The heads flew over the Temple wall with a hiss, dozens of them, like a flock of ungainly birds, eyes open, mouths agape, tendrils of flesh fluttering where they had been crudely severed at the neck. Some came down in the Court of Women, thudding onto the soot-blackened flagstones with an arhythmic, drum-like patter, causing old folk and children to scatter in horror. Others went further, passing right over the Nicanor Gate into the Court of Israel, where they rained down around the great Altar of Holocausts like giant hailstones. A few flew further still, slamming against the walls and roof of the Mishkan itself, the holy sanctuary at the very heart of the Temple complex, which seemed to groan and echo under the assault, as though in physical pain.
“Bastards,” choked the boy, tears of despair pricking his sapphire-blue eyes. “Filthy Roman bastards!”
From his vantage point on the Temple ramparts he gazed down at the ant-like mass of legionaries moving around below him, their weapons and armour glinting in the angry firelight.
Their cries filled the night, mingling with the whoosh of the mangonels, the pounding of drums, the screams of the dying and, enveloping all else, the metronomic, baritone thud of the battering rams, so that it seemed to the boy the entire world was slowly cleaving apart.
“Be gracious to me, oh Lord,” he whispered, quoting the Psalm. “For I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief, my soul and my body also.”
For six months the siege had tightened around the city like a garrotte, throttling the life out of it. From their initial positions on Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, the Roman legions, four of them swelled by thousands of auxiliaries, had moved inexorably inwards, breaching every line of defence, driving the Jews backwards, crushing them into the centre. Countless numbers had died, cut down as they tried to repel the attackers or crucified along the city walls and throughout the Kidron Valley, where the flocks of vultures were now so thick they blacked out the sun. The smell of death was everywhere, a corrosive, overpowering stench that tore into the nostrils like flame.
Nine days ago the Antonia fortress had fallen; six days after that the outer courts and colonnades of the Temple compound. Now all that was left was the fortified Inner Temple, where what remained of the city’s once proud population was crammed like fish in a barrel, filthy, starving, reduced to eating rats and leather, and drinking their own urine, so pitiful was their thirst. Still they fought, frantically, hopelessly, raining rocks and flaming beams of wood down on the attackers below, occasionally sallying forth to drive the Romans back from the outer courts, only to be driven back themselves, with terrible losses. The boy’s two elder brothers had died in the last such sortie, hacked down as they tried to topple a Roman siege engine. For all he knew, their mutilated heads were among those now being catapulted back over the walls into the Temple enclosure.
“Vivat Titus! Vincet Roma! Vivat Titus!”
The voices of the Romans swelled upwards in a roaring wave of sound, chanting the name of their general, Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian. Along the battlements the defenders tried to raise a counter-chant, calling out the names of their own leaders, John of Gischala and Simon Bar-Giora. The cry was frail, however, for their mouths were parched and their lungs weak, and anyway, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for men who, it was rumoured, had already struck a deal with the Romans for their own lives. They kept it up for half a minute and then their voices slowly dropped away.
The boy removed a pebble from the pocket of his tunic and began sucking it, trying to forget how thirsty he was. David was his name, son of Judah the winemaker. Before the great revolt his family had worked a vineyard on the terraced hills outside Bethlehem, its ruby-red grapes producing the lightest, sweetest wine you had ever tasted, like sunlight on spring mornings, like a soft breeze through shady groves of tamarind. In the summer the boy had helped with the harvest and the treading of the grapes, laughing at the feel of the mushy fruit beneath his feet, the way the juice stained his legs blood-red. Now the winepresses were smashed, the vines burnt down, and his family dead, all of them. He was alone in the world. Twelve years old, and already he carried the grief of a man five times his age.
“Here they come again! Ready! Ready!”
Along the ramparts the cry rang out as a new wave of Roman auxiliaries poured towards the Temple walls, scaling-ladders held above their heads so that in the infernal shadowy firelight it looked as if dozens of giant centipedes were scuttling across the ground. A desperate hail of rocks showered down on them, causing the charge to falter for a moment before sweeping onwards again, reaching the walls and raising the ladders, each one anchored by two men on the ground while a dozen more used poles to heave it upwards and over against the battlements. Swarms of soldiers began scrambling onto them, streaming up the sides of the Temple like a rising tide of black ink.
The boy spat out his pebble, grabbed a rock from the pile at his feet, placed it in his leather sling and leant out over the ramparts, looking for a suitable target, oblivious to the blizzard of arrows hissing up from below. Beside him a woman, one of the many helping to defend the walls, stumbled backwards, her throat pierced by a harpoon-headed pilum, blood spraying through her hands. He ignored her and continued surveying the ranks of the enemy beneath, eventually spotting a Roman standard bearer holding aloft the insignia of Apollinaris, the Fifteenth Legion. He gritted his teeth and began swinging the sling above his head, eyes nailed to his target. One circle, two, three.
His arm was grabbed from behind. He wheeled round, punching with his free fist, kicking.
“David! It’s me! Eleazar. Eleazar the Goldsmith!”
A huge bearded man was standing behind him, a heavy iron hammer slotted into his belt, his head wrapped round with a bloodied bandage. The boy stopped punching.
“Eleazar! I thought you were—”
“A Roman?” The man laughed mirthlessly, releasing his grip on the boy’s arm. “I don’t smell that bad, do I?”
“I would have hit their standard bearer,” admonished the boy. “It was an easy shot. I would have smashed the bastard’s skull!”
Again the man laughed, with more warmth this time. “I’m sure you would have. Everyone knows David Bar-Judah is the best sling-shot in the land. But there are more important things now.”
He glanced around, then lowered his voice.
“Matthias has summoned you.”
“Matthias!” The boy’s eyes widened. “The High—”
The man clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth, again glancing around. “Quietly!” he hissed. “There are things here, secret things. Simon and John would not be happy if they knew this was done without their consent.”
The boy’s eyes sparkled with confusion, uncertain what the man was talking about. The goldsmith made no effort to explain himself, simply looked down to make sure his words had hit home, then removed his hand and, taking the boy’s arm, steered him along the top of the battlements and down a narrow stairwell into the Court of Women, the stonework beneath their feet trembling as the Roman battering rams punched into the Temple gates with renewed vigour.
“Quickly,” he urged. “The walls won’t hold for long.”
They hurried across the court, dodging the severed heads scattered on the flagstones, arrows clattering all around them. At the far end they climbed the fifteen steps to the Nicanor Gate and passed through into a second open space where crowds of kohenim were furiously sacrificing on the great Altar of Holocausts, their robes stained black with soot, their wailing voices all but drowning out the rage of battle.
Oh God, thou hast rejected us, broken our defences;
Thou hast been angry;
Oh restore us!
Thou hast made the land to quake, thou hast rent it open,
Repair its breaches, for it totters!
They crossed this court too and ascended the twelve steps to the porch of the Mishkan, its massive facade rearing over them like a cliff, a hundred cubits high and hung with a magnificent vine worked of pure gold. Here Eleazar stopped, turning to the boy and squatting so that their eyes were level.
“This is as far as I go. Only the kohenim and the High Priest may pass into the sanctuary itself.”
“And me?” The boy’s voice was unsteady.
“For you it is allowed. At this time, in this extremity. Matthias has said so. The Lord will understand.” He laid his hands on the boy’s shoulders, squeezing. “Do not be afraid, David. Your heart is pure. You will come to no harm.”
He looked into the boy’s eyes, then, standing, pushed him away towards the great doorway, with its twin silver pillars and embroidered curtain of red, blue and purple silk.
“Go now. May God be with you.”
The boy looked back at him, a huge figure silhouetted against the flaming sky, then turned and, pushing aside the curtain, passed into a long pillared hall with a floor of polished marble and a ceiling so high it was lost in shadow. It was cool in here, and silent, with sweet, intoxicating fragrance in the air. The battle seemed to recede and disappear, as though it was happening in another world.
“Shema Yisrael, adonai elohenu, adonai ehud,” he whispered. “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
He paused a moment, overawed, then, slowly, started walking towards the far end of the hall, his feet falling soundlessly onto the white marble. Ahead of him stood the Temple’s sacred objects—the table of the shewbread, the golden incense altar, the great seven-branched Menorah—and beyond them a shimmering, diaphanous veil of silk, the entrance to the debir, the Holy of Holies, which no man could enter save the High Priest alone, and he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
“Welcome, David,” said a voice. “I have been waiting.”
Matthias, the High Priest, stepped from the shadows to the boy’s left. He wore a sky-blue robe bound with a red and gold apron, a thin diadem about his head and, on his chest, the Ephod, the sacred breastplate, with its twelve precious stones, each representing one of the tribes of Israel. His face was deeply lined, his beard white.
“At last we meet, son of Judah,” he said softly, coming over to the boy and staring down at him, his movement accompanied by a soft tinkling sound from the dozens of tiny bells sewn around the hem of his robe. “Eleazar the Goldsmith has told me much about you. Of all those defending the Holy places, he says, you are the most fearless. And the most worthy of trust. Like the David of old come again. This is what he says.”
He gazed at the boy, then, taking his hand, led him forward, right to the end of the hall, where they stopped in front of the golden Menorah, with its curving branches and intricately decorated stem, the whole beaten from a single block of pure gold to a design laid down by the Almighty himself. The boy stared up at its flickering lamps, eyes glinting like sun-dappled water, overwhelmed.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said the old man, noting the wonder in the boy’s face, laying a hand on his shoulder. “No object on earth is more sacred to us, nothing more precious to our people, for the light of the Holy Menorah is the light of the Lord God himself. If ever it was to be lost to us . . .”
He sighed and raised a hand, touching it to the breastplate on his chest.
“Eleazar is a good man,” he added, as if as an afterthought. “A second Bezalel.”
For a long moment they stood in silence contemplating the great candelabrum, its radiance surrounding and enveloping them. Then, with a nod, the High Priest turned so that he was facing the boy directly.
“Today the Lord has decreed that his Holy Temple will fall,” he said quietly, “just as it did before, on this very day, Tish B’Av, more than six hundred years ago, when the House of Solomon was lost to the Babylonians. The sacred stones will be hammered to dust, the roof-beams torn asunder, our people led into exile and scattered to the four winds.”
He leant back a little, gazing deep into the boy’s eyes.
“One hope we have, David, and one hope alone. A secret, a great secret, known only to a few of us. Now, in this final hour, you too shall know it.”
He bent towards the boy, lowering his voice and speaking rapidly, as if afraid they should be overheard, even though they were quite alone. The boy’s eyes widened as he listened, his gaze flicking from the floor to the Menorah and back to the floor again, his shoulders trembling. When the priest had finished he straightened and took a step backwards.
“See,” he said, a faint smile pulling at the edges of his pale lips, “even in defeat there shall still be victory. Even in darkness there shall be light.”
The boy said nothing, his face tangled, caught between amazement and disbelief. The priest reached out and stroked his hair.
“Already it has gone from the city, out beyond the Roman palisade. Now it must leave this land altogether, for our ruin is nigh and its safety can no longer be guaranteed. All has been arranged. One thing alone remains, and that is to name a guardian, one who will convey the thing to its final destination, and there wait with it until better times shall come. To this task you have been appointed, David son of Judah. If you will accept it. Will you accept the task?”
The boy felt his gaze drawn upwards towards that of the priest, as if pulled by invisible cords. The old man’s eyes were grey, but with a strange hypnotic translucence behind them, like clouds floating on a vast clear sky. He felt a heaviness inside him, and a weightlessness too, as if he was flying.
“What must I do?” he asked, his voice a croak.
The old man looked down at him, eyes running back and forth across his face, scanning the features as though they were words in a book. Then, with a nod, he reached into his robe and drew out a small roll of parchment, handing it to the boy.
“This will guide you,” he said. “Do as it says and all will be well.”
He took the boy’s face in his hands.
“You alone are now our hope, David son of Judah. With you alone the flame shall burn. Tell this secret to no-one. Guard it with your life. Pass it to your sons, and your sons’ sons, and their sons after them, until the time shall come for it to be revealed.”
The boy stared up at him.
“But when, master?” he whispered. “How will I know the time is right?”
The priest held his gaze a moment longer, then straightened and turned back to the Menorah, staring at the flickering lamps, his eyes gradually closing, as if he was slipping into a trance. The silence around them deepened and thickened; the gemstones on his breastplate seemed to burn with an inner light.
“Three signs to guide you,” he said softly, his voice suddenly distant, as if he was speaking from a great height. “First, the wisest of the twelve shall come and in his hand a hawk; second, a son of Ishmael and a son of Isaac shall stand together as friends in the House of God; third, the lion and the shepherd shall be as one, and about their neck a lamp. When these things come to pass, then it will be time.”
Ahead of them the veil across the Holy of Holies seemed to billow slightly, and the boy felt a soft, cool breeze pass across his face. Strange voices seemed to echo in his ears, his skin tingled; there was a curious smell, rich and musty, like Time itself, if Time can be said to have a smell. It lasted only a moment and then suddenly, shockingly, there was a great boom and a crash from outside, and the cry of a thousand voices lifted in terror and despair. The priest’s eyes snapped open.
“It is the end,” he said. “Repeat the signs to me!”
The boy repeated them, stumbling over the words. The old man made him do it again, and again, until he had them perfect. The sounds of battle were now rushing into the sanctuary like a flood—screams of pain, the clang of weapons, the crash of falling masonry. Matthias hurried across the hall, looked through the entrance, then hurried back again.
“They have passed the Nicanor Gate!” he cried. “You cannot go back that way. Come, help me!”
Stepping forward, the old man grasped the stem of the Menorah and started pulling, inching it across the floor. The boy joined him and together they moved it a metre to the left, revealing a square marble slab with two handholds sunk into it. These the priest grasped, heaving the slab away to reveal a dark cavity within which a narrow stone stairway spiralled downwards into blackness.
“The Temple has many secret ways,” he said, seizing the boy’s arm and guiding him into the opening, “and this the most secret of them all. Go down the stair and follow the tunnel. Do not deviate to left or right. It will take you far out of the city, south, well beyond the Roman palisade.”
“But what about—”
“There is no time! Go! You are now the hope of our people. I name you Shomer Ha-Or. Take this name. Keep it. Have pride in it. Pass it down. God will guard you. And judge you too.”
He leant forward, kissed the boy on each cheek and then, placing his hand on his head, pushed him downwards. He heaved the marble slab back into the hole and, grasping the Menorah, scraped it across the floor, grunting with the strain. He only just had time to get it back in position before there were cries from the far end of the hall, and the ring of clashing blades. Eleazar the Goldsmith staggered backwards through the entrance, one arm hanging limp at his side, a bloody stump where his hand had been, his other hand clutching his hammer with which he swung madly at a wall of legionaries coming after him. For a moment he managed to hold them at bay. Then, with a roar, they rushed forward and he was overpowered, stumbling backwards onto the floor where his limbs were hacked off and his body trampled.
“Yahweh!” he screamed. “Yahweh!”
The High Priest watched, his face expressionless, then turned away, taking a handful of incense and casting it onto the coals of the golden altar. A cloud of perfumed steam spiralled upwards into the air. Behind him he could hear the Romans approaching, their iron-shod boots clinking on the floor, the rattle of their armour echoing around the walls.
“The Lord has become like an enemy,” he whispered, repeating the words of the Prophet Jeremiah. “He has destroyed Israel; he has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds.”
The Romans were at his back now. He closed his eyes. There was laughter, and the soft whoosh of a sword being raised high into the air. For a moment Time seemed to stand still; then the sword was driven downwards, drilling between the High Priest’s shoulder blades and right the way through his body. He staggered forward and slumped to his knees.
“In Babylon let it rest!” he coughed, blood bubbling from the corners of his mouth. “In Babylon, in the house of Abner.”
And with that he crashed face down at the foot of the great Menorah, dead. The legionaries kicked away his corpse, hefted the Temple treasures onto their shoulders and carried them from the sanctuary.
“Vicerunt Romani! Victi Iudaei! Vivat Titus!” they cried. “Rome has conquered! The Jews are defeated! Long live Titus!”