From the opening pages of #3 in the stand alone Boyd quadrilogy. A necessarily historic and lengthy start as we lay down the premise of the story....
The Legacy of the Ninth
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Dateline: AD 73: The Negev Desert.
Desert sands caressed the earth, whispered in silence, conspired together, and then shifted endlessly in the cool breeze of a dying night. Gradually, dawn broke over the countless dunes that forever changed the Negev landscape while desert creatures scurried to their hidden lairs to escape the rising sun. Lazily, almost reluctantly, a deadly scorpion scuttled beneath a flat rock to await its prey. Then, it was as if there was a hesitant stillness in the air: a peaceful serenity that seemed to accept the presence of the mighty rock, and the camp of leather tents that spoiled the landscape.
Two men: one old, one young; had stood since dawn, watching, and searching the desert for any sign of movement from the tents of leather.
The two men watched the scouts arrive on horseback and dismount, and then watched them come and touch the foot of the rock far beneath them. Scouts came every morning to touch the rock and take their turn to watch the same two men standing on the battlements above. The scouts watched the two men as they waited for the sun to rise above the camp of leather tents, and above the mighty rock. It was a game of touching, of prodding, and of watching, and the sun continued to rise.
‘It never rains,’ declared Eleazar.
‘No, it is surely the way of the desert,’ replied Jacob.
‘The sun bears down endlessly: burning a barren land, scorching an infertile earth; until she prays on the wind for a drop of rain, a hint of dew. Yet there is not enough dew to quench my thirst.’ Eleazar’s brown eyes penetrated deep dark sands beneath him and his voice carried quietly to a young man standing by his side. ‘In the beginning there was only peace and solitude. There wasn’t even a single footprint in the sands of time. No, there was just a desert and a million grains of sand that held no memory of before and no prediction of the future; until man was born.’
‘You sound so sad, Eleazar,’ said Jacob, anxiously. ‘Why is this so?’
‘It is because I grow old. My time draws to an end, Jacob.’
‘Don’t say such things, Eleazar. You are our leader. You cannot die. Eleazar ben Jair will live forever.’
Eleazar shrugged a smile. ‘Hear me, young Jacob. There are things I must tell you before I die; before my time runs out. You must listen to my voice and pass on my words to the generation who follow you. It is the way of man to pass on his words so that those who follow will remember and learn from the past. It is a lesson you must learn; a legacy you must pass on.’
‘Why is it so, Eleazar?’
‘When God revealed himself to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai the word of God was spoken from The Master to His disciple. The word of God has been preserved in the spoken Torah that we call Mishnah. It has been learnt and memorised and passed on in an unbroken chain from master to disciple, and now it is preserved in our very faith for all time. It is our Torah: it is our way. It is as strong as the written Torah: the written Scriptures that have been handed down through the generations of our people. Together, the written word of our scriptures and the spoken word of our Mishnah make our Torah strong. It is our legacy, my young friend. It is our legacy and yet I am troubled by those Roman scouts beneath us, this siege, and a vision I see in my troubled mind.’
‘Pray, what is it that troubles you, Eleazar?’
‘This land… Our land…’
‘What of these lands’ asked Jacob?
‘It all began long ago… So long ago.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked a puzzled Jacob.
‘The Canaanites were first to arrive, Jacob. They dragged their hopes and religion with them to the Promised Land. They were people of the Hebrew tribe and their faith became our religion, Judaism. They settled these lands and a nation of city-states was born. Later, the Philistines invaded. The Philistines and Arab Caliphates drove out the Hebrew and claimed these lands as their own. They denied our faith and renamed our lands Palestine.’
‘I know this to be true, my leader.’
‘The sands recognised the change, Jacob.’ Eleazar’s eyes scanned the far horizon, searching the desert wastes. ‘The sands witnessed the birth of unrest in these lands. The sands whisper, shimmer, and blow with a breeze of uncertainty. Through the centuries this has become a place for war. At night the sands howl in contempt at the shattering of peace and solitude. Then the Romans arrived, invaded, and extended their vast empire. Seven years ago we, the people of Judea, rose against the might of Romeand their Gods of falsehood. For our troubles Emperor Vespasian sent his son, Titus: a devil by any standards, to destroy the rebellion. Four years later Titus razed our Holy City of Jerusalem. The second Temple was destroyed, all except the western wall. Yes, it is true. The great works of David and Solomon lie in ruins. We were lucky! We managed to escape and find our way here but that was over two years ago and we have been besieged by these Roman Legions ever since. Every day their scouts ride around us and threaten our very existence. I am tired of the siege, Jacob; tired of drawing lots for those who may drink today and those who may eat. I am tired of watching those scouts come and go on horseback. They come during the night to touch our walls and prod the rock upon which our fortress is built. It cannot last forever: the touching; the prodding, and the watching.’
Eleazar ben Jair pursed his lips and ran his fingers through the furrows of his forehead. The tiredness and stress of leadership had taken their toll on the worthy sage. His hair sprouted grey and unwieldy from his troubled head and his eyes were a bloodshot brown that seemed to rest deep within his leathered face. When he had worked sleep from his eyes, he continued to pass on his words to Jacob.
‘It is because we ignored those Gods of Rome: those unworthy false Gods, that they have pursued us here. The Romans will destroy us, Jacob. They call us fanatical because we are Zealots. They want us to surrender, to capitulate. Never! Do you understand me, Jacob? Never!’
‘I understand you,’ said Jacob, softly.
‘I command you, Jacob. I command you in the way God delivered the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. To surrender our Torah is to surrender our very being, Jacob. The Torah lies at the heart of our religion. It is the foundation upon which our faith rests. I command you, Jacob. You must never forget these words that I speak.’
‘I shall never forget, Eleazar. I promise you.’
‘There will be trouble in these lands one day, my young friend. These sands whisper and howl in the night but one day they will blow a desert storm that will last for years. There will be trouble in these lands when the sands explode. They will erupt in a whirlwind of frenzy and hate. Hebrew against Roman, Hebrew against Arab. Hear my words; I command you.’
Jacob held his tongue, choosing to ignore his gibbering elder: unsure of the vision prophesied, unsure of scouts who touched and prodded at the mighty rock; yet solid in his understanding of the Torah.
In the desert the sands whispered; the sun yawned. A scorpion’s tail snapped through the air, stung hard, took its first morsel of the day.
‘When will they come, Eleazar?’ asked the younger man, concerned; his bright blue eyes searching an old man’s wrinkled face for an answer he did not wish to hear; an answer he feared in his heart.
‘Soon, Jacob… Soon...’ Eleazar heard the worried teenager but replied in reluctant truth. ‘They know we are weary from the siege. The Romans must realise our wells are nearly dry. There is only a little water left to drink and we cannot live without water from the wells. This place, our home, we are besieged by the might of Rome and I fear the worst. At night; under the cover of darkness, their scouts touch our walls, prodding and poking, looking for weak spots in the rock. During the day they tunnel and weaken our foundation, hoping these walls will collapse. Oh! Our resolve will last forever, Jacob, but even our great walls will crumble in time.’
Jacob rested his arm on the edge of a broad expanse of wall allowing his eyes to pierce the face of the elderly sage. There was a soft manner in the old man’s voice: a softness that camouflaged the deepest of his beliefs; but it was a softness Jacob warmed to as he listened to the spoken lesson.
‘Each night I pray for the miracle of rain, Jacob, in the hope that their chariots of war are bogged down in the sands of uncertainty.’ Eleazar paused: delving in his mind for an answer to their predicament, sorting through the puzzle of religion, rooting through the enigma of war. ‘Sometimes I wonder if God has forsaken us for I know that only rain or a miracle from above will save us in this our hour of need.’
Surprise crossed Jacob’s face as he saw doubt in Eleazar’s eyes.
The older man pointed east and settled his wiser hand on a tender narrow shoulder. ‘Look out there, Jacob. Is that a sandstorm I see gathering? Look, the storm gathers near the camp of leather tents. Do you see?’
They stood on Masada’s tallest battlements looking out across the barren wastes of the Negev desert as the sun began its climb towards the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month. Masada was indeed formidable. Sat perched high on a hill, the isolated structure was virtually impregnable from three sides where sheer cliffs dropped down towards the rolling sands. Every fifty yards, or so, a reinforced stone turret interrupted a line of walled battlements and offered further refuge to defenders.
The Zealots lived inside the mighty walls of Masada with their rich and splendid synagogue dominating their daily worship. Morning, noon and night, they worshipped. It was as if their very souls depended on the worship of their God. The eminence of the great synagogue contrasted sharply with a scattering of humble wooden storage huts that contained a dwindling supply of food and everyday items. Inside the caves, carved from the rock, lay hidden personal belongings and a large collection of Holy literature that was revered by the God-fearing militants. There was only one entrance to Masada and it was situated at the top of an incline protected by a narrow rocky approach: a snake-like twisting path.
The view across the landscape was breathtaking: quite spectacular.
But in the distance, Jacob made out a faint blur of dust rising from behind scattered mounds of low-lying sand dunes. The blurred smudge of dust rose from where they knew the camp of leather tents had been pitched.
Eleazar gasped as he caught sight of the rising haze. Then the haze gradually became a cloud of dust that swelled from where leather tents had been pitched: the leather tents that housed their enemy at night, and sheltered their enemy from the chill breeze of a desert night. It was those leather tents from which Roman scouts came each morning that God sent.
‘I prayed last night,’ murmured Jacob, following Eleazar’s pointed finger as the dust cloud gathered and frothed on the distant horizon.
‘Did God answer your prayer, Jacob?’
‘He told me we would win. He told me Masada would last forever. We shall defeat these Romans, Eleazar. God has told me this.’
Eleazar turned and looked his young friend deep in the eye: quizzical, almost disbelieving. Eleazar rasped, ‘Did God tell you that we should fight these Roman dogs of war with our bare hands, Jacob? Did he tell you that? No, I suspect not for we have no weapons save our great Torah. It is one of the great Commandments, Jacob. Thou shall not kill.’
Jacob looked away, ashamed; his pride hurt from Eleazar’s rebuke; his spirit dented. There were no more softly spoken lessons from the old man of wisdom. Jacob heard only a rasping tongue of condemnation from the leader of the Zealots.
Jacob asked, ‘So we must surrender to the men of Rome and pay homage to their many Gods, their false Gods?’
‘No surrender!’ barked Eleazar, snapping angrily at his impassioned confidant. ‘We shall never surrender, Jacob. Not in a million years. This is our home. We are the rightful owners of these lands. King Herod the Great built this place: his villa fortress. Herod cut this fortress from the very rock itself. It is our land. It is God’s will.’ And then softer, almost soothing, Eleazar muttered, ‘We shall never surrender. No! Not to any man.’
The sun continued its rapid ascent into the heavens as dust and sand billowed in the distance, bubbling larger, fermenting with intrigue.
Eleazar said, ‘You are a mischief, Jacob, but we shall not surrender.’
A cloud of dust broadened and darkened the sky above the dunes.
Jacob turned as if to take his leave but then changed his mind. He moved towards Eleazar. Jacob felt nervous, looked somewhat tense, and fidgeted slightly before he managed to speak. ‘I have made an altar from this stone, Eleazar. When I die, I will take this altar with me to my resting place. The altar will comfort my soul on my journey to the Heaven of Peace.’
‘An altar! Let me see your work, Jacob.’
A flurry of cloth produced a small tablet of stone from inside Jacob’s robe. There was a glint in Jacob’s eye. It was his way of asking for forgiveness; his way of impressing Eleazar; as he gently caressed the tablet of stone with his fingers. Jacob wiped the sculpture with the corner of his black, dusty garb and handed it to Eleazar. The mysterious tablet measured nine inches in length, six inches in width, and three inches in depth.
‘Are you a beggar hiding food? What do you call this strange piece of work that you produce from your pocket, my young friend?’
‘It has no name, Eleazar.’ Jacob’s voice was now keen and eager. ‘It is a tablet from Masada. It is my legacy: all that I own, all my faith, all my religion. My God is in this tablet; this altar of stone. Look closely at how my flint has made these lines.’
Eleazar gathered Jacob’s stone in his craggy, arthritic hands and examined a design that brought pleasure to his eyes. The tablet showed an image of the fortress ofMasada. Part of the tablet, the bottom right hand corner, bore the carving of an irregular-shaped candlestick: a Menorah. Turning the craft towards the light, testing its rough surface with his frail fingers, the old man’s eyes glinted and smiled at Jacob’s handiwork.
‘When you are encased in your sarcophagi your burial chamber will carry the mark of a Menorah with you. You are indeed ingenious, my young friend.’ Eleazar laughed, approvingly. There was a smile from Eleazar. ‘Perhaps this tablet of yours has mystical powers, Jacob.’ Eleazar contrived a sudden wink. ‘Perhaps it will grant you eternal life, Jacob.’
Jacob nodded his head vigorously, happy to please his elder.
‘The Menorah is used in our celebration of Hanukkah. When I die the carved lines, which show a nine-branched candelabrum, will help my soul to celebrate Hanukkah here in Masada. The Romans may defeat us but in my death I will celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus Epiphanes. I know the victors were Hasmonaeans but I learnt their family name as Maccabees. Do you remember the legend of the Maccabees?’
‘Of course, I know it well, my friend. It is no legend, Jacob,’ counselled Eleazar, scholarly. ‘These words I speak are true. Antiochus the Fourth, Epiphanes as he was known, was once King of Syria and ruler of all Palestine. He fought the Egyptians and captured Jerusalem many years ago. So many years ago it was even before I was born.’ Eleazar twisted a smile at such a thought and continued, ‘Like the Romans, Epiphanes denied our faith and made Judea worship the Gods of Greece. Our priest, Mattathias, and his sons, the Maccabees, also fled to these mountains just like we did. Later, when they were strong, Judas Maccabee led the people of Judea in a struggle for freedom against the Syrian warlords.’
‘And restored Jerusalem to our faith when those Syrian armies’ were hammered into defeat and the valiant Maccabees drove them from the Holy City,’ interrupted Jacob, smiling in triumph.
‘Correct,’ beamed Eleazar. ‘Your words carry truth.’
‘The Maccabees then rededicated the new Temple of Jerusalem using a nine branched candelabrum, a Menorah. There is a Feast of Dedication and a Festival of Light when we celebrate Hanukkah. In death, I shall have a light to show the way, Eleazar. The beam will light my celestial path and I shall walk through the gates of Heaven with pride in my heart.’
‘You have learnt your lessons well, my young friend,’ replied Eleazar, clasping an arm around Jacob’s neck as his eyes took in the intricate flint work. Chuckling, he added, ‘Let us hope it is many years before you need your tablet with its image of Menorah.’
‘It is good that after only ten years and five I am still learning,’
‘Yes. It is good, my young friend. Very good!’
Jacob held out his hand to receive his tablet.
‘Keep it safe, Jacob,’ nodded Eleazar. ‘Keep your tablet safe. For you know what we must do when they tear down our defences?’
Acknowledging his unrivalled leader, Jacob bundled his stone into the furls of his robe and looked out from the battlements to the ground below. ‘Look down there, Eleazar,’ pointed Jacob. ‘The Roman soldiers have set fire to one of their tunnels again. Surely that will not burn our rock?’
‘No, Jacob, but if their tunnel is built well then fire will consume earth, heat the rock, and eventually fracture the stone. These Roman engineers have found a way to bring down our walls and I have no antidote to heal the wound they inflict upon us.’
‘Listen, Eleazar. The trumpet sounds draw nearer. It is a strange tune they play this day. What does it mean, Eleazar?’
Fingering his greying beard, the old man dusted desert grime from his robe. Worry crossed his forehead and dimmed his weary eyes; he listened to the melody and realised why the Roman cornua sounded so sprightly.
‘Go to your family, Jacob. Go now, I beseech you.’
Eleazar suddenly fussed his hands like an eager handmaiden washing robes in a mountain stream. His heart beat inside his chest and his feet rocked on their soles as the sound of the cornua grew louder in his ear.
‘Quickly!’ roared an abrupt Eleazar, hurrying his prodigy away. ‘Tell Abraham! Tell him the Romans trumpet the sound of battle! It is time!’ Clasping his hands, Eleazar lifted then upwards to the heavens in final prayer; in final salutation. Closing his eyes, he whispered, ‘Thou shall not kill! Oh God! It is time but we cannot fight. It is not our way.’
Suddenly frightened, discouraged by the sight of his griping leader, Jacob turned his back on Eleazar. Running as fast as he could along the stone ramparts, Jacob turned at the first stone turret and clambered down some wooden steps into the safety of the heart of Masada. Timber planks creaked in protest beneath his feet as he heard the incantation of morning prayers. Then, as a column of thin smoke slowly spiralled from a tunnel below and climbed towards Masada’s walled turrets, Jacob sped towards the Temple; his toes scurrying the sand before him; his heart pounding.
‘It’s time,’ Jacob shouted loudly, his arms waving. ‘It’s time. Eleazar has spoken. The Romans are coming.’
Eleazar’s eyes fell, scanning from the horizon to the earth beneath him. Open-toed sandals caressed his frail feet but did little to prevent the dirt of a desert burying itself inside his fragile toenails. Below the knee, the old man checked his robe and gingerly followed the contours of the cloth towards his belt. He slowly reached to one side and withdrew a dagger: its handle bejewelled with a multitude of coloured stones. Eleazar dropped his ageing eyes on the twinkling gems and painfully grasped the hilt as if to stab the oncoming cohorts. Eleazar denied the gnawing pain in the joints of his knuckles and slowly tightened his grip on the weapon. Sounds from the desert grew noisier and balloons of sand gathered in the sky as he ordered his weary eyes on a slowly advancing army. Covering a steady incline towards their fortress, glinting in gentle morning sunlight, Eleazar ben Jair made out a centurion, and the unmistakable Standard of the Tenth Roman Legion.
‘Make ready with those catapults,’ commanded Domitian: a tall, angular centurion dressed in Roman splendour. ‘Archers of Syria, make good your eye for the God of Fortuna will grant you sound fortune on this great day of reckoning. Fortuna will guide your arrows of revenge. Hear my words, I say unto you. I have spoken.’
Listening to Domitian’s words, easing a quiver to his side, Hussein prepared his bow. Hussein had no tender fingers to ease the clay; no soft fingers to make a pot and shape the curve of an urn; no nimble fingers to turn the scriptures and leaf the pages: he was a warrior. Smaller than the centurion; his hair was black and flowing. His skin was a deep olive colour: smooth in its texture; perhaps a touch swarthy in its pigment. Hussein was just a simple Syrian peasant: a nobody simpleton from a nobody town. But he was an archer and his eyes were the dark brown eagle eyes of an assassin.
The first heavy chariot of destruction trundled sluggishly by. A dozen numeri: half-savage tribesmen from an auxiliary army, shouldered their weight against a mobile catapult under the watchful eye of Domitian: a legendary soldier who was famed in battle. Domitian stood tall for a centurion measuring five feet eight inches, perhaps nine, and his face bore no stubble from the long hot siege. His blade was sharp. His back was erect, his shoulders broad, a commander in battle. An ugly scar ran down his face from the high cheekbone near his left ear to the side of his throat.
Another heavy catapult rolled by. Two unfortunate mules pulled the ponderous machine as it gradually clambered up a rocky incline. Eight sweating tribesmen laboriously pushed, steadied and guided the wobbly apparatus as it neared the mighty gates of Masada.
Following the first catapult, and fanning out as the mouth of Masada beckoned, ranged an overwhelming array of Syrian archers. Hussein, the simple peasant from the banks of the Euphrates, led them. The loose brown robes of his Syrian archers ran to their knees and were covered by dark cloaks knotted on their chests. Each archer carried a gladius: a two-foot long sword, sheathed at the waist. Leather quivers hung over their shoulders as they marched with their bows held low in readiness.
Behind Hussein’s archers followed the rest of the Roman artillery. There were catapults, large and small. The catapult was no match for the mediocre defenders who had no fight in their belly; no weapon at their arm.
The cornuas sounded.
Increasing their tempo the archers gradually massed in front of the fortress as Hussein mustered his men and carefully withdrew an arrow from his quiver. Grains of sand gathered, rose, and clouded into the atmosphere as row upon row of marching Syrians broke into a gentle jog.
‘Make haste,’ ordered Domitian; his voice booming across the hordes. ‘Exalt the Gods for your strength. Jupiter and Mars watch over you, my warriors of revenge. Feel not fear in your heart. Heed your leader well.’
Another signal trumpeted across the sands as the Legions vacated their campsites and marched towards Masada. Blades of retribution sparkled in the desert sun as the loose brown robes of Syria hung in terrifying waiting.
The Legionaries were the trained infantrymen of Rome: the chosen few who had conquered the known world and filled their Emperor’s coffers in the process. Elegant in their dress, valiant in their fighting, they followed their Standards into battle. It was the centurions who were the backbone of their army: experienced fighting men resplendent in glorious tunics covered by protective leather thongs and finished off with shining armour across their chests. Bronze helmets, inlaid with soft leather, sat atop sturdy muscular men and an occasional coloured plume indicated the position of yet another cohort. Leather-soled half boots billowed grains of sand into the air as they neared Masada. Looming ahead of them, a thin whisper of black smoke surged upwards as the earth beneath Masada began to crumble.
Shoulder to shoulder they strode in awesome splendour. Each Legionary carried a gladius by his side and two pilums - javelins - on his back. A rectangular shield, convex in design, was carried to the front as protection from any attack. Slowly these Romans fought their battles, carefully, with the caution and patience of Job; for they were feared by all their enemies, these valiant men of war. Closer and closer, the battle lines drew nearer. Smooth leather brushed, resplendent robes danced, iron blades rattled, and then, suddenly the sound of feet pounded against the earth.
The tunnels beneath Masada wheezed; its rocky foundation groaned.
‘Hooves!’ whispered Eleazar. Listening, he heard a rumble; heard a prancing; heard the thunder of a horse. ‘Cavalry! I see men on horseback behind those Legionaries,’ warned Eleazar, shouting loudly from his vantage point, planning their response. ‘But first they mean to break our walls with catapult and fire. Make ready, Abraham.’
‘Tis done, my leader,’ bellowed the bearded Abraham from the depths of their defences. ‘May God protect us, Eleazar? The last cup is poured for those who have chosen their way. The lots have been drawn. Your order is set, by blade or by chalice. All now know my great and noble leader. It is time. It is our time, Eleazar ben Jair.’
Galloping now, cavalry horses thundered the ground as a Jewish heart beat in anger. A desert storm grew from without when Syrian feet pounded Judean soil and Roman boots heeled Herod’s core.
Eleazar felt his chest swell and the soft moisture of a tear form at his eye. ‘Then let it be done, Abraham, and may God have mercy on our souls.
Turning from Masada’s battlements, Eleazar spoke into the heart of the desert fortress. Holding back a tear, denying a fracture breaking his heart, his voice found strength and echoed his words on the walls of the great defences. In the mystique of the hour his words boomed across the desert; across the centuries of time. ‘Hear me, people of Masada. Man may burn our home, man may smash our body, but man will never destroy our faith. Hear me, people of Judea. Hear me, people of Masada.’
Eleazar, old and frail, arthritic yet brave, looked into his home, into his fortress, into Masada. Painfully fingering a dagger, he felt his skin tingle against the cold sharp iron. Eleazar ben Jair raised his dagger above his head and looked to heaven in search of his God.
The thunder of the feet and the boot and the horse replied, and invaded the ear of the Jew.
With all his strength, with all his faith, Eleazar plunged the blade deep into his heart as the first boulders whistled across the battlements into the fortress and a tongue of flame licked the edges of a crumbling tunnel.
The earth rumbled below ground as the roof of a tunnel collapsed weakening foundations, weakening resistance, surrendering to the Gods of Rome and Roman engineers. Soil split from soil, rock split from rock, and the earth opened her jaws wide...... ENDS
What happens next is enshrined in the history of the Jewish religion and lays down the foundation for the rest of the story as we catapult through the years - at increasing speed- to eventually arrive in the present day. Where religious history meets contemporary terrorism..
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