His red face, beaded with sweat, failed to hide the sharp look in his eyes. It came bubbling up from within him like an evil tide. How he hated the arrogance of these people.
“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir.” Onkelos didn’t know what to say. “You can’t do that, sir. I mean it wouldn’t be right.”
“I can’t do it?” General Vespasian half-stood from his seat.
The guards put their hands to their swords but then the General sat back down and, after a moment, started to laugh. It caught everyone off guard.
“Every emperor from Caesar to Nero has seen the strategic importance of Palestine. It is the crossroads of the nations and must be subdued once and for all. If the Jews will not govern themselves properly, they will govern nothing at all.”
The subjugation of Palestine was necessary not only to tame a region that was full of upheaval and political intrigue, but was also a key step in his bid for the imperial throne. The time was ripe for him to take control. Dealing with Palestine once and for all would stifle any lingering doubts in the Roman Senate that he was the right man for the job.
“It will be done and you will be my messenger.”
“Enough,” Vespasian said, “take him away.”
The centurion saluted his general with a fist over his breastplate and turned to go.
“Wait. One more thing.” The inspiration had come to him just that moment but the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. The general stood up and unsheathed his own sword. “Bring him here.”
The centurion grabbed Onkelos by the arm and propelled him forward. His great corpulent body was already shaking, the sweat falling off him in great drops.
“The message must be unequivocal,” Vespasian said to no one in particular. “Bare his arm on the table.”
Now Onkelos really started to struggle. His weight pushed the centurion off balance and, strangely, he fell to the ground and seemed unable to get up. Before Onkelos could take advantage of the opportunity, the two guards quickly stepped forward and grabbed his arms. They held him firmly while the centurion got up, glaring at him. He grabbed Onkelos’ arm, his fingers biting into the generous flesh and roughly pulled back his sleeve, baring his arm and forcing him to lay it on the rough, wood-hewn surface of the table.
“No, no.” Onkelos could not articulate in anything more than monosyllables. Nobody would listen in any event. The bags of skin underneath his jaw sagged and flapped wildly with the fierce shaking of his head. His protestations grew louder and louder as the guards and the centurion sweated and grunted with the effort to keep his arm still. There would be no mercy here.
General Vespasian watched Onkelos from the corner of his eye, judging the level of panic. Then he raised his sword with both hands and came down hard in a swift, clean stroke. A scream pierced the air like the squealing of a boar and, thankfully, Onkelos fainted dead away. This time his bulk knocked over one of the guards, trapping him for a moment beneath his dead weight. It would have been comical except for the blood.
It was everywhere, on the wall of the tent, pooling on the table and dripping to the earth, splashed on the centurion and the guards, red as crimson.
Only Vespasian had stepped back quickly enough to avoid soiling his tunic. He turned toward the incense burner that kept at bay the large mosquitoes and flies that infested the Nile region. The coals were burning hot and bright. General Vespasian picked up one of the glowing stones with a set of brass tongs and carried it quickly to Onkelos.
It would not do to have his messenger die before he delivered his message.
He touched the live coal against the raw flesh of Onkelos’ wound, the stub of his arm jumping at the searing pain. Once, and then once again, until it was done. The wound was cauterized in an instant though it would need constant attention on the trip back to Jerusalem.
It was brutish but it was necessary. There would be no mercy. The message had to come directly from him and there could be no doubt. He felt great satisfaction in doing it himself, as if the question of Palestine and Jerusalem were finally settled. There would be no appeal, no politics, no interference from third parties. Jerusalem would be destroyed, their precious Temple pillaged and razed to the ground. Not one stone would be left upon another.
And the best part of all is that they will know what is coming and not be able to do a damn thing about it.
“Take him away,” he commanded the centurion. “See that he gets proper medical attention and escort him back to Jerusalem. It will be your head if he does not survive the trip.”
The centurion saluted once again and then turned toward the guards and ordered them to carry Onkelos out of the tent.
With a brisk step he marched out of the presence of the next emperor of Rome and into the darkness that was more than just the darkness of night.
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Footnotes and references included in original manuscript.