Susa, capital of Persia, in the twentieth
year of the reign of King Artaxerxes,
following the death of his father, Xerxes
My Dearest Sister in Spirit Leah,
I write you in some anxiousness tonight. I even waited until after the sun had set and the shadows here in the harem had grown long, my candle had burned low, and the halls fell quiet. You may consider me overcautious, for even though my position in Persia as Queen Regent is an exalted one, no position is safe from danger right now. So I take up stylus in reply to the intriguing yet potentially dangerous information in your recent letter.
The rumors are true.
That is why, as much as I long to see you again and give you the warm embrace of a sister, it is too dangerous at the moment to see you in person. So I must write you from my quarters, even though we find ourselves behind the same palace walls.
Queen Mother Amestris, who as you know recently resurfaced as my palace nemesis, has posted her spies everywhere, and now even many of the guard have turned against me. There is so much rumor and so many threats spoken and unspoken. Most of what circulates about Commander Megabyzos, I am sorry to say, is true. Far from being a loyalist general, he is actually a hidden leader of the rebellion. What's worse, I fear some of what they have said about my beloved Xerxes is true. I'm sure you also heard some of this gossip in ensuing years, but you never heard it from me--until now. How I wish he were here to explain his actions! All those lingering questions only compound the pain of my loneliness.
Nehemiah, along with our Jewish people's success with the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls, has set everyone and everything in Persia on edge. As a result, I fear that even your painful predicament with the King and your politically motivated rejection have become guarded knowledge at court. Even passion must sometimes submit to politics, I fear. And the result is unrequited love. I know personally how much that hurts.
On top of all this, King Artaxerxes is in mortal peril, and as goes his fate, so will that of all the Jews. Do you recall your first letter to me, not so long ago? You began it with the words, "My dear friend, I am in trouble." Well tonight, my dear friend, I fear we are all in trouble.
Thinking of all of this, I feel an invisible band tighten about my heart. It almost feels like a return of the dark days I once wrote you about, the times of my own great dangers and sorrow. I feel that I risk my life every time I pass a cordon of the royal guardians, the Immortals, or even ordinary soldiers. My heart beats faster within me and I avert my gaze from theirs. For years I only felt security and comfort within the walls of the palace. Now I imagine that every time I venture into the innermost halls of the court I may well again stumble upon a headless body sprawled across a dais or a bodyguard holding a bloody scimitar. I try to consciously soften my breathing and unbolden my gaze, to make myself less recognized. Most of all, to conceal my inner defiance. But I saw far too much during those murderous days, and I can feel the fear return like a stench in the air.
As a result I now live under a self-imposed house arrest and dare not come to speak with you directly about this matter. That is why I asked Onesi to carry this to you herself. She is utterly trustworthy, I think you would agree, and knows all the back ways of the palace. I pray that she reaches you without being accosted or arousing suspicion.
Leah, you and I are very blessed to be able to communicate in this way--most unusual for women, as you know. My beloved Poppa certainly was going against tradition when he taught me to read and write as I was growing up. And your more recent tutelage has been most fortuitous, particularly now when it is dangerous for us to meet in person. You yourself must be so careful, even more so than your new confidant, my adopted father Mordecai, would urge. I'm afraid that as prudent as he has always been, even he is becoming bolder and less cautious of late than I would wish.
While protocol dictates that I sign this in my official capacity, our common blood covenant makes me long to close this simply as your sister, Hadassah. Sending this under the seal of Queen Regent may offer some small protection of respect were this letter to fall into the wrong hands.
I must go--please be careful and strong and obedient to Gd.
Your friend Esther, Queen Regent of Persia
Al Hillah, Iraq--present day,
two in the morning, Iraqi time
The commandos struck precisely three minutes after the moon had melted across the desert horizon and plunged Al Hillah into a darkness nearly as sudden as the flicking of a switch.
Hours had passed since the day's last, fading echo of small-arms fire. Despite the late hour, Basra Street had only begun to cool, for even in autumn the Euphrates Valley remained a blistering cauldron--day or night. A stray dog pawed through gutter trash beneath the glow of a lone streetlamp. The scrawny beast was the only living thing along a sidewalk barren of all but two dented Mercedes and a dozen withered palm stumps.
The shadow of a nearby wall rippled across a row of camouflage-shirted chests and a row of tightly clasped guns. One of the faces, features smeared with black, leaned forward to glance up at a second-story window.
Nearly hidden by a parted curtain hovered the striking face of a young girl. Flawless light brown skin set off luminous green eyes, which searched the sidewalk until they finally met the commando leader's stare.
She started and her eyes widened. She gave an exaggerated nod and pointed almost shyly toward the other side of the street--
--toward a large white villa, shrouded in palm trees and thick bushes and encircled by a thick stucco wall.
The lovely face disappeared from the window. Leaning back, the commando leader pointed his thumb toward the villa and straightened a wire microphone around to his mouth. His barked order crackled in a dozen hidden earpieces.
The dog cocked its head toward the sky and uttered a soft whine.
Less than a quarter mile away, a whir of rotor blades rose above the desert wind, and an A129 "Little Bird" Mongoose helicopter nudged its canopy over a jagged rooftop silhouette. The chopper's bubble window swiveled sideways, its pilot scanning the streetscape through twin, side-mounted infrared scopes.
The quiet of the street was shattered by the groan and a metallic shriek of a heavily chained gate crashing inward. The noise drew a shout from the home's balcony and the trademark staccato of a guard's Kalashnikov shooting on full automatic. From the opposite shadows, a single flash responded along with the click of a silenced gunshot. A low groan floated out--the guard's bulk flopped over the railing and plunged into deep bushes.
Shouts and a high wail rose from inside the sprawling Mediterranean-style villa. A light flicked on in an upstairs window while rumbles of falling furniture filled the air.
Then came a deafening crack. A battering ram had shattered the front door.
The camouflaged commandos holding Beretta semi-automatics raced in a crouch toward the open door's glare. Called Viper 5, they were the Italian Carabinieri's elite commando artifacts-recovery team--and they had breached their evening's target twelve seconds ahead of schedule.
At once the Mongoose shot up from its protective hover and was over Basra Street with a roar. The dog ran away, its howls muted by the descending thunder. Everything now seemed to happen with a stunning suddenness--the runners touched ground, men leaped from open doors, one of them in civilian garb, and the aircraft lifted away.
Another explosion, louder and heavier, lashed forward.
And the helicopter thrashed into pieces amidst a white-hot cloud of fire.
Flames billowed across the roadway. The chopper's metal carcass plummeted to earth, struck pavement, and flattened in a blinding spray of sparks and secondary detonations.
There were more screams, now rending the air in Italian, not Arabic. New splatters of automatic fire lit up corners of the property--a pinpoint counterattack, triggered by the rocket strike.
The civilian ducked away from the heat and launched himself across the trunk of the nearest parked sedan. The smoke and stench of burning fuel felt as though it was scorching his lungs. The air was so roasting hot he feared he would incinerate--flames pursued him over the barrier and licked at the back of his head as he landed hard and twisted his ankle in the opposite gutter. Panting heavily, he swerved around to a new fear--he had now exposed himself to sniper fire from the open driveway. With a single leap, he lunged toward the shelter of the wall and huddled against its pitted plaster.
A long barrage of automatic fire pummeled his ears. The fighting was growing more fierce. All around him, ricocheting bullets whined and whistled--a scream of agony from somewhere at his left sent a fierce shiver up his spine. A dying groan drifted up from the other side of the wall where he crouched. Fighting to catch his breath, he found himself reeling from combat frenzy and shook his head in disbelief. This scene is flying apart! There had been resistance before--the men who stole and smuggled ancient artifacts rarely failed to guard them. But this? They were fighting as though ... as though something far more important than money was at stake.
He glanced across the street to a window where the wide-eyed young girl had made her brave appearance. Her face flashed there once more, aglow with morbid fascination. How out of place she looks, the man thought,
with those porcelain features and dark piercing eyes. He had a flashback, in one of those odd, inappropriate thoughts people conjure up in moments of great stress, and noted that her haunting look reminded him of that famous National Geographic cover of the young Afghani girl with the striking eyes.
Surely her father, a former guard who had led the Italians here, would prevail over her curiosity and whisk her out of danger, far from the scene. But no--there she was, stealing another glance at the chaos unfolding below her. Get out of there! he found himself yelling inwardly.
"Run," he shouted, out loud now, as if she could hear him. "Get as far away as you can!"
He whirled back to his surroundings. Finally, a pause. The man breathed out and willed his balled muscles to relax, although he knew from the pit of his stomach that this was the most dangerous moment--the lull when incautious types tended to let their guard down and stand.
And earn themselves a bullet through the head.
No, even though his thighs burned from the unaccustomed crouch, he resolved to stay in his safe hideaway and make certain. A full minute or more passed. One lone shot rang out just as he started to rise. He cringed and sank down again but no more followed. At last he heard shouts in Italian and stood, grimacing from the sudden circulation to his cramped muscles.
The counterattack was over, suppressed by the commandos' overwhelming firepower.
He jogged briskly toward the home's driveway, crossing the dead guard's blood trail with a hop and turning away from the sullen stare of another dead insurgent on the patch of dirt that passed for a front lawn.
I'm not here to imbibe the local ambiance, he reminded himself with an inner shudder. He was here in the guise of a scholar on patrol--Dr. Clive Osborn, British-born antiquities expert, bearer of all the requisite credentials, volunteer rescuer of rare objets d'histoire from the crosshairs of modern warfare.
He wasn't even supposed to be at these raids, he reminded himself with a shrug. His official, approved role came into play at base, when all was secure and the ancient contraband carted back in for a type of "antique triage."
Yet he had learned the hard way that it was best to be there on site, while evaluations were still being made and priceless bits of archaeology could still be saved from being overlooked--or, worse yet, crunched under errant army boots. You never know what's really important unless
you're there to see it! At least, that's what he'd shouted at his Italian liaison only two nights before.
He hurried into a narrow hallway choked with a cloud of plaster dust. Even without maps, he rarely found it difficult to find his destination after these raids--simple, really: you just follow the lights and the sounds of
clunking combat boots.
He turned left into a large, cluttered room whose interior contents, in the glare of a makeshift spotlight, struck him as instantly and tragically familiar. Even without craning his neck, he saw stacks of Persian pottery, a shard of Babylonian bas relief, the statue of a small horse complete with a thin Greek saddle. Easy enough, he assured himself. Large and easily identified, these items were in no great danger. In rooms like these, his eyes always strayed toward the corners--the low, dimly lit places lying shrouded in layers of ancient grime. That's where his real objectives usually awaited him.
He saw only a pile of old rifles and a scattering of dusty ammo bandoliers, still full. A stack of thin, barkless kindling. A broken chair, sized for a child. And--
--a pile of documents. Leather bindings, thick, torn pages, engraved spines, a few scrolls.
He was standing over the stack without even knowing how he'd reached it, bending down, carefully picking up the first piece. Realizing that the parchment might be brittle, he silently reminded himself to proceed cautiously. It was a lone scroll, missing its center dowel, frayed about the edges. He slowly unrolled it and strained his eyes. He blew hard, the clichÃ©d reflex of the archaeologist. He squinted against the thick dust he'd aroused.
His heart gave a small jump. He read for a moment. Then he frowned, took a long breath, and caught himself. He needed to be discreet. Yet he could hardly believe it. After a quick glance to each side, he carefully slid the lone document inside a plastic bag, which he zipped tightly shut. It not only needed protection, he told himself, but would make a perfect examination sample.
He picked up the first of the remaining bound papers, read it briefly, shook his head again, and laid it down on the stack with the others.
He exhaled slowly, carefully.
And more, so much more.
The signature percussive throb announced the arrival of a new helicopter. He looked around him and stepped out of the room. For a moment, he fought an impulse to rush back to headquarters as fast as his lungs and legs would allow. His work in this place had just begun.
He breathed in deeply. The hours ahead would bring him endless heavy lifting, careful digging, and constant maintaining of appearances.
Cleaning up and moving out, he'd heard one master sergeant call it. He looked around him and forced his face to relax.
Go. Work. And try to act like your world hasn't just been turned on its head.
Excerpted from THE HADASSAH COVENANT © Copyright 2011 by Tommy Tenney and Mark Andrew Olsen. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.