The warning came with the sound of marching feet and a sudden silence in the streets. Paralyzed for a moment, he couldn’t grasp the danger. The boy, who had come with the message, ran at him, pushing him toward the rear of the hovel with a half-shout, half-whisper.
“They’re after you. Go out the back. Run, run.”
There was a shout outside as orders were given. It was already too late. His hand dropped to the head of the boy who was still pushing him, almost unbalancing him, in his fierce efforts to get him to safety.
“No, Alexander. Stop it. It’s all right.”
He would not run. He had his dignity after all. He put down his quill on the crude wooden table and stuffed the unfinished report into his tunic. He glanced around the bare room at the mat of reeds he used for a bed, the dirt floor, the meager provisions. He would miss none of it.
He looked down at Alexander and cupped his tearstained face in his hands. With a thumb he tried to wipe a tear away but left only a dirty smear in its place.
“Thank you, my friend, but we are in the hands of El Shaddai now.”
Alexander blinked hard for a moment, searching his face but then took his hand and turned to face the opening of their temporary lodgings.
A sword drew the covering of camel’s skin aside and a centurion ducked his head to enter.
“You are Onkelos, the Greek from Jerusalem?”
“It is so.”
“Your presence is required.”
Again the camel’s skin was thrust aside, demanding them to walk outside where other soldiers awaited them. Alexander gripped his hand tightly, fiercely, but Onkelos hesitated.
The centurion took a step towards them. “In chains, or not, it makes no difference to me.”
“No, it’s all right. We are ready to go.”
What was he getting Alexander into?
Onkelos had found him at his fire one morning outside the hovel, warming himself. Although he seldom spoke, he had been a godsend. A child of the streets, he knew every secret of this temporary community that served the needs of the Roman legions. There was something special about the boy that Onkelos could not put his finger on, and he had vowed to take him under his care. He had not realized it would come to this.
The harsh sunlight made him squint as he stumbled outside, leaving the illusionary safety of the hovel. Rough hands grabbed him and tore the boy from his grasp.
“Alexander…” he said.
“Shut up and keep moving, spy.”
He glanced back to see if Alexander was alright.
A crowd started to gather, a few taunting grins mixed with a surly silence greeting the spectacle. He was hauled up into a chariot and the horses moved off with a jerking start that almost threw him back into the dusty street. The centurion’s grip held him long enough for him to grab hold of the chariot as they charged down the avenue of spectators, his robe billowing out behind him.
He turned back again toward the crowd, twisting his head from side to side, searching for the boy. He knew some of these people but they didn’t know him. Not anymore. What help they might have given him had evaporated like spilt water in the noonday sun.
He had failed. The thought was as much for his friend and Rabbi who had sent him on this desperate journey as for the boy he could now see running through the crowd behind him, determined to keep up with the chariot and the guard detail running alongside. He had failed them both.
There is no sound like that of a thrown rock striking living flesh. The dull smack contained a sickening horror that he couldn’t shut out of his mind. Over and over again it came, the heavy thud changing to a sharper crack when a bone tried to interfere. Each violation was accompanied by a gasp of pain, a sharp intake of breath, a groan that became a cry, and then a whimper, and finally silence. Still the thudding continued but the sound was different, the flesh no longer resisting but pliable and accepting of its fate, until, at last, it was at rest.
His heart racing, his body trembling and sweating, the Rabbi Gamaliel lay with his eyes wide and sleepless, remembering the sounds. There were no images for he had turned away, unable to look after that one brief moment when he had seen his face, and heard his words just before the first stone was thrown.
He looked down at his fist closed tightly around the bed sheets, seeing the rock that had been thrust into his hands.
“No, no, it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. It was him. He twisted my words.”
“You could have stopped him.”
“No, nobody could stop him, believe me. He was crazy back then. He went after them, dragging them from their homes to be beaten and killed. He even went to Damascus to root out the heresy.” Gamaliel was panting with the effort to be heard, though his protests echoed only in his mind.
“He came back a different man.”
“Yes, he is at peace and I am forever at war. Where is the justice in that?”
“You killed an innocent man. What justice did you give him?”
“It wasn’t my fault. Leave me alone. It wasn’t my fault!”
The sudden agonizing pain that shot through his hand brought him back to the verge of awareness. He looked down at his hand clutching the bed sheets, the painful cramp in his fingers clearing the dullness from his mind. He gripped his wrist and pressed his thumb into the middle of his palm forcing his fingers to spread.
As the pain subsided, Gamaliel slowly began to relax, massaging his hand to smooth out the tension. He was awake, though still groggy with sleep. The memory of his dream was already fading rapidly. The blankets were entwined around him, soaked with his sweat. He struggled to free himself and sit up so that he could light a candle.
He sat on the edge of his bed trying to remember, trying to make sense of it all. He shook his head wearily. He felt as weak as a newborn kitten. These episodes had become more frequent the older he became. They were his demons. He understood that. They came in the night and left in the morning and he could not get rid of them. No sacrifice, no prayer, not even the use of the Ineffable Name could remove them.
He got up from the bed and shuffled to his writing desk with the candle in one hand. The night was heavy and still and he could hear the scratching sounds of insects and an occasional fluttering of wings in the garden outside his window. There was no breeze to blow out his candle so he opened the window wide and sat down heavily in his chair. He turned to the scroll on the table. It was the prophet Isaias. Reading put his mind at ease, so he moved the candle to a better position and tilted the scroll to catch the light and began to read, muttering the words softly under his breath.
“Take your wrongdoing out of my sight.
Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, search for justice,
Help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Gamaliel thought of a lifetime of helping the oppressed, the widow, the orphan. Surely that counted for something.
“Come now, let us talk this over, says Yahweh.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red as crimson,
They shall be like wool.”
Part of the comfort was in the reading itself. The words with their familiar nostalgic ring, the continuity of line and meter, the sound of his own voice lilting with practiced cadence, all were soothing reminders of a lifetime of following the God of Avraham, Yitz´chak and Ya´acov. Soon his mind stopped racing and his heart began to beat with less urgency. Later still, his head began to nod.
He struggled on for a while but, finally, he put away the scroll and made his way back to his bed. He straightened out the sheets and then slipped into bed exhausted.
After a little while, the Rabbi Gamaliel, teacher of the Law and spiritual leader of his people, curled up like a baby in his sleep and twisted his fist into the bed sheets as his demons came to visit once again and harass him into the early morning hours.
“What do we do? We must do something!”
“Wait. Be patient, Solis. We have no authority here.”
“But you know that he is important. We were told to keep an eye on him.” Solis was not a subtle warrior, much less a patient one.
“Do you really want to tackle that bunch alone?” Melanchor nodded toward the swirling cauldron of activity below them.
Dark shapes swirled and flitted between the tents, mingling with the shadows of the soldiers thrown against the canvas by the firelight. The sound of marching feet came out of the darkness, then the expected hail as the small group stopped in front of a large tent where the general kept court. Sentries were posted on each side of the entry and the centurion saluted them with a clenched fist upon his breast. He ducked his head to enter. A moment later he returned and, with a gesture, commanded the guards holding the prisoner to enter the general’s tent.
The darkness swept in toward the tent in a great wave of evil as the word went out that Onkelos had been brought before General Vespasian. They bit and cursed and fought for a chance to see and hear what Vespasian would say to the spy they had caught. He was important but nobody seemed to know why. Only that he was the start of something that their evil Master had planned for many years. Vespasian would be the instrument of his revenge and Onkelos the messenger. And so the demons covered the tent like black army ants ravenous and insatiable in their appetite for evil and violence.
It was enough to make even the head-strong Solis hesitate before he answered. “We could call for reinforcements,” he said.
Melanchor was straight-faced. “What? I would have thought the two of us could match that rabble any day. Come, you attack from here and I will circle around behind and we will bloody our swords in battle as never before.” He made as if to rise but Solis stayed him with a hand on his shoulder.
“No, my friend, once again you are wiser than I. But still it rankles to see our charge treated so.”
Melanchor smiled and then looked down and scowled.
“True, but our time will come. For now Onkelos must be left in the hands of God Himself. We can only wait and watch.”
“Perhaps we can get closer at least.” Solis had seen something and flew off to investigate.
“Be careful,” Melanchor said. “Don’t do anything!” That was like telling a lion not to hunt. Solis was a fine warrior, even if a bit zealous. Wisdom and Zeal. The combination had served them well over the years.
Still, he had a sense of expectation, almost of dread, that he could not shake. Something was going to happen.
Gamaliel shuffled through the dusty streets in the quiet moments before day break as he had every day since his youth many years ago. It just took longer now. The suddenness of the dawn in this city on the edge of the desert always surprised him. He would begin his journey in gloom and darkness to arrive at his place on the Temple walls just in time to experience the shining splendor of a new day, a new beginning, perhaps, even a new hope – for hope is what he needed most these days.
A pillar of his community, yet he was bent with the passing of many years. He still walked with as much dignity as was possible under the circumstances. His face was kind, his eyes bright, his beard full, his head crowned with the gray hairs of wisdom and experience. But he was old and with every passing day he felt it more. His skin was translucent with age, stretched tightly over his bones, the veins in his hands visible to the eye. He could no longer write with his crippled hands, the fingers rigid with arthritic pain, but he still spoke strongly and with a deep baritone voice – and the people still listened. That was something.
“Bubba, what do you make of it?”
“Make of what, my son?” Gamaliel said, still lost in his own thoughts.
He was far too old to make the journey by himself anymore and he was thankful for the strong young arms that supported him as he scuffed the dirt into little whirls of dust in this most holy of cities. Young Benjamin, his grandson, was a blessing beyond words. Already taller than his grandfather, Benjamin was a constant and helpful companion with a strong back and a gentle touch. A simple and unadorned robe fell to his ankles, almost covering his sandals of camel hide, hiding his lanky frame. His light brown hair fell long upon his neck in contrast to the new growth on his chin, which struggled to call itself a beard. His face was common, pleasant, but his patrician nose was out of place, a divine afterthought on an already imperfect creation.
It was the eyes that saved him. Eyes that commanded attention; that expected much but asked for nothing. Loving eyes, and loving hands attentive to his every need. In truth, Gamaliel gloried in the attention that old age expected from the young.
“Bubba, I’ve been telling you about Jubal’s report from Galilee.” The rebuke was mild. “Do you think the Romans will try again?”
“What do you think?” Gamaliel liked to ask his own questions. Benjamin had a sharp mind. Let him come to his own conclusions.
“I think the Romans are demoralized.” Benjamin said, helping his grandfather around a slab of uneven stone. This was a discussion they had been having for months already. They had turned it over and over, looking at it from every possible direction, worrying at the problem like a dog with a favorite bone.
Impetuous he could be, full of the vigorous opinions of youth, but Gamaliel enjoyed the sparring discussions. Like a vagrant breeze on the grasslands of Jezreel, his grandson’s face could change from playfulness to scowling frustration with his growing awareness of what was happening to his people. For years Benjamin had witnessed the mounting anger of the people toward the occupying forces and the resulting crackdown of discipline from the Romans. Yerushalayim was a powder keg ready to blow and it would take very little for the Romans to solve the Jewish problem once and for all.
“They are ready for anything, Jubal says. They have spies in Syria who will give them enough warning and the spirits of the people are high,” Benjamin said.
It was more than a case of hotheaded zealots stirring up trouble. The Jewish people as a whole were fed up with the Romans and were ready to do something about it.
When it had finally happened, it even took Gamaliel by surprise. First the Roman garrisons in Yerushalayim and Caesarea were overrun and then the two legions that marched down from Syria were defeated and had to retreat with heavy losses.
“The people are celebrating but I don’t think it’s over yet.” Benjamin continued to build his argument.
“No, it’s not over yet,” Gamaliel said quietly.
The people saw this first victory as vindication from God that their battle against Rome would be won. All of Palestine was ready to rise up and throw the Romans out once and for all. The very air he breathed seemed charged with wild excitement and fear at the audacious gamble the people were taking with their lives and their future.
No, it was definitely not over yet.
“You will do as I say or you will be executed,” General Vespasian said. 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.
Solis had been watching. When he had realized that Onkelos was in danger, he had exploded from the side of the centurion in a bolt of light. His veil lifted, his sword unsheathed, his brilliance blinding, he attacked with a vehemence that took them all by surprise. Even Melanchor, who was watching from afar.
The demons fell back and Solis turned to attack the centurion with a flurry of half-formed, semi-hardened movements. The centurion stumbled, and fell to the ground for a moment and Solis held him there. It would only win them seconds, precious seconds, but it might be enough. Onkelos had his opportunity and Solis could only hope that he would do something. Beneath all that immense weight, he had the heart of a warrior. Solis knew it.
He wasn’t planning to hurt the centurion. Far from it. The centurion was on their side after all. He had been able to get this close to the action because of this believer, Marcus Slavius. He had noticed the aura of light around him and had looked eagerly for his angelic shadow. It was that one bright spot of light in the midst of the great evil mass of darkness that he had seen from above, beside Melanchor.
A quick signal and an equally quick conference with his angelic guardian and the strategy had been laid. Nefron was his name and he had the authority to enter into the general’s tent right into the heart of the demonic meeting. Solis would attach himself to Nefron and the centurion as another angelic guard. It was not unheard of that someone of special importance had two angelic guardians but, still, he had to be careful.
He was inside with Nefron in a moment and realized immediately that he was in trouble. The demonic prince standing behind General Vespasian was a being of immense power, specially chosen by Lucifer himself. The stories told about him were legend, at least among this evil rabble. Vespasian was more important than the angelic hosts had realized. And this evil prince would not be fooled by his ruse. Solis had no authority in this place and was vulnerable to attack.
But Solis was only given a cursory glance and dismissed as if it were unimportant one way or the other. They must know that his presence here was an indication that other angelic warriors were watching the camp. They didn’t care. That worried Solis even more. If they were arrogant enough to flaunt their plans in his face, then things were progressing far too quickly. He had to do something, stop them somehow.
What he heard from the general in the next few minutes shocked him to his core and suddenly he was very afraid for Onkelos. It didn’t take long for his fears to be confirmed. Solis had grown fond of this Greek proselyte and fierce in his protection. Onkelos may not be a believer but he was under his charge. For some reason he was important to his Lord and Master and now he was in danger. There was too much at stake and Solis could not remain still. When Vespasian drew his sword, Solis acted swiftly.
His attack had the advantage of surprise and, together with Onkelos’ frightened struggling, he was able to knock the centurion down and keep him there for a few precious seconds. Nefron had also drawn his sword. It would only take a few seconds for Nefron to realize that the centurion was in no danger. Then he would protect his back with drawn sword. It was thin protection but there was no choice.
Solis turned to face the demonic prince at the front of the tent. He trembled just a bit when he saw that the mighty demon did not draw his sword but stood with his arms crossed upon his massive chest and laughed at him. Solis didn’t wait. He attacked.
His attack was swift but not swift enough. He had lost precious seconds trying to give Onkelos his opportunity to escape. His moment of hesitation doomed him. The demonic prince did not even move as Solis sprang at him with drawn sword.
They came at him from all sides in a black wave of snapping, biting, and spitting warriors. He was simply smothered in the overwhelming embrace of tens and hundreds of demons who swarmed over him in an instant. None of them had drawn their swords. They wanted him alive.
He was dragged from the ground where he had been thrown and held securely by two mighty spirits. His sword lay dull and lifeless on the ground and he glanced longingly in that direction.
A quick look behind him showed Nefron fighting a fierce retreating battle, working his way out of the tent and into the darkness outside. Suddenly, Melanchor charged into the fray like a bolt of lightning and began to cut a wide swath with his great sword.
“To me,” he bellowed, “form up on my position.”
Other angelic warriors were entering the battle outside but theywere terribly outnumbered. Melanchor took advantage of a break in the fighting to grab his trumpet and blow a mighty blast to call the retreat.
Solis twisted his head back and for a brief moment their eyes met, bleak and full of grief. Then it was over, the angelic warriors leaving nothing but the flickering firelight of angel dust in their wake.
With a command from the demonic prince, the other demons stepped back from their captive but not before one of them plucked a fist full of feathers from his wings. Solis bellowed with pain, his back arched, his head thrown back. This was too good to resist. Others stole forward, stepping in quickly from behind, or darting in from the side to pluck out the white, glistening feathers while Solis bellowed and struggled uselessly until he was shorn of his glory and lay limp and exhausted in the arms of his captors.
The demonic prince grabbed his golden hair matted with sweat and yanked his head back to glare into his eyes, wisps of sulfuric smoke curling from his nostrils, his smell, the stench of death. There was no escape. This was the end.
Only it was not the end. There was one thing more and Solis had to witness it. The demonic prince twisted his head painfully around so that Solis had to look at Onkelos. Great, gentle Onkelos. The Seeker after Truth, the Scholar, the God-fearer. As General Vespasian brought his sword down upon the arm of Onkelos, Solis became still with grief and began a song in the depths of his soul that was also a prayer.
“O Lord, hear my cry. Let me bring glory to your Most Holy Name this night. Even as I must now depart, grant me one last thing. Give me the strength of your Spirit to bring judgment upon your enemies, O Lord.”
Even as his prayer took flight, he felt the answer in his soul and he slowly looked up at the powerful demonic spirit before him and smiled.
The demon narrowed his eyes and glared at him, yanking his head back upon his shoulders once again. He pressed his sword against Solis’ neck.
“What have you to smile about?”
“You can do nothing to me that Adonai Elohim cannot undo.”
“Perhaps not, but I can make the passage as painful as possible and that is reward enough for now.” The demonic prince smiled. “We have not captured an angelic warrior for some time and your torture and death will be a source of great delight to us this very night.”
The demons surrounding the tent cackled and shouted their agreement. With a gesture the demonic prince commanded them to silence.
“Take him away,” he said. “I will come shortly.”
It was the moment to act.
Solis stamped hard on the instep of the guard on his right, pivoting on his left foot and heaving with all of his might to throw the guard off balance. His grip loosened sufficiently for Solis to yank his arm free and with the same fluid motion strike the other guard in the throat with rigid fingers. Then he smashed his elbow back into the face of the first guard as he stumbled forward. They both fell to the ground in agony.
It was so unexpected and executed so smoothly and quickly that there was no time to react. Solis dropped forward to the ground, tucking his head to roll in a tight somersault, the bony vertebrae of his wings flapping painfully and uselessly behind him as he reached for his sword.
The only one close enough was the demonic prince himself and he reacted with terrible swiftness, leaping upon Solis and stabbing downward with his sword, probing for a killing stroke.
Solis could feel the dark shadow of the evil sword penetrate his spirit but his hand was already grasping the hilt of his own sword and he swung it up with all of his dying strength to lodge it deep into the side of his enemy.
Snarling and grunting and cursing, the demonic prince used his enormous weight to push his sword deeper into Solis until the angelic sword fell to the ground and the struggling finally stopped. Then he sat back upon his heels and lifted his arm high to check his own wound. He was already dizzy with pain and realized that the wound was too deep.
“The sniveling upstart has done me in,” he said, his eyes wide and he slowly fell forward on top of his enemy. In a moment both were gone in a swirl of smoke and light, one into the abyss and one into the arms of his Master and Lord.
The Temptations of the Cross by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright © 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.
Footnotes and references included in original manuscript.
The Desert Warrior