The Reluctant Hero
I had mixed feelings about myself when I awakened the next morning. The first thing I heard when I peered blurry-eyed and slack-jawed around the tent after being roused was Aulus shouting “Rise and face your destiny Thaddeus Judaicus! When word of this gets out, you’ll become a legend at the fort!” In my state of mind it almost sounded like a taunt. It was still dark. A lamp was held close to my face, as Caesarius and Geta helped me out of the tent. I knew at once that it had been real—all of it, at least the second half of the supposed dream when I rode out of the first half of the dream into my new life as the “Reaper.” It hit me very hard that I had killed all those men, and yet I was overwhelmed with the goodwill aimed at me after this exploit. Due to my nearly perfect memory, I remembered the enter episode from the actual nightmare to the portion I thought was a dream. I was now Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper. How could I ever live up to such a name? I had killed a half dozen men and felt only fear at this point. After all, I reasoned, I thought I was asleep. It had also been self-defense. Had I been awake I would have ran like the Furies into the woods. Because of my uncanny ability to awaken inside my dreams, I had gotten things all mixed up and wound up being a hero instead.
I was still a coward, of course, but this time I was simply afraid of telling the truth. That’s where my mixed feelings came in. What kind of fool would I have been to tell the truth after the reception I received? They wouldn’t understand it if I told them I thought I was asleep. How could I explain to them that I believed it was a lucid dream that I could alter if I wished and, after killing all those men, I didn’t believe it was real? If Jesus hadn’t explained this phenomenon to me, I wouldn’t have believed such a thing, myself, nor, if I heard that excuse from someone else, would I accept such a tale. By playing out my fantasies, I had killed six men, which almost made it murder. Had not my brother Jesus once said to me “you can commit a sin even by simply thinking evil toward someone?” and look at my sin? I had blood on my hands. What would he think if he learned of what I had done? On the other hand, I was no longer an outcast among my fellow travelers. I no longer had to worry about my back. I was considered a hero by men who once hated me, and most of them would probably become my friends. I wondered if my brothers James, Joseph, and Simon would be proud of me now. After all, I had saved the camp from ambush and slaughter. This was certainly a good beginning for my career in the legion. Yet, despite my fame, there was definately a downside. I would have to live up to the legend of Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper, if what Aulus said was true. When I arrived at the fort in Antioch, the word would get out to the men, and I would be expected to act the part. If I continued the masquerade, which was what it was, the lie might catch up with me when I was put to the test.
What should I do? I asked myself as we struck camp. Should I tell them all I thought I was dreaming and it was all a big mistake? If I explained what really happened, which would be difficult to do, I would become, at the very least, an outcast. They might even think I was insane. Trapped by circumstance, I would, of course, choose the safer option and, for the time being, play the role. The less said the better. Hopefully, I could intrigue the prefect with my gifts and prevent exposing myself in battle by displaying my talents as a scribe and interepreter instead of a soldier. Otherwise, I decided, as I climbed onto my mule and joined the others on the road, I would have to return with Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto to Galilee and give up my dreams. This would be cold comfort for me, but far better than living a lie, unless, of course, no one found out. Everything depended on how I was received in Antioch. Could I obtain a position as a scribe and not have to prove myself as a soldier or would they turn me over to a centurion for swearing in when I arrived at the fort? If I couldn’t present my qualifications to the prefect, I must bow out politely. I wanted to believe that my powers of persuasion were strong enough to convince Aurelian of my talents once I was received in his headquarters. I had no desire to play the part of Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper for all those men. Before that happened, I would make a quick exit. There were worse things than living in Nazareth the rest of my life,… being dead was one of them.
Perhaps it was my youthful foolishness that caused my spirits to rise during the remainder of our journey. Knowing the consequences of what I did at the imperial station should have shaken me much more than it did, and yet I was feeling much better about myself. After all, I hadn’t wanted this acclaim. It wasn’t my fault that men had attacked our camp, and I thought I was still asleep. I had almost convinced myself of these facts, which is why I joined in the friendly banter of the group and had accepted my nickname as the Reaper. What spoiled my reverie during the trip were the words of my oldest brother: “If you commit a crime in your heart, you have sinned in the eyes of God.” Had he been in my dreamscape, Jesus would have seen murder in my heart. Though I saved the others by my quick action, it had been done playfully and deliberately with no thought of danger in my dream. Added to my sin as murderer, therefore, was the lesser but more dangerous sin of lying. I was letting Decimus and the others think I was a “natural,” as Aulus called it. I had not pressed the point that I was dreaming, which I suggested last night. Jesus would, of course, also consider this course to be foolish—the sort of fabrication that would lead me further and further down a road to destruction. At the end of the road—the fort at Antioch, I had a very important decision to make: stay or leave. It was as simple as that, such an uncomplicated choice, in fact, I should have felt relieved, but at I rode north alongside of Caesarius, the old veteran brought me down to earth.
At first it seemed as if he had read my mind. “Thaddeus,” he called discreetly, “what if the prefect won’t see you? They might just try to swear you in.”
“Huh?” I blinked. “That would be bad, very bad,” I mumbled repeatedly, shaking my head.
It had been like a splash of cold water in my face. Caesarius reached over in his saddle and shook my sleeve, counseling sternly, “If Aurelian doesn’t need your services, you mustn’t dally. It could become a snare for you. They always need men. The legion is no place for you!”
“You don’t think I should be a soldier?” I asked in a tremulous voice.
“No, I don’t,” his voice softened. “It’s not what you want. You want to be a scribe, not a soldier. I can’t explain what happened last night, but it wasn’t normal. You might not be so lucky next time.”
“Was it just luck?” I glanced up at the sky. “It happened so quickly,...like in a dream.”
Looking around self-consciously, he laughed softly to himself. “Well, I know one thing lad, your God’s watching out for you. I might even call it a miracle in the way you dodged all those swords!”
“I’m glad you’re my friend,” I replied, sighing with relief. “My weapon’s the pen, not the sword. If the prefect doesn’t give me what I want, I’m going home. I won’t dally.”
“Good!” Caesarius nodded with approval. “No more heroics unless someone has your back!”
A hysterical laugh escaped my throat. Caesarius sensed something unnatural about my bravery. I suspected, though I couldn’t be certain, that he thought it was a fluke. I wondered if the others felt the same way. When they called me Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper, I detected a note of sarcasm in the title, especially from Apollo and Ajax, who also called me the Angel of Death. I particularly deplored that title. At least Thaddeus Judaicus, without the epithet, sounded like a Roman name. What I dreaded most, when I looked ahead, was the possibility that the auxilia, themselves, might put me to the test. I knew, of course, that Decimus, Aulus, Vesto, Caesarius, and probably Rufus would have protected me before last night, but what if they believed I was a natural warrior as Aulus exclaimed. After my display of courage, would they let their guard down, thinking that I could take care of myself? On the other hand, I half hoped, what if they were being sarcastic too? If everyone thought last night was, in fact, a fluke, I could go back to being the “wet-behind-the-ears Jew,” and perhaps this might all die down and not become a legend as Aulus warned.
What gave me hope were the exaggerated compliments given to me by Aulus, though I knew he was my friend. Calling me a natural warrior and telling me that I would become a legend at the fort had a chilling effect on me at first, but then I noticed a twinkle in his eyes when he extolled my feat, as if he was relating a tall tale. Though most of my traveling companions were simply curious when they asked questioned about last night, Langullus, Apollo, and Ajax continued to snarl disbelievingly at me. Fronto teased me good-naturedly, giving me his own nickname (“Litte Jew-boy warrior”) and Ibram suggested half-seriously that I might be possessed by a Jinn.
On the ride to Tyre, our next stop, we pulled off the road near a small town to water our horses and snack on dried fish, local plumbs, and the biscuits that were the mainstay of soldiers on the march. As I feared, I was taunted by Apollo and Ajax unmercifully and given my first test. I had deliberately placed the sword loaned to me in my saddlebag to avoid such a challenge. The Egyptian noted this oversight as he studied my belt.
“You’ve been quiet after last night,” he said, handing me his gladius. “The fact is, Thaddeus Judaicus, you killed six men. Show us some of your moves—particularly how you dueled three men at the same time, that backward thrust that killed one attacker, and how you tossed that spear and saved Langullus’ life.”
“Yes, Angel of Death,” Ajax grinned mischievously, “teach us the art of killing without fear or mercy. Demonstrate for us your god-like strength.”
I was picking plums with Caesarius and Rufus when the challenge came. Though wounded, with his arm in a sling, Enrod, was sitting beneath the plum tree, enjoying the fruit offered to him. Naturally, I froze in my tracks as if I was in imminent danger, which I might be in if I took hold of Apollo’s sword. Geta, Langullus, Fronto, and Ibrim joined my antagonists to form a wide circle around us. Even Enrod hobbled over for the event. While the two Gauls stood there expectantly, waiting for my next move, Caesarius, though frightened, himself, stood directly in front of me, waving off the Egyptian’s sword.
“Thaddeus doesn’t enjoy killing,” his voice shook. “Why do you tease him? Leave him alone!”
Delicately gripping the blade, Apollo once more presented his sword, handle forward as before, only to have it swatted out of his hand. Picking up the weapon, he looked menacingly at the veteran, then, with the gladius in the palms of his hands, presented it to me as an offering, bowing his head. This time, Caesarius seemed intimidated by the Egyptian’s glare. For a moment, impressed by Apollo’s gesture, which I had once seen in Joseph of Arimathea’s guards, I almost took the gladius. I wasn’t sure what I was suppose to do with it this time. Should I move it around in a flurry of sword strokes or, would I have a mock duel with one of the auxilia to show my expertise? Caesarius was more afraid for me than for himself, but he stood alone against the group. Even Rufus and Enrod, whom I thought were my friends, seemed to be waiting anxiously for my next feat. Withdrawing my hand after it had inched forth, I looked around helplessly for Decimus and Aulus. Where are you? My mind cried out.
Suddenly, as if he heard my thoughts, Decimus hollered in the distance, “You two, get away from him. I know your game!” “Did you hear me Apollo?” he shouted, racing to the scene. “Put that sword back in its scabbard. Thaddeus has nothing to prove!”
Aulus, not far behind, barked out orders. “All of you, back away. Take care of your mounts. All them must be watered. After they graze in the field, brush them down, and check their hooves. We want to reach Tyre by tonight.”
“What did I tell you about leaving Thaddeus alone?” Decimus glared at Apollo.
“We just wanted an example of his powers.” The Egyptian said mockingly. “The way he took care of that fellow in back of him—sphit-sphit—was marvelous.”
“Go-a-way!” Decimus roared in his face.
“Why can’t the lad act on his own?” Ajax stepped forward slowly. “After what he did last night, we’re all curious. I especially admire the way he threw that spear.”
“Here,” Fronto said good-naturedly, “take mine.”
The Thracian handed me his spear. I touched the shaft, recoiling at the thought. Decimus pulled me aside before I could change my mind. “What’s the matter with you?” he searched my face. My moment of truth had come and gone. Instead of taking a chance, I was displaying timidity, even cowardice in front of the optio. Fortunately for me that moment, a troubling specter emerged from the trees: Abzug, the courier, a young goat slung over one shoulder, his quiver of arrows clutched in his hand.
“Ho-ho,” he cried airily, “I’d like to see our hero fire my bow”
Approaching us with his prize, the courier glanced sheepishly at the optio, who was greatly agitated. To my benefit, the subject shifted instantly to Abzug, who had found us some fresh “game.” Both curses and laughter erupted from the men. Decimus surged forward, confronting him immediately as he strolled up to the group.
“Greats shade of Caesar!” he found his voice. Jabbing a finger into Abzug’s chest, he growled through clinched teeth. “Did anyone see you kill that unfortunate beast? That could’ve been some villager’s pet!”
“He was roaming freely,” Abzug explained calmly. “That means he’s fair game. I saw no one around, so I fired an arrow. It was a lucky shot. No one’s the wiser. We have fresh meat tonight.”
“You fool,” Aulus scolded. “We don’t need more trouble with the locals. The Syrians value goats more than their sheep. This could become another incident!”
“How do you know you weren’t spotted?” Decimus looked around self-consciously at the landscape. “There’s a town right over that hill—Syrians, not Jews. We can’t prepare and eat that goat. What were you thinking? What if they come looking for it and see us cooking it on a spit? They might go for the magistrates. We don’t know how those people will react!”
As if the current crisis mattered little, Fronto placed his lance in my hand. “Go ahead,” he coaxed, “give it a toss.”
“Yes,” Ajax said, rubbing his hands, “give it a toss.”
Decimus wanted to throttle Abzug but lost his focus when he looked over and saw Fronto, Ajax, Apollo, and Ibrim surrounding me again. The auxilia were not only testing me but challenging the optio too. To avoid another confrontation, Decimus tried to hold his temper, but he felt no such inhibition around Abzug, who had left the previous fort in disgrace.
“Get rid of it—immediately,” he poked his chest. “There’s plenty of jackals around here.” He glanced at the trio with a snarl. “They’ll take care of it!”
Abzug smiled wanly at the double meaning, backing away with his kill. Goat meat was normally tough, but this one was young. We had eaten sparsely today, and yet I was conflicted about what he had done. On the one hand I felt sorry for the beast. On the other hand, it would taste really good. Decimus, however, would have none of it. He was furious with the Syrian’s actions. Once again, we might be in trouble with the locals. Because his attention was divided between Abzug and the auxilia, I felt momentarily cornered. Decimus and Aulus had tried to protect me, as had Caesarius. Now, as Fronto and Ajax stood silently, arms folded, waiting for me to prove myself, it was up to me. If I refused to throw the spear, it would seem timid if not spineless. If I threw it and missed the mark, I would look like a bumbling fool. None of my options were good. What decided the issue was the voice of Ibrim as he played down the event. “Don’t worry, Thaddeus Judaicus, no one, not even Caesar could dupicate last night’s shot.”
“Humph, that’s true enough,” I replied giddily, reaching for the spear.
“Thaddeus, you have nothing to prove.” The optio waved his hands irritably. “Everyone—see to your mounts. Let’s put this stop behind us. Enrod needs medical treatment. I’m sending Aulus over that hill to find a physician. If we can’t find one, we’ll be leaving soon. You men must be ready.” “No more games!” He looked at Ajax and Apollo.
“Decimus, wait a moment,” I heard Aulus mutter tactfully to the optio, “we might as well take the goat with us. The deed’s done. It would be a terrible waste to leave it out for jackals or wild dogs.”
“We’ll have to leave soon.” Decimus sighed wearily. “The question is, is there a physician in that village?”
“I don’t think so.” Aulus shrugged his shoulders. “There might be someone practicing folk medicine, but I doubt we’ll find such a man.”
Enrod spoke up that moment, “Ibrim’s herbs have made the swelling go down. I’ll be all right until our next stop.”
Rufus looked at his brother with concern as he and Geta propped him up. Thoughts of my mother flashed through my mind. From the many potions gathered from her garden and Nazareth’s rolling hills, she had created an apothecary of medicines. I had seen them work on Samuel, the Pharisee and Joachim, our town’s rabbi. Along with Jesus powers of prayer, her efforts saved my friend Uriah’s life. I was certain Mama could heal Enrod too. This time she wouldn’t even need Jesus’ help. It was a clean slash to the arm, not a near-mortal wound as the one Reuben had recieved and been brought back by my mother from the brink of death. As I was warmed by these reflections, Fronto had whispered what my target would be: a solitary oak standing in the meadow. “Hit it squarely in the trunk.” He winked. “You should be able to do that.”
Exhaling heavily, I wiped my brow, took a deep breath, raised the weapon over my head, and aiming carefully, released the spear. Everyone stood there, mouths agape, watching the missile arc over the meadow and, very quickly, strike dead center in the trunk of the tree. As Fronto’s lance quivered in the trunk, I felt arms slapping my shoulders, including, to my surprise, Ajax and Langullus. Silently the three Roman regulars, Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto, had watched the exhibition. During that interval, to their surprise, I had once more become the center of attraction. Until our horses were ready and the men climbed onto their mounts, I just stood there, watching Fronto retrieve his lance.
“I never would’ve believed it,” Ajax had muttered, walking away. “He did it again. The Jew hit it dead center!”
Fronto handed me his lance that moment. “Here,” he said amiably, “I have another one. This one’s yours.”
I had no idea where I would stow it on my saddle, but I took the weapon graciously, with a slight bow. Decimus, Aulus, and Caesarius smiled at me, shaking their heads. Ibrim held up a handful of dust and let it blow away in the wind. “You are filled with a great spirit!” he declared climbing onto his horse. Abzug covered his kill with a blanket and tied it one of the mules. He promised to prepare it himself at our next stop. One reason this was allowed, I learned later, was to hide the evidence. This is how Decimus justified changing his mind. Everyone lined up cheerfully on their mounts, two-by-two, as he directed, with Caesarius once more riding next to me, and Rufus and his wounded brother behind. Finally, the optio called out, “Let’s get on the road. Keep in formation. Hopefully we’ll reach the imperial station near Tyre before sunset. For Enrod’s sake, we shall move quickly. If we make good time, Abzug will prepare the goat for us near the next town.”
Aulus galloped down the line of riders to inspect the ranks. As he rode passed me, he called out for my benefit. “Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper—the legend lives on!”
“What have I done?” I groaned.
“I’m sorry, lad,” Caesarius spoke kindheartedly, “but you should’ve missed that throw. You don’t want to be a legend. Your weapon is the pen!”