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Chapter Eighteen


Dark Domain




It was the most difficult leg of the journey for me so far.  I was certain the other men felt the same.  I could imagine how hard it was for Decimus and Aulus to ride back and forth in order to shepherd us along.  During this monotonous lap of our trip, the two Romans coaxed and threatened us.  I noticed that Rufus and Abzug continued to nod off, until feeling Aulus’ whip.  “Hold onto your reins,” he called softly, “ride high in your saddles, keep yours heels pressed against their bellies.  Occasionally, I would hear the optio or Aulus bark “Wake up!” and “Grab your reins!”  Once Caesarius, in spite of his frail condition, bent over and nudged me awake, and Apollo let me have it with the hilt of his sword.  Aulus suggested that we keep each other alert by talking, just so we kept it down.  I cursed the Egyptian but later thanked him for the rap on the back of my head.  Though, as a rule, desert folk weren’t night fighters, none of us was sure of this fact.  We discussed this a spell, wanting more reassurance.  If the Gauls and Germans were known to attack at night, Rufus pointed out, why not the Arabs and Nabataens on certain occasions.   Ibrim reminded us that it was their fear of the jinn.  The spirits of the night were always evil and tormented travelers like us.  This caused Rufus to laugh sourly, and brought on questions by Apollo and Abzug about my god.  The Egyptian was teasing when he asked me if God would protect us against the jinn.  Abzug was more concerned with us being attacked by men.  

“Have you prayed for our safety?” he asked, turning in his saddle. “He didn’t protect Vesto, Enrod, Geta, and Langullus.  Why should he save us?”

“I don’t speak for God,” I said, biting my lip.

“You were doing quite well before,” taunted Ajax. “You’d think he could protect a small band of travelers after all those other miracles he performed.  Do you really believe your god flooded the world, blasted two cities to cinders, and parted the Red Sea?”

“So it’s written.” I answered lamely.

“Nonsense,” sneered Apollo. “No god can do that, not even yours.”

“I’m not so sure,” observed Ibrim. “He might be a powerful god.  My people were once called Ishmaelites—sons of Abraham too, who believed in the same god.  Our legends speak of such wonders, but we Galilean Arabs worship primitive idols.  Hubal, our chief god, has a golden hand.”

The little Arab talked incessantly when he was nervous or frightened.  In the next breath he was back talking about the jinn.  At that time in my association with him, he seemed uncertain of what he believed.  Rufus looked back at me that moment as Ibrim chattered, sighing deeply. “I want to trust your god.  I no longer share my people’s dark beliefs.  I thought I might try worshiping Mithra, but it sickened me to be drenched with bull’s blood.”

If I were to explain to him my religion, I might have to explain our own blood sacrifice.  This would probably sicken him too.  I could tell him the comfort of knowing that a righteous person who paid homage to God would have eternal life.  Jesus had told me this, but he told me to learn the heart of the Gentiles.  I was warned by the optio not to discuss my religion anymore.  What came out of my mouth, therefore, was a spur of the moment compromise that didn’t preach nor leave me open for ridicule.

“I believe what the Egyptians and many Romans believe: we live our lives, treat others well, and pray in our own way, and, though sometimes our loved ones die, we meet them in the afterlife, in what is called Paradise or the Elysian Fields.”

“Well said,” Aulus noted, “you’re sounding more like a Roman every day.”

“My brother once told me about a pedestal in both Greece and Rome,” I spoke carefully. “It’s empty and yet the inscription below is to an unknown god, who’s universal.  Jesus believes that all people everywhere rich or poor are concerned about the hereafter and are looking for a just god, who rewards good deeds.”

Caesarius whispered that moment, “Careful, tread lightly.”

“I thought your god was only for the Jews.” Apollo tried bating me. “Are pagans included by this universal god?  Why are your people so selfish with your god?”

“He’s not a Jewish god, He is god!”  I wanted to say, but that would be preaching, so instead I answered ambiguously as Jesus often did:

“It’s as I’ve said!” I exhaled severely. “I’m not speaking for the Jews.  I speak for myself.  I like to believe I will one day see my loved ones and friends when I die.  You can believe as you wish.”  

“So, you’re saying I will see my brother Enrod and my parents in this afterlife?” Rufus, his voice was tinged with disbelief, summarized. “You believe as the Egyptian and Romans do about the Elysian Fields.  That’s very strange.”

“The Egyptians don’t call it the Elysian Fields.” Apollo exclaimed tritely. “They call it Aaru, which means Field of Reeds, and you must be embalmed to go there.”

“How quaint,” Aulus chortled, “the word is field, always a peaceful place.  That makes sense.”

“It’s donkey droppings,” Ajax snorted. “You eat, drink, live, and die—end of story.”

“Well,” Decimus said wearily, “most of that story about the Elysian Fields was written by Virgil, a poet and friend of Augustus, who only paid lip-service to the old gods.”

“Who knows?” Abzug glanced back. “What is written on a scroll isn’t proof.  I’m familiar with Virgil.  He wrote it, like the Jews wrote their tales.  The Elysian Fields are made up too.” 

“I can’t win.” I muttered to Caesarius. “Even when I try to hold my tongue, they pry it out of me.”

“You did much better.” He whispered, reaching over and patting my shoulder. “I can tell that Aulus and optio think so too.  Next time, though, don’t offer so much information.  I’ve learned one thing in my life: the less you say, the better.  You claim that you don’t expect others to share your belief, so why belabor the issue?”

I nodded silently and returned his pat.  Decimus and Aulus had said as much.  After all I had been through, I felt blessed those moments that I had made friends among these rough mannered men, most of all for the friendship I had with Caesarius.  He was like a father figure to me.  Decimus and Aulus weren’t like any Romans I had ever known.  It seemed to me, by their recent overtures, that Rufus, Ibrim, Fronto, and even Abzug were also my friends.  Even Apollo and Ajax no longer seemed to hate me.  Their efforts at taunting and teasing had grown increasingly sporadic after that day at Ecdippa.  Perhaps, I dared to hope, the worst was behind us.  After awhile, as I was wrapped in my thoughts, the natural result became drowsiness.  The rocking motion of my mule, hum of the desert breeze, and silence absorbing our group, caused my head to droop further and further.  For a few moments, I fell asleep.  Fortunately for me, I had done like the other men, and wrapped one of the reins around my wrist.  Unfortunately for Caesarius, who also fell asleep on the mule beside me, both Decimus and Aulus were having trouble holding their torches to light the way.  Ibrim and Fronto took their turns as torchbearers, as the Romans rested their worn arms.  No longer were the tired men prodded by the bark of the optio or sting of Aulus’ whip.  Because Ibrim and Fronto were also totally exhausted, they were also unattentive and didn’t notice the lagging pace of the procession or the sudden thud on the sand.  These reflections, of course, are written in retrospect, since I heard and saw nothing, except, after another mile of slogging along the highway, sudden shouting in the distance. 

Ibrim and Fronto voices echoed into a dark dreamscape similar to the landscape confronting me before.  I looked forward and saw Rufus and Abzug looking back with dismay.  Decimus and Aulus galloped toward the torchlight down the road.  I was groggy as were the other men, and it was like awakening into a nightmare.  We were, because the crisis, stopped dead in our tracks.  Finally, as I looked around me, I noticed what should have been obvious from the beginning.  Caesarius place next to me had been vacated, and his saddle was empty.  He had fallen off his mule, I heard Ibrim explaining almost apologetically, as if it was his fault.  Fronto must have felt the same way, but I blamed myself.  Forgetting my manly airs I had earned in battle, I broke down into sobs as the implications of the empty saddle set in.

“Why weren’t you watching us?” Rufus screamed.

“Yes, Ibrim,” Abzug cried, “it was your turn.  You and Fronto were suppose to keep us awake!”

Forgetting the rule of silence completely, Decimus shouted in the distance,“Light more torches.  Thaddeus and Abzug stay with the animals.  The rest of you bring your torches with you.”

“I’m going too,” I howled, “this is my fault.  He was my friend.  I should’ve been watching him.”

“You’ll do as your told,” Abzug reached out and gripped my wrist. “This is no one’s fault.  We’re only human.  Now climb off your mule and help me control the horses and mules.”

 I obeyed the wizened little courier without further protest, praying feverishly as I waited for the others to return.  As before in the open country, we tied all the reins to a single line, Abzug murmuring soothingly to the mounts as I prayed.  I insisted on holding the torch as we watched the horses and mules, as both a beacon and mooring to my faith. 

“Where are you?” I called out, scanning the sky. “I’ve been patient, Lord.  I trusted you.  Why didn’t you protect my friend?”

“Shut up, you fool,” spat Abzug. “There’s nothing up there but darkness!  How can you blame or give credit to your god?”

As the riders approached, the torch lit procession grew in our field of view, until it appeared as if their mission might have failed.  Decimus and Aulus had brought Caesarius mule with them to place his body on when he was found.  The optio rode up, followed by Aulus, Ibrim Ajax, Apollo, and Rufus but no riderless mount in tow. 

“You can’t give up!” I wailed. “He’s out there alone.  He’ll die in the desert, Decimus.  We have to find him before it’s too late!”  

“He’s not alone,” Fronto called out gruffly in the distance, “he’s dead!  As he rode into view, the reins of Caesarius mule clutched in one huge hand, the men’s torchlight cast an eerie light on the body tied to the mule.  Even in the dimlight, the seven men were visibly upset.

“I heard some of you blaming Ibrim and Fronto, but I take full blame for this,” the optio announced brokenly. “I am but a man.  For me also this trip has taken its toll.  I should have been watching that old man instead of napping in the saddle.  The truth is, he was probably dead before he hit the ground.  I’m just thankful the men on watch sounded the alarm before we rode much further.”

As suddenly as they became villains, Ibrim and Fronto were now heroes.  I couldn’t blame them or anyone else for what I had been dreading all along.  Caesarius’ health had been sinking progressively in the past two days.  With little more said, we regrouped, gave our mounts a kick, and continued on our way.  Into the empty space next to me, Aulus and, at times, Decimus, shifted as we plodded along, perhaps to keep an eye on me or just to fill the void.  We rode until first light, seeing the shadowy outline of another patch of greenery silhouetted against the rising sun.  No one spoke this time.  We simply rode into the oasis, dismounted, and let the horses and mules mull around awhile looking for grass, until Aulus had the presence of mind to search for a water source. 

So far we had found water at each stop along the road.  If not Roman engineers, the Lord had made sure of this.  Silently, numb with fatigue and despair, I asked Him to bless us once again with a well or spring.  My prayers seemed to have worked Aulus found a spring bubbling in the center of the oasis.  After the men refreshed themselves at the spring, Decimus divided us up into two work details on behalf of the horses and mules, both diggers and foragers, and supervised the men while Aulus patrolled the oasis as we worked.  Fronto, Apollo, and Ajax dug a trench and lined it with palm leaves as before.  I volunteered to help dig the water trough, but, as Abzug, Ibrim, and Rufus gathered wild grass and leaves for fodder, Decimus first had me secure the animals with my Gordian knot.  After securing the horses and mules to one single palm, Abzug and I stood watch over them to make sure none of them broke their tether and wandered away.  During the courier and my watch, most of the other men dropped down limply from exhaustion.  The burial of poor Caesarius was almost an afterthought.  When the optio awakened the napping Apollo and Ajax and asked them to help Aulus and him dig a grave, I insisted on volunteering for this too.  The old man had been my friend.  I knew I would miss him greatly in the coming days.  The trough had been a shallow ditch in the ground.  Digging deeply into the hard root bound soil was a much more laborious task for bone weary men.  As it had been for Vesto, Enrod, Geta, and Langullus, there was little ceremony when we buried our friend.  If Fronto and Rufus hadn’t offered to help finish the hole, it would have been a shallow grave.  As it was, we piled a few stones over the mound of dirt, I scratched his name onto a nearby tree, and we had barely taken the time to cram a few morsels of bread into our mouths before most of us were sound asleep.

This time there would be no prophetic dreams.  My head was absent of voices and images as I drifted into slumber.  Without the old man beside me I felt alone and forgotten by the Lord.  I wondered those moments where Caesarius was now.  Viewed by the Roman mind, he might be in the Elysian Fields or Tartarus, the equivalent of the Jewish hell.  He had murdered my own people and, as a soldier, killed other men, and yet I found him to be a kind and gentle man.  In spite of his typical Roman skepticism, I hoped my faith had rubbed off on him.  Throughout my people’s history, Gentiles who believed in our god were called god-fearers or, if they were men like King Darius, who ruled the Jews justly, righteous Gentiles.  Was paradise only for Jews?  I could not even call Caesarius a god-fearer but I hoped one day I would see him there.  During my journey, my views about my faith, already heretical, were greatly influenced by the people and events on the road.  Already, I had begun to understand the Gentiles’ stubborn minds.  They were not like the Jews I had known in Nazareth, whose religion had unshakable moral precepts in which everything was either black and white or right or wrong. 

When I thought about it, I was reminded that I had been predisposed to heresy.  Looking back, I realize that in struggling with Jesus’ divinity, my family had grown apart from other Nazarenes.  They were not like other Jews.  We had always been on the outs with our neighbors, who tended to judge us by Jesus’ eccentricities and the constant stream of orphans and outcasts invited into our house, and yet my parents tried to educate my brothers and me as proper, god-fearing boys.  Nevertheless, the reason I was here and not still a carpenter’s apprentice in Nazareth was my parents and Jesus open-mindedness.  Had they been typical Jews, they would never have let me go.

Unable to maintain this train of thought, I joined my fellow travelers in slumber.  I don’t know who the unfortunate men were who stood watch over us or whether there was any watch at all, but the hours that slipped by seemed like a mere instant in time before I was rudely awakened once again by Aulus’ boot.

“Get up Thaddeus,” he snapped, “it’s time to go!”

“Apollo, Ajax, Rufus, Abzug, Ibrim,” he continued down the line, “it’s time to get on the road!”

Decimus called from the center of the oasis where the animals were tethered:  “Move’em out, Aulus.  Get those men on their feet!” 

I shielded my eyes from the sun streaming through the trees, watching Aulus’ shadowy hulk rousing the sleepers, giving each man his boot.

“It’s still daylight,” I protested,“we must travel in the dark!”

Looking back at me, Aulus explained for my benefit and also the rest of the men. “Listen men, I know you’re beaten down, but Decimus and I believe we’re not far from Raphana and the next station.  There might even be friendlies in these parts.  We’re almost out of rations, and we need a change of horses and mules.  We can’t wait until night.  We should reach Raphana by evening, maybe sooner.  Regardless, we have no choice.” 

“Thaddeus is right,” Apollo objected, “we were led to believe we’re safe traveling at night.  Everyone’s hungry and exhausted.  Now, all of a sudden, we’re low of rations and we have to get on the road.  What makes you think the natives in these parts are anymore friendly than the ones before?”

“Aye, Aulus, my thoughts exactly,” Ajax said, while making water on a tree. “There’s food here.  We’ve our bows.  I saw birds flying overhead.  We could eat one of the mules.  I think we should wait until it’s dark.”

“No Ajax.” Fronto shook his head, running a hand through his disheveled hair. “I’d like to put this desert behind us, too, but in Raphana we could buy wine and eat hot food.”

 Fronto and the Romans were outnumbered this time.  The optio had no map of the desert.  There was therefore no foundation optimisim.  For the remainder of us, who understand this all too well, fear was as persuasive as empty stomachs and parched throats.  There was a feeling of impotent mutiny in the air.  All of us wanted foremost to put the desert behind us but not in the daytime, until this hellish land was behind us.  Because the facts seemed plain enough, we wanted to wait.  As Ibrim insisted, “Let the jinn protect us!” 

The Greek now clenched his fists and stomped his foot, cursing Rome and Cornelius for his fate. “I had a bad feeling about this road.  Look at us, men, we’re a sorry lot: five dead and the rest soon to be shades!” 

“Please Ajax,” Aulus pleaded, “don’t give us anymore trouble.”

“He’s right,” Apollo grumbled, “we never signed up for this!”

“Signed?” Ibrim scowled. “You had no choice, Apollo—none of us did.  Rome doesn’t care what happens to us.”

“Aye.” Rufus shook his head. “We were given the boot!   

We stood there a moment with our arms folded, brooding at the thought of the long, hot ride, which might result in us being massacred on the road.  There were two reasons for waiting until the night: we were exhausted and it was safer in the dark.  On the other hand, as Aulus pointed out, we were low on food and required fresh mounts.  We needed a while to recuperate and provide forage for our beasts, but out of the desert—in a safe place.  We understood that it was a gamble.  Though we might, as the Romans believed, be out of the worst part, nowhere was it safe in this nomad’s domain. 

“Let’s go!” the optio appeared suddenly in our midst, clapping his hands. “Everyone get on your mounts.”

“I’m staying put!” Ajax swore to Apollo, kicking up a cloud of dust.

“Get in your saddles!” Decimus pointed.

“We’ve been brought out hear to die!” Abzug exclaimed, as he approached his horse. “If the desert people don’t get us, we’re going to starve.”

“Shut up!” Decimus shook his fist. “You too!” He looked back at Ajax and Apollo.

“Shame on you, Abzug and Ajax,” Fronto scolded, as he settled heavily in his saddle. “We’re all frightened and tired.  We’re low on rations; we’re not out of them.  The optio is doing the best he can.  It’s not his fault we’re here.  Keep your head, men.  You only die once.  Fear is many deaths—slow and painful.”

 Ibrim said to me as he climbed onto his mount,“He’s right, Thaddeus. We don’t need that kind of talk.”

“I know,” I said from the corner of my mouth. “I just hope this isn’t a mistake!”

Abzug giggled hysterically and Ajax spat on the ground, but, in spite of my own doubts, Fronto’s words made good sense.  It’s true you only die once.  Hadn’t Langullus said the same thing?  I was surprised and annoyed by Fronto’s wit.  I was just as terrified as Abzug and as angry as the Greek and Egyptian, yet I managed to hold my tongue, clear my head momentarily, and stare straight ahead.  Caesarius had taught me this trick.  For a while, I moved in a daze, dreading the ride ahead because of what I knew.  The voice in the desert reassured me I would be safe but not the others. 

As I reached for my saddle horn, a strong hand fell on my shoulder.  I heard Decimus say gently to me, “Thaddeus, we have a spare horses now.  Would you like to ride Vesto’s mare?”

“No thank you,” I answered dully. “I’ve grown attached to my mule.”

Decimus gave a weary chuckle as he walked on away. “You grow attached to all of your mules”

“Right now,” Ajax exclaimed, “mule sounds mighty tasty.”

“Ho-ho,” Ibrim managed to laugh, “If we must eat pack animals, I prefer camel.  Mules are much too tough.”

“I’d eat horse if I had to,” Apollo snorted. “Once when I was on patrol in Egypt, I ate a dog.”

“I would rather starve.” I made a face.

“They wouldn’t really eat mules,” Rufus looked back with a tired smile, “but don’t ever say never.  When you’re starving, you’ll eat practically anything, even dog.”

“Not me.” I grumbled. “I would never eat my mule.  What kind’ve person eats dogs?”

“Hah!” Abzug turned in his saddle and sneered. “You’re so high and mighty.  Just wait until you haven’t eaten for a while.  You don’t know what hunger is!”

“All right men,” Decimus barked, galloping past with his whip in hand, “we’re not going to starve.  We have a few rations.  We should arrive at Raphana by sundown where there’s food, wine, and Romans guarding the town.  No more of this talk.  Thaddeus, why don’t you tell us a story?  Nothing preachy, just give us a tale.  How about that King David fellow, the one who brought down the giant with the sling?”

“Ah, an excellent weapon,” Ibrim sighed wistfully. “I must teach Thaddeus how to master that!”

“Are you serious?” I looked at Decimus in disbelief.

Abzug was losing his grip.  So was I.  I was in no mood to defend my religion again.  A mysterious voice had warned me earlier.  I wished the voice would say something like, “Don’t worry Jude, I was just joking, everything is going to be all right,” but that wasn’t going to happen.  Like my other supposed visions, I had dreamed it.  Whether it was, like the others, actual prophecy I didn’t know.  When I had asked Jesus about my other nightmares, he looked up to the sky, asking God why these images were in my head.  I couldn’t have imagined then how many of my visions would come true.

Looking askance at the space now occupied by Ibrim, I heaved a broken sigh as we put distance between our refuge and ourselves.  Caesarius, my faithful riding companions, was dead.  Probably at Decimus insistence, the little Arab rode alongside of me, making small talk for my benefit.  His chatter, though irritable at times, served to distract my thoughts.  In spite of Ibrim’s efforts at levity, I knew that he was afraid, like everyone else.  He spoke quickly, his voice rising up a notch, especially when he talked about the jinn, a capricious force he blamed for almost everything.  For my benefit, he claimed that the desert spirits were dangerous only when you believed in them, yet in almost the same breath insisted they were more dangerous at night.  After Apollo, Ajax, and Abzug’s complaints to the Romans, I would not admit my doubts about this undertaking to Decimus and Aulus.  What was the use?  We were running out of food and needed a change of horses and mules, and what if there were desert tribes who did, in fact, attack at night?  As the men waited for my story to begin, I found my own voice finally and, in a quivering voice, told them about David, King of the Jews. 

          From a young shepherd anointed by the prophet Samuel to be King of Israel, I related, in plain language, everything Jesus, my father, and Rabbis Gamaliel and Aaron told me and what I read, myself, about this man.  During his childhood and death, he lived a checkered life.  The part about David slaying the giant Goliath didn’t raise their spirits as much as it had the last time I told the story nor any of the events during the rise of his popularity over King Saul, but when I arrived at the part where David, as King, had his trusted friend Uriah murdered in order to steal his wife the men stirred in their saddles.  Decimus and Aulus laughed.  Fronto, Ibrim, and Rufus chuckled and Ajax exclaimed, “You see there, Thaddeus. One of your greatest kings is an adulterer and murderer.  Too many of your Jew heroes are flawed.  Some of them are mass murderers!”

          “You’re no one to talk,” chided Fronto, “you and Apollo hunted them down for sport.”

          “Well,” Ajax said indignantly, “we didn’t murder innocent children like Joshua.  I never killed a man to steal his wife.”

          “Hah!” Aulus pointed to Decimus. “You were going to kill him!

          “Now-now, let’s not bring that up.” The optio waved. “Those things happened in the past.  From here on out, men, let’s pull together.  Let’s keep our heads!”

          As we rode in silence for a few moments, I waited for their chatter to cease before I continued.

          “Tell me the truth, Thaddeus,” Apollo observed cagily. “Caesarius, Geta, and Langullus killed Jewish prisoners.  I find that more than coincidental that they’re dead.  Did your vengeful god strike them down?”

“No,” I bristled with irritation, “I can’t explain why they did such an awful thing, but God had nothing to do with their deaths.”

“Yes,” Rufus stirred, “how do you explain the deaths of Vesto and my brother?  They were good men!

           “Caesarius repented in his own way,” I shrugged. “He was my friend and treated me like his son.  Ajax was right to question the acts of our Jewish patriarchs and kings, but right for the wrong reasons.  Rather than use this as example of how flawed is my faith, I would praise the authors of our holy scrolls.  They portrayed men, not saints, who thought they were acting on behalf of God.  I haven’t told you men about Ruth and the prophets, who changed Israel by peaceful example, in a bloodless way, because it would sound like preaching.  I’m not supposed to do that anymore.  Sometimes I wish you men would tell me your own stories.  You all come from different lands: Rome, Egypt, Greece, Syria, Thrace, and Gaul...I’ve never been to them or heard about their customs and religions.  Ibrim, you’re practically my neighbor in Galilee.  Apollo’s ancestors built the great pyramids of Egypt.  And Rufus, did you know that my brother once visited your mysterious land?”

          Silence followed my suggestion.  It was as if I had thrown a wet blanket over the band.  At least, I had stifled my urge to preach.  How could I know the heart of the Gentile unless I they spoke their minds?  I might not ever visit their countries.  This would be the next best thing.  Unfortunately, soldiers were tight-lipped about their pasts.  Caesarius had told me practically nothing about his life.

          “Humph,” grumbled Ajax, “my parents lived in Tarsus.  They were slaves.  I’ve never even been to Greece. What’s there to tell?”

          “At least you had parents,” scoffed Rufus  “Why do you call Gaul mysterious, Thaddeus?  It was a hellhole for my brother and I.  I look to the future not the past.  History is mostly lies.”

          Ibrim patted my arm condescendingly. “My people were once Hebrews, until Father Abraham cast out Ishmael.  We’ve been pagans ever since.”

Looking back from his horse, Abzug frowned thoughtfully. “Rufus is right, Thaddeus.  It’s all lies, whether Roman, Egyptian, Syrian, Greek, or Jew.  I don’t even know for sure where my people came from.  My father was Persian, my mother was a Syrian slave, and I ran away to join up.  I have no history but the legions.  Now, after being given the boot, I don’t even have that.”

“What about you Apollo?” teased Fronto. “I bet you have an interesting tale.”

“What about yourself?” the Egyptian countered. “Where is Thrace?  Is there even such a place?”

“I suppose so,” Fronto drawled, “but I don’t remember much.  My mother and I were sold into slavery.  Like Abzug I ran away and joined the army.  End of story.”

“Well, I don’t want to talk about my past,” Apollo grunted. “Most of you didn’t have parents or you lost them along the way.  You’re lucky.  I ran away from mine.  I’m half Greek and half Egyptian.  Neither half is worth camel droppings.” 

“Thaddeus, my friend.” Ibrim stroked his beard. “Why do you think men join the legions?  There’s no where else to go!”

That ended it.  I remembered Decimus and Aulus telling me briefly about their pasts.  After the reception I got from the others, however, I dare not go there now.  The optio turned his horse around and rode back to me, as Aulus guarded our rear. 

“You see what just happened?” He reached out to slap my leg.

“Yes,” I exhaled resignedly, “I made them all feel bad.”

“That might be true,” he winked slyly, “but you diverted their minds.  You gave them something else to think about other than the road.  I think it was a fine story.  This time you didn’t give them a sermon about your invisible god, someone they will never understand.  You talked about a man who was flesh and blood like them.  You admitted your religion is flawed.  I’m beginning to like your god.” 

I wanted to pursue this topic, but I bit my lip.  The Romans were the most difficult members of the group to understand.  It seemed impossible to read their minds.  This subject was closed.  The riders, including myself, turned their attention back to the road.  Though the men had not opened up, I had learned much more about how they thought.  I could understand why Apollo and Ajax were the way they were.  I felt sorry them.  All of them, even the Romans, probably had a checkered past like King David.  After all the men I had killed, I had a checkered past too.


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