The Holder of the Hand

A short story of a past life in Nineveh: dedicated to Her, who brought the past to vibrant life

Guest article by Seán Mac Gréine

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HE SUN WAS RISING GENTLY in the warm and quiet morning, painting the sky in soft hues of pink and orange. Its shining rays struck the earth and reanimated all life after the stillness of the dark night. I stood upon the bend of the river, looking past the magnificent palace of Nineveh towards the symbol of our heavenly Creator, praying that destiny would be beneficent to my family and I. The rim of the Sun appeared above the pillared halls and gilded towers of the palace and I felt a rush of Light and Wisdom flow through me like a current of warmth, as if the Sun brought with it direct communion with my Soul from the glorious East. My spirit soared heavenwards, and I felt as if I was in a waking dream, floating along the spiritual rays of the Sun.

A voice seemed to ring out like a soft chorus of chiming bells as with the eye of imagination I saw the image of a beautiful young princess. There was some special link and destiny between us reinforced by the knowledge that the Queen was expecting a child in the coming days, and all the kingdom was gripped with excitement and expectation. Standing there on the bank of the river, I seemed to float back to reality. The strange images and sounds ended, though they were seared into my mind and heart forever. Though only a boy of eight, my whole life changed in those few brief moments of illumination. I did not understand these feelings fully at the time but the innocence and naiveté of youth were transmuted into a paternal and protective impulse towards the soon to be born princess.

I ran home as fast as I could and entered our house to find my father in the garden. He was a Priest and teacher who belonged to the outer circle of the Magi who were permitted to marry and have families. I rushed to him, the words tumbling out of my mouth. "Father," I exclaimed, "I was standing by the river and praying to God when I had a vision. I felt like I was floating in the rays of the Sun and I saw a vision of a princess being born, and that she was part of my destiny. I must become a soldier to protect her. I will devote my life to her, and give up my life if need be."

My father received my news calmly and studied me with wise understanding. "My son," he replied, "a soldier's life is hard and wearisome. It is a life of great peril with little reward. But if the gods have gifted you with a vision of your purpose in this life, I have no choice but to accept their disposition and grant your wish." I moved to embrace him, but before I could throw my arms around him, he grasped my shoulders, and holding me at arm's length, looked deeply into my eyes. "My permission has one condition that will test the truth of your vision."
"I do not understand," I replied in confusion.
"Then let me explain. The royal family and the whole of the priesthood have been praying for the birth of a son, and the astrologers have forecast auspiciously in favour of a male. If a prince is born you may not become a soldier, nor would you want to. But if a princess is born, then your vision is confirmed and you have my permission and blessing." No sooner had he said these words than the royal trumpets sounded and he listened attentively to their feminine notes.
"A princess is born," he said with a pitying gaze.

nimrud palaces

Anon, after a sketch by James Fergusson — The Palaces at Nimrud Restored — lithograph, 1853

The confirmation of my vision filled me with an overmastering tenacity and will to succeed. Such was my enthusiasm for the rigorous training I now entered upon that I quickly won the respect and approval of my fellow recruits. I was determined to devote all my energy to become the best soldier the court had ever known and so qualify for the coveted position of royal bodyguard—the highest military honour in the land. From an early age my father had taught me the pursuit of excellence, the art of perseverance and the wisdom of patience. It was these powerful mental precepts which, together with my physical prowess, fuelled my determination to be seen as a great warrior and champion.

Not that there was much fighting to be done. The times I lived in were a peaceful interlude in the bloody history of Assyria, thanks to the wily diplomacy of our beloved King. We had occasional skirmishes and battles with outlying Aramaean tribes, but mostly I had to prove my mettle in combat exhibitions and tests against my fellow comrades. As the years passed my name became a byword for valour and military prowess throughout the ranks. So much so that I was given the new name of 'Nabu', in honour of the God Mercury, for as my mind outmatched my peers in ingenuity and artifice so did my limbs excel in running and my hands with the spear and mace.

In my twentieth year I was summoned into the presence of the King who had been told of my prodigious ability and successes. In a solemn ceremony attended by the nobles of the court I was granted the honour of being admitted into the ranks of the royal bodyguard and accorded the privilege of protecting the royal family. I thanked him humbly on bended knee but then looked up and said boldly that it was his daughter I was destined to protect. I expected an angry retort, if not worse, but to my surprise he laughed in his beard and asked the reason for my presumptuous request. Whereupon I told him of the vision I had upon the day of the Princess' birth and to what it had led me.

The King was much surprised by my answer and called for the High Priest. A tall, lean man with piercing grey eyes detached himself from the courtiers standing behind the throne and prostrated himself before the King. He was dressed in a long white robe adorned with a feathered serpent worked in golden threads and adorned with precious jewels. As he rose to his feet I recognised him as the noble who had been watching me intently since I entered the hall. He whispered briefly into the ear of the King who now turned to me and said softly "we grant your request and are blessed that you have been sent to protect my daughter."


As the Princess grew to womanhood her excursions within the palace and throughout the city became more frequent and extensive. She was wont to travel to different parts of the city to observe the people at work and leisure, and although the city itself adored and loved their King and Queen, they had a special affection for their beautiful daughter. We in the royal bodyguard were ever alert to the danger from foreign threats or unlucky accidents. My devotion to the Princess outshone all others, and the captain of the guard promoted me to the most privileged of positions: Holder of the Hand. No man, whether noble, soldier, or commoner could touch the hand of a member of the royal family when helping them to enter or leave their chariot, litter or barge. It was the Holder of the Hand's duty to stand at the right hand side of the Princess' chariot, and when she wished to board or alight I would assist her by offering her a short mace terminating in a fist made of gold. This remarkable object was called the 'Golden Hand' upon which the Princess would place her hand for balance and support.

Bodyguards were not allowed to look upon the Princess. We were taught from infancy that the royal family were semi-divine beings set far above common mortals who must not be looked upon or touched lest the gods be offended and wreak vengeance on the despoiler. In private, the priests further taught that eye contact between royalty and commoner would adulterate the person of the royal ones and lessen their power. I tried very hard to obey these sacred injunctions but the heavenly beauty and kindness of the Princess outshone all other women, and my devotion for her etched itself deeply into my heart. I could never forget the morning on the riverbank when, as a child, I was overcome by the vision of her loveliness and recognised the unspoken yet unbreakable bond between us. The longer I spent in her company the stronger these feelings grew, so that I was hard pressed to control myself and sensed she felt the same.

Nonetheless, we both honoured the rules of our positions, never once looking at one another or making eye contact. Yet still our thoughts reached out to one another and wordlessly seemed to bond together. On one beautiful summer's evening there was a small party in the Princess' private garden to mark the visit of a prince of one of the nomes of Egypt who had been promised in marriage to her. She was in her seventeenth year and had never looked lovelier. She was dressed in a long yellow gown, with a blue cloak pulled across her left shoulder decorated with a five pointed, jewelled star. I watched the festivities out of the corner of my eye and relaxed as I knew there would be no danger from unseen enemies tonight.

The Princess was asked to sing a song in honour of the Egyptian prince. Protocol demanded she stand close to her future husband but she chose to turn only slightly toward him. Instead, she faced me directly, closed her eyes and began to sing in a quiet, lilting voice reminiscent of the soft rays of a rainbow. Everybody's heart was lifted, transforming the garden into a heaven of peace. Her song was a eulogy in praise of the Sun, and the empathy in her voice was like a flame that caused my heart to blaze up like a fiery diamond.

As she directed her voice towards me, each note and word bathed me in the love I felt for her. At the end of the song, she opened her eyes and her first, brief glance was directed at me. To our mutual surprise our eyes met in a sudden, overwhelming rush of recognition and longing. We stood stock still, unable to move. For a few moments which seemed like an eternity, we were lost in one another's eyes. "Who are you?" we seemed to ask, each faithfully echoing the thought of the other. We came to our senses all too quickly as we remembered our place and surroundings. The colour rose to the Princess' cheeks, but only we knew the cause. Her audience thought she blushed from becoming humility in response to their rapturous applause, and so our brief encounter went unnoticed. From this moment I felt even more protective of her.

Later that night, when the nobles and guests were all assembled in the palace, the Egyptian prince asked the Princess to marry him, and she accepted, as the King had intended she would. When the news of the betrothal reached me I was beside myself with anger, jealousy and grief. I could not imagine being parted from one whom I loved with all my heart, mind and soul and who I now knew, loved me with equal fervour. The following day was a torment to me. I threw myself into vigorous, physical training but nothing I did eased the turmoil boiling within my veins and the rage in my heart. I knew my fate was sealed when the prince's bodyguard marched into the royal barracks led by their captain who demanded the Golden Hand. He tapped me upon my chest with an imperious finger, his smooth, shaven face wreathed in a smile in which disdain was mixed with arrogance. First in his barbarous tongue and then in bad Assyrian he told me that the responsibility for the Princess' safety now rested with his royal master, the prince of Egypt. "You are to surrender the Golden Hand to me and resign your position as the Holder of the Hand." He thrust out his hand while his men quietly surrounded me.

"I cannot do that," I replied. "Will you not allow me to remain as Holder of the Hand under the prince's command?"
The Egyptian laughed. It was not a pleasant sound.
"Absolutely not. You are to forfeit the Golden Hand now."
I held the contentious mace tightly in my hand as he lunged forward to snatch it from me. As he made a second attempt my anger got the better of me and I struck him. He gazed at me in shock and fury, wiping the blood from his temple as his men drew their swords. I dropped the Golden Hand and stood with my arms limply at my sides. I was deeply ashamed of what I had done. "I am sorry," I said, "I don't know what came over me." As I dropped to my knees the Egyptian captain drew his own sword. Before he could lift and strike my own commander, leaped between us and held him at bay.
"Wait, wait!" he shouted, "his was a criminal act against an honoured guest. You may not execute a member of the royal bodyguard. Only the King can decide his punishment."
I hung my head in shame, my thoughts filled with the image of the Princess I knew I would never see again. My comrades escorted me to one of the many prisons in the cellars of the palace and locked me into a cell to await my fate.


Next morning all the anger and hatred had left me and I sat, sullen and listless in the semi-darkness. The palace was unnaturally quiet as the news of my crime spread among the court and the people. Two days and sleepless nights passed in an agony of regret, shame and loss. The sound of the Princess' singing echoed in my mind, becoming more distant with every sorrowful sigh that escaped my lips. On the third day, the High Priest who had been responsible for my appointment approached my cell and was immediately admitted. "The King is truly shocked and saddened by your loss of self-control and outburst of anger," he began sternly. "You were an exemplary soldier and protector, and your presence exerted a powerful influence on your fellow comrades. The King thought you exemplified the essential traits of a good soldier. I too, shared his regard for you, but I cannot say I am very surprised by your actions. I recognised the special link between you and the Princess as soon as I learned of your vision. I consulted the heavens and found that Ishtar and Nergal were conjoined in the house of Ninurta at your birth and both were embraced by Shamash in the birth-map of the Princess. Yet I said nothing to the King because I knew he would never agree to your appointment if he knew of these fateful signs. The Princess never once feared for her safety knowing the Holder of the Hand was by her side."

"She said that?" I asked hopefully.
"No," he replied softly, laying a consoling hand upon my shoulder. "There was no need to. I read her mind and heart as well as I read yours, such are the gifts of my Office. I see the deep and abiding bond between you, for I know the secrets of Ishtar and of Nabu, after whom you are named. Now much is dark to you, but many lives hence you will see clearly. You may look to the future with hope that in lives yet to come you may meet one another again, whether on earth, or in the heavens I do not know, and so find the bounty of happiness and Truth that eludes you today. This is all I will say on the matter."
I looked at him in surprise and bewilderment. His enigmatic words gave me hope, yet I could not shake off the heavy chain of shame and grief that gripped my heart.
"The King has instructed me to give you two choices. Plead guilty and die which is the just punishment for your crime, or beg for your life abroad from your captors in a foreign prison. You have until this time tomorrow to choose your fate." The High Priest turned on his heel and left the cell.

I did not think I was afraid of death but now that I faced it, I wasn't sure if I had the strength to embrace it. As I wrestled with these and other dark thoughts, the door opened again and the Princess stood before me. For what seemed an eternity I gazed at her in amazement, until my training roused me and I sank to my knees, and bowed my head that I might not look upon her.
She spoke softly and sadly, "Brave and strong Holder of the Hand, I am very saddened to learn of your plight."
"I am sorry for my actions, but more sorry I failed you," I whispered, hardly able to speak.
"You didn't fail me; you fulfilled your duty as my protector and I am thankful." Her voice started to quaver. "I am now under my betrothed's protection. So it would have been the end of your position in any case."
A spark seemed to ignite in my heart and gave me courage to speak. "I received a message from the Gods in my youth that a princess was to be born with whom I had an eternal connection, and I should devote my life to her protection. We have looked once into each other's eyes and felt the bond between us. Is this not true for you also?"

"Yes," she whispered.
I raised my head. "Then we will see each other again in the future, in some way, in better circumstance and on an equal footing?" It was less of a question and more of a prayer. She nodded as her eyes welled up with tears. The joy and the pain were etched on her face in an expression I can never forget.
"I must go," she said, wiping her eyes. Her soft, sweet face shone with love and empathy and her eyes looked through me with an innate wisdom. Then in the formal voice she was accustomed to use at court she said, "Holder of the Hand—I wish to depart." I rose to my feet and held out my own hand in the shape of the mace which had been taken from me. She rested her hand lightly on top of my clenched fist. Our eyes met once more in sympathy and warmth. Once more the flame of love and truth flared within our hearts. Then she lifted her hand and was gone and my loneliness and grief were complete.


Hours passed or it might have been only minutes. When I looked up the High Priest stood before me with folded arms, silently awaiting my answer.
"Death," I said.
"A noble decision and brave," he answered softly. "I salute you, Nabu. Soon you will die, and return to the heavenly halls filled with experience to begin a new life in due time with no earthly memory of the pain you feel now. However, the Princess must live out the rest of her days without you, tormented by the memory of what might have been. Perhaps she is braver than you." He paused and stroked his beard. "Yes, perhaps she is the more valiant one. Yet we of the Magi know that earthly life is like a solitary bead strung upon the necklace of fate; no sooner begun than ended. Hence I salute you, soldier, fellow countryman and brother, who will precede me to the Mountain House of Enlil. We are all his sons and daughters. May you judge yourself fairly when you pass through the gates of Truth and stand before his servants."


Story © Seán Mac Gréine. Introduction & Afterword © Copyright
All worldwide rights reserved. Published 15 August 2021.

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