and now you think the walls of Babylon shall best me at last? Where is the man who spoke of the fear of a star-gazing king?”campfire

The old, sturdy Mede shook his head. “No, my king. It’s not that. You will take Babylon—her time is finished. This much I know.”

Kurash carefully watched his mentor’s profile, as the face of Gobhruz flickered orange and black in the firelight. “What, then?” he asked at last.

“You are being taken by all this,” the Mede said, gesturing widely about them. “And once you have taken Babylon, the taking will be complete.”

Kurash’s silence urged him to continue.

“Each victory, each new tributary takes you farther away from what you were. Makes you both more the king, and less the Parsi.” The old man chewed on his thoughts for many heartbeats. Raising his eyes to Kurash’s, he said, “When you were a boy, it was enough for you to have a spirited charger beneath you, and the free air of Anshan to breathe. Then you got a bit older and discovered you were the son and grandson of kings. You began to outgrow Anshan.”

“If I am to be the king of Lydians and Medes—and Chaldeans,” Kurash observed in a muted tone, “must I not take what is best from each part, the better to understand the whole?”

Gobhruz’ hands plucked at a straggling tuft of wiry grass, twisting it to and fro as he searched his soul for the words he wanted. “I left Elam because I wished a simpler, less affected existence. I have served you with all my heart, as I swore I would to your father. And now … ”

A night bird’s song wafted down the hillside. A piece of green wood hissed on the crackling coals of the fire. Quietly Kurash said, “My friend, I would not bind you to an enterprise you find distasteful. You have my leave to return to Anshan, there to live out your days—”

“I cannot leave,” interrupted the Mede. “I made an oath to your father, and I cannot leave.”

“Very well then,” said Kurash. “You will stay—and be the conscience of the king. A wise shepherd has need of much advisement. And a voice of caution is a prudent addition to any counsel. Will you do this for me, my friend—and teacher?”

Gobhruz peered long and hard into the fire, then looked down at his feet and nodded his head slowly. “Aye.”

“Then … what say you?” queried Kurash, a tiny smile flickering on his lips. “Shall we turn our steps eastward—to Babylon?”

Without looking up, Gobhruz gave a weary, affirmative nod. “Aye,” he grunted.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 19

ADAD-IBNI SHIFTED UNEASILY on his cushion, eyeing the fig he held in his hand. The chief seer had taken two or three nibbles from the ripe fruit, and the sour look on his face had nothing to do with its taste.

Furtively he glanced up at the stern, pacing figure of Nabu-Naid, carefully composing his response to what the emperor had just proposed. “Everyone knows of my king’s deep devotion to Lord Sin,” he began, before wincing inwardly. Already he sounded too accusative. He started again. “No one has a greater appreciation than myself of the importance of reverence to the Moon Lord. But … my king well knows that the priests of Esagila would evince a certain … ”—he groped delicately for a word—“reserve … toward such an ambitious project as my lord proposes, unless it were directed toward the benefit of Marduk. Especially now—” Realizing he had said two words too many, the mage hushed.

Nabu-Naid stared hard at the bald-pated old man. “Perhaps you wished to say, ‘Especially now that the unpopular work in Haran is just completed’?”

The silence crackled with hostility in the morning-lit chamber until Adad-ibni could tolerate it no longer. “Surely my king realizes,” he said, squirming, “that by correcting the unfortunate state of affairs in Haran, he unavoidably attracted the attentions of certain malcontents seeking an excuse for the poor harvests.”

The emperor sneered at his chief mage, shaking his head in wry amusement. “How hard it is for you to say what you mean, Adad-ibni,” he smirked. “You of all people I would expect to appreciate my attentions to the temple, guarded so long and faithfully by my recently deceased mother.” Adad-ibni bowed low in respectful genuflection at the mention of the emperor’s ancient matron. She had lived so long that some half-thought her bewitched, and she finally died at the unimagined, toothless age of one hundred and four years. Her son had seen to it that her funeral was well attended and lavishly carried out.

“My king knows I hold the utmost respect for his revered mother,” said the mage. Hidden in his robes, his fingers made the sign against the evil eye.

“What you say in the silences between your many words,” huffed Nabu-Naid, turning his back upon the seer, “is that you doubt the priests of Marduk will permit, without severe compulsion, the construction of a proper temple to Lord Sin within the walls of Babylon.” Over his shoulder, the emperor turned a beetle-black eye upon the huddled, cringing form of the chief mage. “And we must not greatly discomfit the priests of the cherished Marduk, must we?”

The sarcastic tone of the emperor’s words frightened the mage almost as much as his anger. One should not trifle with the gods, he thought. Of course, he could not verbalize such a direct reprimand to his royal sponsor. With his habitual obliqueness, he observed quietly, “My king should also consider the sizeable resources controlled by the priests of Esagila. Without their agreement to contribute to the project—”

“The scoundrels!” Nabu-Naid snorted. “They take a man’s goats in security for a pledge, and when he can’t pay them twice the worth of the flock, they keep the whole mangy lot! There are scores of temples in this city, my city,” raged the petulant haranking, “not to mention the hundreds of shrines and altars, but does Lord Sin, the Ancient One, have a house in which his name can be venerated?”

Angrily he paced to the other end of the chamber, then whirled about to add, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten, seer: The house of Marduk gave money and materials for the building of that ridiculous edifice to Nabu in Borsip, but do you think they’d donate as much as a strip of copper if they thought Lord Sin might be so honored? Ha!” Again the emperor turned his back on the mage.

Under his breath, the mage quoted, “Nabu is the Son of Marduk, and the reflection of his glory.” This fixation of the emperor’s is ill-omened, he pondered miserably. But how can I tell him so? Aloud he said, “Perhaps my king should sojourn outside the walls of this city to refresh his mind—to pray to the gods and permit himself time to make a judicious disposition of this delicate matter.”

Nabu-Naid, toying distractedly with the amulet about his neck, suddenly halted, staring thoughtfully at his chief diviner. The wisp of an idea had wafted its way to him. With his eyes squinted in speculation, he began smiling. “Perhaps you are correct, Lord Adad-ibni.” A look of wicked relish crawled across the ruler’s face.

The mage could not fathom what was taking form in the corridors of his sovereign’s skull, but he suspected it could not be anything overly pleasant.

“Perhaps a tour abroad is precisely what I need,” grinned the king, rubbing his hands together. “Since you mention it, good mage, there are some ruins in Teima, in the far reaches of the Arabah, which I have wished to examine for some time. I understand they have many ancient inscriptions there, preserved in the dry sands of the region. I believe this is an excellent opportunity to pursue my passion for antiquities.”

The mage, apprehension clogging his chest, calculated furiously in his mind. Teima! The city lay leagues to the west, across huge stretches of desert not quickly traversed. It was already the middle of the month of Adar—the New Year Festival was only weeks away. Without the king’s presence in the capital, the festival could not take place. Gasping with dismay, the mage pleaded, “My lord! You cannot possibly travel to Teima and return in time for—”

“The festival, my lord mage?” An evil chuckle hissed from between the aging monarch’s dry lips. “You may well be right!”

 

“AND SO, MY BELOVED SUBJECTS,” announced the emperor to the silent, stunned courtiers, “I shall depart on the morrow for Teima. While I sojourn away from my beloved city, I leave my son, Belshazzar”—the emperor clapped a hand on the shoulder of the loutish, smirking crown prince—“to act as steward for the kingdom.

“I charge you all,” he concluded, “to obey him as you would me … ”nabonidus

 

STANDING ON THE WALL of Sardis, the Lydian guard leaned back while drawing a draught of water. Suddenly the helmet slipped from his head, clattering over the edge of the battlements and finally coming to rest among the rocks below the citadel. Cursing under his breath, the sentry peered carefully about in the dusky light. No one watching—good. Gingerly he mounted to the top of the wall, then edged along the narrow shelf outside the battlements, more than a little mindful of the sheer drop yawning at his feet.

Reaching the corner where two walls joined, he climbed cautiously down to the rocks below the wall. This corner, known to few even among the city’s guards, was the only place one could descend to the ground in a relatively easy manner. Again looking about to see that he was alone, he made his way over to where his dented bronze helmet lay among the boulders near the base of the wall. Shaking his head in disgust, he strapped the headpiece to his belt and turned about to retrace his climb up the seemingly sheer wall.

Unseen by the Lydian sentry, two Persian spies slinked away from their observation post. When they were out of sight of the walls of Sardis, they trotted quickly toward the camp of Kurash. Their lord would be pleased with the news they brought this day.

 

KURASH CHUCKLED MERRILY, shaking his head in amazement. Rising from his couch, he said, “Scribe! Fetch me two bags containing a tenth-shekel of gold apiece.” Grinning at the wide-eyed spies, he continued, “I would reward the keen vision and quick minds of these two.”

For months the army of Medes and Persians had been encamped against Sardis, the glittering, seemingly impregnable capital of Croesus and his Lydians. Having won acclamation as king in Ecbatana, Kurash had quickly moved to quash Croesus’ incipient attempt at a land-grab in Cappadocia and Armenia to the north. The fantastically rich Croesus had thought to take advantage of the tumult in Medea to carve out a larger territory beyond his former eastern border.

But the Lydian gambit was doomed to failure. Kurash, at the head of a reborn Medo-Persian host, had swiftly routed the effete, well-groomed forces of the gold-king. Now Croesus and his minions were holed up in the citadel of Sardis, set on a rocky ridge behind walls that had, until this moment, been invulnerable.sardis

“Boy, fetch me Commander Gobhruz,” Kurash ordered. The page scampered away. “Tonight, my fine fellows,” the king of Medea and Persia said, still smiling at the two newly rich reconnaissance men, “you shall escort the general to the place you found. We shall determine how many men, and in how quick a fashion, we can place inside the walls of Sardis. “And tomorrow,” he continued, more to himself than to the men, “we shall see who is the richest king in Lydia.”

 

BABYLON WAS NOT A HAPPY PLACE. The seasons ground inexorably along, the month of Nisan approached—and still no word came from Teima, the remote desert town to which the king had hastened. For yet another year it appeared the New Year Festival would not be celebrated.

Aside from the ominous prophecies of pestilence and disaster from the soothsayers and diviners, the city’s merchants and tradesmen grumbled about more prosaic matters: of lost trade and unsold goods, of profits vanished without the joyous excesses engendered by the rebirth and homecoming of Marduk. The temple prostitutes—and, for that matter, the freelance whores—were as unhappy as the others about the loss of commerce resulting from the emperor’s frustrating absence.

In Esagila, far darker mutterings could be heard. Throughout the temple complex, the emperor’s thinly disguised attempt at coercion caused the priests of Marduk to gnash their teeth in anger and pray unceasingly to the King of Heaven to bring down this rebellious and obstinate fool who had abandoned his people, leaving his surly and caustic son behind to pollute the palace with his ungracious presence.

esagilaBut if Belshazzar was a boor, he was no simpleton. The prince-regent brutally intimidated his father’s opponents. He was unblinking in his use of the military, which he wielded with the iron grip of an absolute commander. Only a month ago, as the population watched aghast, he had marched a squadron of infantry into the very sanctuary of Ishtar, the heavy-breasted Lady of Uruk, and dragged out a priest known to be an open critic of Nabu-Naid. The man was hauled into the midst of crowded Aibur Shabu, where he was disemboweled and his corpse dumped unceremoniously into the Zababa Canal. Tactics such as this had had their effect; though extremely unpopular, the reign in absentia of Nabu-Naid was secure.

The Jews of Babylon proceeded on their way, outside the mainstream of Babylonian custom and practice, yet unmolested. Their teachers and scholars read to them from the writings of their prophets and exhorted them from the pages of their ancient Law. They continued a process of coalescence around the adamant, unremitting core of their Unnamed One and His stone-hard, profound injunctions: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me; thou shalt not take My Name in vain; thou shalt keep My shabbat …

 

DANIEL GLANCED UP from his reading of the scroll, squinting his eyes and rubbing them with his fingertips. The oil lamp burned low, and the inked letters on the parchment had begun to flicker and waver before his vision with every dip and tremor of the unsteady flame. It was time to rest.

He rose, rewrapped the scroll, and placed it carefully beside the others on his reading table. Remembering the hard, worn face of Ezekiel, its author, he stroked the vellum sheath of the yellowing document, copied in the long-dead prophet’s own hand. He turned toward his couch.

Beyond mere fatigue and the lateness of the hour, he felt the weariness of his years pressing upon him. For almost fifty years he had been in or near the royal court of Babylon. The drain of the constant vigilance needed to navigate safely through the subtle feuds of opposing factions and personalities, the relentless responsibility of administering the endlessly mutable policies of the emperor and the prince-regent, the shifting, slippery surfaces of uncontrollable events, and the solicitous concern for protection and maintenance of the Chosen, his brethren—all these clamored incessantly for his attention. Added to them was his overarching, lifelong sense of being a foreigner in this city that, though almost the only dwelling place he had ever known, could never be home. Such cares and burdens caused each of his years to weigh heavily upon him just now, each of the sixty years of his life tugging at him with a nagging insistence.

“Sovereign Lord,” he prayed, his face buried in the scented linens of his bed, “I am so tired. Grant me the rest that is beyond sleep, beyond waking. Grant me the ease of soul that I crave; grant release, and quiet … ” Unable to frame within himself the words to express his longing, he found himself remembering Mishael’s lament by the tomb of old Caleb. In jews2some ways he could almost crave the quiet, the stillness of that final couch. An end to striving. A state when worry, care—the arduous necessity of being—was ended.

“O my God,” he continued, “Your ways are too high for me. Your will is above the highest heavens, and I am but a weak and weary old man. Once I tasted the dizzying wine of Your choosing, but now I have only the tastelessness of old age. Twice I felt my tongue ablaze with the imperatives of Your message, but now my throat is parched by the aridity of the years. And thrice I was blinded by the brilliance of Your visions, but now I witness only the gathering of darkness. O Lord of Abraham,” he moaned fervently, “give me peace at last. Let me finally rest and be quiet.”

Falling on his couch still fully clothed, he tumbled into the deathlike darkness of an exhaustion far beyond the physical; it was weariness of the soul that claimed Daniel, and his breath came so slowly that each might be his last.

 

He stood on the shore of a vast and mighty sea. Feeling a cold, foreboding tendril of air moving against his cheek, he looked far out over the restless waters of the deep. A dark bank of clouds roiled along the flat plane of the horizon, pulling within itself, mounting higher and higher, as if gathering like a black panther for a vicious spring. Then a breeze from behind caused him to spin about in alarm. At his back, a huge cloud-beast coiled for the attack. Then he looked around, and on every horizon, all about the huge circle of the earth, the winds of creation were gathering for the onslaught.

Four huge maelstroms of the heavens rushed forward at once, smiting the sea and casting up waves as high as mountains. As he watched, terrified for his life, four hideous beasts rose from the waters of the sea where the winds had struck.

The first was like the lion of Ishtar, but with the wings of an eagle. The second was a bear, gnashing its teeth on the gory ribs of its latest kill. The third was a leopard with the wings of a bird; and the fourth—Daniel’s tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth in terror at the sight of it. This creature from a twisted nightmare was utterly indescribable; its horrific appearance sent the mind reeling in revulsion. The only features that his recoiling senses recorded were its beastsbrutal teeth of iron, with which it mauled and crushed its victims—and the ten horns on its head …

 

Long minutes or hours later he awoke, the echo of his awesome Guide’s voice still reverberating in his mind. His heart jolted against his windpipe as the dream crossed and recrossed the window of his mind. Four beasts. Ten horns. There had been an eleventh one too, a blasphemous horn, swelling and boasting. And a glorious Son of Man, whose authority would be absolute, whose kingdom would never end … Searching within himself for a response to the fantastic mind-journey of the night, Daniel discovered two emotions intimately entwined in his soul.

On one hand he felt exhilaration. He had tasted the power of the Eternal thrumming in his vitals—for there was no doubting the Source of the vision he had seen.

On the other hand he felt a haggard sense of foreboding. It seemed the Eternal still had a calling for His world-weary servant, and Daniel knew there was no way of predicting the paths on which such a summons might place his fatigued old feet. Some tale was yet to be told, he sensed, some vision yet to be imparted.

With deliberate slowness, Daniel rose from his couch and began gathering his writing materials.

 

 

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 18

NABU-NAID WAS IN A QUANDARY. The nobility and military were anxious to fill the void created by the disappointing susceptibility of the last three kings to sudden mishap. The prime minister had every intention of stepping into the vacancy, but he could not wrest the Dragon Throne by mere, crude force. Such overt action, though well within his capabilities, offended his sense of tidiness, of destiny. Something further was needed, some validating sign, some endorsing portent: some way to persuade all and sundry of the inevitability of his succession to power.

Scratching his beard in perplexity, he suddenly thought of Belteshazzar. Of course! The Hebrew’s interpretations of Nebuchadrezzar’s dream-omens had heralded great change before; why not now? Smiling to himself, he summoned a runner.king

WHEN BELTESHAZZAR ENTERED the suite of the prime minister, he was shocked to see Nabu-Naid crumpled on the floor, heaving great moist sobs into the hands covering his face.

“My lord Prime Minister? What is the matter?” Nabu-Naid leaned on one elbow long enough to peer past soggy eyelids at the concerned face of the vizier. “Ah! Belteshazzar! Thank the gods, you are here at last! Come,” blubbered the aging Nabu-Naid, tugging a cushion into place beside him. “Sit. I must tell you—for you alone can help me.”

Still puzzled and slightly alarmed, Daniel edged down beside the prime minister. Hesitantly he asked, “How … may I be of service, my lord?”

A deep, quivering sigh fluttered from Nabu-Naid’s breast. Peering into Belteshazzar’ s eyes, he said solemnly, “I have had a dream, Belteshazzar.”

Almost instinctively, Daniel searched within himself for the inner eye, the burning heraldry of the Almighty’s summons. He felt nothing, sensed nothing. His forehead creased in confusion. “Can you describe this dream, my lord?”

Good, thought Nabu-Naid. He will hear me out, then compose a suitable explanation. Believing his goal well in hand, the prime minister rose from the floor, clasping his hands behind him as he paced pensively to and fro in front of the listening Belteshazzar.

“As I lay on my couch last night, my soul was troubled. In my sleep, a voice called to me, but I could not understand the words … ”

Again Daniel tested the inner waters of his spirit, finding not the least ripple of a response. Nabu-Naid continued.

“Again and again the voice called out, but I could not discern what was said. However,” the prime minister said as he halted pacing and fixed Belteshazzar with a significant stare, “the tone was familiar to me.” Five heartbeats went by, and he resumed his prowling.vision

“In my dream I asked myself, ‘Whose is this voice which sounds so familiar, yet whose words are hidden from me?’ And suddenly, I realized!” The prime minister’s voice dipped to an awed whisper. “It was the sound of our departed lord—Nebuchadrezzar’s voice!”

Daniel looked askance at the restless figure of the prime minister. A small doubt had raised its irksome head. Still. he listened on.

“I knew that my dear master was trying to say something to me,” the prime minister was saying, his voice beginning to fray with emotion, “but I could not comprehend his meaning. Now and again certain words or phrases would pierce the veil of my cognizance. ‘Throne,’ he seemed to say once, then ‘my son,’ and finally, ‘my friend.”’ Overcome by the memory, Nabu-Naid halted again, daubing his eyes with a linen kerchief concealed in his sleeve.

Daniel’s inner voice still told him nothing.

Returning to where the vizier sat, stooping to grasp his forearms in a fervent, beseeching grip, Nabu-Naid begged: “O, Belteshazzar! You were often able to comfort our beloved father Nebuchadrezzar! Can you not again bring balm to his restless spirit, and to mine? Can you not tell me the meaning of this dream?”

Something deep within him whispered to Daniel that he lacked all the parts to this whole. He closed his eyes for a moment, in reflection.

Aha! thought Nabu-Naid. Here it comes …

“My lord,” said Belteshazzar at last, “I do not see the truth of this dream. It does not lie within me.”

Taken aback, the prime minister stared open-mouthed at the vizier. “But … I do not understand—”

“I cannot help you,” said the vizier, standing to leave. “This—this dream of yours is not revealed to me. The Almighty has not shown it to me.”

Nettled by this unexpected recalcitrance, Nabu-Naid frowned. “How can you not aid me, Belteshazzar? Always before—”

“I had no choice before,” interrupted Belteshazzar on his way toward the door. “The word of the Lord burned in me, and I could not hide it, even though … ” A regretful memory plucked at the sleeve of his mind. “Even though I wanted to. But know this, my lord,” the vizier finished, “some dreams are better left undisturbed. Once their meaning is announced, the dreamer may wish he had remained unroused, uninformed. Sometimes the way forward is harder than the way back.” Then he was gone.

Fuming, Nabu-Naid ground his teeth in frustration. He would have his omen, if not by Belteshazzar, then by some other. Adad-ibni, perhaps …

“THE MEANING OF THIS DREAM is this, my brothers,” intoned Adad-ibni pompously to the assembly of priests and mages. “Our father Nebuchadrezzar speaks from the blessed realm beyond to say to our lord Nabu-Naid—and to us—that a wise and experienced hand is required to steady the tiller of Babylon in this pivotal time.”

The smells of sandalwood and myrrh were thick in the great hall of Esagila. The senior priests of all the chief deities were gathered to hear the interpretation of Nabu-Naid’s portentous dream. After seven days of fasting and consultation with the sky-charts, after arcane divination ceremonies and rigorous sacrificial procedures, Adad-ibni had convened this council of the topmost echelons of the god-houses to announce his findings.

Not that many were in doubt about the ultimate result. The rise in Adad-ibni’s fortunes and his correspondingly close association with the prime minister these last years, were factors lost on no clear-eyed observer. To some of the priests this reading of omens had about it the odor of a thing done after the fact.

“Our father Nebuchadrezzar,” proclaimed the seer, “whose firm and mighty hand lifted Babylon out of bondage to the Ninevite intruders, now speaks to us again, this time from across the chasm of death. He bids us recognize the value of age, of wisdom acquired by years of experience, of steady, sure knowledge gained through long association with the inner workings of the kingdom … ”

Seated among the front ranks of the dignitaries, Nabu-Naid shifted a bit uncomfortably. He had asked the mage to work in some reference to his wisdom, but Adad-ibni made him sound as if he were in his dotage.advisors

“First, our father Nebuchadrezzar says, ‘Throne.’ What else can this mean but that he wishes to speak to us in our confusion about him who shall sit upon the Dragon Throne itself? Next, he says, ‘My son.”’ Adad-ibni affected a pained, grieving look, his voice dipping several pitches. “How we have suffered, watching the rending pain to which our royal houses have been subjected! Who has not wept within himself for the sorrow brought on by the untimely passing of three scions of our greatest families?”

Again Nabu-Naid squirmed slightly in his seat. Was the fool trying to eulogize Awil-Marduk and the others? Let him get on with the matter at hand!

“And finally, my brothers,” announced the mage self-importantly, “Nebuchadrezzar says, ‘My friend.’ Who else can he mean than one on whose arm he has leaned, one on whose advice he has depended? One whose patient, capable hands have helped guide and shape the governance of the empire for so many years? One, in fact, to whom our departed lord himself spoke through the mysterious dream-world, to show him the charge he must accept? Nebuchadrezzar, seated among the lords of heaven, has aided us in our hour of need. The man he has chosen to uphold Babylon among the nations is our lord prime minister, Nabu-Naid. This is the meaning of the dream. The gods have spoken.”

THE CLAY WAS SCARCELY DRY on the proclamation tablets before Nabu-Naid performed his first official act as emperor, dispatching several divisions of infantry to Haran with his son Belshazzar at their head. Their nominal mission was to defeat the Medean garrison there and reclaim the ancient city between the Tigris and Euphrates for the Babylonian Empire.

Not much resistance was encountered at Haran, since Astyages’ dwindling resources were focused on the growing problems on his southeastern flank. Crown Prince Belshazzar and his legions made quick work of the few hapless defenders they met and soon began the real task Nabu-Naid had set before them: to restore and rebuild the Temple of Sin, which had languished so long under the inattentive Medean hegemony.

In some quarters, grumbling was heard about the folly of sending Chaldean troops so far north for no other purpose than refurbishing the dilapidated shrine of a lesser god. After all, they reasoned, why should the king, the earthly regent of Marduk, concern himself with the faraway temple of the moon god Sin, to the neglect of Babylonian bellies? In recent years the river-fed plantations of Akkad and Sumer had not yielded with the bounty of times past. The waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, carried through a webwork of canals, did not nourish the soil as in the past; fields that once had produced amply now bore less and less—as if the land was fatigued. Even the temples found themselves in the position of being silver-rich and staple-poor. More and more, Babylon had to import her bread—such as was available.

The new emperor could not completely scorn the rumblings in the marketplaces and along the river docks. Perhaps it was inevitable that this son of a priestess should once again look to the heavens, to the signs and omens, for delivery from his dilemma. Nor had he forgotten the quick-witted Persian—and Cyrus, his presumably clever sovereign—who had bandied words with him in his suite. Shrewdly Nabu-Naid found a way to fuse the two needs, forging a double-pronged justification for the Haran gambit.

“THE GODS HAVE LET ME see a dream … ” quoted the crier from a clay tablet bearing the imperial seal. A crowd had gathered in the square before Egibi’s counting house, attracted by the gaudy livery of the imperial household and the strident fanfare of the accompanying trumpeters. At the mention of yet another royal dream-sign, the throng grew quiet, even as it muttered with mardukmuted skepticism.

“Marduk, the Great Lord, and Sin, the Light of Heaven and Earth, appeared to me. Marduk said to me, ‘Nabu-Naid, king of Babylon, bring bricks on your own horse and chariot and build in Haran the House of Joy for Sin, that he may take up his dwelling there … ’

“Then I replied to Marduk, ‘But the Medes, the barbarian hordes, have laid siege to the house of Lord Sin.’ Marduk said to me, ‘These whom you have named—they shall cease to exist!’

“And indeed, Marduk has brought against them Cyrus, king of Anshan, his young servant … ”

Egibi, standing in his doorway, stroked his beard as he leaned on his cane. So Nabu-Naid openly admitted his dependence on the Persian’s success, did he? Whether the mountain king was victorious or not, the banker ruminated, the new king’ s words confirmed certain suspicions about the undergirding of the Babylonian royal house. The merchant began questioning whether the size of the barley shipment he had just taken on consignment was truly adequate. In uncertain times, he thought, a full belly may cost dearer. Wheeling about in decision, he called a runner to him. “Boy, fetch me the latest tablet of accounts,” he ordered as he hobbled toward his private vault. “I may wish to make some changes … ”

“I ASSUME, OF COURSE, that you will wish certain alterations made in the religious observances here in Shushan,” began Gaudatra, bowing deeply to his royal host as a slave passed him the bowl of sweetmeats. “Shall I give orders that the shrines and temples be destroyed, or will you merely replace the images and altars with those more suitable to yourself?” Daintily the governor picked through the delicacies presented to him.

Gaudatra dined now as a guest in the fortress of Shushan, which until Kurash’s coming had been his own residence. The stronghold was temporarily commandeered by the newly acclaimed lord of Elam until completion of the more grandiose citadel-palace which would be the capital of Kurash’s empire. The new ruler’s many lavish gifts to Gaudatra had considerably lessened the chagrin of being moved out of his own house.

Looking up from his food, Kurash stared at the governor strangely. He had been in control of Elam for almost a year, and still the oddities of these plains-dwelling city folk shocked him. “Why would I wish the shrines and temples destroyed?” the Persian asked in honest befuddlement. “My fight is not against the gods, but against men.”

It was Gaudatra’s turn to be confused. “But … my lord,” he stammered, a candied almond halfway to his mouth, “thus it is always done by the conqueror. A victory for my lord Kurash is a victory for his god, and a humiliation for the defeated gods. For countless generations it has been this way. Surely my lord sees the sense of this?”sin

“I do not,” stated Kurash flatly. “I care not a fig to whom or what the people pray, as long as they pay their taxes. While I reign in Shushan there shall be no destruction of temples or holy places. The customs of the people of my lands shall be respected, and they shall not be prohibited from worshiping the gods their ancestors worshiped. Is this understood?”

The governor bowed low. “My king’s wishes shall be obeyed.” As Gaudatra straightened, Kurash thought he detected a lingering crease of doubt or confusion. Just as well, he thought. Let him ponder for a while—perhaps he’ll come to see the stupidity of such blind adherence to tradition.

After the meal, as the governor paced in disciplined steps from the hall, Kurash turned to the ever-present Gobhruz. “Well, old friend? What say you? Shall Ahura Mazda be jealous of the freedom that I grant to my new-found people? On the Day of Testing, shall my spirit be cast into outer darkness with the devas and the wicked men?”

The old Mede grunted, shifting his eyes away from those of Kurash. “My lord knows I bother little with such matters,” he muttered. “I concern myself with the ways of men, not the ways of gods.”

“Well said, Gobhruz,” chuckled the new lord of Elam and most of Medea, as well as Persis. “Well said, indeed.”

The older man chewed the words he wished to offer next. Kurash, sensing unspoken thoughts rambling about in his mentor’s head, finally said, “Out with it, Gobhruz. Your silent thinking is more painful for me to bear than whatever it is you would say.”

Glancing at his lord from beneath his graying, bushy eyebrows, the Mede asked, “What next, my lord? After this?”

Kurash leaned back in his chair, staring down at the open palm of his hand. “My informers tell me that Croesus has extended his Lydian clutches along the River Halys to the upper reaches of the Euphrates. Perhaps he thinks that because Asturagash lies gasping in Ecbatana, no one concerns himself with the northern lands of Medea. But I suspect he shall soon learn the error of his suppositions.”

Impatiently Gobhruz shook his head. “Not that, my king. I already knew that, or guessed as much.”

Kurash’s forehead wrinkled with perplexity. Wordlessly, he waited for his most trusted adviser to continue.

“You were bred to rule,” explained the Mede, “or to die. No other choice was ever permitted you. From the time of your birth I have known this. Your father knew it too, though he would fain have not.” The older man peered carefully at the face of his king, then away. “Do you know the story of your infancy?”thinking

Kurash shook his head, helpless to do anything but listen.

“It is rumored—and for my part, I believe it,” said Gobhruz, “that Asturagash, after he had given his daughter Mandane to your father as wife, suffered from a dream. The form of the dream differs from teller to teller, but suffice it to say that the night-vision gave him cause to fear you.”

Kurash’s eyes widened, his nostrils flared. An echo of the child’s anger caused him to clench his teeth. So! The ambivalence toward Medea he had felt as a young boy had been more than infantile pretension! Apparently his grandfather, in the far-off palace at Ecbatana, had felt some intuition of the destiny that had brought them both to this day. Perhaps the old king, through his daughter, felt and feared the birth-pangs of the new.

Gobhruz continued: “It may be these stories were only entertainments for the old women and eunuchs of the palace at Ecbatana. I cannot say. But I do know this … ” Again the bodyguard fixed his king with a challenging stare, and this time his eyes did not blink away. “From your first breath, something—be it a god, or a deva, or both—has drawn you toward empire, as a moth is drawn to the flame of a lamp. Your feet are set on a path which you can neither change nor understand.”

The eyes of the two men sparked with each other, the amber eyes of the king burning hot and quick, the dark gaze of his friend and servant glowing with a more stubborn, grudging warmth. Presently Gobhruz went on.

“What I meant earlier was this: After the throne of Medea is gained, what then? Have you considered this?”

Kurash’s face silently asked him to continue.

“Yesterday you ruled Persis. Today and tomorrow, Medea. The day after, Lydia—perhaps the islands of the Hellenes after that. And one day you will stand before the walls of Babylon, and some star-gazing Chaldean king will know what your grandfather Asturagash learned on his bed, in the hush of the night.”

Kurash smiled. “Good Gobhruz, I believe you make too simple what is really—”

“But mind this, O Kurash, Shepherd of the People,” pressed the older man, “and take it to heart: You cannot conquer any city, lay tribute upon any land, or set satraps over any tribe which has not already been subjugated by some now-forgotten chieftain in some vanished yesterday.” The bodyguard’s words rained upon the king’s shoulders like fate, stabbing Kurash in the hidden places of his soul. “Think of it, Lord Kurash: Tomorrow you shall take the preeminence, but only yesterday it was the Medes, cyrusand the day before that the Chaldeans, and before them the Assyrians.” Gobhruz paused, continuing in a softer voice. “What you win today,” he said, “what your sons after you may hold for a little while, will one day lie under the shadow of another—perhaps a child yet to be born. Each conquest shows the way of its own undoing, my lord. Such is the nature of kings, and of kingdoms.”

Kurash slowly clenched and unclenched his fist, studying it as if seeing it for the first time. After many heartbeats he looked up at his bodyguard, his counselor. “Then shall I not make the attempt? Shall I go back to my valley and be a quiet, contented horse-king?” There was no bitterness in the king’s voice, no rancor. Only a certain quiet guardedness, such as a pupil might display at an unwelcome assignment.

“I have already said it,” replied Gobhruz. “You can do nothing else than go forward. It is your fate—or your duty. But you must know, too, that it cannot be forever, this empire you are building. With men only the semblance of permanence, the appearance of eternity is possible. The wish is there, but not the capability to fulfill it. With the gods, matters may be different, but such lies beyond my seeing.”tomb

Once more a rapt, plaintive silence filled the chamber. Looking away, into a distant comer of the room or of his future, Kurash intoned softly, “Well said, Gobhruz—well said.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 17

NABU-NAID CAREFULLY EXAMINED the man seated on the embroidered silk cushions of his private suite. He wore the garb of a horseman, his clothing dusty and rank with sweat from the long time he had spent in the saddle on his journey here. He spoke Aramaic that had something of a Medean accent about it, but with a slight difference. He claimed to be an emissary of this Cyrus—Kurash, they called him in Shushan—who was causing such a stir in the territories east of the Tigris.

This envoy had arrived at the gate of the palace accompanied by only one other rider. Both were mounted on handsome Nisayan chargers, the horses bred by the Persians in the high valleys and tablelands of their distant country.

The prime minister was intrigued by the possibilities for this meeting. One of his dearest desires was purging the Medean presence from Haran and its environs. Could Cyrus be used as the lever to loosen Astyages’ grasp on the city of his ancestors?

“It is said Cyrus seeks to extend his domain,” began NabuNaid. “How far does your master believe he can reach?” asked the prime minister, his obsidian eyes closely observing the messenger’s reaction to such a direct thrust.

The amber eyes of the envoy never wavered from the prime minister’s, his face a relaxed, unreadable mask. “My lord Kurash keeps his own council in such matters,” stated the Persian, deftly deflecting the prime minister’s question. “My mission to Babylon is to determine the stance of your king on the question of my lord’s intention to annex Medea. What will his posture be in this regard?”

Geheime Zusammenkunft / Gem.v.Repin - Secret Meeting / Repin / 1883 -Parry and thrust. Nabu-Naid liked the style of this outlander; he gave as good as he got. With new caution, the prime minister pursed his lips before replying. “One might think your master a bit brash in his disdain for the might of Astyages’ arm. The Medes have ruled vast territories for longer than you have been alive.”

The Persian smiled. Nabu-Naid’s eyes widened at such an unexpected response. “My lord’s enemies have frequently commented on this brashness of his,” the emissary said, “but he has not seen fit to change his practice. Most of those who have found fault with his impetuosity are by now either his vassals, or dead.”

Such confidence, reflected Nabu-Naid, was either well-founded or suicidal. Filing this away for later analysis, he framed his next query. “How soon would Cyrus move against Medea?”

“The answer depends,” retorted the Persian, “on the disposition of your king. My lord Kurash would be ill-disposed to mount an early offensive without knowing whether he might be forced to face the combined resources of Babylon and Medea.”

Again the quick parry. Playing for time, the prime minister asked, “Why does Cyrus believe Babylon might align herself with Medea?”

“You were allies against the Assyrians, were you not?” answered the envoy. “Didn’t my own kin ride under the banner of Uvakhshatra, alongside the infantry of Chaldea? The memories of Parsis are not so short that we can easily assume your neutrality in this matter. Today’s foes can be tomorrow’s advocates, and it is always best, if possible, to know which is which.”

So the horseman knew his history, thought Nabu-Naid. If Cyrus commanded the loyalty of many such as this sharp-witted one, his bravado might indeed be well justified. “I have never spoken to my lord Awil-Marduk on the matter you raise,” admitted Nabu-Naid. “But,” he went on, seeing the impatient look of the Persian, “I believe I can say that his, ah … his inattention can be assured, at the very least.”

As the Persian digested this veiled promise, Nabu-Naid smirked inwardly at the joke he had made with himself. Inattention, indeed—to be sure!

“I must caution you,” the Persian warned finally, “that my lord Kurash is most intolerant of double-dealing. If I am allowed to take him this word you have just given me, be assured that he will rely on it. If he is disappointed … ”

Nabu-Naid kept his face carefully neutral. Inwardly he bridled at being threatened in his own chambers by an outlander errand boy, even if a clever one. “Your master may rely on the words spoken here this night,” he said at last, his tone inflectionless.

“Very well,” said the Persian decisively, rousing himself quickly from the cushion. “I must be off. My lord Kurash will be most grateful for your frank understanding.”

Nabu-Naid allowed his chin to bend toward his chest. When he straightened again, the horse-sweat smell of the Persian’s clothing was all of him that remained in the room.

AS HIS COMPANION swung astride his steed, Gobhruz asked, “Did you find what you needed to know?”

Grinning, Kurash nodded his head. “There are currents and crosscurrents in this place, Gobhruz. The prime minister is a jackal with the patience of a serpent and the belly of a swine. We have not seen the last of him—yet he may entwine himself in his own trap.”

As they reined their mounts out of the citadel courtyard and into Aibur Shabu, Gobhruz mumbled, “Still, I fail to see why you risk your neck on such errands as this. Why not send someone?”

“Some things,” replied Kurash as the horses’ hoofs clattered over a canal bridge, “one must see first hand.”

riders

AWIL-MARDUK LAY RESTLESSLY on his couch, waiting impatiently for sleep to come. Through the open window he could see the vivid disc of the moon, coursing on its stately path among the lustrous stars of the clear Chaldean night.

During these last few weeks, a deep sense of well being had gradually displaced the nervous apprehension of his early days as heir to his father’s throne. With the freeing of Jeconiah, something shifted in the depths of his soul—a calming, a blooming confidence rose up within him, as if knowing he was free to show mercy somehow mitigated the solemn nature of his responsibility. He had found the first traces of his identity as king of Babylon.

This quiet exhilaration was what kept him awake tonight, staring out at the blazing host of the heavens.

The change in Awil-Marduk’s nature was noticed in other quarters as well. Outside the king’s chamber, in a shadowed corner out of earshot of the bodyguard stationed beside the door, a whispered conference was taking place between two who were not as pleased as the rest of the court with the increasing control exerted by the newly confident young king.

“Are you certain this is required?” asked Nergal-Sharezer nervously. “If we are discovered—”

“How can we be discovered, fool?” hissed Nabu-Naid, allowing his impatience with the prince to pierce his self-control. “As I told you, I have ensured the silence of those who will know what has passed and taken steps to place the blame far from anyone within these walls.” His midnight-dark eyes lashed the fretful prince. “The weaklings who once agreed with our cause are now wavering, because they suppose Awil-Marduk’s abilities improve. But you and I know better,” he asserted fiercely. “If you would sit on the throne, you must learn to do what is necessary. Because of my love for this city and its kingdom, I am able to face this unpleasant reality. Are you?”

Nergal-Sharezer, perhaps as fearful of the one before him as of the deed afoot, nodded hesitantly, then dropped his eyes.

“Good,” grunted Nabu-Naid. “Now go and do what we planned, and I will make certain of the rest.” Quietly the two men stole away from the king’ s chamber.

LATER, IN THE DEAD HOURS when even the night creatures have ceased stirring, Nergal-Sharezer, dressed only in a light sleeping-robe, strode toward the king’ s door, his face agitated with alarm.

“Guard!” he half-whispered to the soldier standing outside the door. “You must hurry! As I lay on my bed, unable to sleep, I heard a sound outside, below the king’s window! I fear intruders may be seeking a way to the king’s couch from the garden outside! Come with me!”

The guard, his face furrowed with concern, hesitated, glancing from the urgent visage of the prince to the door where duty bound him.

“Come on!” hissed Nergal-Sharezer. “I have summoned another to take your post! You are the night guard—it is your duty! As prince, I command you!”

A man dressed in the livery of the palace guard came hurrying from the shadows down the hall, rubbing his eyes as if just roused from sleep. Seeing this, the bodyguard wavered, then turned toward the prince. “Show me, my lord,” he said in a low voice. As they strode off, he turned to the drowsy soldier just arrived. “You guard the king,” he warned. “See that you stay awake!” The replacement sentry nodded, taking his station outside the royal bedchamber.

As the prince and the bodyguard paced swiftly around a bend in the corridor, Nabu-Naid sidled out of the shadows. Going to the king’s door, he produced a key from within his robes. Quietly he unlatched the heavy oaken door, while the disguised sentry stood by and drew his dagger. Then NabuNaid stepped back to let the weapon-bearer slip noiselessly into the room’s darkness. In a moment the prime minister heard a quick rustling of bedclothes, then nothing. The footsteps came quietly back to the door, where NabuNaid waited, holding out a wallet bulging with silver. Reaching eagerly for the wallet, the catspaw failed until too late to see the dagger in the prime minister’s hand.knife

SEATED ON THE DRAGON THRONE, Nergal-Sharezer looked somberly about the hushed gathering in the huge hall. Outside, the fierce heat of late summer broiled the walls and streets of Babylon, where the funeral of the lamented young Awil-Marduk had just been solemnized.

“My people,” intoned the newly installed monarch, “the gods shall not allow the treachery practiced upon my dear brother, your murdered king, to go unavenged. The dagger that took his life bore a Medean device. The criminals shall be punished, though they hide in the very citadel of Astyages himself. As regent of Marduk, who sees and redresses wrongdoing, I swear this to you.”

From his place by the king’s shoulder, the prime minister smirked inwardly. Indeed. The gods would punish this betrayal. He would see to it personally.

A GROUNDSWELL was gathering in Medea, a tempest that battered the walls and watchtowers of the citadel in Ecbatana. The nobles and commanders of the provinces of Astyages’ empire, from embattled Armenia and Cappadocia in the north and west to Bakhtrish and Arachosia in the south and east, made pilgrimage in ones and twos to Parsagard in the Zagrash highlands. Following the lead of the clans of the Persian plateau, they sought out one who could supply them with a quality of leadership missing in Astyages’ gluttonous tyranny.

At first cautiously, then with a building enthusiasm, they pledged loyalty to the charismatic Kurash, son of Mandane and Kanbujiya. Along with the Parsi’s quick intelligence and grasp of the intricacies of empire, they discovered a sensibility and appreciation for the diversity of their ways and cultures that Astyages had always lacked. The old Aryan virtues of independence and open dealing found a refreshing new expression in the court of Kurash of Persia. He was becoming the first people’s king. The tide would prove to be irreversible. Kurash would march into Ecbatana all but unopposed and would take upon himself a new royal name and title: Darius the King of the Medes and the Persians.

BABYLON FOUND HERSELF in mourning once again for the untimely death of a king. Nergal-Sharezer had succumbed to a sudden illness brought on, according to the court physicians, by consumption of spoiled pomegranates. The poison had swiftly carried away the prince who promised justice for the slayers of his sister’s husband. The prime minister made a stirring oration in the vast courtyard of Esagila on the day of the royal corpse’s consecration, lamenting the mysterious workings of fate and circumstance. Weeping uncontrollably through all the proceedings was Labashi-Marduk, the sallow-skinned son of Nergal-Sharezer who was confirmed as king in his father’s stead.

He too died—less than one year later.

IN A SMALL SEMICIRCLE at the tomb’s opening, Daniel, Azariah, Mishael, and Hananiah stood and looked sadly upon the wrapped, spice-sheathed body of Caleb. The ancient, gnarled servant had finally breathed his last, and the friends resolved to do this final service for one who had attended them so faithfully for more years than they could readily reckon. As a gesture of respect, Azariah had insisted the beloved servant’s body be encrypted in one of the spaces reserved for the members of his family, here in a small, rocky valley not far from the walls of the city. Azariah’ s son stood beside him trying to appear brave but unable to avoid wiping his cheeks and nose with the backs of his hands.

tomb“So much death these days,” sighed Mishael, wiping the perspiration from his forehead with a chubby forearm. “From the greatest to the least, all must bow before the scepter of the grave.”

Azariah looked at Hananiah. “Have you a qaddish for our fallen servant?”

The musician nodded, glancing at Mishael. The eunuch cleared his throat as Hananiah strummed a melancholy phrase on his lyre. The song began.

O Lord, the God who saves me,

day and night I cry out before You.

May my prayer come before You;

turn Your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of trouble

and my life draws near to the grave.

I am counted among those who go down to the pit …

I call to You, O Lord, every day;

I spread out my hands to You.

Do You show Your wonders to the dead?

Do those who are dead rise up and praise You?

Is Your love declared in the grave,

Your faithfulness in Destruction?

Are Your wonders known in the place of darkness,

or Your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

As the last strains of the maskil wafted away on the cool winter breeze, Azariah looked deeply into the moist eyes of the eunuch. “It always comes to this, doesn’t it, my friends? Kings, beggars, prophets—all must come at last to this closing door which never reopens.”

“But even worse is to sleep forever in a land not your own,” observed Hananiah quietly. “Perhaps, one day … ” The taciturn man fell silent.

A distant echo, quiet as the bursting of a lily’s bud, caused Daniel to catch his breath. He looked at his friends, a strange hopefulness pressing tentatively against his breastbone. “Perhaps … ” he breathed, and could say no more. Too fleeting to name, too beautiful to trust, the moment passed. The others watched him until he shook his head and rubbed a hand across his eyes. “Forgive me,” Daniel shrugged, “I thought … Never mind. Azariah, should we not seal the tomb?”

“Yes,” said Azariah, still thoughtfully studying his friend’s face. “I suppose so.” The four men and the boy placed their shoulders against the large round, flattened stone beside the entryway. As they heaved, the rock rolled grudgingly down the stone channel cut into the valley floor, until it ground into place across the opening of the tomb. Dusting off their hands and sighing as they looked a final time on the resting place of the one they had known and loved so long, the small party turned to go back to the city.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 16

THE CHORUS of professional mourners paced slowly past, each singer swathed in identical white mourning garments, each cheek cleanly, evenly gashed with the official badge of grief. As they trod past the silent crowds thronging either side of Aibur Shabu, they sang a carefully rehearsed funeral ode to Nebuchadrezzar, whose embalmed and decorated corpse followed along behind, atop its shimmering golden bier.funeral

For a final time, the populace of Babylon lined the Processional Way to watch in somber fascination as the body of Nebuchadrezzar, the only ruler all but the oldest Babylonians had ever known, promenaded past on its way to Esagila. There it would receive its final consecration by the priests of Marduk.

Awil-Marduk strode solemnly behind his father’s bier, striving with every fiber of his being to appear kingly. Behind the dutiful, sober facade, however, a frightened child screamed silently for rescue. The new king already felt entrapped, hemmed in by the stifling confines, the onus of his inherited, unavoidable obligation. Why? he shouted silently to the dead ears of his father. Why have you done this to me?

In step just behind and to the side of Awil-Marduk, Nergal-Sharezer cut his eyes unobtrusively toward his brother-in-law and new king. Unbidden, a smirk curled his lip as he studied the profile of the one about to embark upon the rule of Babylon without a single qualification other than the accident of birth. But that might be remedied, the prince told himself, remembering his conversation with the prime minister. Awil-Marduk might inherit the mantle, but it remained to be seen how long it would remain on his shoulders …

Daniel followed closely behind the bier and the emperor’s family, at the front of the nobles and court officials whose duty prescribed their attendance at the emperor’s last procession. As he walked, he thought of the closing days of this king who had brought him to this city so long ago, who had raised him to the inner councils of empire, then lowered him, and finally raised him again in the waning rays of his life’s sunset.

Something had left the king after his experience in the sky-garden—and something had been added. From that day forth, Nebuchadrezzar seemed to relinquish his grip on the fabric of this world. To Daniel he appeared to lose interest in maintaining his mortal life, putting in its place a type of anticipation of something yet unseen—as if craning his neck to spy what might await him beyond.

The fire, the urgency, the spark of command—the attributes which had made him the lodestone of the empire for decades—all these were gone, shuffled off as suddenly as one discards a cloak no longer needed. In his last days, Nebuchadrezzar had exhibited instead a sort of amused detachment from the matters of state: a weary, knowing uncoupling from the harness in which he had placed himself upon the death of his own father, so many years before. He had ceased to be a king, and had become instead a tired old man ready to accept death … and even to embrace it.daniel

Daniel wondered: What had the Eternal whispered into the ears of the one whose body now lay on the bier ahead? How had that terrifying encounter with the Holy One altered Nebuchadrezzar, that he could so suddenly shift his gaze from the glittering, fortified habits of a lifetime to the dark vulnerabilities of Sheol?

And what now lay in store for the empire, and for the Chosen? For all but a few years of Daniel’s life, Nebuchadrezzar had been the pivotal fact of daily existence: the adversary to be feared or the patron to be served. Now he was gone. Who might the Lord of heaven be raising up to assume the place Nebuchadrezzar had vacated?

Nabu-Naid trod along in his place within the ranks of courtiers, his mournful face masking the eager anticipation hammering in his breast. Since the first wavering wail of the priests had announced the emperor’s death, the prime minister had tasted the intoxicating draught of a carefully laid scheme ripe for implementation. With the powerful Nebuchadrezzar out of the way, he felt his time had come at last.

He did not fear overmuch for his ultimate success. He had spent too much time and made his preparations too sure to overestimate his chances of fulfillment. With the crafty certainty of years of cunning, he knew the pieces were falling into place.

Glancing to his left, he noticed the profile of Belteshazzar. Nabu-Naid was slightly puzzled by this fellow. In all the prime minister’s years of tangled maneuverings within the court, he had never found this Belteshazzar involved in any intrigue whatsoever. And yet he maintained his position and standing with the emperor, even returning from disgrace to march in the front ranks of the nobility! What was it about the Hebrew that enabled him to enjoy such effortless immunity from the vicissitudes of fortune? Nabu-Naid decided to keep Belteshazzar near him. A leader had need of good luck; perhaps proximity to Belteshazzar would grant it …

Peering ahead, Adad-ibni burned with indignation each time his glance lit upon Belteshazzar, who occupied a place of great honor near the bier of the emperor. How was it possible? Why did the gods jest with him so, taunting him with this Jew who could never be finally disposed of?

Adad-ibni had barely averted a disaster, even as the final preparations of the king’s corpse were being completed. It seemed that Nebuchadrezzar had dictated to this hated Jew a tablet alluding to his bizarre seven-day disappearance as a visitation by Belteshazzar’s god! As if having Belteshazzar back in the good graces of the court were not enough, having a public proclamation of the power of his god become a part of the public records of Nebuchadrezzar’s reign—the thought of it caused the chief mage to shudder even now. Fortunately he had been able to find and destroy all the tablets copied from the original, and he had managed to “store” the original with the priests of Marduk. He had no doubt that their self-interest would dictate the damning tablet’s ultimate fate.

But still, there walked Belteshazzar, not two shoulderwidths away from Nabu-Naid himself! And Adad-ibni had thought the prime minister his ally. Fuming silently, the seer walked on …

Daniel’s fingers slipped beneath his mourning robes as he walked, fingering the small, rustling packet secreted away in his girdle. He smiled inwardly. The parchment copy of the king’ s narrative, carried in his belt, gave him comfort on this day of uncertainties. Regardless of the hostility of Adad-ibni and the others, Daniel’s fingers, tracing the outlines of the parchment, reassured him that a God existed who raised and abased kings, who remembered promises made—and who could preserve His people.image

DISMOUNTING HIS HORSE, Commander Indravash of the Medean army grunted with the effort of levering his old, unpliant body down from the stirrup. Hobbling with saddle-stiffness, he approached the door of Egibi and Sons.

The slave attending the door looked him up and down, a cool appraising manner in his stare. Indravash, who had come so often to this door on missions of the same sort, felt himself bridling with resentment. In these last years he did not receive the unctuous welcome of former days. No longer did Egibi dispatch a boy to the cellar to fetch a cooling draught of beer. No longer was their business conducted behind a latched, private door, under Egibi’s personal supervision. Nowadays the treatment accorded the envoy of King Asturagash stopped barely short of perfunctory.

Indravash, though unwilling to admit it openly, knew the reason. Asturagash was losing his grip on the far-flung empire built by his father. What was it about kings, wondered the old commander, that so often inhibited their children from receiving the vigor of their sires? Horseflesh could be improved and strengthened with breeding—why not men?

The slave at the door had returned with some minor clerk of Egibi’s establishment. “Follow me, please,” the employee announced in a dull voice, striding away within the house, not bothering himself to ascertain whether Indravash followed. Grumbling under his breath, the old Mede limped behind, carrying the package Asturagash had sent for pawning.

The servant motioned for Indravash to be seated on a palmwood bench just outside the main counting-room door, then strode off to other duties.

Indravash looked about him: Apparently Egibi was as prosperous as ever. Slaves and scribes hurried in and out the chamber, some carrying deeds to loaned property or transaction documents, some toting bags of silver, bales of spices, and sundry other goods. No one glanced in the direction of the dusty, tired old man holding the worn leather pouch. Indravash slumped wearily on the bench, with no choice but to wait.

horsemanPresently Egibi’s youngest son strode out of the counting room, busily dusting his hands together. Briskly he approached Indravash, smiling a businesslike smile. “Greetings, Lord Indravash. I hope you have not been waiting too long. Let me see what you have brought us this time.” Expectantly he studied the bag in Indravash’ s lap.

Slowly the Mede reached into the bag, gingerly drawing forth a piece of statuary. From the dull yellowish color and the straining of Indravash’s sinews as he hefted the piece, Egibi’s son could tell it was of solid-cast gold—heavy and quite costly. It was the figure of a horse. Its eyes were of tiny emeralds, its flaring nostrils rubies. The teeth of the beast were fashioned of seed pearls, set evenly inside the finely worked line of the spread lips. A jewel-encrusted saddle and bridle caparisoned the beast, and it stood with one hoof upraised, as if poised to gallop away when placed on the floor. The banker immediately discerned that the figure was the work of a meticulous craftsman, and quite valuable—not to mention the worth of the gold alone.

Carefully he took the figurine in his hands, turning it this way and that, studiously examining the piece for flaws, defects, anything that would lessen its value to the collector. There were none. It was an exquisite piece; Egibi’s son imagined Asturagash had parted with it only grudgingly.

Setting the figurine gingerly on the low table beside the bench, he pursed his lips as Indravash looked at him expectantly. The banker cocked an eyebrow at the Mede. “Forty mana,” he said at last.

Indravash’s eyes bulged in disbelief. “Forty mana?” he glared, the veins standing out on his forehead. “The gold in this statue alone amounts to nearly a talent! This is an insult!”

Egibi’s son shrugged. “Lord Indravash, you are not bound to accept my offer. There are other banking houses—”

“You know cursed well why Asturagash comes to you,” grated Indravash. “He cannot very well have the priests of Marduk whispering in the ear of your new king that Medea must auction off the treasures of the royal household to pay her troops!”

The son of Egibi, his face a blank slate, stared coldly at the Mede. “Lord Indravash, this is a banking house. We don’t consider it our business to discuss political matters with the patrons—”horse

“Not your business?” scoffed the Mede, jumping angrily to his feet. “Since when has politics not been your business? In better days, when Asturagash breathed heavily on Nebuchadrezzar’s eastern frontier, your father fell over himself lending money to the king—whenever asked, and at terms more generous than he offered to his own people. But now,” he growled, “now that Croesus and his Lydians nibble away at our northern frontier, now that this upstart Kurash withholds his levies and makes war-noises on our southeast flank, you offer me forty mana for a piece worth more than the miserable hide of every slave in this house!”

The Medean commander stood panting, his teeth bared, while the still-seated banker’s gaze was cool, unemotional. Unseen by Indravash, a small circle of armed slaves gathered behind the Mede, poised to intercept any physical threat to their master. Egibi’s son allowed several moments to grind awkwardly past, then said quietly, “Lord Indravash, you have heard the offer of Egibi and Sons. It is the only one you will receive. You may stay or go, as you wish.”

Making as if to leave, he smiled secretly when he heard the low, defeated voice of the Mede. “Wait,” said Indravash, miserably. Veiling his emotions, he again faced the commander, a neutral, interrogative look on his face.

Shoulders slumped in resignation, the Mede gazed long at the precious statuette. Unable to look the banker in the face, he said, “Very well. Weigh out the silver.”

Egibi’ s son made a small gesture to a waiting scribe, who hurried forward to make the arrangements. “Thank you, Lord Indravash,” said the banker, breezily. “I am grateful you allowed us to make an offer. I hope your return journey to Ecbatana is safe and swift.” He strode busily away, his mind already moving on to other matters.

Behind him, Indravash watched dejectedly as the scales parceled out the paltry worth of his master’s future.

AWIL-MARDUK PACED NERVOUSLY to and fro at the end of the council chamber. Those seated around the table glanced nervously from the matters at hand to the king’s frenetic gait. The conference had already lasted most of the morning, and several important matters still awaited the king’s attention. But the king became progressively more restive as the meeting ground on, until at last he seemed able to pay only the scantiest heed to the discussion. No one knew exactly what to make of this odd behavior.

Nabu-Naid, clearing his throat discreetly, said, “Your majesty will no doubt wish to hear again the summation of this last report? I believe my king was distracted when the ambassador made his statement.”

Awil-Marduk halted his pacing, a startled look on his face. He looked at the council for several awkward, expectant heartbeats. It became painfully obvious to everyone in the room that the emperor had no idea what topic was currently under consideration. At last he spoke.

“Belteshazzar?”

“Yes, my king,” answered the august, silver-bearded official.

“It strikes me just this moment: I have never considered the prisoners my father impounded. Shouldn’t a new king release some captives?”

Embarrassed by the random gyrations of the king’s thoughts, Belteshazzar carefully studied the hem of his sleeve. Across the table, Nergal-Sharezer stifled a snicker.

“Yes, my king,” answered Belteshazzar finally. “That sort of thing is sometimes done at the outset of a king’s reign … as a gesture of goodwill.” Another long, tortured silence enveloped the room.

“Very well, then,” snapped the distracted young king. “Take me to the prison cells at once.”

Belteshazzar, looking quizzically about the table, then back to Awil-Marduk, asked, “Me, my king?”

“Yes, of course,” snapped the monarch, with a sharpness engendered by his discomfort. ‘1 wish to see the prisoners. Immediately.” Shrugging at the others, Belteshazzar rose from the table. “As you wish, my king.”

THE GUARD AT THE BOTTOM of the stairway bowed at their approach, somewhat startled to see the king in this area of the citadel.

“What sort of prisoners are kept in the citadel?” asked Awil-Marduk, as he and Belteshazzar made their way along the dank passageway.

Belteshazzar drew a deep breath before replying. “Most of the captives kept here are of the political sort, my king: persons of royal or noble blood from conquered lands kept here as hostages: defeated generals, vanquished kings—”

“Kings?” asked Awil-Marduk sharply. “Kings in this place?”

Belteshazzar looked carefully into the face of the young man. “Yes, my lord,” he answered softly. “Your father conquered many lands, many peoples. And not all of them acquiesced easily to his authority. Sometimes it was necessary to take rather stem measures … ” The vizier’s voice faded into sad remembrance, then silence.

Awil-Marduk reached out and took hold of the older man’s shoulder. “Belteshazzar, I know my father trusted you. I … I must tell you this, for I know no one else to tell … I—I do not know how to be a king, Belteshazzar.” The eyes staring at the vizier from beneath the imperial crown were desperate, liquid with worry. “I am not my father, Belteshazzar. I do not delight in this”—he gestured about him—“this subjugation of others, this deciding who shall live and who shall die.”

“But, my king—” began Daniel.

“I am not a king!” shouted Awil-Marduk. “Others may call me that, but naming a thing does not make it so! I never wanted this, but it sought me out nonetheless. Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?”

“Here, lad. I will listen.”

The king and his vizier looked at each other, startled. The voice had come from one of the dark, barred doorways of the many cells along the torchlit corridor. A morbid fascination drew Awil-Marduk to the opening, and the shadowed, gaunt face waiting there.

“Who are you?” asked the ruler of Babylon, softly.dungeon

“I don’t know,” replied the ghost-voice in the cell. “Once I was known as Jeconiah, king of Judah. But now … I don’t know … ”

At the name, Daniel felt a thrill spiking along his spine. The lost king of his people, carried to this place while still a smooth-cheeked youth! Rushing to the bars of the door, he whispered in awe, “Coniah! Is it truly you?”

A long hush fell, broken only by the sibilant sputtering of the torches bracketed along the walls. “How long it has been since anyone called me by that name!” breathed the prisoner. “You must have been in Judah, friend, to have known of me.”

“I am Daniel, son of Kemuel,” said the vizier, bending near the bars. “I came to Babylon almost at the same time you did, although … ”—Daniel paused, glancing self-consciously at Awil-Marduk, standing quietly beside him—“under better circumstances, I fear.”

Awil-Marduk spoke. “How long did you reign in Judah, Jeconiah?”

The wretch within the shadows tilted his head, thinking. “So long ago, so long … I was only a boy when my father died, when they made me king … ”

Daniel felt Awil-Marduk stiffen beside him as Jeconiah spoke.

“It could not have been more than … three months. Three months, perhaps.”

“You … When they made you king,” asked Awil-Marduk uncertainly, “were you … afraid?”

A spectral chuckle escaped the dry lips of the prisoner. “Ah, yes,” he nodded. “I was a terrified child disguised in the raiment of a king.”

Awil-Marduk’s fingers twitched at his sides, as if he longed to reach toward this prisoner of his father’s ambition, to heal—or to draw sustenance. He wanted to win back from the greedy grasp of unforgiving time the boy who had once been locked into this cell, guilty of no offense other than the accident of his birth. How well he knew the sensation of being trapped by the unasked-for, the unavoidable.

Turning to his vizier, Awil-Marduk made the first confident decision of his reign. “Belteshazzar, summon the guard. I wish to release this prisoner.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 15

STEPPING SOFTLY into the royal chamber, the emperor’s morning servant moved quietly to avoid prematurely disturbing the sleeping Nebuchadrezzar. Though it was his daily task to assist the ruler in waking and performing his morning toilet, the eunuch was careful not to rouse his imperial master until he had completed all the preparations.

Since the spring nights were still somewhat cool, he had brought warm water, heated in the kitchens, to pour into the alabaster wash-basin the king used to rinse the cobwebs of sleep from his face. This he now did, managing the flow carefully, so that scant sound of splashing could be detected.

jugNext he set the emperor’s chamber pot beside the royal couch, so that his master might not encounter the inconvenience of walking across the room to relieve himself. When the emperor was fully dressed and had left, the eunuch’s task would be to lug the foul-smelling vessel down to the river, emptying it in a private place.

Finally he laid out the emperor’s toilet articles: the finely tooled gold comb, the myrrh-impregnated oil for his beard and skin, the flawless linen under-robe with vivid purple stitching. When all was done, he turned his steps to the couch, to softly grasp the shoulder of his master and summon him to the day at hand.

Still three paces from the gold-and-ebony bedstead, the slave stopped, puzzled. The couch was vacant and undisturbed. Odd, that. In his waning days the emperor did not much avail himself of the concubines who took their turns sleeping in the adjoining suite, available to provide companionship if wanted. The slave shrugged, smiling. Even among the old, could the desire not make itself felt? Since his own neutering, the servant of course could not feel such things himself; but doubtless the king could—and apparently had.

He silently drew aside the silk veil that partitioned the imperial bedchamber from that of the concubine. Again his forehead wrinkled in confusion. There lay the concubine, fast asleep—and alone. The king was not here either.

Could he have risen early, and be already up and about? Such had never happened in all his long years of service, but the eunuch knew no other explanation. He went to the sleeping girl, shaking her rudely awake.

“Where is the king, you?” he demanded. “Tell me his whereabouts, and quickly. I must see that he lacks nothing for his morning preparations.”

The sleep-drugged girl raised herself on one elbow and blinked blearily at the fat old body-slave. “How should I know where he is?” she asked petulantly. “I haven’t seen him.”

He stared at her. “What do you mean? Wasn’t he sleeping with you last night?”

Sleepily, she shook her head. “I was here by sundown,” she said, rubbing her face. “But he never came in.” Looking out through the drawn veil, she commented, “It appears he didn’t sleep there either.”

The eunuch felt the first beginnings of panic. He had attended Nebuchadrezzar since his youth. Always the emperor’s routine upon awakening had been the same. Instinctively the servant knew something was amiss.

Leaving the concubine to drift back into sleep, he paced quickly out of the suite.

HE SQUATTED in the shadows, eagerly gnawing at the handful of roots and grass he had plucked from the moist soil. His clothing was tom and dirty from sleeping on the ground in the garden. As he chewed, his head darted this way and that in mindless, instinctive fear of what might be lurking about him. Hearing footsteps, he scrambled back among the low shrubbery that had concealed him during the night. Peering through the gaps in the foliage, he saw the feet and legs of one who made strange, incomprehensible sounds as he walked along the path. With the dumb skill of a wild thing, he made no sound, no movement as the threat moved toward him, then past and away. Long after the meaningless cries and the sounds madof breathing and walking had receded down the side of the incline, he stayed in his den, fearful of discovery.

“YOUR MAJESTY! Where are you? Please, you are frightening your humble servants! My lord Nebuchadrezzar?”

His voice growing hoarse from the repetitive calling, Azariah trod wearily down the steep side of the sky-garden. For a moment, near the top, he had sensed—something. But he had seen and heard nothing. Where was the emperor? With a chill, he remembered the troubled words of Daniel. What would happen if they could not find him? Worse yet—what would happen if they did?

“AND I SAY we must take action!” insisted Nabu-Naid with quiet emphasis. “For six days now we have combed every chamber, every closet, every corner of the palace grounds—yet we cannot find him anywhere! How much longer can we afford to let the empire stumble along, headless and groping? If our enemies knew—”

“But perhaps they do know!” hissed Awil-Marduk. “Perhaps it is they who have created this confusion! Have you considered that possibility, my lord prime minister?”

With barely veiled anger, Nabu-Naid grated, “My lord prince knows we have thought of nothing else these six days past! But how much longer do you think we can hide such a state of affairs from the people of this city? How much better to make a decision, to take affirmative steps, to make an open proclamation! Better far than this, this … futile effort to hide from a serious problem.” His glaring eyes roved the circle of the Privy Council, daring anyone to contradict him.

All eyes shifted to the prince-regent, crumpled into a chair at the farthest remove from the head of the table, openly miserable at the thought of such immense accountability being thrust upon him. Where a more ambitious man would be exultant, Awil-Marduk wished only to hide. But it was too late for that now.

Nabu-Naid knew well the anguish with which the crown prince regarded his prospects: It suited the prime minister’s purpose to intensify and accelerate the hapless prince’s discomfiture with his destiny. What better way to cause the nobility to recognize Awil-Marduk’s unfitness for leadership than by allowing him—no, forcing him—to assume it? And when certain nabonidusmatters took their course, and the nobility and populace cried out for stability, for vision …

“And when does the prime minister suppose such an announcement should be made?” queried another of the council members.

“One more day,” pronounced Nabu-Naid decisively. “If he—or his body—is not found … then we shall move.”

IT WAS DAYBREAK. His eyes fluttered open, squinting against the rays of sunrise that sought him out in his lair. Before he made any overt motions, his nostrils tested the air, his eyes flickered this way and that, seeking any indication of hostile presences. Satisfied, he sat up, wincing with the cramps his body invited by sleeping in the cool night air.

His belly was empty. Crawling through the underbrush, he found the place he sought. Digging through the loose soil, he found more of the roots and tubers on which he subsisted. He crammed a dirty clump of these into his mouth and chewed, all the while scanning the narrow horizons of his habitat for signs of danger.

As the last stringy, half-chewed clump of vegetation slid down his throat, his mind peered forth, wide-eyed and wondering, from the cavern in which it had hidden these last several days. Suddenly he awoke, staring without memory or comprehension at the grimy, scarred hands in his lap, his fingernails filthy black crescents of dirt. He looked down at his tom, soiled raiment. Where was his purple robe? Why did his hair hang in straggling, unkempt clumps? Why was his beard tom and ragged, matted with filth? Why did he sit here in his sky-garden like some animal?

Like an animal. With the force of a thunderclap, he remembered. The Voice … the dream … and Belteshazzar!

“VERY WELL. It’s decided, then,” said Nabu-Naid, black eyes glittering from his wrinkled face at each somber countenance gathered in the chamber. “We shall make a public announcement of the emperor’s death, simultaneously acclaiming Prince Awil-Marduk’s succession to his father’s place.”

Gravely, the other heads in the room nodded slowly. Awil-Marduk’s face was drawn and ashen—he looked very unlike an emperor.

“Scribe, take down these words,” commanded the prime minister. The clerk, moistened tablet in hand, took up his stylus and waited attentively.

“By the order of Awil-Marduk, rightful heir to the throne of Babylon, the chosen Crown Prince of his father the Emperor Nebuchadrezzar; and with the concurrence of the Privy Council: Be it hereby made manifest … ”

A gasp, as if each occupant of the chamber breathed through a single throat, prompted Nabu-Naid to pause in his dictation. The widened eyes and gaping mouths of the others caused him to look over his shoulder, toward the entryway.

There stood an apparition that might have been the emperor back from the dead. Indeed, he appeared to have clawed his way out of a shallow grave: His face and hands were caked with dirt, his hair and beard flying wild as wind-tossed branches. His clothing had the look of a beggar’s rags, though the tatters that hung from him were of the finest linens and silks. But the most shocking feature of his appearance, the magnet to which every gaze in the room was finally drawn, were his eyes.

They shone like lamps of heaven. His face, though grimy and stained, reflected their glow with the radiance of a seraph. His was the face of one who has seen the gods.

Perhaps fifteen heartbeats passed before anyone thought to make obeisance. Then the counselors scrambled frantically to their knees, as eager to avoid the hypnotic luster of the emperor’s eyes as to demonstrate their loyalty to one whom, moments ago, they had agreed to pronounce dead.

For an eternity no sound was heard, save the thud of pulses and the half-suppressed panting of awed courtiers. Then the emperor spoke, with the voice of a man who has returned from a journey of incalculable length: “Bring to me Belteshazzar.”eyes

DANIEL WALKED into the emperor’s chamber, his face stiff with apprehension. The summons had reached him at Azariah’s house, the runner breathless and white-eyed with the urgency of the message. Since learning he was to appear alone before Nebuchadrezzar, Daniel had scarcely drawn an even breath. He took two paces into the room, then a third.

Then he saw the emperor.

The tangled, matted hair, the filthy, ragged appearance—at once Daniel knew the reason. He had seen it all in his mind’s eye, when with fear-choked breath he had given Nebuchadrezzar the implications of his dream. Falling to his knees, he could hardly speak. “My lord,” he murmured finally, hardly knowing whether he addressed the visible emperor, or the invisible Presence.

At length, Nebuchadrezzar spoke. Daniel had never heard the emperor’s voice sound so aged, so tired—as if this last ordeal had sapped the last reserves of the vitality and decisiveness which had driven and sustained him all these years. “Belteshazzar … you … you spoke and saw truly.”

A thrill of fear shot through Daniel’s chest, a racing of his already rapid pulse. He remained silent.

“The Voice … my sanity … all just as you said.” The sound of his words was faded, threadbare; the speech of a man who had been finally, irrevocably humbled. Slowly Daniel raised his eyes until he was looking at his king. Nebuchadrezzar leaned weakly against a wall, staring out a window.

The silence stretched so long that Daniel thought perhaps he should venture some word, some summons to recall the emperor from the distant place of his inner vision.

“What do you see, my king?” asked Daniel softly.

Nebuchadrezzar sighed. “Only a city, Belteshazzar. A city I once ruled.”

“But my lord is yet the emperor! No one would dare say—”

“No, Belteshazzar,” said the emperor, shaking his head. “In my time … my time away … I learned the identity of the true Ruler of Babylon.” He raised his eyes, and the light shone in them. Daniel felt his own face widen with wonder at the brilliance of Nebuchadrezzar’ s certainty.

“I can never again believe that I reign in this place,” asserted the emperor, a wistful smile drifting across his features. “Now that I know … ”

An immense silence draped the room as each man bowed within the temple of his own mind, each in his own manner reflecting, remembering, wondering, worshiping.

“My king, you have never been greater in my eyes than at this moment,” Daniel breathed softly.

Nebuchadrezzar peered quietly at Daniel. “Thank you, Belteshazzar … my friend. Perhaps at the end of a life of conquest and dominion, I begin at last to learn the way of true greatness.”

Another reflective hush stretched between them for a moment. Then the emperor said, “I wonder if you might fetch a tablet. I would like to create a record of this revelation, and I believe you should be the one who inscribes it.”

When Daniel had returned with the tablet, Nebuchadrezzar began:

“Nebuchadrezzar, Emperor of Babylon; to all peoples, nations, and men of every language, who live in all the world. May you prosper greatly! “It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me … ”writing

THOUGHTFULLY, GAUDATRA SHIFTED the baked-clay goblet in small circles before him. Squinting through one eye at his host, the governor asked, “So, then: In return for my allegiance and assistance, you are prepared to extend my authority throughout central Medea, and northward along the eastern shore of the Tigris?”

Kurash nodded, calmly.

“But what prevents me from making my own arrangements with Asturagash, perhaps returning here at the head of a punitive army? Why might I not keep what I already have, and add your territories to my suzerainty?”

Kurash made no reply other than a crafty smile.

“Ah, yes … ” mused Gaudatra. “Your mountain passes, and those unpredictable rock slides … ”

“That, and the unquestioning loyalty of all the clans of Persis,” added Kurash. “After your difficulty in coming here, you would find a large host of very warlike horsemen ready to defend their homeland to the last drop of blood.”

Gaudatra toyed with the gold braids in his beard. Again he aimed a question at the young, smiling king of Anshan. “But why me? Why approach the governor of the richest province of Medea? How could you think, Kurash, that I would be easy to persuade to your cause?”

“That’s Lord Kurash,” growled Gobhruz in warning, from his seat in the corner. Kurash waved a calming hand toward his mentor.

“Because you are the governor of the richest province of Medea,” Kurash answered the query. “You have far less reason than any other noble in Medea to tolerate the wasteful ways of your sire. How long has Elam been the very breadbasket of Ecbatana? How long has she filled the gluttonous bellies of the lords of the Medes? And how long can she continue to send the best fruits of her fields and rivers north to Ecbatana, when so little flows back south to her?” Kurash carefully watched farmingthe face of the governor as his words struck home. “You and I know, Gaudatra: Asturagash is not the equal of his father. Uvakhshatra, vicious and vindictive though he was, at least understood the economies of empire. Were one of his stature astride the throne in Ecbatana, one such as myself would have no more chance than a marmot in an eagle’s nest. But Uvakhshatra is dead these long years past, and his son understands little save his own cravings. Look within yourself and see if it is not as I say.”

Gaudatra contemplated these words for several moments. Outside, the sound of children and dogs at play could be heard. The governor ladled another dollop of goat’s-milk yogurt into his mouth. Swallowing slowly, he posed a final question.

“Granting all that you say, Lord Kurash,” he began, “what, other than the eventual annexation of the territories you mentioned, does the province of Elam stand to gain from a Parsi monarchy? And why come toward Medea? Do not easier pickings lie to the east?”

Kurash rose from the table, smiling and stroking his beard as he slowly circled the table where Gaudatra sat. “As to what Elam may gain from my kingship: If the imperial capital of my realm were located at Shushan, rather than Ecbatana, would this not benefit the people of Elam—and their governor?” He glanced sidelong at Gaudatra, whose calculating face told Kurash all he needed to know.

“As to your second question … ” Kurash paused, remembering the frustration of a young boy, the son and grandson of kings. He recollected a dusty, humiliating ride to Babylon, a city whose walls were so wide that two chariots might be driven abreast along their tops. He recalled a promise he had made to himself, and to his lifelong friend and protector seated so quietly in cyrusthe comer. “Let us simply say, Gaudatra,” he said softly, turning to grip the envoy with his perilous amber eyes, “that I have undertaken a quest whose goal lies west, not east.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons

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