He had observed the havoc and mayhem produced by five Stones of Fire so far. They had been beaten back, but it was always at great cost. Of those five the Diamond had suffered some kind of explosion but then shifted location, so his side could not claim a complete victory. And the Onyx? It had left the village of Ramah (the local’s word meaning “To Be Exalted” and “Place of Balm”) in high dudgeon, but it had not vacated the planet. It too moved to another site for fomenting trouble and skullduggery--namely, Gath-Hepher. What was most disturbing was that this was the same domicile chosen by the Jasper.
“Lately, these OPs are getting thick as thieves,” he thought, “acting as if they are all one family.” That was the only reason he could deduce from the Stones’ evident mutual attraction. Of course, it made his job much harder. Their powers, so concentrated in one locality, tended to reinforce each other like so many Mafia godfathers convened to discuss the carving up of new territory.
Poor little Gath-Hepher! It would never be the same, not with two resident Stones of Fire. But where were they hiding? And what deviltry were they plotting?
When the Voice did not speak again, Jona staggered to the door of his small chamber, got his breath, and lunged out from the house into the open air. He crouched down under a dead, goat-girdled fig tree, thinking fast. Already the light of a new day was dawning in the east. If he were to do it, he saw he needed to move quickly. Returning to the house, he met his aged mother at the door. The widow stared questioningly at him as he slipped by without a word.
Throwing a few things together, he bundled them together in a sack, found some money he had put away in a hole in the wall, and met his mother again in the dooryard. It was her duty and custom to draw fresh water for the day’s needs. She insisted on going for it, despite her bad back, and they always had a prolonged tussle before he got the waterpot away and went to the village well for her.
This time he was in so much of a hurry he let her stand holding the waterpot as he set off down the road. “It is best not to say anything!” he thought, making his feet fly along the ground. At least he would be spared many tears and an unpleasant scene that would draw the whole village--all twenty three souls.
He was only a dark speck, his garment fluttering winglike in the distance, when his sudden going dawned on the old woman and mother of Israel. Tears welled in her crinkled eyes. “My son!” she cried out. “Why are you leaving me? Come back, my dove! Come back!”
Letting the waterpot drop and break, she struggled out to the road and tried to make chase, but she fell back after a few feeble steps. No man or woman could catch that man, she knew. Then she did the only thing left to one who couldn’t catch a turtle much less a bird on the wing. She sent forth a prayer that flew even swifter than her precious dove.
Entrepot of the East, Joppa drew an international crowd, so he heard Machitha, Nathasta, Tyre, Miletus, Ugarit, Byblos of the Gebalites, Samos, Milytene, Nora, and many other cities. At each name, Jona scowled, spat, and went on. Finally, he was running out of saliva when a man said, “Tarshish, and we’re sailing in a hour!”
Jona, showing no expression on his startlingly fierce, hawklike countenance, paid the captain immediately and limped on the vessel--which was the biggest of the lot, an argosy built for the long haul.
The captain, busy as he was, paused to take a look at his passenger. “What kind of man is this?” he wondered. “What business can one with sore feet and a dusty robe have in my far city? Is he fleeing his country for some crime? And why is his face green as grass? Is he a beast of the field, eating grass for a living?” Well, he would keep an eye on the man and, at the first sign of mischief, tie him up and throw him overboard. A ship at sea was no place for troublemakers. Shaking his head, he let the matter go in the press of his preparations, and his passenger, on his part, paid no attention to the captain or the crew.
His was a typical Tartessian crew, enlisting every race and religion. And, like his ship, the best that could be found, salty mariners from Libya, Ethiopia, Lydia, Chub, and many mingled, nameless peoples that inhabited the far-flung tracks of the sea lanes. Each mariner knew his duties and meddled in nothing that was not his business. So the passenger was left quite alone as the ship made ready to load the last of the cargo of wine amphorae and catch the tide.
In fact, Jona was quite forgotten for some time after the ship cast off and entered the open sea. It was clear, not a cloud in the sky and the wind was just right, taking them toward the Copper Island, their next port of call. Suddenly, waves and high wind hurled against the vessel. They were half-swamped and nearly capsized before they could fight back. There were no storm clouds, it could not be happening, but it was happening. Turning the boat with great difficulty, they ran before the wind, but even that did not work, as the wind turned viciously and bore at them from the side with such ferocity they stood in the most grave danger of capsizing.
Shouting orders, the captain tried to bring order to their frantic efforts to turn round before they took on too much water and went under. It was not working, the captain saw. From the desperate looks in the eyes of his seasoned men, the skipper read his ship’s certain fate. A giant devil of a wave struck at that moment, throwing his men across the deck like cast lots. There was nothing left to do but cast the cargo overboard, to lighten the ship.
Working like impassioned souls who saw in it their last chance, the men cast the wine upon the water, yet still the vessel foundered. Having done all, the shipmaster fell silent and let the men pray to their gods, as there was no other hope. At that moment the captain looked around the heaving, swamping deck.
Where was the passenger? He had time for him now that his ship was lost. For some reason the idea fixed upon his badly battered senses that he had to find the strange man, if it was the last thing he ever did in life. Clawing for handholds, the captain fought his way down into the hold, half-thrown there by a wave.
He crawled through a brook running against him and reached the hold. Shattered timbers gaped overhead and light entered. What he saw she could not believe. The passenger was curled up, apparently sleeping out the storm! Water dashed in from the top, splashing the man awake.
Captain and passenger stared at each other. “What do you mean by this?” roared the skipper. “Sleeper, get up and call on your god, if any god will pay us attention and save us from drowning!”
Jona wiped his face of salt water with a sleeve, and said nothing.
The ship bucked like a bull and the captain found himself on his knees. He could do nothing with so stubborn and refractory a man, it seemed to the captain. He fled back to the deck where he found his men thinking about casting lots, a rather clever operation to pull off on a sinking ship!
“Come, let’s do it!” they cried. “That way we may know what has caused this disaster.”
The passenger popped up on deck just then, so the lots were made to include him and the shipmaster. Waiting for the right moment between mountainous waves, they cast, and the lot fell upon Jona. They all turned to him. “Tell us, what has brought this upon us! What is your occupation? What is your country? What are your people?”
Jona spat to one side. “I am an Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.”
The fearful men, hair ragged in the wind, their naked bodies bleeding from being thrown about the deck, forgot everything in that moment but the stunning words of his confession. How could a man calmly claim a god above all over gods in the midst of storm and death? Surely, this was not the usual run of man. He had to be a priest of some sort. But what? They only knew few ordinary men could make such statements of faith. They drew back from him somewhat.
“Why have you done this?” a mariner cried.
For somehow they knew that he fled from the presence of his god, because he had openly told them of his Almighty One.
Jona stared at them and made no answer.
The badly frightened men crept closer. “What shall we do with you then, that the sea may become calm?”
At last Jona spoke. “Take me and cast me into the sea, and it will turn calm, for I know that I have caused this great tempest to fall on you.”
As one man Jona’s hearers shrank back, for they saw now he had to be linked with overwhelming powers and was no mere painted wizard or magician with a bag of amusing tricks. Knowing this, they would rather have berthed with a poisonous serpent than do as he directed, so they all seized oars. They made the most valiant effort to bring the ship to land, but the cunning wind turned round against them and they soon had to give it up. Then they despaired, and forgetting their own gods cried to the unknown and invisible Almighty One that Jona had named.
“We beseech you, O Lord, don’t let us all perish for this man, and don’t charge us with his death, for you, O Lord, have done what you willed.”
It was a prayer they all prayed, adding words from this man and that, until they were satisfied.
Only then did they do as Jona told them. They took and flung him off the deck into the raging waves.
The storm died away immediately.
Then they made what vows and sacrifices they could devise to the Lord. Being simple men and unspeculative men at heart, they feared the God that had brought all this upon them, yet heard their prayers and spared them.
“Men, take and cast me into the sea!” was fearless Jona’s injunction to a mortally terrified crew of a sinking ship. Yet however brave the words there may be nothing so rude as the shock of falling utterly helpless amidst towering waves, or being plunged beneath them, gasping for breath and swallowing great gouts of salt water. How brave was he then?
It might not have been the same minstrel that put Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and Tema to song, for there were many of that profession plying every village, town and city. Yet a songster very much like him happened on the events of Jona’s brief ministry and devised a new song, It eventually came to the ears of self-indulgent, sated kings and smiling court philosophers, but the common folk and the poor took up the rather homely verses and spread them far and wide...
“God of heaven is my Fear;
Lord of dry land, sea, and all;
I am Hebrew from toe to ear!”
Now terror great fell full on them--
Fleeing God he drew the storm!
“What must we do His wrath to stem?”
In ev’ry wave they saw Death’s form.
So Jona offered his life up;
“Throw me in, your lives to save.”
Sailors rowed their filling cup,
And prayed for mercy from each wave.
Then at last they dropped the oar,
Pleading God to perish not;
Lest He punish them the more,
They pled for grace to be their lot.
So cast into the raging sea,
Jona sank, the storm grew still;
Fish or whale, whate’er it be,
Rose up, in size a heaving hill.
Appointed by the Lord that day,
‘Twas opened up a mouth so large
That Jona engulfed in it lay,
Then closed and sank this devil’s barge.
“All Thy floods swept over me!
Look and see, in weeds I lie,
My life is sunk in deepest sea!
“Will I Thy holy courts e’er see?
Locked by gate of iron bar,
Cast away am I from Thee,
In this foul mouth of reek and tar!
“Deliverance belongs to Thee;
Fainting, yet I praise Thee still;
Lord my God, remember me,
And heed my prayer through yon fish gill!”
And Jona’s God spoke to the fish;
She fell sick and swam to land;
Heaved up Jona like a dish
Of things too rich upon the sand.
So thus it was the Gath-Hephren,
Jona, from the Pit was raised;
Stripped of strength, his face was wan,
He looked as if he were half-crazed.
The days, the nights, each totaled three;
Perfect numbered was his pain;
God was just as He can be,
Yet mercy tempered Jona’s bane.
Fair Zebulun was not the same,
Burnt and pillaged was the land;
Nineveh was Jona’s blame,
So Prophet cursed their thieving hand.
Then scarce had he lain down to rest,
God called Jona to arise.
“Go and speak at my behest,
To Nineveh my word apprise.”
So north from Gath-Hepher he went,
Plodding to Assyria;
Eastward-bound, his anger pent,
Forced to lay down Divine Law.
At last the green-faced Prophet stood,
Eyes fixed on towers in the east;
Wrath was silent, though it would
Have burnt them down o’er man and beast.
Proud, grass-hued Hebrew stared
And spat on Nineveh’s main gate;
Idols matched, by portals paired,
Were shaken as he named their fate.
Great lion, bird, and man in one,
Blasphemy gazed proud on him;
Prophet cursed, and it was done:
Their haughty lids went closed and dim.
As chariots ran down the poor,
Robbers beat a farmer up;
Harlots leaned by ev’ry door,
As wives slipped divorce in a cup.
In the shade of each great house,
Shanties of the poor massed thick;
Haunt of fever and the louse,
The young rose up and soon fell sick.
In doctors’ care the poor were fleeced,
Sorcery was their main line;
Devils, entrails of a beast
Afforded counsel by a sign.
“Yet forty days and be destroyed!”
Preached he to them both great and small;
Struck, each heart was shattered, void,
E’en city towers seemed to fall.
Yet in the palace of the king,
Terror seized the royal throne;
Tidings of the end did ring
And stripped his lawny pride straight to the bone.
In sack and ash the king declared
Fasting, prayer through his realm:
“Let no one drink (unless he dared!),
Or eat while I am at the helm!
“Perchance God will His scythe back hold,
Repent of evil we deserve.”
Gazing at his stolen gold,
He wept as pangs seized ev’ry nerve...
Nineveh stood proud no more;
Sunk in ash, from great to least,
They all repented, and wept sore.
But Jona was afraid of this;
Staff in hand, he flew forth east,
Hoping still a deep abyss
Would open, swallow this great feast.
A plot of honey gourds grew there,
Twining up tall willow poles;
Bending willow for his lair,
The green-faced man called wrath from bowls.
Then tendrils climbed from night to day,
Sheltering the man within;
Sun struck not a single ray,
He longed for Judgment to begin.
A worm appointed slew the vine
Full-grown and dead within a day;
Scorching wind then made him pine
For plant that in the dust now lay.
How Jona moaned and pled for death!
Heat beat hard on his bald head;
Rued the day he first drew breath,
And called on Sheol for his bed!
And then the Lord spoke soft to him,
“Why do you sorrow and so rant?
Eyes perhaps are old and dim
To shed hot tears for a mere plant!
“I, not you, did make it grow,
Tended by my hand, it throve;
Watered not and free of hoe,
It sheltered you like forest grove.
“It perished in a single night,
One day only was its span;
Look again with your near sight
On those repenting, if you can!
“For thousands cry for my mercy,
Cattle, too, wear sack and ash;
Nineveh my sons will be,
Though you these babes on stone would dash!”
So Jona looked on yon city,
Tears dropped thick upon his feet;
“Gracious Lord, Thou art Pity;
‘Twas this I fled: Thy mercy-seat!”
And then was seen his Vine on high,
Plant hung o’er the peopled plain;
Who but looked did live, not die;
For they saw Grace, with angel train.
Admittedly, the account, as put forth in minstrels’ songs throughout the East challenged the faith even of some devout believers, but there was no denying the dramatic, abrupt change of heart of the Assyrian lion. Just when it was about to extend its claws and leap upon the whole world, the king of beasts was snatched by a Higher Power and compelled to lie down like a rabbit and snuggle peaceably with the bleating lambs.
Nothing its like had been seen since the Re-location, when the scale had tipped again toward mercy and not destruction. Earth’s most violent nation abhorring and repenting from violence and mayhem? Yet this was all done in the open. Everyone could see the change as extortion, false pricing, shoddy merchandising, robbery, murder for hire, and other racketeering ground to a halt in Nineveh, Namu, Niredam, Yibetsor, the royal cities of the kingdom, and all the streets and squares filled with weeping humanity, crying out to the God of the Hebrews for mercy.
Multitudes looked up and claimed they saw a golden Vine in the sky as God’s response to their prayers and sackcloth and ashes.
Imagine the rejoicing that swept the cities of the plain when the Vine appeared so plainly and dominated the sky day and night, only gradually fading!
Hundreds of staged- temples devoted to Lamishpat, Chamoth, Aphella, Din, Sin, and sundry other Babelite-Assyrian deities were recommissioned, cleansed, and used to present sacrifices to El Elyon, Who was credited with displaying His Vine of Grace and Forgiveness to all of Nineveh. Rejoicing and sacrificing went on day and night, and the king called no halt. Instead he appeared, walking on the common ground among his people, inquiring after their welfare. Nothing of that sort had ever been seen before either! Kings rode golden chariots, especially Great Kings like Assyria’s, but this one forgot all pomp and pride and saw the shantyvilles for himself and the true condition of the working people, the poor and the widow, the infant, and the old and infirm.
What he saw enraged him, and he ordered the Treasury opened. Decrees flew fast and thick from the king as he put to rights the inequities of his realm as best he could. With the destruction of false scales and measures and the release of the monies hitherto hoarded by the king and his governing noblemen, the economy was transformed. Harlots disappeared off the streets, shops opened everywhere, and trade flowed in and out of the country in unprecedented volume.
All this, of course, dramatically affected the secret OPs, one and all.
While the changes were taking place, what happened to Assyria’s “Stone-Cutting-All-Other-Stones,” the Diamond? And the Jasper and the Onyx? Wally found no sign of the Gang of Three as he searched both Assyria and Gath-Hepher. Jona, he discovered, was radically changed. His temperament, formerly so hawklike and sanguinary like that of an Assyrian bird-demon, conformed to his name for the first time. Despite a sore and peptic belly, no longer did he denounce the Assyrians at every opportunity, but extended welcome to them at the crossroads a mile from town if he heard any were coming that way to visit him and present gifts.
The rich gifts of gold he dispensed to the poor of the whole region, putting aside a little for his aged mother so they could keep a handmaid to assist the household chores. At least he did so until the day his ailing stomach erupted and left two gaping holes that killed the prophet on the spot. Thus, abruptly, he ended his life journey. His unique and severe trials continued to serve as a beacon of hope and consolation, and his tomb in Gath-Hephren was well-patronized.
If he never became exactly gentle, he at least became mild and peace-loving, caring for humanity, whether Israelite or Gentile. Yet this was not the end of the matter, Wally knew. As time went on, he saw the earthquake fault line that ran through Nineveh and the capital district was building steam again.
A second generation rose, drifting increasingly from their parents’ ways and faith until they wanted no part of the Great Conversion. Chamoth and other traditional idols returned to favor with them and the temples reverted to cult harlotry, self-mutilation, and other fertility rites. With the backward change violence increased, and the Assyrian kings began to prey on neighboring countries, stealing what they had formerly been content to win by honest industry and trade.
Assyria again became a terror to the whole Earth, its thousands of armored chariots and machine-like military might sweeping all before them. This time no Dove fluttered reluctantly through the great cities of the land, warning of appointed, impending Doom. This time the ax fell.
Media, Elam, and a revived Babelen of the Chaldeans swept across the Assyrian plains and cities, sacking the gold and silver and putting everything else, field and house and city tower, to flame. It was very strange, to see the mightiest of the warriors and commanders so befuddled in the time of crisis and storm that they reeled about like drunken or half-asleep men. None of their skill and cunning was of use to them, for they stumbled over their own feet. Even the chariots and horses acted as if they were cast into a deep sleep. And the attackers were much helped by the earthquake that ran ahead of their armies, crumbling the brick fortresses, walls, and armories to dust. Elaborate sluice gates and dams the Assyrians used to keep the Tigris in check were destroyed by the quake, and devastating floods swept away formerly impregnable Maginot lines of defenses.
When the invasion was over and the armies marched away, there was literally nothing left and the plains lay deathly still, with only the vultures circling. Anyone passing that way in times to come had no idea he was tramping over a king’s palace or some great fortress, the land was so desolate and depopulated.
Yet if Assyria suffered complete destruction, the land that sent forth the warning Dove was not immune to the Great Assize that leveled Assyria’s towers to ground level. Indicted by the prophets, she did not escape severe punishment for apostasy. Despite all that Samuel the Sopetet did to convince the people that they should remain faithful to the Lord, the people chose kings to rule over them, and the kings by and large led them astray, importing foreign gods. Before long, they were behaving worse and more faithlessly than in the heyday of Shiloh’s decline under doddering old Eli.
Warned by prophets, the people and their kings killed the prophets and continued blithely on until the armies of Babelen, every bit as cruel as Assyria’s, descended on the glorious birthright of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the one thrown in a deep pit by his brother. It was at this nadir in Israel’s fortunes that Wally uncovered the whereabouts of the Fatal Carbuncle which had slipped away from the Ark of the Covenant--or, closer to the case, was driven out by the Shekinah Glory. Seeking new habitat, the Carbuncle found just what it required to be happy. All this time, it was being worn and passed from one high priest to another, set square in the center of the golden breastplate they all wore hanging from their necks!
“Why haven’t I noticed it before?” he wondered, aghast at his oversight. But, then, he had a good excuse. The high priest seldom showed himself in public, except to officiate at solemn rites in honor of some new god they had just set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. Otherwise, he turned his duties over to the working priests and stayed shut up in his lavish home, really a palace rivaling the king’s.
And the high priest had good reason to let the breastplate and its jewels gather dust as much as possible. It happened that the light from the Carbuncle sometimes struck out at anyone in the vicinity, and woe betide the man who was touched, whether priest or high priest! It flayed the skin right off a man, taking only an instant, so that anyone going into the inner sanctuary with the dreaded but ritually required breastplate had to have ropes attached to his ankles so that he could be dragged out if anything happened.
Now the Carbuncle’s fixation on arks only proved its past association with an ark that existed long, long before the Ark of the Covenant. Was this the same, the now tainted Carbuncle, or another that FC had recreated? Wally had no idea. All these fiery stars arriving one after the other, it was enough to raise a sweat on the best of Crays! The first ark was an unpiloted vessel that carried Noah and his family through the world-wide Deluge before the Re-location, and the “Arkstone” , the reputed Jewel of Noah, kept the Ark well-lit all during the voyage across the flooded Earth to its landing on Mount Ararat. How the fabled Arkstone, tainted or untainted, came into the possession of post-Re-location Israelites, no one could say with certainty. But once it was found inside the boxlike container of Shiloh’s Covenant-Ark, it could not easily be got rid of. The Philistines, their nation nearly destroyed by it, found it was impossible to keep. Then after it returned and was forced out of the Ark by God Himself, somehow it wormed its way to the high priest’s breastplate, clinging tenaciously like a barnacle, and when a Tyrian lapidary was summoned to remove it he was slain on the spot. All that was left after the blinding incandescence died away was his skull, feet, the palms of his hands.
So the Arkstone remained on the breastplate of the high priest, and every man who held that office thereafter approached it like he might the most deadly serpent--which, in truth, it had become in ages past while in the wrong company.
People fled screaming, this way and that. Some rich men in fright dropped caskets of gold and jewels as they saw heathens coming. Leaving chariots, they ran on foot, only to meet a blockading cordon of heathens in another street. In the same panic, mothers forsook children, husbands their wives, sons their mothers and fathers, brothers sisters, as everyone fought to escape the sweeping scythe of the merciless Reaper.
As events would prove, it was useless for Wally to fret so much. While he was trying his best to decide who or what to save, the course of events had already been decided. It started, as no one could have guessed, with removal of the topmost twig from Israel’s toppling tree.
Lines of wailing and stripped captives moved slowly out from Jerusalem--the first subjugation of the city before its final overthrow after yet another rebellion a few years later. Various allies of the enemy--Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites enlisted for logistical support with the army’s supply lines-- happened to be Israel’s hereditary foes. They stood jeering at top of their lungs and pelting the defeated Jews with donkey biscuits.
“Raze the Temple and the city!” these incest-begotten children and descendants of Lot and his daughters shouted to the alien Chaldean soldiers. “Raze them to the foundations!”
Only the best and brightest of aristocratic youth were detained by the Babelite crown prince’s chief commander for training as palace courtiers in Babelen. Assembled in the outer court of the looted and desecrated Temple, they stood in a queue nervously awaiting their fate. Efforts to cover their nakedness with their hands only provoked catcalls and more donkey biscuits from the Ammonites and Moabites packing the galleries.
Daniyel, a tall, well-proportioned lad for his age, had the sort of keen, dark eyes that missed little. Though quick to wage war, Chaldeans never did anything in half measures, so he had plenty time to observe his peers and how they were faring. He saw the foolishly defiant and angry, the sly and ingratiating opportunists biding their time, the cowardly, the pliable and oily smooth and adaptable, the proud and unyielding and unteachable, the despairing and discouraged whose fashionable, foreign gods of the moment had failed. He also saw the frightened, the weak, and the crushed. These stood in puddles of their own making, unable to endure, and it was upon them the worst execrations and filth fell.
“Look at them!” an Ammonite called in a powerful shout. “These sons of Jacob maybe think they can make a river of their own water and sail out of their Holy City to safety!”
The galleries roared with laughter.
“But they have no boats that I can see!” a Moabite screamed, drawing more shrieks of hilarity. “No doubt they intend to inflate their own bladders with wind and use them instead!”
It was gag after gag, until the butts of the jokes were reduced to writhing misery and helpless fury. But as everyone present knew, the worst was yet to come.
“They intend to make women of us all in the sight of those who detest us!” a boy whispered to Daniyel. “I would rather die than submit to that! It’s bad enough losing our manhood without our enemies looking on and relishing every drop of blood we shed!”
“No, they cannot take away what we are,” Daniyel whispered back. “We are men in our spirits, if we are men at all. Keep that thought in your mind, and you can go through this like a man.”
Daniyel went forward from his place and took the head boy’s position.
“Wait your turn!” the captain thundered, drawing his whip, a wicked-looking barbed thing borrowed from the Assyrian book of torture and warcraft. “It’ll come soon enough!”
Daniyel stood his ground.
The captain stared at the young men, then at Daniyel, and nodded.
All watching, he was the first to undergo the gelding demanded for a career forced upon him--that being court eunuch.
He cried out as his posterity and all possible pleasure with a woman was expertly severed from him with a knife of black obsidian. Now he would remain alone in his own flesh for life. He would never know the joys of wife and the fruit of his body, sons and daughters. But he would have no beard and, gelded, he would keep a young man’s handsome and fresh, youthful looks well into middle age--for the kings of Babelen demanded exceptional beauty and grace in court and palace attendants, male and female. What a cruel enhancement forced on him by a king’s cruel tastes!
The captain in charge of the geldings, however, was not cruel beyond the ordinary, but he had been angered by the arrogance of these people. They regarded him as a heathen though he faithfully worshipped at least four gods.
“So, Hebrew princeling!” he laughed. “You aren’t the man you thought, for you cried out like a woman and a child!”
Daniyel, bleeding where he lay with a wine-soaked fleece clamped between his throbbing thighs, held his peace. It was well for him the captain did not know enough Hebrew to realize that he had cried out the proscribed name of the Hebrew God. The Ammonites and cohorts heard it, though, and, spittle flying, cried furiously out for special mutilation for his punishment and reward.
“Why leave him his branch when you take the root?” an Ammonite cried.
“Yes, why leave this impudent one even a tree-stump to put a brass ring around?” a like spirit added. “Since he dares call on his God, let the God of the Jews then grow him from nothing at all!”
If they thought that was the end of Daniyel’s incitement of them, they were mistaken. Light! Light in the darkness shone on him. Unmindful of both captors and the galleries, he prayed aloud, his voice gaining confidence and strength as he went on.
“Mark that youth with the flashing eye!” he said confidentially to his steward as both stared at Daniyel and could not help being drawn to him. “Have you ever seen his like among our own youth?”
The steward knew he had not observed such, though he had more than six hundred in his charge in the palace school, seeing that they were properly fed, groomed, clothed, and educated to royal service.
“I like his manly spirit,” observed the great man who was equal to any army commander in his own spirit, and knew it. He cast a glance of contempt toward the galleries and the ridicule and laughter faltered.
Lord Aspenaz broke precedent. He was so moved by the incident he went to take a closer look, shaded by umbrellas held by slaves. Ignoring the bowing captain, the majestic-robed chief marshall spoke only to Daniyel. Then he left the compound after giving the steward strict instructions to attend personally to the youth’s training and nourishment as soon as he had healed of his alteration.
He might not survive the tailoring, of course. Many youths would not. That was expected, so nothing was done to help them, other than give them water where they lay on rugs aligned in strict, regimented columns along the shaded side of the Temple wall.
Prostrating himself the five times required to Lord Aspenaz, the steward realized his head depended on how well he carried out the special directive. Aspenaz stood next to the Chaldean king, the Sharru, as Grand Chamberlain of the Royal Apartments, Harems, and Princes’ Schools in all the king’s palaces. Only the Chief Cupbearer and Grand Vizier were greater in power and privilege, so he was effectively one of the greatest powers in the vast Chaldean domain.
Lord Aspenaz had lavished valuable time, indeed, on a mere Hebrew captive, thereby marking himself as a mortal foe of the allies. But he was so taken by the bravery of Daniyel and his prayer that he overlooked his defiance of the king’s law against cultivating vanquished gods in times of war. Not only that: Niredam-belladon the old Sharru of Babelen had died. His thirty year old firstborn, the crown prince, and high officials were due back at the royal palace as quickly as the racing chariots could do it. So the Chamberlain knew very well his own existence was cast in the balance if he arrived tardily. Grand Chamberlains before him had been been impaled on stakes for lesser offenses.
Lord Aspenaz departed in a chariot attended by several hundred soldiers on horseback. It was done as he commanded. The three youngest boys--Mishael, Hananiah, and Azariah were re-located to positions by Daniyel’s side as he had requested of the Lord Chamberlain
“The youngest need my care if they are to take heart and live,” he told the official. “What use is it to you and the one you serve if they perish from mere dread of you?”
“What use, indeed?” thought Aspenaz, speeding away toward the world’s most powerful city and kingdom.
Despite what the Ammonites, Edomites, and Moabites demanded of the conquerors, the decree to totally destroy and raze the city and the Temple had not yet been issued by the new Sharru in Babelen. Instead, a puppet king had been installed, though he was left precious little to rule over, since his chief government officials, noblemen, and master craftsmen of all kinds were included in the booty of war, to be taken to Babelen. How he would come up with the tremendous tribute demanded was his problem. Few were left to carry on. The victors, of course, had no place for infants, not to mention the old and infirm. Neither were left alive in the city since there wasn’t food enough for the remaining fit and the useful.
Chaldeans were anything but impractical where war and an equally crushing, tributary peace were concerned. So the last view the marching youth of Judah had of their people and city: a blood-spattered hulk of a naked-bodied Chaldean executioner at the Jericho Gate, methodically bashing the heads of infants against a big stone block.