Find more of this novella in progress HERE. This chapter really isn’t complete but I hope to complete it in the next week or so — if my brain would ever slow down.
Atticus tightened the leather of his sandal, wincing as it laced into the blister on his ankle, bursting it open and sending blood trickling. He knew he should stop and rest, but he still had a day’s travel before he reached Capernaum and the commune he’d been directed to work with by the Apostle.
He sat back against the rock and slid the sandal off, ripping a piece of cloth off his robe and wrapping it tight around the blister. He was used to blisters and pain. He was used to caring for them by himself. He may no longer be a Roman soldier but he had carried what he learned from those days with him into this new chapter of his life, a chapter with even more uncertainty than his days as a soldier had been.
With the ankle bandaged he leaned back and reached for his wineskin, drinking cool water from it, water he had filled it with from a stream a few miles back. He thought as he drank, remembering what had brought him here at this point in his life, to a place he’d never expected to be.
The day the sky had gone dark in Jerusalem it hadn’t only been the foundation of the earth that had been shaken, but his personal foundation. Everything he had thought was real, was true, was important in life was shaken out and shown to be lacking.
“Atticus, you’re on crucifixion duty today.”
Marcus didn’t even look up from his scrolls as he spoke.
“Have I vexed you somehow, Centurion?”
Marcus scratched the tip of the feather across the a scroll, shaking his head, still not looking up. “No. We are short on men. They’re handling an issue in the red quarter and Pilate has ordered some Jewish teacher who thinks he is the son of God and two robbers crucified today. We need a replacement and you are who I’ve chosen.” He looked up at Atticus, jaw tight. “Don’t go soft on me, Atticus. All we need is crowd control. I won’t make you take the bodies off the crosses. This time anyhow. Go and report to Albus immediately.”
Atticus bowed his head in a curt nod, turned and walked from the garrison’s office, into blinding sunlight. He squinted, noticing the streets were more crowded than normal. He’d almost forgotten it was Passover. Jews were in Jerusalem full force, preparing to celebrate the day their ancient leader Moses had led them out of Egypt. Men, women, and children crowded the streets, pulling donkeys carrying food and supplies or simply walking and carrying their supplies with them on their backs.
Atticus wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, smearing sweat and dirt as he paused to watch the people walking. He pondered the devotion they possessed for this one God they followed, this Yahweh. He’d never understood it. He was raised to believe there were many gods and it took offering them sacrifices and performing well in life to appease them.
Perform well, live well. Make a mistake and suffer for it. It was all he’d ever known. But these Jews — they had been defeated time and time again, taken over by Rome, killed by the thousands, their bodies rotting in the desert, yet they still held on to the belief they were this god’s chosen people.
A few of the Jews were wealthy, yes. The priests, their religious leaders, and tax collectors or anyone who tied their allegiance to Rome. But for the most part most Jews were poor, living in squalor, many begging for food. Year after year, though, they journeyed here, feasting, gathering, worshipping their “one true God.”
Atticus scoffed as a beggar held up his hand, asking for money.
Ah, yes, of course, the one “true God” cared so much for them he but couldn’t even pull them from the depths of depravity and starvation. Atticus walked past the man, barely looking at him, sick of the beggars and the crowds and the long days and even longer nights. Dreams, nightmares really, had been waking him from sleep for weeks. Visions of his time in battle, of the men he had killed filled his mind nightly and he woken more than once in a cold sweat. Long soaks in the baths hadn’t helped. Prayers to Mars, the god of war, hadn’t helped. His past mocked him and it made him angry, sickness gnawing at his gut every day.
Now this. A change in his duties at the last minute. What mistake had he made to make the gods so angry at him? He knew it wasn’t having lain with too many women. It had been too long for that. So long he’d almost forgotten what the soft flesh of a woman felt like beneath his body. Walking through the crowd his eyes fell on a young Jewish woman, her body covered fully by her robes, as was their custom. She looked up at him, eyes bright and deep brown, like pools of a deep well. He walked slowly by her, his gaze roaming from her face down her throat, imagining his mouth there, kissing a trail as his hands explored where no man had probably ever explored before.
She dropped her gaze quickly, clutching her robe to her and he laughed scornfully at her innocence, at the innocence Jewish women held so closely to them, like a child clutching to a toy they thought would protect them. Innocence would not protect her. In the same way her god would not protect her. In the same way her god had not protected his so-called chosen people.
Voices grew louder as Atticus moved toward the edge of the city, toward where the crucifixions took place outside the city walls. A crowd had gathered along the streets, people pushing against each other, soldiers holding back the crowds.
“What’s all this?” Atticus asked Lucius, one of Albus’ men.
“Pilate ordered the death of a man some Jews are calling The Messiah and apparently everyone is here to watch him die,” Lucius answered, dragging a dirt covered hand across his face. “Our job is to keep the roadway cleared. The tribune in charged ordered this teacher, this so called King of the Jews, to carry his cross to Golgotha.
“Atticus!” Albus’ voice was sharp and booming as he pushed through the crowd. “You’re late. I want you along the street further up where it narrows. Keep it open. Take these men with you. Lucius included. They’re in your command.”
Albus was shorter and rounder than most Roman centurions but what he lacked in physical prowess he more than made up for in mental clarity and brutal rule. “Take whatever action you feel you must to keep the crowds back, short of killing. We have enough issues here without causing more of an uprising.”
Albus suggesting he not kill someone was new. Normally inflicting pain or death was Albus’ first suggestion to qwell a possible uprising.
“What is the name of this man being crucified?” he asked Lucius as they walked, the other men behind them.
“I know very little other than they call him their king,” Lucius told him. “Not all of the Jews, though. The priests are the one who called for his death. They said he was causing disruptions among their people.”
Atticus scowled as he walked, people pushing against him, some crying, some yelling, some looking confused and lost. He pushed to the front of the crowd, looked down the path and saw a man barely walking under the weight of a cross gouging a path in the dirt as he shuffled forward. Blood dripped from gouges on his back almost as deep as the one in the dirt made by the end of the cross.
Atticus grimaced, throwing his arms out to the side to hold back the crowd. He couldn’t remember ever seeing such deep wounds from the flagellum. What had this man done to deserve such a beating? A crown made of thorns was pressed onto his head, sending droplets of blood into his face, smearing down it and dripping into the dirt.
“Yeshua! Yeshua!” Atticus turned at the sound of a voice filled with despair to the right of him.
A young girl broke from the crowd, staggered forward and fell in the dirt near the man under the cross. Her fingers grazed the edge of the man’s bloody garment as she cried. The flash of sunlight off metal caught Atticus’ eye and he watched a soldier unsheathe his sword and step toward the girl.
Atticus stepped forward quickly and encircled the girl’s waist with one arm, pulling her back through the crowd, away from the punishment I’d the sword, sitting her on the ground hard.
“You can’t be here,” he growled. “It isn’t safe for a young girl.”
She looked up, dark brown eyes, similar to the eyes of the girl he’d seen before but younger, softer, brimming with tears. She gasped in a sob as he let her go, his rough hands slipping across her soft skin.
And older man rushed forward, pulled the girl to her feet, his eyes focused on Atticus as he backed away, taking the girl with them.
Atticus saw anger in the man’s eyes. Hatred even. Hatred of Rome, but also of him.
He watched the man pull the young girl back toward a woman and child near an olive tree. The family cowered together, watching him and the crowd with fear in their eyes.
There was a time when he enjoyed the fear in eyes looking back at him but for some reason it didn’t please him to see the fear in their eyes, especially the young girl’s.