350 BCE: The Magus of Persepolis
“You must do it,” Zohreh whispered angrily to her husband.
Farzin, the royal magus of the Palace of Persepolis, was a man of noble birth. It was a blessing that had elevated him to a position of authority, even among his elders who lived in the great city’s temples of magi. While he was bound to spend much of his youth amongst those learned holy men, Farzim’s station was decided upon at birth—he would be the holy counselor of the King.
Yesterday morning, the last king of the Achaemenid dynasty, Darius III, was defeated by an infamous prince from Macedonia—a dashing young man who planned to make himself emperor of the entire world.
“I will not,” Farzim answered his wife’s impertinence. “I will never touch it.”
The magus knelt in prayer before a small golden box, its lid open as sat upon its private shrine in the sub-basement of the royal palace. No one was permitted access to this sacred room except the magus and his sovereign. Nevertheless, the holy man’s wife, also a member of Persian aristocracy, had never let anything stand between her and her husband’s ear.
“The city is fallen, Farzim, and you sit there and pray?” she whispered with a hiss. “Take it and use its power to destroy them. Place it upon your head as Xerxes did when he wiped those animals from the face of the earth.”
Within the open box was a diadem made of gold, crafted in a style Farzim had never seen anywhere else in his life. Gilded with symbols of fire, the front of the diadem was held together by two intertwined raven’s talons of gold. From its crown hung small crimson gemstones held by delicate chains that fell like rain. The golden claws held a large ruby at the center that reflected the chamber’s many candles.
There was no one left alive who knew the location of this artifact, or of how the greatest of all kings, Xerxes, used it to vanquish his enemies. Centuries later, the secret of this weapon was now myth among the magi. Where it had come from or how it had come to Xerxes was simply unknown.
“He will not harm us, “Farzim told his wife, “that is not Alexander’s way.”
“Not his way?” she countered incredulously. “The Macedonian’s are taking everything, stripping the greatest city in the world down to nothing. He has ordered every piece of art and gold to be seized. The finest of it is being sent to his father’s house, the rest to Susa to finance his next war.”
“We are not the first people to suffer this tyrant’s invasion. Alexander does not destroy the cities he conquers, he establishes rule with minimal violence, seeds his heirs, and leaves the realm in their control. We will not be harmed—we will survive this.”
“Have you not heard me?” Zohreh’s voice rose in anger. “They are taking everything. Your beloved prince walked into the treasury this morning and stole the wealth of a millennium in less than a day. We will not survive this. How do you propose we survive this left with nothing but dirt, as slaves?”
“How many died by Xerxes’ command?” he lowered his voice in defiance of her agitation. “How many children?”
The philosophical whimsy of her husband’s questions filled Zohreh with a biting rage. Without meaning to, she turned to her daughter, Soulmaz, and hushed the child angrily, though the nine-year-old had not made a sound.
“This was used by a sovereign, not a magus,” he added. “It is not reasonable to think I could wield its power, and I would not dare try to.”
“But you worship at its feet?” asked Zohreh.
“I pray to it, yes,” he countered calmly. “I ask it to help us, but I will not venture to bend its power to my will.”
For the first time, Farzim opened his eyes from meditation and gazed at his wife’s face, now flushed with disgust at him.
“You would risk having this weapon fall into the hands of the enemy in a vain attempt to save ...what, riches? You would condemn generations to retain your jewels?”
Zohreh turned her head in disgust, only catching herself when a loud crash echoed from the floor above. The invaders had pushed past a barrier and were descending through the basement levels where the remaining families were hidden.
Farzim looked anxiously at the ground beside him, listening to the clatter of destruction above them. When several screams rang out, he turned his eyes to his wife.
“Hide,” Farzim commanded her.
Zohreh took Soulmaz by her small hand and gathered the child quickly, stealing behind the silk tapestries that adorned the sanctuary’s walls. Farzim closed the golden box and lifted it with one hand as he pulled back at the carpet beneath him to expose the ebony marble floor. Pushing on a seam, the man opened a secret chamber just barely wide enough to received the box, which he laid down reverently before closing the hiding place to restore the illusion of the floor’s impregnability. Returning the rug to cover the space, Farzim knelt down again just as five soldiers arrived in the chamber behind him.
Zohreh did not allow herself to peek from behind the fabric that hid she and her daughter, but she could tell from the timbre of the soldiers’ speech they were angry to find a man hiding down in the cellars. She could hear Farzim’s head strike painfully against the floor when they kicked him down, no doubt incited when he didn’t respond to their words.
A sting like poison filled Zohreh’s veins when she heard a sword being drawn and the gurgled cry as her husband was slain. The woman didn’t think of how her daughter might scream out in terror and reveal their location to the invaders, but Soulmaz luckily did not make a sound.
Time passed with only Zohreh’s heartbeat as evidence, raging through her ears in agony. When she found the strength to look from behind the curtain, only stillness could be seen in the chamber. Farzim lay lifeless in a small pool of blood, his throat cut, his body peacefully spread on the marble floor beside the crimson rug prayer rug with golden thread.
Zohreh fell to her knees beside her husband, her limbs shaking, their strength all but gone. His body was nearly naked. His garments had been ripped savagely by the soldiers to search for hidden finery. Farzim’s jewelry was gone, the absent adornments leaving his hands as bare as she’d ever seen them. From the woman came only the quietest wail. It was the sound of anguish, so overpowering Zohreh couldn’t manage to muffle it from unseen ears.
When the widowed woman’s mind returned to her control, she looked about the chamber, realizing almost everything of great value had been carried out. All but one item, Zohreh thought, pulling back the rug gently to find the stone under which the weapon still laid. She fumbled with it, unable to lift the seamless heavy marble from its position until her slender fingers managed to find just the spot to push. Within the compartment laid the golden box wrapped in black linen. Zohreh could not lift the heavy container but managed to activate the claps that permitted the lid to lift up on its hinge.
Even in the dim candle and torchlight of the room, she could see the exquisite diadem well enough, this weapon masquerading within the most beautiful craftsmanship she’d ever beheld. Seized by uncertainty, her fingers soon found their way to touch the golden rim, caressing it gently with astonishment and reverence. With her courage finally returning, Zohreh lifted the heavy crown and pulled the black fabric it laid upon to wrap it.
As if her daughter’s very presence were a fact that only just returned to Zohreh’s consciousness, she took the child’s hand and pulled her close before they silently exited the chamber. Turning each corner in the maze of endless corridors with moderation to scan for soldiers, she walked her daughter through as quietly as a feline until they both reached the main floor. There, the woman froze.
In the distance, Zohreh saw the Macedonian savages moving the ladies of the court toward the main entrance of the palace. They seemed to be transferring them rather than raping or murdering them, as the ladies’ still wore their jewelry. Among the ladies were their female children.
An idea sprang from Zohreh. From under her garments, the woman reached for Xerxes’ diadem and withdrew it from the black fabric it was wrapped in. Instead of placing it upon her daughter’s head, Zohreh slipped the child’s small face through the crown’s diameter so that it came to rest around her shoulders like a necklace.
“I don’t like it,” Soulmaz whispered and tugged at the discomfort of the heavy piece.
“No, my love, you mustn’t touch it,” Zohreh stopped the child’s little hands and drew the deep blue fabric of her dress together to hide the crown from sight. “If you touch it, you will draw their attention to it, and we must keep it secret.”
“They will see it,” the child admonished her mother, “how can we keep it secret if they can see it?”
“It will sit around your neck like this, and everyone will believe it is a necklace—no one will suspect. There, you see the other girls?” Zohreh pointed in the distance. “Run up and walk beside them.”
“But they don’t want me to do that,” Soulmaz’ eyes widened in concern for her mother’s absurd direction.
“The ladies will say nothing, and the men will know no different. You will be safe with them, I promise. And this will protect you from harm,” said Zohreh, laying her hand upon the diadem mostly hidden under fabric. “We must deliver it to another magus, one like Papa. They will know what to do with it. Come, I will go with you.”
Zohreh took her daughter’s hand and moved silently at a quick pace down the corridor up toward the departing party of women and soldiers. She felt her daughter begin to pull from her grasp when they came close, but the woman maintained the firmness of her grip as she dared to move through the men to place herself among the small herd of twenty-some ladies.
To her relief, there came no protest from the soldiers who noticed Zohreh’s maneuver, not even a word in their foreign tongue. One of the young girls, however, saw the pair arrive behind them and whispered to her mother. It was more of an observation rather than a genuine protest, but the distraction alerted the soldier at their back, and he raised his voice in command.
Zohreh presumed the angry foreign word was meant to order the older girl’s silence. The old woman beside her, pulled angrily at the distracted girl’s arm to draw her attention forward.
When the group arrived at the exterior courtyard, they were walked toward the street and through to the city proper. Zohreh stole glances now and then, though she tried to keep her eyes down and submissive. Around her, she could see a very different Persepolis. There was blood pooled beside slain bodies along the sides of the road. The stench prevented Zohreh from withdrawing her mind from the horror. The golden ornamentation of the citadel buildings was mostly gone, having been pulled off roughly to leave the appearance of mass destruction. More disturbing than this nightmare was the silence. Zohreh could hear her heartbeat loudly as it sat in her throat. The only relief to this haunting quiet were the intermittent screams of women and children as soldiers moved from house to house, taking what and whom they wished.
When they’d turned the corner at the end of the street, having walked several blocks, the soldier’s brought them to a plaza filled with beasts being tied to dozens of carriages filled with the stolen remains of what was once a hallmark of the great city. Treasures too numerable to count were haphazardly piled into every sort of wagon, truck and cart, all being prepared to be carried away forever.
The soldiers separated the ladies into three smaller groups. The first two were squeezed into carts fashioned with heavy bars around their perimeters. These were crude cages for collecting and transferring prisoners, but Zohreh understood the soldiers intended to use these moving cells to keep the ladies safe from the other soldiers. They were likely being taken out of the city to Alexander’s court, set up somewhere in his encampment beyond the city gates. At least they were not to be defiled, at least not yet.
Before Zohreh’s group of women could be loaded, another soldier, a tall foreigner of some distinction, approached the ranks herding the ladies. After some discussion to determine who was in charge of the prisoners, the tall man drew the commander’s attention to the young girls being transferred. Zohreh instinctively pulled Soulmaz beside her and attempted to fold the child away from the men’s glare, but it was too late.
Three young girls, none older than ten, were removed violently from the ladies, who each screamed in a panic to be separated from their children. When the captain finally came for Soulmaz, Zohreh placed herself between her daughter and the advancing man to beg for mercy. Without hesitation, he struck her down to the side and grabbed at Soulmaz roughly by the arm.
Lost in the wail of women and terrified children, Zohreh quickly righted herself, preparing to bolt after her daughter. Before she could, another woman charged at the men, seeking to take back her stolen child. With hardly a glance, the captain drew his sword and ran it through the woman’s stomach with a single slice.
From her side, Zohreh felt a lady grab her by the arm to stop her advance, roughly bringing Zohreh back into the group. Before she could protest, the murdering soldier turned to look for another challenge to his authority. In response, the group of women became as silent as the city under his blood-thirsty glare.
In moments, the captain returned to the tall man who had requested the children, receiving the man’s arm and a nod of gratitude.
With the blood draining from her face, Zohreh trembled to watch as Soulmaz and the other girls were placed in a closed carriage to be delivered elsewhere.