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Nehushta glided like a ghost along the corridors and dimly-lighted halls. As yet, the confusion seemed to be all in the lower story of the palace, but the roaring din rose louder every moment--the shrieks of wounded women with the moaning of wounded men, the clash of swords and arms, and, occasionally, a quick, loud rattle, as half a dozen arrows that had missed their mark struck the wall together.
Onward she flew, not pausing to listen, lest in a moment more the tide of fight should be forced up the stairs and overtake her. She shuddered as she passed the head of the great staircase and heard, as though but a few steps from her, a wild shriek that died suddenly into a gurgling death hiss.
She passed the treasury, whence the guards had fled, and in a moment more she was above the staircase that led down to the temple behind the palace. There was no one there as yet, as far as she could see in the starlight. The doors were shut, and the massive square building frowned through the gloom, blacker than its own black shadow.
Nehushta paused as she reached the door, and listened. Very faintly through the thick walls she could hear the sound of the evening chant. The priests were all within with Zoroaster, unconscious of their danger and of all that was going on in the palace, singing the hymns of the sacrifice before the sacred fire,--chanting, as it were, a dirge for themselves. Nehushta tried the door. The great bronze gates were locked together, and though she pushed, with her whole strength, they would not move a hair's breadth.
"Press the nail nearest the middle," said a small voice behind her. Nehushta started and looked round. It was the little Syrian slave, who had followed her out of the palace, and stood watching her in the dark. Nehushta put her hand upon the round head of the nail and pressed, as the slave told her to do. The door opened, turning slowly and noiselessly upon its hinges. Both women entered; the Syrian girl looked cautiously back and pushed the heavy bronze back to its place. The Egyptian artisan who had made the lock, had told one of the queen's women whom he loved the secret by which it was opened, and the Syrian had heard it repeated and remembered it.
Once inside, Nehushta ran quickly through the corridor between the walls and rushing into the inner temple, found herself behind the screen and in a moment more she stood before all the priests and before Zoroaster himself. But even as she entered, the Syrian slave, who had lingered to close the gates, heard the rushing of many feet outside, and the yelling of hoarse voices, mixed with the clang of arms.
Solemnly the chant rose around the sacred fire that seemed to burn by unearthly means upon the black stone altar. Zoroaster stood before it, his hands lifted in prayer, and his waxen face and snow-white beard illuminated by the dazzling effulgence.
The seventy priests, in even rank, stood around the walls, their hands raised in like manner as their chief priest's; their voices going up in a rich chorus, strong and tuneful, in the grand plain-chant. But Nehushta broke upon their melody, with a sudden cry, as she rushed before them.
"Zoroaster--fly--there is yet time. The enemy are come in thousands--they are in the palace. There is barely time!" As she cried to him and to them all, she rushed forward and laid one hand upon his shoulder.
But the high priest turned calmly upon her, his face unmoved, although all the priests ceased their chanting and gathered about their chief in sudden fear. As their voices ceased, a low roar was heard from without, as though the ocean were beating at the gates.
Zoroaster gently took Nehushta's hand from his shoulder.
"Go thou, and save thyself," he said kindly. "I will not go. If it be the will of the All-Wise that I perish, I will perish before this altar. Go thou quickly, and save thyself while there is yet time."
But Nehushta took his hand in hers, that trembled with the great emotion, and gazed into his calm eyes as he spoke--her look was very loving and very sad.
"Knowest thou not, Zoroaster, that I would rather die with thee than live with any other? I swear to thee, by the God of my fathers, I will not leave thee." Her soft voice trembled--for she was uttering her own sentence of death.
"There is no more time!" cried the voice of the little Syrian maid, as she came running into the temple. "There is no more time! Ye are all dead men! Behold, they are breaking down the doors!"
As she spoke, the noise of some heavy mass striking against the bronze gates echoed like thunder through the temple, and at each blow a chorus of hideous yells rose, wild and long-drawn-out, as though the fiends of hell were screaming in joy over the souls of the lost.
The priests drew together, trembling with fear, brave and devoted though they were. Some of them would have run towards the door, but the Syrian maid stood before them.
"Ye are dead men and there is no salvation--ye must die like men," said the little maid, quietly. "Let me go to my mistress." And she pushed through the crowd of white-robed men, who surged together in their sudden fear, like a white-crested wave heaved up from the deep by a fierce wind.
Nehushta still held Zoroaster's hand and stared wildly upon the helpless priests. Her one thought was to save the man she loved, but she saw well enough that it was too late. Nevertheless she appealed to the priests.
"Can none of you save him?" she cried.
Foremost in the little crowd was a stern, dark man--the same who had been the high priest before Zoroaster came, the same who had first hurled defiance at the intruder, and then had given him his whole allegiance. He spoke out loudly:
"We will save him and thee if we are able," he cried in brave enthusiasm for his chief. "We will take you between us and open the doors, and it may be that we can fight our way out--though we are all slain, he may be saved." He would have laid hold on Zoroaster, and there was not one of the priests who would not have laid down his life in the gallant attempt. But Zoroaster gently put him back.
"Ye cannot save me, for my hour is come," he said, and a radiance of unearthly glory stole upon his features, so that he seemed transfigured and changed before them all. "The foe are as a thousand men against one. Here we must die like men, and like priests of the Lord before His altar."
The thundering at the doors continued to echo through the whole temple, almost drowning every other sound as it came; and the yells of the infuriated besiegers rose louder and louder between.
Zoroaster's voice rang out clear and strong and the band of priests gathered more and more closely about him. Nehushta still held his hand tightly between her own, and, pale as death, she looked up to him as he spoke. The little Syrian girl stood, beside her mistress, very quite and grave.
"Hear me, ye priests of the Lord," said Zoroaster. "We are doomed men and must surely die, though we know not by whose hand we perish. Now, therefore, I beseech you to think not of this death which we must suffer in our mortal bodies, but to open your eyes to the things which are not mortal and which perish not eternally. For man is but a frail and changing creature as regards his mortality, seeing that his life is not longer than the lives of other created things, and he is delicate and sickly and exposed to manifold dangers from his birth. But the soul of man dieth not, neither is there any taint of death in it, but it liveth for ever and is made glorious above the stars. For the stars, also, shall have an end, and the earth--even as our bodies must end here this night; but our soul shall see the glory of God, the All-Wise, and shall live."
"The sun riseth and the earth is made glad, and it is day; and again he setteth and it is night, and the whole earth is sorrowful. But though our sun is gone down and we shall see him rise no more, yet shall we see a sun which setteth not for ever, and of whose gladness there is no end. The morning cometh, after which there shall be no evening. The Lord Ahura Mazda, who made all things, made also these our bodies, and put us in them to live and move and have being for a space on earth. And now he demands them again; for he gave them and they are his. Let us give them readily as a sacrifice, for he who knoweth all things, knoweth also why it is meet that we should die. And he who hath created all things which we see and which perish quickly, hath created also the things which we have not seen, but shall see hereafter;--and the time is at hand when our eyes shall be opened to the world which endureth, though they be closed in death upon the things which perish. Raise then a hymn of thanks with me to the All-Wise God, who is pleased to take us from time into eternity, from darkness into light, from change to immortality, from death by death to life undying."
"Praise we the All-Wise God, who hath made and created the years and the ages; Praise him who in the heavens hath sown and hath scattered the seed of the stars; Praise him who moves between the three ages that are, and that have been, and shall be; Praise him who rides on death, in whose hand are all power and honour and glory; Praise him who made what seemeth, the image of living, the shadow of life; Praise him who made what is, and hath made it eternal for ever and ever, Who made the days and nights, and created the darkness to follow the light, Who made the day of life, that should rise up and lighten the shadow of death."
Zoroaster raised one hand to heaven as he chanted the hymn, and all the priests sang with him in calm and holy melody, as though death were not even then with them. But Nehushta still held his other hand fast, and her own were icy cold.
With a crash, as though the elements of the earth were dissolving into primeval confusion, the great bronze doors gave way, and fell clanging in--and the yells of the besiegers came to the ears of the priests, as though the cover had been taken from the caldron of hell, suffering the din of the damned and their devils to burst forth in demoniac discord.
In an instant the temple was filled with a swarm of hideous men, whose eyes were red with the lust of blood and their hands with slaughter. Their crooked swords gleamed aloft as they pressed forward in the rush, and their yells rent the very roof.
They had hoped for treasure,--they saw but a handful of white-robed unarmed men, standing around one taller than the rest; and in the throng they saw two women. Their rage knew no bounds, and their screams rose more piercing than ever, as they surrounded the doomed band, and overwhelmed them, and dyed their misshapen blades in the crimson blood that flowed so red and strong over the fair white vestures.
The priests struggled like brave men to the last. They grasped their hideous foes by arm and limb and neck, and tossed some of them back upon their fellows; fighting desperately with their bare hands against the armed murderers. But the foe were a hundred to one, and the priests fell in heaps upon each other while the blood flowed out between the feet of the wild, surging throng, who yelled and slew, and yelled again, as each priest tottered back and fell, with the death-wound in his breast.
At last, one tall wretch, with bloodied eyes and distorted features, leaped across a heap of slain and laid hold of Nehushta by the hair with his reeking hand, and strove to drag her out. But Zoroaster's thin arms went round her like lightning and clasped her to his breast. Then the little Syrian maid raised her Indian knife, with both hands, high above her head, and smote the villain with all her might beneath the fifth rib, that he died in the very act; but ere he had fallen, a sharp blade fell swiftly, like a crooked flash of light, and severed the small hands at the wrist; and the brave, true-hearted little maid fell shrieking to the floor. One shriek--and that was all; for the same sword smote her again as she lay, and so she died.
But Nehushta's head fell forward on the high priest's breast, and her arms clasped him wildly as his clasped her.
"Oh, Zoroaster, my beloved, my beloved! Say not any more that I am unfaithful, for I have been faithful even unto death, and I shall be with you beyond the stars for ever!"
He pressed her closer still, and in that awful moment, his white face blazed with the radiant light of the new life that comes by death alone.
"Beyond the stars and for ever!" he cried. "In the light of the glory of God most high!"
The keen sword flashed out once more and severed Nehushta's neck, and found its sheath in her lover's heart; and they fell down dead together, and the slaughter was done.
But on the third day, Darius the king returned; for a messenger met him, bringing news that his soldiers had slain the rebels in Echatana, though they were ten to one. And when he saw what things had been done in Stakhar, and looked upon the body of the wife he had loved, lying clasped in the arms of his most faithful and beloved servant, he wept most bitterly. And he rode forth and destroyed utterly the wild riders of the eastern hills, and left not one child to weep for its father that was dead. But two thousand of them he brought to Stakhar, and crucified them all upon the roadside, that their blood might avenge the blood of those he had loved so well.
And he took the bodies of Zoroaster the high priest, and of Nehushta the queen, and of the little Syrian maid, and he buried them with spices and fine linen, and in plates of pure gold, together in a tomb over against the palace, hewn in the rock of the mountain.
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