This is a continuing serial, or a novella in progress. As always there could be typos, missing words, plot holes, etc., etc., which I will fix in rewrites, copy-editing and all that jazz. To read the other parts of the story you can follow along HERE or at the link at the top of the page.
The stench of death filled Atticus’ nostrils. Any other man would have gagged on vomit, but death was a smell Atticus was accustomed to. Before being stationed in Jerusalem he had been on the battlefields of Germania and before that he’d trained in Rome itself to one day become what his father had been — a Roman centurion.
He’d been 16 when he’d first started training. His legion leader had called him a wolf pup, wet behind the ears.
He still had a lot to learn but battle had burned the timid, cautious nature out of him. Sometimes he felt like he had aged more in the last three years than he had in his entire 22-years of life. Experience built a thick jaded wall around him.
Even with all the death he had witnessed in such a short time, he found it hard to get use to the sights and smells of corpses rotting under stones outside the city gates, or bodies half eaten by wild dogs. The Jews called the Romans cruel, but Atticus saw the ways they punished those in their community who had stepped outside the bounds of their laws as vicious and barbaric.
“What I don’t understand is why we’re moving their dead.” Theopholus spat saliva onto the ground and swiped a hand across his mouth. “They killed them they should dispose of them. Instead they leave them here to rot and we have to find somewhere to throw them.”
Atticus shook his head. “Me neither but we must follow orders.”
Theopholus lifted the other side of the cloth they had rolled the corpses into and they shuffled to one side before tipping the cloth and rolling the human remains into a large pit already partially filled with bodies and waste.
“Is that the last one?” Theopholus asked with a look of disgust.
Atticus looked across the field of blood-splattered stones. “It looks like it.”
Theopholus stepped back and leaned against the wall, opening his flask and taking a long swig. “Have you heard about his man in Judeah? This man they say is performing miracles?”
He handed the flask to Atticus and Atticus took it and drank from it. “Another healer, huh?”
Theopholus nodded. “The people think they have another Messiah.”
Atticus laughed and sneered. “Another one? Don’t we get a new one every few years? And yet they still are crap under our shoes.”
“This place will be crawling with them come Passover, you know,” Theopholus said. “They come here in droves to remember the day they say their God delivered them from Pharaoh. The streets smell of them and their food and drink. The only good thing about them is their women. They are worth a good —”
“That beggar is here again.”
Atticus changed the subject quickly. He didn’t want to hear about Theopholus’ sexual conquests today. He wasn’t in the mood, though he couldn’t say why. Maybe it was because he himself had not lain with a woman for more than a year now. It wasn’t for a lack of women that was for sure. Something about the harlots in Jerusalem left him with a sick feeling in his stomach. They were too willing, too eager, expecting he’d come to them quickly and willingly to burn off pent up energy from patrolling the streets all day.
But he didn’t want to release pent up energy as much as he once did. Instead he longed for someone to share his thoughts with not just someone who could meet his physical needs.
“I thought Aurelius told him to leave yesterday. You want me to take care of it?”
Atticus shook his head, still watching the man crouched in front of the wall near the city entrance.
“No. I’ll take care of him.”
“Okay. Then I’m going to the baths. Meet you there later?”
Atticus nodded, staring ahead, thinking about how much he hated this city. The land Atticus had come from, a few miles outside Rome, had been lusciously green, full of life and food. This city was dirty and barren, full of beggars and lepers and people looking for ways to take advantage of other people. It was full of these people called Jews who believed in one God and held strange rituals, though he had to admit their rituals were no stranger than those in his own world who slit the throats of young animals to sacrifice to many Gods, hoping one of them would take pity on them and answer their prayers for whatever their need was.
The Jews killed animals too but believed the blood of a young lamb would wipe out all of their misdeeds, which they called sins. He laughed ruefully to himself as he thought of all his misdeeds. If he ever tried to wipe all his sins away they’d need an entire herd of young sheep to slit the throats of.
He sighed and walked toward the beggar sitting crouched, his knees up, his back against the warm stones and his hand out with a small wooden cup.
“Find favor with God and give to the poor,” the man suggested in a frail, rasped voice as Atticus approached.
His face and clothes were smeared with dirt or at least Atticus hoped it was only dirt.
It was not only dirt.
The beggar looked up as Atticus’ shadow fell over him, his held tilted back, his eyes obviously unseeing. He must have felt the warmth of the sun disappear from his skin.
Atticus considered the man for a moment, his thin figure, his dirty feet with shredded sandals, his matted hair and clouded eyes, his slightly gaped open mouth with missing teething. Every day he sat out here, asking for money to buy food to fill his belly. The Jews said someone in his family must have done something wrong because as far as any of them knew, he’d been born blind. Anyone born with a deformity was being punished by God, they said.
He had scoffed when he heard it, the absurdity of their god apparent. They called him loving yet believed he struck children down for the sins of their fathers? Each time he heard them speak of their god they grew more weak and pathetic in his mind.
Atticus tried not to feel pity for the beggar, but he did. He couldn’t imagine waking up every morning with your only goal being to sit in the middle of a city and beg for money so your belly wouldn’t ache with hunger when you went to bed that night. He didn’t want to chase him away, but he knew the prefect had told him to leave before and would soon use force to make sure he did.
The man’s head tilted from side to side as he spoke, trying to hear what the person standing above him would say.
Atticus squatted next to the beggar so he could be heard over the merchants, animals, and carts passing by.
“You have been told before, old man, that you need to leave.”
The beggar’s expression faded from hopeful to deflated.
“I will not stay long, master. I need just a little bit for my second meal then I shall go.”
Atticus let out a long breath. “You know the rules.”
He wasn’t sure where the compassion he was beginning to feel for the man was coming from but he softened his tone as he spoke again. “Sir, if you don’t go, my concern is you will be forced to go. I think you know what I mean by that.”
The man nodded slowly, clutching the cup with both hands against his chest. “Yes, centurian.”
Atticus laughed softly. “I am a legionary, sir, but thank you for the promotion.”
The beggar shrugged his shoulders, a grin tugging at his chapped lips. “I can’t keep up with all of the rankings of your army. My apologies.”
Atticus placed a gentle hand under the man’s upper arm and helped him to his feet. He slid two fingers into the pouch on his belt and felt two coins there then dropped them both into the man’s cup.
“This should feed you for today. Go, eat and keep yourself safe from the prefect, okay?”
The beggar’s face showed his surprise. He grasped Atticus’ stronger, rough hands with a gnarled one. “Thank you, master. Thank you. Adonai will smile upon you for your kindness.
Atticus looked around nervously, pried the man’s hand from his and stepped back. “Just go,” he said softly. “I have no need for blessings from your god.”
He watched the beggar limp through the crowd until he couldn’t see him anymore then turned to head back toward the baths to clean the filth and smell of death off himself.
“You won’t ever advance in this army with such softness, soldier.”
The voice of the man towering above him on a stallion was harsh, sharp. Atticus looked up into narrowed blue eyes, a square jawline fixed tight and lips pressed into a colorless thin line. Atticus averted his eyes quickly to the ground, recognizing the actual centurion of his unit, Marcus.
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“I never want to see you handle our subjects in such a manner again. A firm hand is all that is needed, something you’re well aware of.”
Marcus leaned forward, propping his arms over the leather of the saddle strapped to the horse. “Maybe we need to find a way to toughen you up, young Atticus. Sirius has an opening in his unit. They carry the bodies away from the crucifixions. It might just be what someone like you needs to burn the softness away.”
Atticus’ chest constricted. He’d watched a crucifixion once. He didn’t relish the idea of having to take down the bodies of the dead, their bodies limp and drained of fluids, sometimes their eyes eaten out by the birds.“Whatever you think is best, sir.”
Marcus laughed loudly. “We’ll see, boy. Just don’t let me see you coddling the subjects again. Do you understand?”
Atticus watched Marcus ride away before he turned and walked slowly toward the baths, anxious to wash the blood and dirt — and this day — from his body.