UNCHRONICLE

OF

THE

LAST

SHIP

TO

MASSILIA,

PART IV,

THE ROAD TO AELIA CAPITALENA (JERUSALEM) &

PART V, THE ROAD TO RAVENNA

The

Road

to

Aelia

Capitolina

(Jerusalem)

IMPERIAL PROCONSUL-SPECIAL ENVOY RUTILIUS SURVIVES EACH HORRIFIC ATTACK ON HIM BY MOSTLY UNKNOWN ASSAILANTS AND LIKE AN IRON-JAWED ROMAN TENACIOUSLY, DOGGEDLY CONTINUES TO SEEK CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE THAT CHRISTUS REALLY IS WHAT HIS FOLLOWERS CLAIMED HIM TO BE—-THE VERY SON OF GOD, EXCLUSIVE OF ALL OTHER GODS, WHETHER BORN SO OR DECREED BY THE SENATE OF ROMA. WHY SHOULD IT MATTER SO MUCH TO THE YOUNG, POLITICALLY-CHALLENGED WESTERN EMPEROR, SO FAR OFF IN RAVENNA, IF CHRISTUS BE WHAT HE WAS CLAIMED OR NOT? PERHAPS THAT TOO WILL IN TIME COME TO LIGHT. HADN'T HE ENOUGH TO CONCERN HIMSELF, BEING NOT MUCH MORE THAN A YOUTH IN A BATTLE FOR HIS THRONE WITH VETERAN GENERALS AND SENATORS AND VARIOUS BARBARIAN KINGS?

Indeed, Rutilius Numantianus had come a long way from Massilia! Now that they were on their own in Hither Asia, cast adrift at the end of the Roman world, in the wilds of the Roman prefecture of Arabian Petraea, officially called Palaestina Saluta/ Tertia after Emperor Hadrianus's dividing up and renaming of Judaea to completely eradicate the Jewish nomenclature, how would they get safely to the other cities in the remaining two rump Palaestinas in order to complete his inquiry about Christus for the emperor?

It was in the northern parts of "Palaestina" I, and II, that the life and miracles of Y'shua were mainly centered, so that region of Galilee was his first objective.

Could he go there safely without troops? But accompanying troops would give a signal to everybody who he was, even invite his enemies to try and stop him.

Who would lead him to the people he was seeking to talk to, who were the best authorities on the man he had come to investigate? He had a list in his head of authors and scholars, but finding them was another matter--in such a way as not to excite public attention to his whereabouts and what he had come to find out (not to mention, for whom he was inquiring!).

Oh, how complex his mission became the closer he got to the source of what he wanted to know!

Rutilius didn't have time to think much more about it, however, as he had visitors, important ones at that.

Rutilius went out to see who it was, and found Varrus the garrison commander standing beside a most dignified gentleman in an official's robe.

The commander saluted, then bowed low to Rutilius. "I have brought the Prefect of the City, Your Excellency! Philip Macarius Nicephorus, a select nobleman like yourself, wishes to personally welcome you to his city!"

The sheepish, subdued expression of Commander Varrus, so changed from his former boorish insolence, said it all--he was afraid his superior the Prefect might learn of his former disrespectful behavior from Rutilius, and it would not go well for him, since he knew his own pedestrian, commoner class of Plebeian weighed heavily against him if he were set between two bluebloods of the realm.

"By all means, Commander, I should be happy to meet His Excellency."

The Prefect of Petraea stepped forward, and Varrus shrank immediately to the side as if glad to be out of the light a bit.

The Prefect, though nearly a generation older in years, bowed his head in deference to Rutilius, who was of much higher rank due to his late governorship of Roma, and smiled.

"I fear you have had a most unpleasant reception, from what my commander has just informed me! I regret that very much, Governor! Please afford me the opportunity to turn this gross unpleasantness served you by the barbarians to something like pleasure. Know that you have all this city and prefecture at your disposal, sir-- whatever you wish! My palace too is yours! Name anything, you shall have it! And if we don't have it, we will fetch it at once from Antioch or Alexandria or even Constantinus's Royal Seat and Capital and have it brought here by courier!"

Rutilius smiled in return and shook his head.

"You are most gracious, Prefect! And you are correct, we did meet with some unpleasantness at the hands of the nomads. But please do not take undue responsibility for it, as even Roma cannot control all the unruly peoples of the borderlands, not all the time. Know they have been dealt a sufficient lesson for their misbehavior, as Commander Varrus may have already informed you. As for your offer of gracious hospitality, I am afraid this is not the time I can indulge myself with your city's amenities. My business cannot wait, and I must take leave very soon."

"Oh? But where are you heading, Governor? Perhaps we can be of service of some kind to aid you on your way. Name anything you have need or or desire, you shall have it at once! But I should like to show you the city's chief points first, of course, and a little banquet or two at the palace with special entertainments as worthy of your rank and office as we can make them."

He glanced at Rutilius's black, camel-hair Ishmaelite tent with evident disdain.

"What is this, Governor? Is that where you are residing in my fair city where even the Nabataeans have many noble palaces? Surely, we can do better than that for you, Governor of Roma! Please remove your residence to my palace! Then I shall take you on a tour of the city in my own chariot, with the whole Praetorium out in their best uniforms to attend you. The nobility here will want to greet you too! Do not deprive them of such a great happiness, to honor you as you rightly deserve!"

Rutilius declined with a smile. "Yes, this is where I am staying. It is simple, but adequate for the purpose. But I am not going to be here much longer. I shall need an escort to Jerusalem, to leave the city with me as soon as they can be assembled. Can you provide it? It will have to be large enough to warn off robber bands such as the one we encountered at the city's southern gate, of course. How large an escort can you give me without depleting your own garrison, Prefect?"

The Prefect beamed. "Oh, the barbarous nomads may be itching for spoil, but they wouldn't dare to raid us here! We can cut them off to a man in the Siq before they even see the city! I would say fifty mounted guards should be more than sufficient for you, Governor. Most robber bands that infest the wilderness, however unruly they are, wouldn't dare attack a decade of our highly trained soldiers, much less five decades! When do you wish to have them? The Praetorium lies hard by my palace, so please accompany me, and I shall assemble your escort personally, and send a centurion along to command them." The commander saluted the Prefect, and hurried off to the Praetorium. And the Prefect mounted his horse with a soldier helping him, and held back a horse for Rutilius as they waited.

Rutilius then was free to get his own affairs in order, which he lost no time in doing. He laid it on Flautus to gather his clothes, books, and other items from the tent and he would return for them. But first he had a personal word for Flautus alone. He turned to the Prefect. "Please go on ahead of me, Prefect. I need to finish my last business here, then I will come at once."

"As you wish, Governor! See you at the Praetorium!" When the Prefect had gone, Rutilius and Flautus was free to speak his mind to him.

He had no Roman nobleman's curial chair to sit in to render official business of the kind he contemplated, but no matter--he would do it standing then!

"Flautus, I cannot with conscience command you to proceed with me another foot in this next stage of my journey without a choice on your part.

Therefore, I have this proposition for you to consider. This is it. I will free you, make you a freedman, and you can leave my service immediately, or you can continue with me as a freedman and my personal man-servant. I have no desire to see you risk and lose your life as nearly happened in past days for my sake. I can get any man, any slave, to do that for me. But you are not just any man. For the sake of Mercurius's memory, I won't risk his friend's life any longer. It needs to be your choice."

Flautus stood silent regarding Rutilius as he was speaking, then when Rutilius fell silent and waited, he looked away, westerly.

Turning back to Rutilius, he pleaded, "I have thought over the matter, and my two choices. No, sir, please don't send me away, freed or slave. I have nothing to return to in the West. My life is with you and your prospects here, however you find them."

"Is that your answer? Well, then, I will not bargain or quibble, account it done! I will free you, and you can continue as my freedman and man-servant as you have chosen. You will be paid wages of course. You are free to go anytime you feel you are no longer needed for this journey, however. I won't contract you to serve me any longer than that. Agreed?

Flautus nodded, then smiled ear to ear. Rutilius extended his hand to Flautus, something he would never do to a slave.

Flautus stared at it, then slowly extended his own, then firmly grasped Rutilius's hand.

"I will have the Prefect draw up your papers setting you at liberty. They will be in your hand when we depart this city!"

Rutilius and Flautus were just turning to leave for the Praetorium when they saw Haboosh's turban bobbing in the crowd as he and his caravaneers approached the tents with their donkeys and a lot of empty sacks and lengths of rope. Evidently, they had done well selling ointments, umber, aromatic gums, balsam, fragrances, and such to the monks and the bishop of the Monastery of Obades.

"I must have a brief word with him," Rutilius told Flautus. "The Prefect will wait for us."

Haboosh, however, stopped the moment he saw the Romans and seemed loath to speak to Rutilius, so Rutilius humbled himself and went over to Haboosh.

"Where is Zumbah the Numidian, Sheikh Haboosh? I have a matter of business to conclude with him."

Haboosh rolled his eloquent, bloodshot eyes, then scowled. "What is that to me? I have a whole caravan of many men and beasts to mind. Am I a mere sand rambler's keeper?"

"You are right, you are not his keeper. I simply ask your favor in this matter, to give him this compensation, as a bit of comfort to him in the loss of his hunting dog."

Haboosh stared at the bag of money in Rutilius's hand as if he were staring at a snake. It was clearly the money, payment for Rutilius's journey and expenses, he had thrown down in Rutilius's tent after the battle with the Arab tribesmen.

Haboosh shrugged. "Give it to him then, Mighty One, but I will not touch it, not with one little finger! Once I have returned a sum to a man, I do not touch it ever again! It is bad kismet, touching such things!"

Rutilius stared at the money. Was it cursed? Spat upon? What was the misfortune concerning it? How strange these Ishmaelites were in their customs! But if he couldn't make any sense of Haboosh's strange fetishes and superstitions, he at least could think of another way.

"Well, when you see Zumbah again, please send it to him by a servant. Will you do that? I must go now. Farewell!"

Rutilius laid the money bag on the ground at the entrance to his tent, then he and Flautus mounted their horses and rode off to the Praetorium. Rutilius glanced back once and saw Haboosh had followed a few steps and was standing with his arms akimbo, shaking his big turbaned head.

It was so amusing a sight and typical of the old Ishmaelite trader of sundry ointments that Rutilius had to laugh.

Flautus glanced over at him, then glanced back and saw the cause, and he smiled.

Both knew they would miss the old fox of the desert!

Out on the high road, in the days ahead in the vast solitudes of the wilderness, Rutilius found ample time to reflect on his journey, his task set by the Emperor Honorius, and all its vagaries.

Besides his imperial mission, he thought of his father, and his will and testament and death. His mother was well taken care of--he was relieved of that concern, though he would go and find out how she fared as soon as he could. And Lady Fulvia? Did she still find the life of menial service and piety among holy women so pleasant as she had in the beginning?

Then there were the even deeper issues that still burned inwardly, troubling his sleep sometimes for hours, so that he rose in the morning with heavy-lidded eyes.

Whole books he had researched both in Roma and Alexandrea--of which a word he could not forget, since he had the same gift his father had, of remembering everything he ever read--ran through his mind, both in waking and in sleep.

The books and passages about Christus, particularly, haunted him. Was he the Son of God, the Only Son of God as the Christians claimed, or not? Was he? Was he not? Was he? Was he not?

Then his own words, composed in his tribute poem to Roma, spoke all the more to him. He had gotten his wish, as he had written:

"Oh, that I had wings of a dove to fly away

from all this strife and be at rest!

I would wander far off and remain in the wilderness--

thus would I escape the windy storm and abide safely

away from the tempest that sweeps the world--"

A wise man had once said, "Be careful what you wish for!"

Who was that wise man? Was it Diogenes the Cynic? Or Lucian of Samosata? Or some other clever Greek? It did not matter now, he thought. He had truly gotten the wilderness, the far off place of the solitary, retiring dove, where he might escape the windy storms of barbarism sweeping all orderly Roman life away in the Western Empire. But yet even here in Oriens, in the East, he knew he was not a dove, he was a man of serious affairs that tied him to the world and would soon be pulling him back into the very stormcenter of the tempest!

One thing he needed to resolve that kept coming to mind was how to divest himself of the armed escort--that is, particularly when and where it would be best to do it?

The Prefect had held true to his word and given him a full five decades of trained soldiers. With this number there was little danger of an attack, though they would still have to look out for ambushes in places where the cliffs and rocky outcroppings narrowly bordered the road. But the Emperor Traianus had done a thorough job, and there were halting stations, checkpoints with guards, and water supplies every twenty miles, all to insure that the wild tribesmen would not overrun such an important trade route for the Empire.

As they made their way into up the Roman road that led straight north to Bostra, and Damascus, Jerash and Palmyra and all points north and east, he drew Flautus aside in a place where they could speak privately.

"We must turn off from this road, Flautus, very soon now. What say you? Have you thought of a way to deal with these soldiers--so as not to give away our itinerarium to whomever has been trying to stop me? They make a hunter's perfect decoy."

Flautus gazed at him, as if he weren't sure and needed to think more upon it, so Rutilius continued, while observing him closely to see if he was being persuasive or not.

"I can tell them they are no longer needed, and give no explanation when I return them to Petraea. That would excite attention, no doubt. Or I can tell them to go on ahead as planned to Jerusalem and give some reason I can think of why I am leaving their company temporarily, and it may still appear to our enemies as if we are with them. I prefer that.

The truth is, which I can divulge only to you is, I have no plans to go to Jerusalem, which is no longer its name, after Hadrianus renamed it Aelia Capitolina to destroy the very name. Hadrianus renamed the entire country, too, calling it Syria Palaestina, so that the Jewish name will be completely forgotten and wiped from the Roman map. Aelia Capitolina is not the capital, either of the district. Caesarea is, a purely Roman city. To all appearances, Aelia Capitolina is now merely a Roman military colony of minor importance, with very few Jews in residence who have managed to cling to it despite the imperial ban against them. It cannot be anything like it used to be during the time of Christus, as it has been completely rebuilt as a Roman city by Titus, Hadrianus, and other emperors who succeeded him. From what I have found out in Alexandrea at the Library, Constantine's the Queen Mother Helena, a devout Christian, founded some notable churches there, and, it is reported, preserved the actual stake on which he was crucified. I would like to see it, of course, though it will look like any of its kind no doubt, but I am not so much interested in these artifacts the Christians revere as I seek the naked truth, the true facts of Christus. I do not want beliefs and superstitions, I want the cold, unadorned facts. First I wish to go to the home city of Christus where he was born, a village called Bethlehem, and begin my inquiries there. Then his parents took him to Nazareth, a small town in the north of the country called by the Jews, Galilee, which borders the small sea called the Sea of Tiberias. He is called the Nazarene by many because he grew to manhood in Nazareth and began his Messiahship in the district of Galilee. His chief activities were in that district. People of Galilee, Jews and Romans, must still speak of him, despite the three wars with Roma that drove most of them out, if they survived and weren't made slaves. If I make careful inquiries I just may find information that has not found its way into the books. I read one account, by the disciple of Christus called Mattathias. There must be other disciples who wrote down accounts too, which are known only in Galilee. I believe I will find there everything I need to satisfy Honorius. We all know Christus was executed in Jerusalem, so that is not necessary to prove or investigate. It is the other aspects, his claims to divinity, his even greater claim to being the Sovereign God over all gods, while being His only Son--that is what I must look into. Messiahship was not the half of it, you must understand. I know these Jewish words and names mean nothing to you as yet, Flautus, but soon they shall, for you and I will soon be viewing the very places where Christus walked and spoke to the people and did his remarkable acts and miracles. What say you to my itinerarium? You are a freedman, with the papers to prove it if necessary, so you have a right to speak your mind to me! You might as well get used to using it--as that is the way of a man who is free."

Rutilius was amazed at all the words that tumbled out to an inferior. He really wanted to convince Flautus that this was the best way to go. Yet for all his trouble he observed that Flautus was still reluctant to speak.

Flautus shook his head. "Sir, pardon my poor speech and slowness to speak, but I do not want all these men to venture their lives. Couldn't we proceed without so many? I think of their families, their wives and mothers and children, for no doubt some are married and were sent here."

"No, we cannot go with just a few," said Rutilius. "Few soldiers would invite an attack such as we just suffered, and Haboosh had half this many, as you recall, though not so well-trained and equipped as Romans of course."

Flautus looked away and thought a bit.

When he looked back at Rutilius, seemingly having a hard time looking directly at Rutilius his employer even though he was as good as a freedman, he was still troubled and unsure.

"I feel this number is still more of a hazard than a help to us, sir. They will attract much attention to us on the road, with their marching and uniforms and standards. Then there is your carriage, if you choose to go in one. And you say we will not be going to Jerusalem? It doesn't seem right to send them on without us, if only to deceive our enemies, and risk their lives for nothing."

Rutilius was about to object, but relented and thought about what Flautus had said. Was it really a risking of lives "for nothing"? He was risking his own mission and his life and Flautus's life, was he not, without sufficient military escort in such a dangerous wilderness as this?

Yet, on the high road to Bostra, Damascus, and Palmyra, there were plenty forts, halting stations, checkpoints, and such to protect travelers from unruly nomads. If they kept to that road, they would be safe enough with far fewer soldiers probably. But to turn them back now, wouldn't he have to give up his cover of a feint?

Or could they join another caravan and elude detection?

But what caravan? Any that quartered in Petraea would offer spies the information about him to whomever wanted it.

Surely, they wouldn't get far if they let it be known that they were proceeding with another caravan to Jerusalem--and even caravans weren't safe enough escort.

It was quite a conumdrum! He thought hard about it as he considered what to reply to Flautus.

Finally, he had to confess he needed help. "What do you suggest we do then, Flautus?

We can't let our plans be known here of all places, and yet we aren't safe going alone without military escort. How are we to best proceed?"

Flautus came out haltingly with his own plan. "We can proceed from here with the soldiers, but not far from here send them back. Give no explanation, let them dispute about it if they wish. We will proceed and see what Almighty God, the God Mercurius spoke of to me, will do for us, if we cast ourselves on His mercy and providence."

Rutilius could not believe his ears! Trust himself to the God of Christus? Was Flautus fevered in his head? Yet he knew he had no better plan that would spare the soldiers a bloody attack somewhere on the way to Jerusalem, if he sent them there as he had thought to do.

He walked first one way, then returned, glanced at Flautus who was looking down at the ground, and struck his fists together. What was he to do? Why did he have to hazard his own life and his mission for the sake of these soldiers' lives and well being. It wasn't heard of, that a high official should do such a thing. Yet Flautus was not a high official. He did not think like a government leader from imperial Roma. He thought as one much lower than a Roman foot soldier!

He knew he had to decide quickly. How long could he keep the Prefect and the Commander waiting, with half a century cooling their heels as they stood at attention in the heat in the Praetorium parade ground?

"Well, let us go! I will decide on the way to the Praetorium. We have no more time!"

With his few possessions in a pack and tied to Flautus's horse, both he and Flautus mounted their horses and quickly made for the Praetorium.

When they arrived, Rutilius saw the Prefect mopping his large brow with the edge of his robe.

But he hurried to Rutilius, and then swung his hand indicating the soldiers standing in formation.

"Will they do, Governor? I picked the best for you, as I had the time and opportunity."

Rutilius nodded. "They look like excellent men to me, Prefect! We will need the papers for my new freedman drawn up. Can you do that immediately?"

The Prefect was surprised and peered at Flautus. "Is he the man you have with you? Tell me his name, and my commander will do it at once!"

Rutilius gave Flautus's full name, and a commander and his scribe hurried into the office of the Praetorium and came out a few minutes later with the papers all drawn up.

The Prefect signed them, and Rutilius signed them after noting that they were all in order, with the proper format followed. Rolled up and tied with ribbon, the Prefect handed them to Rutilius, and he let Flautus have them.

He turned to the Prefect. "There is a tax on such procedures, is there not? What is it? I shall pay it now."

"No, no, that is waived, Governor. It is too trifling to bother you with."

Rutilius thanked the Prefect for his assistance, begged off from a tour of the city, and then ordered the centurion to begin the march. Two big wagons with sides built up carried their supplies of food and wine, as well as several tents, and other things needed on a long march. With what they had, it was sufficient for getting them to Bostra, Varrus informed Rutilius.

Festus Tracchonitus, the centurion, shouted a command to the escort, and they were off, with Rutilius and Flautus on horseback and the mounted centurion leading as they set out for the gate to the northern part of the Via Traiana. Meanwhile Rutilius was still in a great quandary, without a final decision about what to do about the escort, or where they should turn them away.

This was not like him, for normally he had everything planned out carefully in his mind, and itemized, so that he wouldn't be surprised by anything that happened.

That was the mind of an administrator, which he was! But to go this way--blindly, without knowing even his exact itinerarium, this was without precedent in his life! He felt that his whole life was being cast adrift, but for what purpose? More and more he felt that some other purpose was superseding his own--which was to perform the mission and command of Honorius.

After three days march and camping overnight at each halting station, Rutilius was still undecided. He thought to consult Flautus again, but he knew it must be his decision. He had deferred already to his freedman-servant, more than he had ever dreamed possible, yet he had not reached a decision that satisfied him.

"I must somehow send these soldiers back, or send them on to Jerusalem-Aelia Capitolina to deceive those who are following us or waiting for us somewhere ahead. I don't want them with us much longer, we are alerting the whole world of our presence and location. They were useful to get us out of Petra safely and without suspicion, but now they are going to work to our ruin."

What was he to do?

They left the third halting station and were proceeding northward on the Via Traiana, with the large city of Bostra and its fortress and garrison only another four marches away, when words came to his mind. He thought nothing of it, but they returned, just as clearly and insistently.

I will go before thee and make the rugged places plain, and I will give thee the hidden riches of secret places

He forgot everything else he was doing or thinking about, this absolutely captured his whole attention. The soldiers, Flautus on his horse riding beside him, the wagons, the noise of the hundreds of tramping feet and hooves of oxen and donkeys and horses, the creaking and grinding of axles and wheels all mixed together--it all grew deathly silent inside himself, he heard none of it as he considered only what the words were saying.

"I must have read that somewhere!" he first thought. He never forgot anything he read, however long ago it was. This was just something he read, right? That was his father's ability, and he too had it. But no, he knew somehow this was very different, it was completely new to him, he had never read it. No one had ever said it to him either. Where then was it coming from?"

He felt as if he had to look around--was there a god perhaps speaking to him? But the burning sky glared back at him, it held no voices. The words that came to him spoke within his own mind. He couldn't dismiss them either. Another possibility spoke to him, but he dismissed it immediately. Christus? Of course not! He was not a believer. He viewed Christians as children, mentally. Their religion was a superstition of uneducated people.

He glanced back Flautus, and Flautus was that moment looking his direction, and their eyes met.

Rutilius couldn't help himself. Could Flautus help him understand this? As soon as they halted for the night, Rutilius drew his freedman-servant aside and asked, "Flautus, do you know whether the God called Christus can speak to men, to living men, within their own minds?"

It was a most surprising thing to be asked anyone by a known pagan! There was a time, actually many times, when a sincere, honest answer would send a hapless person to the arena to be torn apart by lions and leopards, boars and bears. Now the empire was, officially anyway, Christian, both East and West. Just the same, despite the sanction of the state for Christianity, individual slave owners could take it adversely if they were pagans and their servants were Christians--who would be able to stop them from mistreating their servants, since they were slaves and had no rights of citizens? Flautus, though recently freed, remained a servant under contract, and could suffer the loss of his position and other punishment. Yet he nodded gravely. "Yes, he speaks that way, sir. Mercurius told me he could do that. And just now, back on the road, he spoke to me as Mercurius said."

Rutilius could not believe his good fortune. He was impatient to hear more. "Yes, yes, please don't keep me in suspense. What did he say to you?"

Rutilius stared wide-eyed at Flautus as recited the exact same words he had heard: "I will go before and make the rugged places plain..."

Flautus broke off.

Rutilius continued, "... and I will give thee the secret riches of hidden places."

It was Flautus's time to stare at Rutilius! "Sir! How do you know those words?" he blurted out. "Can you read my mind?"

"No, Flautus," Rutilius said, "I am not reading your mind. He spoke to me too. This is a certain thing that God speaks, this One called Christus, for He spoke to the both of us at the exact same time, using these very words, did he not?"

Rutilius heard himself making this acknowledgement, and though he could not believe he had said it, the words were out! Was that really what he believed? He couldn't accept this, and strode away, just to get away from Flautus for a moment, for he felt like he was going to explode.

When he felt he had control again, he returned to Flautus as he made camp, but they didn't speak of the matter, and Flautus wouldn't bring it up unless it were first addressed by his master.

All night Rutilius tossed on his blanket, as he considered what all this might mean. Truly, it seemed Christus was a LIVING, a SPEAKING deity! He wasn't at all like the dozens of Greek and Roman divinities, who had glorious human-like images in thousands of temples spread throughout the empire East and West but which never ever moved an arm or leg or eye, nor spoke, nor heard, nor breathed, nor ate anything, though people prayed all day to them in the temples, and presented grand offerings of food of all kinds to them in order to gain some favor from the god.

The sleep of the whole company of soldiers and their centurion did not go undisturbed either that night. Suddenly, huge flaring lights appeared in the sky, outshining the moon and even the sun. Guards who were standing watch clapped hands over their eyes, but the lights grew even more fierce. The whole escort was roused to their feet, and they stumbled about, blinded in the light that blasted down on the tents of the encampment. Rutilius and Flautus too were unable to deal with it, and held their blankets up to shield their eyes.

Festus Centurion tried to rally the soldiers in a defensive move, but even he was blinded, and he couldn't make any headway. The camp was cast in total chaos and uproar, with horses and donkeys dashing about as blindly and crazed as the men.

Rutilius heard one word: "Run!" He felt his arm grabbed, and Flautus cried to him, "Master, run!"

But where? How?

"This way!" Flautus said, though he was just as blind as Rutilius. Together they stumbled arm in arm away from their tent. There was the road, and they soon found it, but which way? The light, which was now intense and scorching, was all around searching out with even brighter beams, then burning whoever they found, made cinders of them in an instant.

"Christus says we must leave the road now!"

Rutilius didn't argue, as Flautus pulled his arm and he followed as best he could, stumbling at times over rocks and banging his toes. How far they were able to go before they found a place of refuge, they could not tell. But they crawled under a ledge of a big outcropping of rock, and there the light did not reach them.

It was not so far that they couldn't hear the screams of men and animals burning to death in the light. There was no mistaking what the sound meant--few if any had escaped whatever was attacking them.

Suddenly, the light vanished, and it went dark, just as it had begun.

Afraid of going out into the open, Rutilius and Flautus stayed where they were, waiting for whatever might happen next, soon as their blurry vision recovered and they could see again.

When they looked out later, they were startled to see the feet of a man! Flautus scrambled out first, with his sword drawn. But the man was not going to fight, he had no sword drawn. Rutilius could not believe the face he saw smiling at them. Zumbah! What was he doing there? Hadn't he remained in Petraea with Haboosh? "But why?" Rutilius demanded, trying to assert his Roman dignity as best he could in the circumstances. "Why would you do this for me? I thought you hated me."

"You were good to me, Roman, not like the others. You gave me money when I sought nothing from you, and I have come to lead you out of the mouth of the lion. You will need someone to lead you, Roman. You don't know the way."

Zumbah jerked his thumb toward the smoldering Roman encampment. "They're no good to you now, but Zumbah will do what they could not do. Follow me."

With no more explanation he strode off and away, heading east. Rutilius and Flautus had no choice. Either follow a crazed, wild man, Zumbah the Numidian, or make the long trek back on the road to Petraea, or maybe seek to reach Bostra, through unknown teritory. What was best? Follow a Numidian nomad, or a Roman road?

Hesitating, Rutilius glanced at Flautus, who could be seen clearly in the bright moonlight.

"What do you say, Flautus?" he asked.

"The nomad knows this country. He can lead us out safely, sir."

Rutilius wasted no more time. They started off after the nomad.

A shadow flew past them, low to the ground. What was it?

They saw Zumbah stoop and grab at it, and then it flew away, running in semi-circles as it nosed the ground.

Zumbah had found another hunting dog? Well, thought Rutilius, they wouldn't starve now in the desert--that long-legged dog, a saluki of the desert, could probably run down anything, not only hares but the fleetest deer.

Zumbah did not lead them very far before he stopped and they caught up with him. They discovered he had made a camp previously, and invited them to join him. It was surrounded by big rocks, and his camp was invisible to anyone looking that way. It was very simple, a roll of canvas unfurled to cover the open area, and some wood for a fire, and a jug of water and some dried food in a pouch. His weapons too were there, other than the dagger he carried.

He turned to Rutilius, and seemed to include Flautus too for the first time.

"You," he said to Flautus. "You are not his slave?" Zumbah turned to Rutilius. "Here we will rest for a few hours, Roman, then go on. First we must rest, drink some little water, then go as quickly as we can during the morning hours. Then we will rest again in the hot time of the day to keep our moisture in us. After that we will continue to a place where there is water. It may be on the way my hunter will find some of the horses that ran away from the Romans. They are scattered, but my hunter will track them down soon, and then we can go on horseback and save our sandals. Horses will need much water, and I know the places where they can be watered. Otherwise, they will perish with all the others that ran away from the burning light."

Zumbah disappeared into the side of a cliff without a word to Rutilius. Rutilius followed and peered into the cleft that had swallowed Zumbah.

What a cavern, hardly a mere cave, Zumbah led them into to escape the heat of the day!

It was immense, beyond anything Rutilius had seen before. And it hid a lost city--though not a type Romans would ever build, though the architectural features resembled much seen in Roma and Graecia. What were those glowing lights on tall rods that stood up from the roof? Quakes had tumbled much of the cave city into ruins, he saw. Zumbah cared nothing about it, and lay down to rest with his dog, and let them wander about as they pleased.

So they looked about.

Giant sculptured stone images were broken too by violent quakes, but they scrambled over the broken marble and rocks to take a closer look at the face of one such giant. How Egyptian it looked! Was it Egyptian? Had the ancients, the pharaohs of Aegyptus and their priests and wise men, hewn out this city within the rock? It seemed that ancient, yet was it more ancient still?

The longer they were in the cave among the ruins of the lost city of the unknown ancients, the stronger Rutilius felt the emeralds reacting. He had to look to check them, and when he pulled them out of his clothes he found they were glowing and pulsing, as if alive! The lights on the tall rods on the vast pillar structure pulsed too, in unison with them!

Just then he was aware that he was being watched, or rather, the emeralds in his hands were being observed by someone. He looked up and saw Zumbah. The nomad no longer looked indifferent, not in the least. The look on his face was absolutely rapt, to the point of a burning obsession that could even be hot jealousy.

His eyes fixed on the glowing, pulsating jewels, Zumbah did not move an eyelash, and he seemed to be totally lost in the beauty and power of Immadatha and Berenice's royal emeralds--yes, power, for they throbbed with such intensity that Rutilius could hardly bear holding them in his hands.

Tremendous current, energy of some kind, was running from the emeralds into his fingers and hands, then down his arms, and even reaching toward his heart! He felt such gripped with feelings too. He saw himself as a great king over a vast domain, but there were treacherous enemies, standing very close to him, who were seeking his throne and scepter, and he must do something without delay or be stabbed to death! He must conquer them, no matter the cost! He must utterly destroy them, even if his enemy were his own brother, his own father, his own mother, his own son! Rule over the earth was the only thing that mattered, and he was the supreme ruler--nobody else! He must stamp out all opposition, and every threat to his throne must be annihilated!

Rutilius felt all these things surging through him, wave after wave overtopping its predecessor, and then he thought he must be going mad, and began to struggle against them. The wrestling was for his own life, not for the vast domain that the emeralds meant to subject to their power. He wasn't the emperor, Honorius was! He had no intention ever of being an emperor, though his blood line could claim it. Yet despite that he felt compelled by this power of the emeralds to return to Ravenna at once, and put the "usurper" to death by assassinating him! Ingenious plans formed in his mind instantly, and they seemed so clever and perfect, he knew they could be accomplished.

Yet he struggled again, almost despairingly like a drowning man losing his strength to resist against them. They were so contrary to his upbringing, to his father's counsel, to all he had valued in his life. He was above all a public servant, not a treacherous assassin seeking supreme power at any cost! Surely, this was supreme madness? Or was it? He thought how he was far, far more noble in blood than Honorius, he had more right to it by that fact than Honorius. The Numantianii line ran back hundreds of years before Honorius's. He had many kings in his lineage long before Honorius's family was even heard of! His forefathers lived in palaces while Honorius's kept swine and huddled in dirty hovels. Why shouldn't he assert his blood claim and his right to the throne? Why should this newcomer, this little nobody, occupy the throne of the Western Emperor. The emeralds were his, and they proclaimed him Emperor of the West! Why not give in to them?

Suddenly, he felt hands on his throat, choking off his air. At the same time he felt a sharp feeling in his arm, and he was thrown down violently. Next, two bodies were grapping each other, and he rolled over to one side, feeling his arm was wet with something. What was it? Who had assaulted him, and who were those fighting next to him?

How much time passed, he did not know, but the two men gasping nearby went silent, and he had to know, his heart pounding, as he searched for them in the dark and found first one body then another. One had his throat cut, and had bled all down his front. His hands were wet with his own blood. The other was pierced with a sword in his chest. As for the saluki, he found its body nearby as he touched the dog's flaccid, unmoving body. He knew what had happened to it. It had been first to leap at Flautus, and received a sword thrust for its loyalty to Zumbah.

Still he hoped there was life.

Flautus? Not Flautus too? Zumbah? He gasped out their names, but neither man stirred or made any sound.

The last person he had seen was Zumbah. Rutilius then noticed the emeralds lying on a rock, glowing all the brighter, and he picked them up and held them to the face of one of the dead men, and it was Zumbah's. His dead eyes seemed alive and stared at the emeralds just as fixedly and fanatically as they had when they first saw them.

Dreading what else he must see, Rutilius forced himself to examine the next corpse, and it was Flautus. "No-o-o-o-o-o!" someone screamed, and the echo came back to him again and again.

Zumbah had tried to assassinate him? Flautus had given his life subduing the Numidian? This horror he could not take after all he had lost so far. He could not think about it, he sensed he must not, he must conserve what strength he still had. He put the emeralds back in his robe pouch, but the moment he did that huge flaring lights erupted around him, forcing Rutilius to turn and seek to escape. He scrambled toward the entrance, forgetting his arm wound entirely in his agony and sorrow over Flautus's terrible end.

Once outside, with a deafening roaring sound and withering light blasting from the entrance, he pushed Flautus from his mind and fled--he fled the horrible scene in the cave, and rapidly descending in mostly sand on a very steep slope bordered by jutting rocks.

His arm awoke to the exertions and began throbing, Rutilius held it, and found the wound was bleeding over his fingers. He staggered downwards, unable to think in his blind animal panic and shock.

Something seemed to check him, however, and he paused, holding himself back with difficulty in the slipping sands. He would have taken more steps, but he realized something and looked ahead where he was going.

The end of the slope was not visible, it occurred to him. What was beyond it? It was the edge of something, but what? He looked further off and downwards, and found the rocks he saw beneath the slope or ledge were really giant rock outcroppings on the desert floor a thousand feet or more below him.

His shock did not numb him enough so he couldn't grasp the reality of this image. He realized his peril. He would surely have tumbled over a cliff to certain death if he had taken just one or two more steps! Yet he was still on death's edge, he realized, unable to climb back in the sand without anything to hold onto.

He slumped backwards, holding his arm, and feeling his life draining out of him. He felt very faint, losing so much blood, and now had no strength to climb back, even if he could get a foothold in the sand. He was trapped and going to die there in that desolate place, he realized.

His eyes closed, sinking, he lost all sense of the world around him and darkness closed in. Yet in the darkness of his mind and soul a tiny point of light began to glow, increasing gradually to a shining arch of golden light, and he recalled it. This was what he saw in a dream or vision and hadn't thought of it since until now. The arch was shining over a rocky path, hardly more than a foot breadth across, that led across the face of a cliff.

He was afraid to take a step on the path, it was just too narrow for him, and he thought he might plummet thousands of feet to the rocks below. But the shining arch shone all the brighter and seemed to beckon him. He felt its attractive power, and was drawn to it despite his fears and the horrible thought of falling to his death.

Then he remembered something else, the words that had coursed like a spring brook in spate, unbidden, through his mind not long before. Was this the One who had spoken them to his inner self? Was He speaking again, promising to guide him through the rocky places and the trackless wilderness and "made the rugged places plain"?

He dared not frame the name that rose to his mind at that moment.

But he, nevertheless, on the strength of that name, and that calling of the shining arch, step forward on the path impossible for him to walk.

A moment later he found himself under the arch! It was over his head, and then he looked again and found himself on level ground, completely safe! How had he gotten down from that perilous cliff?

A slight whisper of sound, then a scrape of something hard against a small rock, and several other slight sounds caught his attention. The dream or vision vanished. Rutilius cracked open one eye and could not believe what he saw--huge-horned deer of some kind were delicately stepping by him toward the cliff edge!

He watched, speechless, this time with both eyes, expecting to see the small herd of four smaller unhorned deer following the big horned buck all step off the cliff and plunge to their deaths.

But moving to the farther edge of the slope, the buck put his hoof over into what looked like empty air and then hopped out of sight. The does quickly followed.

What had happened to them? Would they all deliberately jump to their deaths? He doubted that, and had to find out if he could. Forgetting his wound, he crawled to the place where the deer had gone over the edge, and though the sight of the depths below took his breath away, he saw a tiny ledge just a foot or so beneath the cliff edge, running across the cliff and leading downward. The does and buck were slowly descending on it.

"They must know the way down!" he thought. Could he stay where he was? He knew he couldn't climb back the way he had come. But the deer had shown him a way out. He had to follow them, now or never, before they disappeared from view.

Turning on his stomach though it pained his arm greatly, he put a leg over the edge, then the other, and let himself go, and felt the most incredible relief when he felt solid rock meet his sandals. Gasping, he knew he had no time to crouch there, he must go on. Remembering the arch and the way it had led him down to safety, he turned his head, saw the retreating deer, and continued down the ledge or crack of rock that gave him just enough room for his feet, step by step.

He soon found his outer cloak was getting in the way, and he had to strip it off. Carefully, he pulled it off and let it drop over the edge, averting his eyes at the same time as not follow it down. Now he felt he could move more freely.

He had but one advantage of the deer, in being able to grab onto the rock as he went down with at least his one good hand and arm. But the deer were so nimble and goatlike in their feet, and fearless of great heights, they wasted no time descending, hopping and leaping down, rather than taking it step by step. They seemed about to get away from him altogether, so he had to go as fast as he humanly could.

Focused on the deer, he kept his eyes off the sheer drop of hundreds of feet, sparing himself some of the terror of it. He did this deliberately, knowing he would never make it down otherwise, and hadn't the heart to try it any other way. But the deer showed him they knew the way down safely, so why shouldn't a man make it too if he was careful as he could be?

This was his hope anyway. He really had no other choice but to hope it would work out.

He wasn't even aware he had made it down to the ground until he felt sand beneath his feet instead of rock.

When he realized he was really on safe, solid earth, he felt like collapsing and lying there a long time with sheer relief, but then he saw the deer.

They faced him, as if waiting for him to do something.

He took a few steps toward them, and again they led him, this time away from the cliff and into the heart of the desert, as if they were intending to cross it.

Finally, they came to a big rock, which seemed only a pebble at first on the horizon. It grew larger and larger, however, and then was immense.

He was so weak by now he could hardly stagger forward. But he kept going, and then saw the deer climb down into a low area by the side of the mountain like rock. They were dipping their necks and...drinking? A water hole? He approached the place where a stream of water flowing from the gigantic rock made a small pool, and the deer seemed to see him for the first time. Their bodies went rigid, then the buck snorted, his tail flicked, and he bounded away, the does leaping after him. In a moment or two they had vanished off into the trackless desert, and all Rutilius could see of them was some dust their flying hooves kicked up, their tawny pelts blending perfectly into the desert sands and rocks.

What now? His heart filled with dread of the desert like never before, for before he always had people around him who knew it and how to journey in it from one source of water to the next.

He had no idea where the Via Traiani and its water supplies stored at cisterns every 20 miles lay, exccept that to go back, he would have to reclimb the cliff, which was impossible now in his sorry condition.

No, he must go forward, whether it led to death or not.

He drank all he could, wet his clothes and whole body, washing the wound in his arm as best he could, then started walking, leaving the big, rainfall absorbing rock that was flowing with water stored up in it perhaps for ages.

He walked all the remaining hours, and dusk came and the scorching heat lifted, making it easier for him and less torturous for his sun-burned feet.

But the merciful, soothing dusk was pitfifully brief.

In the dark he could not see what he was travelling in, and the wild beasts came out of their lairs.

He found a spot between two low ridges of sand where the wind would not blow directly on him if he lay down between them. He sank to the ground, lying on his "good" side, his hurt arm uppermost.

The cold came on, and it felt all the colder because he had no cloak to keep off the chill.

How he missed his outer cloak now!

But he couldn't find anymore shelter than this, so he had to endure it.

How long he lay there, he did not know, except he observed the movements of the moon across the sky, and that gave him a vague idea of the passing time. Whenever his mind returned to Flautus and the cave, he stopped it--he knew he could not think of that now in his state--later, but not now.

All sorts of manuscripts and inscriptions began rolling through his mind. He realized something after a while. He hadn't read many of them, he knew. Where did they come from? All referred to the Christus! He tried to think of another subject, but couldn't. The references continued to speak about Christus.

As he lay there, his mind filled with the writings of historians, authors, and Christian Gospel writers and apologists, even the letters of various emperors, his arm felt hot and his forehead too--so the cold bothered him less and less, even if his lips were dried and he felt great thirst.

Suddenly, he felt a change in things. The references to Christus stopped. He opened his eyes slightly, noting the position of the moon and realized it was near dawn. The night was over?

He realized he needed to start moving, if he was to escape the worst heat. He must go now, or collapse soon when the sun turned the desert into an oven. In his weakened state, he knew he would not get far without more water.

He could hardly stand, but he made a tremendous effort, and got to his feet. Which way was he to go? He couldn't remain where he was. He had to go, whether it was in the right direction or not.

He was walking in the morning sun, and it was already unbearably hot, along with the heat from the wound, which was beginning to throb, when he caught the sound of tinkling bells.

He saw nothing, just a little dust cloud in the far distance.

But he walked toward it, hoping against hope it meant something good.

The dust cloud finally came closer and grew feet--the feet of men and animals!

He stopped, struggling to stand, as the caravan came close to him. Not Haboosh? Were his eyes tricking him? The desert was full of trickery. He had already seen water where there was only burning sands, people who were only phantoms of dust, whole walled cities with towers and gardens of palms that appeared on the horizon and then a moment later vanished!

Just as the man closest to him approached him on foot, whether to rob him or aid him he could not tell, Rutilius's eyes went dark, and he collapsed, his knees buckled, pitching him forward on his face in the sand.

When Rutilius open his eyes, he found himself in a tent, and Haboosh was eyeing him keenly.

"Sheikh, is it you? How--"

Haboosh was not going to answer him a word, as he rose and left the tent, leaving Rutilius to fall back on his rug.

He lay there and heard Haboosh shouting and cursing, and then silence.

There came the smell of smoke, and then several Ishmaelites stepped into the tent. Not knowing what to expect even in Haboosh's tent, Rutilius rose up on his bed rug, and waited.

One Ishamelite squatted down, and reached for Rutilius's hurt arm. Rutilius was reluctant to show it to him, but the fellow persisted. He demonstrated, that he wanted Rutilius to bare his upper body.

Rutilius was at a loss. He wanted nothing to do with the Ishmaelites inspecting his wound, but how could he fend off so many? He was in their hands, he knew, for good or evil.

He took one hand and loosed his robe and let it fall down to his waist.

The Ismaelite took his arm and looked at the wound for several moments, then said something rapid- fire, dropped Rutilius's arm like a piece of wood and went out.

The Ishmaelite came back in, with a small bag of something. He had a mortar and pestle, and took some dried leaves out of the bag, put them in the mortal and then mashed them with the pestle.

Another Ishmalite brought a skin of what Rutilius thought might be water. But it wasn't, for when he took a sip of it that was offered him, he knew instantly it was quite good wine bought at Petraea market or from the fine vineyards around the city, and he was so thirsty he gulped it down like water so they wrenched the bag away.

That made him very angry. How he wanted more of it! He would have given them all his remaining gold for it! But they poured a little of it into the mortar, with the leaves, and making a paste. This they passed to Rutilius.

Rutilius pushed it away and made a face, giving the fellow a few choice Latin curses for applying to his mother and his doubtful birth status, but they wouldn't play this game with even a prideful Roman, and they suddenly were upon him, seizing and holding him by his arms, and then the paste was pushed, gob by gob into his clenched mouth by dirty Ishmaelite fingers.

Ugh! Horrid beyond belief! Rutilius felt like gagging, and tried to spit it out, but the wine was poured into him like a torrent, and whatever it was he hated beyond saying, it slide down, for Rutilius liked the wine very, very much in his condition, and the bitter taste of the leaves was quickly completely washed away from his mouth.

The Ishmaelites smiled at each other, then dropped him back on his rug, and left him without a word and went out, leaving him the skin of wine to empty of its last dregs, which he did by draining it all at once without stopping to examine the grit that came out at the last.

Feeling the effects of the wine and something else--a kind of hazy good feeling that affected even his head-- Rutilius heard Haboosh gabble something rapid fire. Then it was Haboosh himself who came in the tent, with a dagger in his hand, still smoking from the fire it had been put in.

Rutilius tried to get to his sword, but the Ishmaelites were quick, and he as slow and weak and overcome by the drugged wine, and they caught him again by his arms.

He struggled against them, but he had no strength, and then Haboosh approached with the smoking hot tip of his dagger. Rutilius thought for sure they had were his enemies and were now going to torture him.

With horror Rutilius watched Haboosh put it right into his oozing, hot wound, turning it around.

Rutilius lunged with a scream of pain, and all went black to him.

He lay in Haboosh's tent, dead to the world, but hours later he felt himself being hauled up to his feet. He tried to fight off the Ishmaelites, but they were too many for him, and they dragged him to a horse and put him on it.

So they weren't leaving him to perish in the wilderness after robbing and torturing him?

He was confused, but the whole caravan was on the move, and so he followed, not very quickly either, as he felt ever jolt, his arm paining him severely.

He took a look at it, as soon as he could, and found it was wrapped with something, some mess of leaves and rags. It was disgusting and stank evilly. He wanted to pull it off, but he hadn't the strength. He let it go, and concentrated on holding the reins and keeping up with the caravan.

Where were they going? He had no idea, but he knew he had to go with them, or he would die miserably of thirst and his wound, and be nothing but a pile of gnawed bones if he lost the caravan.

Hurt and weak as he was, it was all he could do to keep on the horse and follow.

The hours stretched on, and with no relief. But the sun was burning hot, and the Ishmaelites looked for a place of shelter from it, and then turned in for the rest of the day, since the horses could not stand the sun, though the camels and donkeys could go hours more without complaint.

What a relief for Rutilius it was, when he could stop, and let the reins fall from his throbing, clenched hands. He began sliding down, unable to keep mounted, and an Ishmaelite, laughing, ran and caught him before he hit the ground.

Set on his feet, the Ishmaelite led him to a shady spot and let him sit, while the tents were erected for the night and preparations for a fire made for the cooking of a meal and heating of water. Another Ishamelite, at Haboosh's sign, brought Rutilius a wineskin, and he drank, but it was pulled away before he drank all he wanted. Water, greenish-scummed and evil tasting, was then offered him, but he pushed it away after a single sip.

The Ishmaelite instead pulled away Rutilius's outer robe and then his tunic and tore away the poultice on his arm without any thought to the painfulness of their rough treatment, and Rutilius gasped as the man poured some of the wine, then some olive oil on it, to wash and cleanse the wound. Then over Rutilius's objections, same old nasty poultice was picked off the ground and put back and tied in place with a rag.

He was very unhappy about this, but what could he do? He knew that native peoples, ignorant barbarians such as these Ishmaelite traders and caravaneers, knew something of medicinal herbs and how to use them Romans did not know. Would it heal his wound? How could he know if he pulled the poultice off now, nasty thing as it was, without giving it more of a chance?

A meal was being prepared by the men, with Haboosh giving advice. Something was being chopped and thrown into the stewpot with some dried herbs andy roots of various kinds. Cooking smells soon drifted to him from the fire they had made. And the tent meanwhile sprang up almost like magic, erected by Ishamelites around him while he sat on a rug, not a single move wasted and seemingly effortless too. Dusk in the desert was a very brief interlude between day and night, he knew--therefore, all the more precious to enjoy while it lasted.

Enjoy it these barbarians soon did! The Ishmaelites dropped gratefully down, squatting on their haunches and and joking with one another, relaxing for the first time in the long day, as each took from the common dish in their midst. A bowl of it was passed to Rutilius, and he eyed it as it it were alive, unable to decide if he should taste it or not.

But he felt hungry for the first time, and took a taste, and it was good and spicy, so he continued and finished the whole bowl of stew.

But what was he consuming in the stew? He knew he should have inquired first, knowing that the Ishmaelites thought nothing of eating locusts and certain furry creatures that look like rodents living in dens in rocky cliffs, which they caught in traps and cooked up if hares were scarce and the yogurt skins were running low. Of course, Romans considered dormice the greatest dish, fit for an emperor's table--but that wasn't the thing as dormice were kept in clean cages, and fed only the finest nuts until they were huge, then skinned and thrown into a pan to be either boiled or fried in herbs.

Examining the stew, he determined it contained some kind of meat from the chewy texture. But what kind? Then he saw one of the men pull a lizard's tail out from between his lips, then stick it back and chew some more and finally swallow.

That was too much for Rutilius. He turned to the side and lost his entire dinner.

Hearing laughter, he rose up, and saw all the Ismaelites thought it was a wonderful joke, to see a Roman who couldn't hold the contents of his belly down. From then on he determined to stick with yogurt, and never chance an Ishmaelite stew again! What he had already consumed in previous meals-- well, he decided that was now water under the bridge, and best dismissed from his mind.

Suddenly, it was dark, the too--thick, black velvet nightfall in the great wilderness of the desert. But the desert stars shone through the black velvet, with lustre beyond anything seen in the oil lamp-lit cities.

Rutilius noticed the difference was beyond any explanation. Why were the stars here seemingly shining in greater magnitude than those in civilized areas of the empire?

He could not sleep directly on retiring, while the glory of the stars poured down on him such splendor. He rose up and went on a nature call and then stood and let the starshine soak into him, imparting a peace to his travel-worn, injured body that no human company could provide.

The terrible events he had experienced? The loss of both Mercurius and Flautus, those noble-souled servants of his? Would he ever find their like again? Probably not! The fifty soldiers too had met a most horrible, untimely end, just because they had been sent along to guard him. There would be much grief in the garrison of Petraea, when report reached the city. Who could console all the wives and families?

He could not put his finger on anyone to blame for such misfortunes. Like any high official, he had enemies. That was to be expected. Some were bitter enough to seek his death, perhaps. Certain people who had suffered large losses due to the government--if they had the means to strike and need not fear his discovery and retaliation, would strike. But why should his enemies want to destroy him and everyone with him, just because he was on a secret mission for the sake of Emperor Honorius? Why were these undeclared, unknown foes seemingly intent on stopping him from carrying it out?

If he had known the losses he would suffer, he would have gone voluntarily into exile rather than bring on so many deaths with his obedience to the Emperor for the sake of a dubious errand. But now it was too late. Too many lives had already been expended, for him to turn back now. If he did that, their terrible sacrifices would all be thrown away. No! He must go on with the mission.

He returned to camp, and lay back on his rug, and his thoughts went to Haboosh and his Ismaelite brethren and caravaneers. Why should the likes of a crafty old trader such as Haboosh bother with him, a hated Roman official from the West?

He had given up Haboosh, once he saw at Petraea that Haboosh wanted nothing further to do with him, wanted nothing better than to be quit of him forever.

So he had obliged Haboosh and taking the Roman contingent instead, only for that to end in disaster. Good thing, he thought, for Haboosh! It might have been him and his Ishmaelites that suffered so hideously rather than the Roman garrison troops.

But how had Haboosh come to change his mind? He could not forget how Haboosh had been furious with him, and yet now he seemed an entirely different person in his attitude. Aloof and austere, even disdainful, yet he stooped to serve him and his every need-- without hesitation and the best way he knew how. Perhaps, he could try to find out, what had changed him--though he had to be careful with the proud old Ismaelite chief if he wanted to get anywhere with him.

And where were they going?

The stars were not gossipy tale-bearers as Roma's multitude of soothsayers claimed, for a fee of course. They told the plain, unadorned truth. So did the sun. According to the stars by night and the sun by day, they were travelling westward, he could tell, and northerly, so that they might well be on the path to Jerusalem. It could be a trick, of course, just so that he could be disposed of in a place his fellow Romans would never find--and then they could get clean away with his gold and none would be the wiser!

Would Haboosh pull such a trick on him? It was possible, he knew. Desert tribes were known for cruelly treating each other, making raids on each others encampments and hieing off with whatever they could, wives and goods and animals-- and if some lives were lost in the venture--well, that hardly mattered if they suffered less than their victims.

How then could an alien to the East, a Roman such as himself, expect to be treated any better?

They only treated him with a measure of respect because they feared Roma's legions.

They knew Roma did not take kindly to the robbing and assassination of its officials, and would surely retaliate.

Would the Ishmaelites, then, prove faithful and attend him all the way to his destination--northern Palestina?

That remained to be seen. So far the Ishmaelites showed no sign of dumping him and letting the jackals gnaw his bones. And, strange too, he had been asked for no money for the escort, though he still had his gold and could pay whatever the greedy Haboosh demanded.

He determined he had to find out Haboosh's reason for coming to help him. Also, he had to know how he had been found. The deserts were unspeakably vast and virtually trackless--whole armies had marched out of great, populous cities and been swallowed up, their fates swallowed up in mystery. So how in the world had Haboosh known exactly where he would be in order to rescue him. It could not have been a coincidence that they would meet below the cliffs in that particular spot not far from where the deer had run off and abandoned him.

With these questions in his mind, Rutilius glanced often at the sheikh, hoping that he would see an opportunity soon to take the sheikh aside and finally set these questions to rest.

It was a long day of slogging through the burning sand and rocks before they again halted and struck camp for the night.

Everything proceeded from that point in the same methodical, swift fashion. While the beasts were provisoned and bedded, and the tents erected and a campfire started, Rutilius looked for a moment he could best use, he watched Haboosh, to see if he were available and perhaps sitting alone--as then he might tell more of the truth, without so many eyes and ears to close his mouth.

He wasn't asked to do anything, so he was free to wander about the camp as it was being set up.

Just then Haboosh came up to him, and Rutilius was ready with a question.

But he had to be careful, he knew, as the Ishmaelite could be put off if he showed himself too eager and inquisitive.

"Sheikh, permit me a word with you."

The sheikh paused, eyeing him warily.

"I am grateful for your medicine and my wound seems to be recovering. It no longer swells and burns."

Haboosh's eyebrows lifted, and a thin smiled appeared on his grim features.

Rutilius pressed on. "A Roman owes you much, perhaps his life. What do you wish I do for you in exchange, for I wish to reward you handsomely for your service."

Haboosh's face took on a look of offense, as if he expected nothing in exchange, but it was feigned. His eyes glinted with the interest for gain that was most often their expression, and Rutilius was assured that this was the same old Haboosh with his trader instincts fully intact, for all his aloofness of late.

Rutilius smiled at the old trader, and gestured with both hands. "Name what it is you want from me in exchange for your good work, and I will see you get it. You are worthy, O Sheikh of it, whatever you decided."

That offer seemed to get Haboosh's attention completely, and he signed like a conspirator to Rutilius, glanced around warily, then drew Rutilius aside behind a camel chewing its cud where they might be dropped in on so easily by prying eyes and ears.

Squatting down, Haboosh patted the ground, and Rutilius sat, waiting for what came next.

The sheikh spoke. "You are most bountiful with a mere son of the desert, sire, to offer so munificently a reward! I need nothing, however, it has been my pleasure to be of any little help I could be to you! Of course, those of my brethren hereabouts bring to me their needs from time to time, and, ah, I do not wish to disappoint them always, so if there is something you could do for them, that would be reward enough for me, their chief and elder brother!"

"Surely, that is my wish too," Rutilius responded warmly, though he wondered what the old trader had in mind.

"Roman, you asked me, and so I will tell you what it is that would please my heart. These sons of mine, and the others, are lacking wives--because they cannot pay the bride prices. Times have been hard for me, and the wages have suffered, you see, I cannot pay them that much. They are all getting very anxious to marry, and even my sons, in a few years, will want to take a bride among our people. Perhaps you can help with a number of them--since you are so grateful for the help your humble servant has rendered you in your distress."

"What is a usual going bride-price among your people?" Rutilius inquired.

Haboosh's eyes gleamed. "Not so much, sire, not so very much for a Roman like you! We poor Ishmaelites are not greedy people, as so many are these days. I would think, a she-camel for each, and four neck chains, silver and brass, with twelve carved pendants of some pretty colored stone will do, and coins for her headdress and forehead, and two wedding garments and veils for the bride, and one wedding garment and cloak for the bridegroom, and..."

"Whatever it is, I will agree to it. Just remind me of it when we come to our destination. My life is worth it to me. I will not hold back anything you ask. I think I might not be living now if you had not come along. And, Sheikh, how is it that you came along when and where you did?"

With so much grease already on his palm, the question slid across without any hitch whatsoever, and Haboosh did not hold back and keep his secret.

"Heaven, sire, spoke to me! Yes, heaven's lights, the holy Watchers of the sky, who abide there among the stars. They spoke to me, and commanded their humble servant to go to thy aid, and directed me to the set place where I would find you waiting."

That was it? Rutilius thought. A voice came out of the sky and told him where to locate him in the trackless wilderness? It sounded like lunacy, but was it? He himself had heard voices of late, and one purported to be the Christus--so how could he scorn this old Ishmaelite's words?

"These 'holy Watchers' you call them--did they name me, and what were they like? Can you describe them to me exactly, Sheikh? We Romans know of winged gods, were they winged gods?"

An argument was going on between the caravaneers, and it boiled over to them where they sat between a camel and a donkey.

Haboosh sprang up, as if glad to be given an excuse to cease talking about such things.

"Sire, I must go. My men are hungry, and they cannot eat until I have seasoned the pot. I keep the herbs, you see, as they would consume them all in a single dinner if I let them!"

He hurried away, leaving Rutilius to think about what he had learned--though he wanted to know so much more.

Where exactly were they? What city was up ahead? How soon would they see civilized people again?" He also wanted to warn Haboosh to be very, very careful, as there had been terrible things happening to him, and he wished no such misfortune to happen again to his attendants.

But, of course, he got no chance at Haboosh again that evening. The whole camp turned in, leaving Rutilius to lie on his rug and take his few hours of rest.

Yet when he turned over on his bed mat, he found it hard to rest. His arm wound seemed to be unusually active, and pained him. He struggled against the inclination to rip off the poultice and throw it away--thinking he needed to let it do whatever good it could do him.

The hours stretched on, and his wound seemed impossible to ignore. He tossed on his bed mat, and feeling he could stand no more he sat up. Drawing a oil lamp to him, he took a coal from the fire and lit the lamp's wick and then drew off the poultice. What he saw horrified him. His wound wriggled with a mass of tiny white worms--maggots!

He sprang up, brushing at his wound, even though it seemed to catch on fire every time he touched it. Dashing out of the tent, he grabbed a handful of sand and then rubbed it on the wound to cleanse it and get rid of the maggots.

Then he grew aware he had attracted quite a lot of attention. Ishmaelites surrounded him, and they were laughing. What was so funny now? he wondered. Didn't they know his wound had become infested with maggots?

Finally, one spoke to him. "Sire, we put dung from the camel on it, as our ancestors taught us, so that the little white ones would eat away the dead flesh and leave the good flesh clean.

They were doing you good, sire! But you have cast them away as if they were bad! Now we will have to gather more dung and dirty our hands!"

Rutilius groaned with disgust, but as he calmed down, he realized that there was some point to the practice. If the dead flesh remain in the wound, it would decay and perhaps inflame the good flesh. Best let the maggots consume it.

Gritting his teeth, he then submitted like a Roman to the procedure, as the poultice was reapplied, and then tied with cords tightly around his arm.

At least he didn't feel the crawling maggots now, and so he soon dropped off to sleep when he lay down again.

Before dawn the next day, the bleary-eyed Rutilius heard the usual salutations of the Ishmaelites. "Morning of fragrance," Haboosh said, rousing the others. "Morning of light," one after the other of the Ishmaelites responded grumpily, rising from to set about their duties for the new day. As for Rutilius, he felt every bone and muscle in his body protest, but he rose with the others. He examined the poultice, took one sniff, and made a face, but there was nothing for it. He knew he must endure it.

Fortunately, he had something else to think about. He still wanted to ask Haboosh his remaining questions, which had been turning over in his dreams all night, but that proved impossible, for the trader was a whirlwind of activity and energy, directing and hurling oaths at beast and man alike, impelling them all into action to get the caravan going as soon as possible, so as not to waste the least bit of the precious coolness of the morning.

Later on, around midday, Rutilius noticed how the walls of rock were rising higher and higher around them. They seemed to be descending too, quite rapidly. It was a wadi, a dry stream bed, he realized--a very dangerous place to be if ever rain fell in the area! But there was little chance of that. Until then, the risk was worth the nice sandy path through the almost impassable stretches of tumbled rocks, which now were heaped up to the sky, and stretching away on either side for uncountable miles, no doubt.

As they came to the mouth of the dry wadi, Rutilius felt better as if he could breathe again, seeing the open sky and the horizon again. But ahead there rose a most strange, impressive sight-- a huge brooding rock like a prow of a world ship, jutting up with steep sides some hundreds of feet above the level ground. As they approached nearer, though it lay still afar off, he thought he could see evidence of civilized men--buildings set upon it, on the various stepped terraces. On the very summit, there were also signs of high civilization--walls, columns, and such. What place was he being brought to?

He turned to glance toward Haboosh, but the sheikh paid him no attention as he led them onward, the mountain blocking their path.

Before they approached too closely to see around the mount, Rutilius made out a spur of a rock ridge that formed a saddle connecting with the mount on one side. Upon this saddle an earthen ramp had been erected in times past. It was beginning to dawn on Rutilius what place this was when he saw the ramp. He also saw the squared lines of Roman camps cut in the desert floor, set all around the tremendous rock as if there had been a siege.

Could this be King Herod's fabled palaced mountain of Masada--a seemingly impregnable stronghold that had been taken only with the greatest difficulty by the legions? He thought it had been utterly destroyed by General Silva, after the first Jewish revolt had been crushed by Vespasianus's son Titus. So why was Haboosh leading them to it, if it was nothing but an owl-nested, deserted ruin?

But who could argue with the sheikh in his own caravan? Rutilius might question him, but he knew Haboosh could always overrule him and do as he pleased--since Roma's rule of law was suspended wherever its military might was too far off to call for immediate aid.

As Haboosh evidently knew already, for he did not even try to use it, the ramp was no good for travelers. Though it looked intact from a distance, it was rotten and had fallen through in many places in the intervening three hundred years. The upper courses General Silva had laid with Jewish slaves had been wood, and they had long since decayed or been stripped for firewood and could not take wayfarers safely.

Instead, they made their way up the cliffs on the goat trail that led to the top, and then rested, for it was hundreds of feet up of stiff climbing, and the donkeys had to be pushed and dragged part of the way on the worst parts.

Since the camels could not climb it, they had been left behind, with some things they carried transferred to donkeys. Even then, most of the donkeys had to be left, and Rutilius's horse too. With packs on their backs, and a couple of the strongest donkeys, they headed up the trail that led criss-cross to the the top. Haboosh, no fool, left ample guards to keep watch on their remaining beasts, equipment, and goods.

Rutilius found it rather easy to do the cliff climbing of Masada, after his recent experiences, yet he knew better than to look down and perhaps lose his courage. He was wondering all the way to the top what Haboosh wanted to see that was so important he went to all this trouble. It seemed a journey of no account. Was it the view that one could gain there--it had to be spectacular, which was no doubt one of the reasons Herod built his stronghold on Masada, and spared no expense on the palaces, baths, pools, and gardens.

He soon found out how wrong he was, thinking the place was nothing but desolation after the Roman legion was finished with subduing the last thousand or so Jewish holdouts from the revolt against Roma. Masada was inhabited, not so much by owls (though there were some, along with eagles too), but by monks, all disciples of the eldest among them, the holy eremite called Cyril.

The first man who came to welcome them introduced himself as a disciple of Cyril, who was the disciple in turn of the famed Antonius of Aegyptus. Rutilius understood his Greek well enough to want to converse with him, but he hurried away to give news of their coming to his brothers and to Cyril.

While they waited for Cyril and rested themselves and their donkeys, Haboosh went for water and found it in a well. Soon they were enjoying the refreshment, and watering the donkeys too. Haboosh gave orders for the Ishmaelites with him to take water bags (he had brought many with him), fill them, and transport them down to the others.

Another disciple of Cyril came and invited them to come and sit in the shade of the church arbor, which had a vineyard alongside of it, like like a walled garden.

In the garden was another well.

The little white plaster church featured a single dome, and was small, despite the extensive ruins of Herod's Winter Palace around them. Using the baths' calidarium for the main domed part, brick was takien from the palace for the rest, then plastered and painted white.

Rutilius and peered in the door, but Haboosh and the other Ishmaelites showed no interest. He found the edifice dimly lit, but neat and respectable, well-taken care of, since it was spotlessly clean. Not wanting to intrude, however, he did not go in and turned round the side of the church to look around, finding a walled garden. It contained a grapevined arbor. Shading him from the hot sun, it was a delight, a place for meditation and prayer by the disciples and monks, he thought. Sure enough, there was a well-worn kneeling bench for prayers and various Christian insignia carved in it, the Chi-Rho of Constantine's vision chief among them.

After he returned to the Ishmaelites who had settled on the steps of the church, another young disciple came and informed them in Greek, which Haboosh obviously could handle well enough, having traded with so many Greeks, that Cyril would be finishing his prayers presently and would come and welcome his guests.

In the meantime, the young man offered them grapes, and juice they had pressed fresh, and some fresh baked bread. There was even cheese and dates.

Rutilius wondered how on earth had the disciples come upon cheese and dates. Weren't these Christian monks supposed to devote themselves to chastity and poverty, and abstain from foods for long periods of fasting? Yet they seemed to have plenty food here atop Masada's Mount, where it most dry and waterless and unlikely. Perhaps they had other little gardens on the mount, wherever cisterns held sufficient water, and kept goats too in a pen, amidst the vast labyrinthian palaces Herod had lavished on the mount.

Just when they had eaten and drunk their fill, Cyril appeared, some of his closest disciples accompanying him.

A disciple gave Cyril the name of his Roman visitor, and would have said more, but Cyril stepped forward with a friendly smile. "My son, my son, I saw you when yu were yet afar off!"

Rutilius was taken aback. "How could that be, sir, when you live atop this mount? Do you have the eyes of an eagle? Perhaps you mean you saw me when I was climbing the mount with the others."

The disciples glanced at each other.

"No, no, my son. I was at prayer in the cistern, the dry one, and it was there I saw you."

Rutilius was astounded, but his thought was the old man must be confused in his mind.

"You mean you looked through a window and saw me coming?"

Cyril smiled paternally, as if he were dealing with a little child. He stepped so close to Rutilius that he was gazing right into Rutilius's eyes, without wavering in his gaze.

"No, there is no window, itis an ordinary cistern dug beneath the ground, as you will soon see. My disciples will show it to you. But I saw you clearly, afar off, when you were drinking water from a little pool, that flows from the side of the Risen Lord!"

Rutilius stepped back and stared at the eremite. Surely, he thought, this old man is gone in his wits. "Impossible! I did no such thing! You have imagined it. I do not believe in this one you call your Lord, this 'Christus'"

Cyril of Masada chuckled and wave his cross staff at Rutilius as if admonishing him. "Ah, but there is no mistake! It was you! I saw you led by God's creatures, the long-horned deer that leap about in the cliffs like goats. They led you to the water that saved your life. It flowed from the side of the great Rock. The riven Rock God sent saved your life! Why can't you believe it? A child sees the truth and believes the truth, but a man? Yes, he has great difficulty seeing what even a small child can see!"

Rutilius shook his head. "Yes, I did drink water from a small pool, which the deer led me to, and the water was flowing to it, I think, from a big rock. But that is all. It was only a rock, nothing else. The deer were wild animals, nothing else."

Cyril's voice was almost one of pity, but the compassion was greater, as he took great care not to offend the pride of the Roman standing before him whom he was correcting.

"But, my son, how could I have seen you there? May we show you the cistern where I was praying all those hours? See for yourself. I was there for several days now, being on a fast, and only now have I consented to come up to greet a stranger, the one shown me by the Lord in a vision."

What could Rutilius do? He had to get to the bottom of this. Though troubled and stirred inside himself, he felt impelled to show himself a rational Roman who had command of his life and circumstances. Moreover, he had to clear up any confusion about the matter of his being seen drinking from a desert pool at a certain spot when it was clearly impossible for anyone as far away as Masada's Mount to see him. Cyril was mistaken! He had only imagined he had seen him!"

"By all means, sir, show me the cistern where you pray!" he declared.

Cyril stepped back, and let his disciples escort Rutilius to the cistern.

It lay not far away, but in the midst of a tumbled wall that had enclosed it. A roof had covered it, but that too had collapsed. Stepping among the blocks of stone, Rutilius followed the disciples to the hole that was the mouth of the cistern.

A rope was tied to a block of stone, and it was apparently the means by which Cyril was let down into the cistern, then drawn up when he yanked on it to alert a disciple above.

The climbing of the Mount had taken the last of his reserve strength for the day. Rutilius felt way too tired by to want to go down into the cistern and investigate further. So he stooped at the edge of the hole to see what was below, hoping that would tell him all he wanted to know.

He couldn't see much, as it was so dimly lit with only the light entering from this one hole, but there wasn't much to see. He could see a rug, and an unglazed earthware jar, probably a water pot, and a smooth round rock at the head of the rug, and that was all. The rest was whitewashed, curving walls of the huge cistern. The rug was the bed or the night covering for the old monk, the rock was his pillow. The water pot gave him the necessary water to live beyond three days of fasting. No light entered from below, so clearly it had no window, and a window was out of the question anyway, since the entire structure was buried.

Rutilius stood up and faced back toward Cyril. He followed the disciples on out to an more open area and saw the Ishmaelites also gathering about Cyril, as if they wanted to conduct business with the monks or already had done it, and were about to depart and had come to fetch him.

It was time to go back and report to Cyril what he had seen and concluded. He couldn't delay it, though he felt unsure of what he would say. Yet his thoughts were in a whirl! What could he say that would make sense of this? A cistern with no window, of course, yet an old monk who had been in it for days until just a bit ago claimed to his face, with an unwavering, confident gaze, to have seen him miles and miles off drinking with some wild deer from a pool of water fed by a desert spring! he wondered. Was his man a liar? Was he mad? Or was he telling the truth?

He was led back to Cyril, who was sitting on a big flat block of stone, several of his disciples ministering to him with water and a bit of bread, which was slowly eating.

"I broke my fast for you, son, for I had no strength to speak to you without taking some food and drink. Will you please join me? I cannot finish the bread, though it is fresh and tasty."

Rutilius shook his head. "No, thank you. I have eaten and drunk already, sir, but before I go, I must tell you something. It is a mystery to me how you could have seen me as you said, but I cannot explain away that you did see me--the evidence is too strong that you saw me, for you have the details exactly right. It could not be a happy guess on your part. Someone else could not have told you either, as I did not tell anyone. Not one of these Ishmaelites knew what I had done, or how I had drunk from that particular pool at the base of the great rock.

Unless a wild deer whispered it to you of the matter, you could not have learned of it from any man! So that leaves one possibility: that you are telling the truth, you saw it in a vision. But whether that came from the one you believe in, this Christus, or whether some other god imparted the knowledge to you, I cannot determine. It is not possible for me to know, unless it is revealed to me by the gods themselves."

Cyril rose. "You will wait forever to know the truth of it then. The gods you cling to will never reveal it to you, son. They cannot do it, for they have no powers to speak, no powers to see, no powers to achieve anything. Christus alone is God, Christus alone is the great Rock in the wilderness that imparts the water of the Living Word, given us men and sinners whereby we can be saved."

Rutilius felt very uncomfortable. Was this Cyril going to preach a lot of dreary Christian nonsense at him? He could not stomach that, and he felt it beneath his dignity as a Roman official to humor the old man by listening further to his Christian ramblings.

But Cyril said not another word. He nodded at Rutilius, smiled, then turned away and his disciples followed, leaving Rutilius standing alone, except for the Ishmaelites, who were all gazing at him with their probing, keenly questioning eyes.

The donkeys unloaded of their goods, which had been sold at a good price to the monks, Haboosh was anxious to depart while there was still time to make a good half day's journey in the remaining light.

Rutilius felt it was time to go too. He wanted to get as far from the Mount of Masada and Cyril as he could! Despite what he thought his reasonable explanation of how he handled the mystery, it hadn't achieved the desired effect, and now seemed unsatisfactory, even willful and arrogant and even a bit disrespectful of Cyril his gracious host.

Yet Cyril had left him without the proper courtesies according high Roman officials such as himself--he had acted if he were the greater man--had he not?-- walking off like that? Certainly, he was the older man, but even old men were bound to defer to the laws of civility surrounded a high Roman official, however young he was. This was the hedge of proper, iron-clad Roman protocols, observed both East and West in the Empire. Cyril, though a Christian, surely knew it too, that he could be beaten at the very least for offending the proprieties. Wasn't he afraid of a Roman official? Apparently, not!

Following the Ishmaelites back down the Mount, Rutilius slipped, being tired and not so sure-footed as his guides, and would have tumbled down the cliff but an Ishmaelite grabbed his cloak and that saved him perhaps from death or a serious injury at the least.

Dragging Rutilius up to the goat-path, Rutilius gasped and realized how close he had come to his end. As he made his way more carefully from that point, he thought about Cyril again, and how he had concluded the interview with him, and his own lofty words rang in his ears, and seemed more prideful each step he took.

When they reached the level ground, Rutilius sank down in relief, but remembered his Roman dignity and struggled back up to his feet. The Ishmaelites were all snickering, as they did whenever a Roman showed he was merely a human, and weaker than they too, and ordinarily this would have made Rutilius very angry, but he didn't give way to rage and offended pride this time. He remembered Cyril, and this stopped him. He had already embarrassed himself in Cyril's eyes, so why do it again so soon afterwards in the eyes of the Ishmaelites.

So he pointed to his weak knees, and pointed, making them wobble exaggeratedly and said, "Only my knees are not mighty Roman! They act like palm trees in a high wind!"

The Ishmaelites thought that a very good joke, and they all laughed uproariously and the joke was passed along amongst them the whole rest of the day, the incident repeated over and over. But Rutilius felt free to laugh at himself, it was such a good joke at himself, he thought, and fair enough. He felt the Ishmaelites liked him to a degree for the first time, their envy and resentment subsiding and a kind of friendly tolerance rising in them toward him, which he felt relaxed their relations with him considerably, so that he began to enjoy their company now for the first time.

They had not quite left the shadow of the Mount when a man stepped out from behind a rock.

Instantly, the Ishmaelites whipped out their long knives.

"No!" barked Haboosh.

The Ishmaelites still held their long knives, as the man approached, bowing his head to Rutilius, and Rutilius alone.

"Who are you?" Rutilius said. "What do you mean by this?"

"Cyril sent me, sire.

"But we only now just left his presence, so how could we not have seen you descending behind us?"

"No, sire, I came the other way, the secret way the wicked Herod made for himself, as he feared being cast over cliffs by his litter bearers.

"What way?" Rutilius cried, astounded, looking about and see no sign of it.

The young man pointed toward the rock from which he had slipped out.

"Behind it is the secret way by which I came down from the Mount, sire. It is too dark for you to see what it is, but I can tell you. Herod had a highly skilled Greek engineer design a lift, that was like those the Greeks used to lift enormous blocks of stone to build their temples on the Acropolis.

Weights were the means that were used, attached at various points on the cables. When positioned just so, Herod could go up and down inside the shaft cut in the Mount, by sitting in a basketry chair attached to the lifting cable. At the top the process was reversed. When Herod saw that it was going to work, by sending the engineer and a slave up and down in it first, he had the engineer and the slave both slain along with the two hundred quarry slaves who hewed the shaft, so that nobody could tell of it and it would be a secret. The entrance and exit to it were also secret, known only to Herod.

"But how then did you know of it? Are you not telling me a tale? Beware, if I find you out!"

The young man bowed his head again. "Father Cyril discerned the exact places of the entrance and exit in a dream. He told us where they were, so that we need not go by the public path the travellers all use. This he meant for our own protection. This are thus safe, from robbers and cutthroats who like to lie in wait for wayfarers as they go to and fro from the Mount."

"What about the wayfarers? Doesn't Cyril care about them as much as for you?" Rutilius retorted.

Hyacinthus flushed, but bowed. "Yes, of course he cares. But the wayfarers come are armed, and go about in such numbers they are less often attacked than would be the case with us. None of us are permitted swords or weapons of any kind. It is our rule, to depend only on the might of God."

Rutilius stepped closer to the tall, slender and refined looking youth, and wondered why he hadn't seen him before, as he thought he had seen all the monks and disciples. "What you say seems reasonable enough on the surface of it. But why were you sent to me by your leader? I have no need of a disciple, as I am an official, not a holy man like Cyril."

"Oh, but you do have need of me, sire. I am lettered, and I can write both Greek and Latin. You have use for a secretary, do you not?"

"How would you know that?" Rutilius blurted out. "But no matter. It is true, I can put you to work. I always have need of a trained secretary to do my letters and send out mails on the royal post and care for my books and do other errands for me. But as my slave? Or my freedman? What terms can I offer Cyril your master who sent you, for you are first his disciple after all."

Hyacinthus looked up at him with his solemn, grave eyes, which were all the more strange in such a young face.

"He sent me to you to serve you as long as you think me useful to you. Then I am to return to the Mount, whether he lives or not, and the Lord will direct me as my future service. I ask no wages, but just a servant's keep. In serving you, I serve Christus and serve Cyril too as his disciple."

Rutilius glanced around at the Ishmaelites, who were still eyeing this stranger warily with deep suspicion.

"What is your name?"

"Hyacinthus of Hadrianopolis, sire."

"The same city where Hadrian's boy lover was born? I don't suppose that matters to you though, being a youth given to holy living. Well, Hyacinthus, you are now my servant and my secretary, and I will pay you, and you can do whatever you want for your wages. Your work will be letter writing and other scribal tasks I assign you. You will not be asked to perform labor of any other kind, and you are answerable only to me."

Now, do you need to inform your master, Cyril?"

"No, sire," Hyacinthus replied. "He already knows I will be your servant for an indefinite time. He told me so."

"'An indefinite time," you say? Cyril seems to know everything before it happens, so I am surprised he does not know exactly how long your service to me will last.

Hyacinthus merely gazed at him, so Rutilius ceased quibbling over a gift horse.

"Anyway, get your things and come with me. I can't offer you a horse, that is only reserved for me, so you will have to walk, unless Haboosh has an extra donkey to spare for your mount."

Hyacinthus nodded. "I can walk, sire. I am young yet and it is no burden to me. I have only this I wish to take away--my writing tools and tablet, some parchment and some ink."

He was carrying a small bundle, attached with a sling over his shoulder, so he couldn't be carrying anything more than what he said, thought Rutilius.

"Is that all?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes, sire, I need nothing else. God will supply all my needs. He has always supplied our needs on the Mount, so we need not fear he will ever cease to do so.

Hyacinthus seemed to be a little unsettled, however. Rutilius looked at him, waiting, and then Hyacinthus spoke again. Oh, but there is one thing my former master, Cyril, said. He said you will need me until the time of the..."

Rutilius had to bend nearer to hear what he said, as a windy gust blew up and swept the sound away off the soft-spoken Hyacinthus.

Rutilius had him repeat what Cyril had said. It made no sense to him even the second time. Rutilius shook his head. What kind of faith was this? Or was it sheer foolishness--"until the time he, Rutilius, flew away on a spear-pointed shield"?

Whatever it was, Haboosh was stamping about, glaring at them, which meant it clearly was time to set forth, as Haboosh was a hot-blooded, choleric Ishamelite and always particularly antsy whenever his caravan was standing idly about and not in earnest transit to some destination where he might turn a profit of some kind.

Coming up from the south in the next few days, they approached what reared up like a mountain with a smooth cone. It looked nothing like the other mountains, all ridged and jagged and strewn with boulders, deep defiles, and many cliffs and monoliths. This mountain was Herod's creation, Rutilius knew from his books, and yet it surprised him, how large and tall it was, and the closer they got to it he was all the more impressed by the magnitude of the building project it represented.

It was rumored that Herod was buried somewhere on the mount, too. Exactly where was his tomb? Rutilius wondered.

Were they going to stop for the night here?

Haboosh gave the order to halt, and so it seemed they would do just that.

Water was something that Haboosh valued just as much as he valued gold coins of Roma glinting in his dark and grimey palm.

The level ground nearest the Mount was built upon, a vast palace lay in ruins there, Rutilius discovered. In its center lay very large artificial lake with an island where a temple or pleasure pavilion once stood, only now the lake was dried up or drained away. Countless stubs of palm trees stuck up above the dry sands that had drifted in, but it was still easy to see that once it had been a flourishing garden city, an oasis in the midst of the Judaean desert.

Yet though the lake was dry, there must be a water source, even if there seemed to be no inhabitants of Herodium, unless they were in hiding, Rutilius thought as he scanned the palace ruin and the ruined fortress-palace on the top of Herodium for signs of human life.

Haboosh kept rummaging about with his staff in the ruins, poking here and there, cursing at the dry rocks and dust and heaps of refuse left by Jewish rebels against Roma when they seized Herodium and held it for a time before being wiped out. , and soon ferreted out a cistern, which was dry, but he kept looking for others and found one with water in it, from the sound that came back when throwing a rock into it.

Rutilius was now free to go with Hyacinthus wherever he pleased while the Ishmaelites set up camp. They eagerly made camp, too, as they got a fire going for the evening meal and also serving to keep off attacks of the wild beasts, while watering the donkeys, horse, and camels, throwing them whatever fodder they could spare in such a desolate area, and erecting the tents and completing other essential duties before nightfall set in and weary, footsore men must retire.

Not wanting to waste an opportunity to explore Herodium, Rutilius determined to look about. Thinking it necessary to take some guards with them in climbing partway up the Mount atleast, Rutilius spoke with Haboosh, who nodded, spat just a hair away from Rutilius's foot, and let him have two Ishmaelites for guards. "No food will be saved for you, if you are not here to eat it!" Haboosh added.

"Well, then, we shall fast!" Two guards were better than nothing, Rutilius thought, so he set off, Hyacinthus following him, and the two Ishmaelites ranging about as they normally did, keeping a wary eye out as they fingered their long, curved knives.

Ascending a marble staircase until he had a fine view of the artificial mount and palace complex of the once great and feared Herod.

He found a small church instead of the tomb!

Disappointed, he looked in the door, and found his first inhabitant of Herodium!

The monk seemed fearless, as his eyes met Rutilius's and those of Hyacinthus and the two Ishmaelites.

"Welcome," the desert-dwelling monk greeted Rutilius.

Rutilius greeted him in turn.

"Are you the only one residing here in this place" Rutilius inquired.

The monk nodded.

Rutilius searched for some way of getting the monk to open up about Herodium.

It was hard going, as the monk was seemingly committed to the rule of silence, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that Rutilius got him to utter more than a few words at long intervals while Rutilius waited and despaired of seeing any more of the fascinating Mount of Herod.

He did learn something about the monk's circumstances, however, that he was the last one, the others having been carried off or killed in a raid by bandits a few weeks previously.

Rutilius felt sorry for the lone surviving monk, but what could he do for him if the man had chosen to remain?

At a loss of what to do, he turned to a matter of fact, which Romans naturally prized above idle speculation of any kind.

"We are looking for Herod's tomb--do you know of it?"

The monk nodded, and Rutilius was relieved to think his visit was not in vain.

"Will you be so gracious as to show us to it? I will make it worth your trouble."

The monk did not reply but moved away, and Rutilius followed, not knowing where the man might lead them.

They did not go far, though there was no way or steps across the rock-strewn slope. Yet the monk knew of a little goat-trail, and with care Rutilius was able to follow and reach the ruin that the monk was leading him to.

Surprising Rutilius, the monk closed his eyes, lifted his hands and prayed:

"Life imparting Heavenly Manna,

Stricken Rock with streaming side,

Heaven and Earth with loud Hosanna,

Worship Thee, the Lamb who died.

Alleluia, Alleluia,

Risen, ascended, glorified!"

Then, without another word, the monk left them, and that was that! He had no chance to give him a coin in payment. No more escort or guide! Perhaps he had his evening duties to perform, and couldn't leave the little church unattended? Rutilius wondered.

Then he recalled the recent scene in the desert and the monks' words, "Stricken Rock with streaming side"--what did the monk mean by that? Surely, he hadn't heard from Cyril about his experience with the stream that ran from the great Rock? This was most strange! he thought.

He turned to Hyacinthus, but he too had nothing to say that would explain the monk's uncultivated if not uncivil actions and his references to the "Striken Rock with streaming side." Cyril referred to it as his Christus--how could they be the same?

At any rate, Rutilius had to take a look now at the tomb of Herod, or risk never returning that way again to see for himself what it was like.

Thanks to the Jewish revolt when the rebels seized herodium, only to be attacked and crushed by the Roman legions of Tiberius Julius Alexander (Titus's Jewish general), much of it was in ruins, but still Rutilius could see that it had once been an imposing structure worthy of a king of considerable power and clearly great wealth. A Roman senator, consul, or tribune would have been proud to have been laid there, he observed. He found a stairway leading up, and tried to reach the upper stories, but the way up he found was blocked with rubble from the destroyed upper parts.

Too bad! He wanted to see for himself if this were really Herod's burial place. Flavius Josephus the Jewish chronicler said it was, after all, and why should he lie about a king of the Jews even if he was Idumaean and not pure Jewish?

The sun was setting, and it was now dusk, and high time to return from the Mount or risk getting caught on it in the dark.

Rutilius hastened to find the goat trail, nearly missed it but for the Ishmaelites' sharper eyes, and passing the church where Rutilius paused to put a coin into the dooryard, they were just returning down the staircase to the more level ground when the last of the sunset light faded behind the already darkened crags and ridges of the western mountains.

Haboosh hadn't been playing with words, Rutilius found when they entered camp.

There wasn't a scrap of food left for them, and the Ishmaelites showed them compassion at all as they laughed and rubbed their bellies and belched.

But yet when Rutilius got ready to lie down, with Hyacinthus making his bed nearest the tent door as usual in to surprise or detain any illegal visitor in the night, Haboosh came and surprised Rutilius with an act of kindness. He handed him a small parcel, and when Rutilius unwrapped it, he found a meal, small but sufficient. It contained a little honeycomb and a piece of bread and a few dates and a couple Ishamelite cheeses that resembled more curds than real cheese but were nourishing enough to eat with bread.

Haboosh had already left him, so he had nobody to thank. Sharing it with Hyacinthus, Rutilius sat back, his stomach satisfied with the small but tasty meal.

"What is this Mount?" he had asked the sheikh as they drew near to it. "What? This stinking pisspot and hillock of dung a she-donkey's hooves kicked up?" Haboosh had sneered.

Rutilius persisted. "Yes, Most Wise and Great Sheikh, you know all things of the desert, what do you say about it?"

Pleased evidently by a Roman's compliment, Haboosh expanded a bit on the topic just to show he did indeed know all things in the desert, and in the process the donkey's hillock suddenly grew in size and importance to the point where it was a magnificent mountain.

"O Roman, Roman, you know nothing about this country! This very Mount is the treasure-chest of a great and mighty son of Ishmael, a great king of old, one wealthier than even that Jew-king they called Solomon, the so-called wisest of all men! Pah! What do they know, these donkey-asses, about wisdom! Well, this Mount has treasures only we Sons of Ishmael know about--and they are still here. Yes, they're still here! We only know where they are lying in secret chambers, and since we don't need them, being blessed in our loins and in our many beasts and goods, they rest here safely, and the old king sleeps well, knowing that his wondrous treasures have not been despoiled by greedy Romans and Jews!"

Rutilius was not offended by Ishmaelite aspersions cast on his Roman race as he was so amused, but he could see there might be some element of truth in what the braggart of an old caravaneer was saying, if he pressed it out completely from the rubbish, that is.

"But, great sheikh of your most splendid and powerful Ishmaelite people, what treasures may they be? You need not divulge the exact location, surely, just tell me what they are. That is all I care to know."

The sheikh suddenly locked eyes with his, and seemed very intent and sober. "By the sacred bones of my father, I swear this is the truth I will share with you and you alone! But, Roman, crafty man that you are, you must not presume you will slit my throat in my sleep and seize the treasure, for I will never tell you or any alien where it lies, and this Mount is so vast you you are only a flea upon it and will never find the treasure by searching--never!"

Rutilius put on a shocked, offended expression. "You are most wise, sheikh! Low flea of Roma that I am, I would never presume to think that nor try anything so impossible! Never! But tell me what Herod's treasure is, please, since it remains safe in your keeping and under your watchful eagle's eyes forever, and so there can be no harm telling me."

"Yes, my son, I will tell you all! For I perceive in you a man of like noble nature to my own, despite your Roman whore of a mother! Perhaps you were sired by a passing Ishmaelite, eh? That would have sweetened the milk a bit!" He elbowed his Roman guest, showing exceptional, abhorrent boldness and presumption, as the patrician in Rutilius could hardly restain his anger in the face of such frowardness and impudence, except that he really wanted to hear what the old rascal was beating around the bush about.

Even so, there was a ritual to everything the Ishmaelites thought was the least bit important to them. They never went straight to the main point of anything--that was abhorrent to their labyrinthian temperatments--no, they always sidled first one way and then another toward it, and then, seeing the way was absolutely clear, made a furious rush at it at the right moment calculated to produce the most surprise and wonder.

Winking like a conspirator, Haboosh first had to check the tent door and its environs for any eaves-droppers he could give a clout on the ear. He had no sooner returned to Rutilius then he dashed out, making a circuit of the tent with his outthrust dagger, returning with a satisfied look as he sheathed his weapon.

"We can now rest assured this will pass only between us, O Roman! I gave orders we are not to be disturbed, on pain of decapitation and robes shorn to the waist!

He cleared his throat, then spit to one side, and after wiping his lips with his filthy sleeve, he proceeded.

"Now, where were we? Oh, yes, sire, the treasure-horde of the Mount of Herod the king of the Ishmaelites!"

He rolled his bloodshot eyes as he said this, and Rutilius leaned forward, beginning to feel very annoyed at all Haboosh's elaborate theatrics.

When Haboosh was finally through with his story and paused to refresh himself with spoiled goat yogurt and some greenish dates, Rutilius had gained a good idea what exactly the sheikh was describing. It was all so far-fetched, he could not believe it a word.

According to the sheikh, the wondrous gold-plated Ark of God was there, containing the magical rod of Ishmael, an almond branch that had budded at midnight! On top the ark itself were a pair of solid gold angels, facing each other with wings outstretched, portraying those that appeared to Hagar in the desert wilderness when they opened a spring for her in the desert sands to save her and her son's life after Abraham and Sarah had cast them out into the wilderness. They also promised her and her son Ishmael all the wealth of the world. There was more too in the ark. A pot of Manna, the food of angels given first to the Ishmaelites to keep them well-fed in the wilderness, was to be found, perfectly preserved. Casques of jewels of course, gold coins beyond number, many precious things beside the ark, then the Phoenix.

According to Haboosh, it was a magical and divine bird known only to the Ishamelites, but Rutilius suspected it was nothing more than a clever, gold-covered theatrical prop and mechanical bird that Herod, a known lover of Greek and Roman plays, had fashioned for one of his elaborate productions in his theatre at Herodium (though there was no sign of it now, due to all the devastation of the rebels in the Jewish revolts). As for the ark and its contents, they too were theatrical props--that was all. As for the jewels, they were paste, and the gold coins were probably gilt-overlaid brass or copper!

Just the same, it was worth a search to see the cache of Herod's props, if they still existed as Haboosh claimed.

He wanted to know something before proceeding further. "Why haven't you taken these things away, O Sheikh? For safe keeping of course!"

The sheikh looked sharply at him as if he had been slapped. "What do you say, Roman? Am I such a thief as you think me? Nay! I only went once to see for myself if the tales were true--and just as I was about to break into the secret treasury of the king, we were attacked at our camp!"

"You mean, you didn't see the treasures then?"

"Oh, yes, I saw the treasures--at least the glow of them on the walls of the tunnel we dug--but we had to turn back at once to deal with those foul--" He spat and swore in Ishamelite, naming his foes, which Rutilius thought might be Numidian tribesmen, brethren to Zumbah.

Haboosh sprang up, unable to contain his wrath at the outrage done him.

"I would have cut the belly of every one of them if I could and poured out their entrails ont he ground--but they all ran off the moment I appeared with my men to fight these offscourings of wild asses! Cowardly jackals! I knew though I couldn't remain there, for they would come back soon, in larger numbers. So we had to cover up the tunnel, hide the entrance, and this we did immediately, then departed with haste to be clear of the Mount, sweeping our tracks behind us with brooms for some distance. This is the first time I have been back to the Mount--as I had no particular business in these parts until you came along."

Rutilius rose, with a final question for the sputtering, old sheikh. Would he allow him to see it? Perhaps, if his pride was stimulated, by flattery and, to supplement that, a little palm-greasing too wouldn't hurt.

Rutilius tried both on Haboosh, to good effect, as Haboosh proved more than willing to lay bare the greatest secrets of the Mount just so the Roman in his care could be impressed by an Ishamaelite treasure.

They set off on foot, with Haboosh leading the way to the tunnel he and a selected pick of his men had cut and whose entrance was cunningly concealed to keep out all others.

The Ishmaelites had concealed the entrance to the tunnel most cleverly, but digging away with their hands, they came to the blocking stones, and removed them, revealing a small opening that a man could barely squeeze through.

One after the other the nine Ishmaelites Haboosh had selected vanished into the tunnel through the needle of the eye, leaving Rutilius to follow them.

He made it through, then found the Ishmaelites had come prepared. Little oil lamps were lit and set along the way, so that he could follow and not feel trapped in the darkness. He hurried to catch up with the last Ishamelite, however, slithering his belly and struggling his way through every torturous twist and turn the tunnel made. He then had a terrible thought. Once he had gone so far, he realized he had to go all the way, as there wasn't room to turn around!

After what seem to him to be an unending distance, he came suddenly upon the whole group in an enlarged space. But what was the matter with them? he wondered. The Ishamelites, Haboosh included, were all staring with bulging eyes at an opening, and yet didn't move toward it. Light was shining through the opening, which seemed a different kind of light from the dim, yellowish light from the oil lamps.

Impatient to find out what was causing the Ishmaelites to act so stupidly, Rutilius pushed forward through them and reached the opening. What he saw made him pause. Beyond was an a paved space of what appeared to be a large chamber. It wasn't, obviously, on the route of the Ishamelites' tunnel, or they would have gone immediately in, rather than hanging at the entrance spell-bound and paralyzed as they were.

Rutilius climbed over the tumble of blocking stones that had fallen down, and reached the smooth pavement. It was then the light seemed to increase greatly, shining at him with intense beams that made him raise his hands to shield his face and eyes.

What on earth was the single object in the room that was shining so brightly he could scarcely look at it?

Afterwards, he climbed back out and sat, overwhelmed with emotion and also shock at what he had seen, and somehow survived seeing.

It took him a moment, but he realized he was alone, the Ishmaelites had all fled, leaving their little lamps behind. There was just enough oil in them to show him the way back. He realized he had to move quickly or he would be departing in total darkness. Gasping, he reached the entrance as the last lamp guttered out.

As the light of day met his face, he crawled out and lay for a few minutes, gathering his strength. A shadow fell across him, and he sprang up to find it was Hyacinthus.

"Master, they are gone, all gone away!"

"Who are gone?" Rutilius sputtered, wiping the dirt and sand from his face and eyelids and brushing off his dust-covered clothes.

"The Ishmaelites, sire! They took their beasts and goods and left me, though I pleaded with them to wait for you. What happened, sire? What frightened them so much in the tunnel that they have forsaken us in this desert like this?"

Rutilius stared at his amanuensis, stunned to the point he was boring holes through Hyacinthus without realizing it.

Hyacinthus, uncomfortable, cleared his throat, and shifted his scriptorium bag to his other shoulder, which finally broke the spell and Rutilius regained his equilibrium.

"Sir? Are we going to have to walk it out?" Hyacinthus prompted him. "Why, yes, what other recourse have the scoundrels left us?"

Rutilius looked first one direction then another, scanning the broken horizon at each quarter--but not a cloud of caravan dust could be seen. There was nothing for it, they would have to "walk it out"! Without transport of any kind, it could be done, if they found sufficient water along the way, that is. And if no brigands pounced on them and slit their throats and made off with their purses!

Shaking his head, Rutilius set out in the direction he thought the Aelia Capitolina lay, and the well-built road indicated that they could not go far wrong, as the late Judaean capital had once been favored with status a little below Caesarea, therefore demanding water supplies, post houses, mansiones at least every twenty miles. Of course that had fallen in arrears for a century now, and they might not find much if any of those conveniences now. Herodium, he knew, was once a splendid place where Herod the Great entertained the high and mighty come from Roma to visit him and see his various triumphs of architecture and city building. The road leading forth from it was now neglected in appearance, but still it must be well-travelled, being a direct route to Aelia Capitolina from the south.

What strange things he had seen there! It was beyond explanation! That strange and awful chest in the cavern off the tunnel How could it shine so brightly it hurt his eyes. Even now he felt his face glowing with the burning light from it! He felt his face, and noticed even his fingers glowed as if the glory of the chest were something like oil you could rub off!

He glanced over at Hyacinthus as they walked along, his secretary keeping a few feet to the side and behind him out of respect for his master. What did he think of Herodium? Did he think his master's appearance strange? If he only had a mirror to see himself, he suspected he must be looking odd, if his face were glowing like his fingers. Thrusting his hand out of sight in his robe, he continued his stride, for he knew they must make as many miles as possible before sunset.

Hopefully, at the end of their march they would not land too far from a water supply to see it at dusk.

As it turned out, they did not succeed in making it far enough, and so they were forced to bed down for the night without the refreshment of water, water first to drink, then some to bathe their faces in and cool their feet.

The small leather bag of water Hyacinthus could give them only a sip or two, and then they must build a fire to keep off the roving beasts at night.

Wilderness, with its woody shrubs and the creatures able to live there, and the stark, barren, lifeless desert were much intermixed in these parts, so ever so often amidst seeming desolation there was something to sustain a measure of life in growing things, so they did not lack for dry and flamable sticks and grass, and even larger pieces of dead broom trees. Hyacinthus gathered all they would need of this, and soon had a fire kindled with his useful flint stones, rubbed together to produce the spark. They were no sooner enjoying the warmth of it in the chill of the desert night when a constellation of stars began acting strangely off in the sky over Herodium.

The stars were blinking as they moved slowly along, and then they stopped, and powerful beams of blue light shot forth from them toward Mount Herodium as if to pierce it and expose its secrets.

Fascinated, unable to take their eyes from it, they watched the beaming stars move back and forth, back and forth, as a farmer might plow or furrow the earth in search of a known, buried treasure he had hidden in his field. Yet no treasure came to light for all the work of the beaming stars, and suddenly, the beams retired back into the stars, and the clustered stars themselves changed color, dimmed, then shrank, as if they were moving rapidly away.

Birds sang loudly of the morning light even before it broke upon the sleeping Rutilius and his secretary where they lay by the dead embers of their nightfire.

Rutilius cracked open his eyes, and saw nothing at first, but then the light gained on the desert, and soon outlines of things came into view. Rocks, mountains, crevices, and... what were those odd, tumbled shapes he saw? He thought it might be animals and men tossed together in a heap, they were such a mass of limbs, heads, gaping jaws--horrible sight indeed to greet the dawn!

He cried out to Hyacinthus and staggered toward what looked unspeakable even in the remaining shadows of the rocks and cliffs around them.

A caravan had been attacked? But what robbers could do what these had done to this caravan and all its men and equipment?

It looked to Rutilius as if a mad, man-eating Cyclops or a horrible, vengeful giant of old had burst out of its cavern-den and seized the entire caravan, beasts and animals and baggage, smashed them together in his fist, then flung them against the rocks!

Rutilius and Hyacinthus slowly approached the last few feet to see what men they might be--what tribe or race.

Clothing gave Rutilius the clearest sign--the robes of Ishamelites, made plain to him by its distinctive pattern and color. Ishmaelites!

His heart sank as he recognized the cloth. Could it be? Could it?

The light was now gaining such strength that the faces of the smashed men were now discernible. He began to see recognizable features, in one and then another of the victims of the giant.

He loathed the very thought of proceeding in his search, it was enough for him to discover it was Haboosh's caravan that had somehow met a most terrible, untimely end. But he had to find out Haboosh, if at all possible. He knew he would not rest another night in the desert if he left and did not know the poor man's fate for certain, horrible and sickening as it might well be.

He finally had enough, and could search no more as he finished with the last ones he found dead.

Hyacinthus gave a shout!

He shouted again, and Rutilius turned toward him, though rocks were between them, and coming round a big rock he saw Hyacinthus's form bent over what looked like a trampled load of bedding.

Hyacinthus was gently lifting the ruined clothes of a victim, and beckoning him to approach, so he did, but not to quickly.

Against his will, he forced himself to look a last time, and then he saw what he was looking for all this time. He groaned and turned away, unspeakably sickened and grieved at the first time.

He would never forget the face of Haboosh-- his eyes half-burned in their sockets as they stared outwards at a most frightful thing in their dying moment.

How could a man be so terrified at death? Haboosh had seen many instances of death, horrible ones too, in his long career in the savage deserts and wildernesses of the East. Surely, nothing could surprise him. Yet something worse than he had ever imagined had indeed surprised him-- and his eyes showed it, set rigidly even in their half-boiled state.

The smell of the burnt human flesh was so rank, Rutilius could not stand it a moment later. He dashed some sand with his hand on the face of the poor old man, then he fled away, and Hyacinthus fled with him.

When they stopped to catch their breath, it was quite a distance away, but it could not be far enough, they both felt. "We are not safe here either," Rutilius said. "We must make all speed to get away from this whole region."

However they found the strength to do it, they did get away, and nearly collapsed but reached an inn and caravansary south of Bethlehem that catered to the east/west trade as well as the north-south caravans.

Here Rutilius took a room for himself and his secretary, and they had food brought to them, but were unable to do anything but rest for the next several days-- sleeping off as much of the horror of what they had seen as the exhaustion of the midnight flight.

In the morning of the third day, Rutilius rose and found Hyacinthus already pouring out water in a large bowl for him to bathe in.

But he needed to gather his thoughts first. He looked about the strange room, which was a poor one for any amount of money, and wished her were a thousand miles away, in one of his own villas, where he could linger and refresh his body and spirits for months to come in a civilized household.

Here he smelt the beasts in the caravansary's courtyard and heard their protesting bawls as cameleers got them loaded and standing for their daily trek.

How early was it?

The dawning light was just beginning to make things visible in the room, as Rutilius watched Hyacinthus's movements. "Master," Hyacinthus said, "it is time for us to prepare for our next journey, is it not? Surely, you will want something to eat first. I can go and get whatever this place has to give, if you wish."

"Go then, get some bead and a little wine, and then something for our journey. Take this money, but do not let them rob you--for they, seeing we are foreigners and Roman, will try."

Hyacinthus left him, and Rutilius arose, and went to the window, and threw open the shutters so he could see what kind of country it was.

He could make out nothing but a wilderness round about, of huge outcropping of rocks-- it seemed endless, this kind of wilderness. He wondered when it would change.

Sighing, he went and washed in the basin, and then dried off with a towel, though he was fearful of the towel, and shook it hard before using it, knowing that the inn was probably host to a lot of vermin.

He was dressing when Hyacinthus returned, and his servant laid out the meager meal he was able to find in the caravansary's kitchens, if they could be called that.

Some wine, some stale bread, a little cheese-- some fruit too, figs, dates, and even some grapes, which was not so bad, as it was carried in fresh from some other place by a caravan and sold there to the innkeeper.

Hyacinthus handed Rutilius the unused portion of the money, but Rutilius would not take it.

"You keep it for your own expenses," he said. "Every man wants some cash of his own."

Hyacinthus thanked him, and put it away in his pouch where he kept his writing materials.

After Hyacinthus and Rutilius had eaten and refreshed themselves, it was now a bright dawn outdoors, and the caravans were departing. It was time to go quickly and find one that would carry them safely to their destination, either Bethlehem or Aelia Capitolina.

Hyacinthus inquired for Rutilius, and soon had news for his master. "We can go with that one over there," he said, pointing to a Bethlehem-bound caravan. "The others are not going north, but will turn westerly for the coast from here."

They had no choice but to take this one way out, as it would not be safe to travel alone--indeed, it had never been safe, it had been madness. Even caravans could be wholly destroyed, burnt to ashes, as Haboosh had found out to his utter ruin!

With great relief, Rutilius climbed up on a camel, and Hyacinthus mounted a donkey, and they were led away by the drivers with the departing caravan.

It was a long, tiresome trek, and they stopped at the end of it, just short of Bethlehem, but there was no prodding the beasts forward, they wouldn't go another foot, as they instinctively recalled exactly how far each halting station lay separated from another, and wouldn't go further on even if abused and beaten by the cameleers.

But the next morning, Rutilius decided he had enough of the caravan. He and Hyacinthus could easily make it on their own, on foot, as Bethlehem lay only a mile or so beyond them, and had been visible in the light of dusk where they made their last camp.

This gave Rutilius a chance to think more solitarily than he could when pitching to and fro on the back of a verminous, foul camel.

In the broad way of the road leading into Bethlehem, they were sure to encounter soldiers on patrol, so it was safe enough to go alone like that and on foot.

Soon they were entering the little hill town's environs, which included fields and flocks of sheep. Not surprising, it boasted proper wall and gate as a city might have.

As soon as they came to it, it seemed they were in the heart of it, that was how small it was. The houses and buildings all crowded round them in heaps on little hills, but they found a little market opened up to them as they entered.

Sheep, goats, traders, stalls of garden produce, pottery and basketry all mixed together, but mostly individual women plying their wares and country vegetables and fruits on pieces of old rugs spread out on the street's rough stones.

The narrow streets had not been Romanized, Rutilius could see--they were far too narrow, even for wagons and chariots, and that kept this town small, with little commerce coming in from the outside world..

Little light could penetrate such tight quarters, yet he and Hyacinthus felt they were subjected to minute scrutiny as stepped further along the street, feeling that many eyes were on them, mostly hidden behind lattices of tiny windows.

"It gives me a strange feeling to be looked at so much," remarked Rutilius.

"Is this part of Palaestrina so backward? You'd think they hadn't seen a civilized man, a Roman before!"

Beggars nevertheless were not afraid of them. They pulled at their garments. Sellers of goods also yelled, trying to get them to pause at their shops, but Rutilius wanted nothing such a collection of mean hovels could produce.

Just then, a man came up to him, bowed, and inquired of him his errand in the city, in cultured language too, both Latin and Greek.

Surprised, Rutilius paused and looked the man over.

He seemed a rabbi or teacher or some learned man among the people here, he discerned. His garments were nothing so fashionable you would see in Antioch, or Alexandria, or Ephesus, or Roma,, but they were spotless, and even of good material and cut.

"Yes, I have an errand hereabouts," he said. "But what is that to you? Are you presuming to offer or do me a service, perhaps?"

The man smiled and bowed again. "Sire, I have no service to render you but this: I see you are a stranger only, and surmised you had an errand in our city. Surely, it is only right that we treat a stranger as yourself hospitably, so that is my only intent, to help you however I may in your inquiry or errand."

Rutilius was pleased, his doubts put aside. He smiled in turn. "Yes, perhaps you can help us after all, since you have offered this service. Therefore, I would like to know, is there a learned man here I could meet with—-as I have certain questions I would like to have answered concerning a certain sect called the Nazarenes, the followers of the one called Christus." The Bethlehemite bowed. “Questions of what kind, sire?”

"I thought I just told you, but let me specify exactly those questions many men have dealing with Christus, his manner of life and his teachings, and whether there are any documents or books that record his life that would furnish evidence of substance and logic that support any claim to his divinity."

The Bethlehemite stared at Rutilius for a long moment. That long a pause seemed almost rude and presumptious to the nobleman and Roman in Rutilius.

“You are squandering my time! Why, are you surprised that a Roman would make such an inquiry?” Rutilius challenged him. "Are you saying we Romans possess sufficient intelligence to make such inquiries?"

The Bethlehemite recovered himself and bowed again. “Not at all! I am the last to impugn the intelligence of our masters, the Romans! Romans have to possess superlative intelligence, first to obtain such a vast commonwealth, and even more intelligence to administer and govern it."

Rutilius was mollified by the man's astute reply, and nodded. "You speak well of my country. Now can you direct me to anyone here who is a scholar and can furnish proofs one way or the other on the claim of Christus's divinity?"

"Indeed I think I can, sire!" responded the man. "The one who can best answer such questions is of your own race, for I perceive from your speech and your manner that you must be Roman! He resides here with us too, for many years too—in the most humble place of his choosing, though he is a nobleman and could afford to lease or buy much better.”

Rutilius’s brows arched. “Howso? You have a nobleman of Roma here in such a, er, place as this? That is hard to believe. But please take me to him at once. But wait, what is his name? Perhaps I have heard or read of him.”

The man stepped closer to Rutilius, and spoke softly as if confidentially. "My name is Casperius bar-Tratta, I have a garment and rug business and shop here, a concession given my family by Constantinus for certain services I need not name. It is just that my forefathers saw the way the tide was running in the world, so we decided not to oppose it and ruin ourselves with the others who rose up to fight Roma to gain their liberty--all in vain, of course! It is not often that I get to extend hospitality and help to visiting Romans such as yourself. I ask only that you do not publish my name abroad--as the local people are not so favorable to those of us who favor Roma so much."

Now Rutilius understood, and he nodded his acceptance of the man's condition for helping him. How such a man must be hated here as a traitor to the Jews and their cause! Yet, if he was discreet, he was safe enough as long as he did not openly champion himself as a Romanophile.

"Proceed! I understand and accept your condition," replied Rutilius.

Bar-Tratta glanced about the area, saw nobody taking special interest in them conversing together, then continued. "Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, a priest and a scholar and writer of many, many books is the very man you should see, sir. There is no one else approaching his erudition on every subject you can name, even among the Jewish rabbis. Indeed, it is the Jews who assist him all they can in his books, knowing that he enjoys greater influence in the world than they ever will, even in their own territory here. He has made himself a master of Greek and Roman, and with assistance from Jews is now a student of the Hebrew and other languages that pertain to his studies and writings regarding the scriptures. "

Rutilius was stunned. He knew the man by reputation, and had read some of his polemics, knowing that he was a rather intransigent ascetic, enough to go and spend some years as an anchorite in the deserts of Chalcis. But he was a scholar more than an anchorite, so he had returned to society and civilization to continue his studies and work in his library. That role, at least in Roma, was not to continue peacefully. He had fled, it was said, from Roma after inducing a female disciple, a rich young patrician girl named Blaesilla, to such extremities of self-denial that she expired within four months of the regimen. This made him odious to the Roman people. And having gone east where this was less known, it was supposed in the west that Roma was rid of him. But now he was still living and writing his books in Bethlehem of Judaea of all places, aided by patrician women, among them Blaesilla's mother and sister! Yes, he must meet with this controversial but learned man! He wouldn't miss this for the world. What would he have to say about Christus?

"Enough talk, lead me to him at once," he charged the man, who bowed, and escorted him and Hyacinthus as they threaded their way through the narrow, dark, mean streets of the little town.

As Rutilius and his servant followed the Romanized Bethlehemite, Rutilius had some questions of his own concerning his guide. That talk about Constantinus and his family, it could be a story. Was this ingratiating fellow a spy? he had to wonder. Did the man suspect that he had come as Honorius’s emissary, and was going to alert whoever employed him that he was in the city? Perhaps he was so helpful because he sought to find out everything he could about Rutilius in order to report it for a sum of money to his superiors, whoever they were.

And if he were a spy, what was to be done with him? Rutilius wondered. But first, he had to see if Eusebius Hieronymus had any light to shed on the questions he had regarding the Christus--this spy was hardly of importance next to that, for there were always going to be spies hanging about in the Judaean towns and cities that were most liable to foster insurrectionists. By informing on their own countrymen, they earned their bread and butter from the Roman commanders.

A monastery stood nearby, which bar-Tratta explained had been founded by Eusebius. It held as many as sixty monks, with some dozen or more disciples training for their calling and being taught by their masters, but Eusebius himself did not reside in it, oh no! He detested luxury and the comforts of civilization, even in his old age. In his extreme youth he had been a lover of dancing women in Roma, it was said, so he was paying the penalty for that dissolute youth now, with interest. In any case, he was too imbued with his old habits of denying his carnal flesh and its appetites to change according to the easy fashion of the world, so he had another lodging, one not so nice as the monks inhabited. There he had resided, and was attended by various holy women and scholarly friends, who saw to his needs lest he perish from his own self-inflicted penury and denial of even basic necessities of life.

The path that their guide led them, took them past the walled monastery and then nearly out of the city proper into the countryside where the sheep were grazed among olive trees and vineyards. Then bar-Tratta stopped abruptly at what appeared to be a hole in a rock-strewn slope a stone's throw from the last of Bethlehem's crudely constructed, stone-built dwellings.

Their guide stopped, and turned to face them. “Herein abides the noble Eusebius Hieronymus! The priest and man of learning feels more to home in a setting most like he knew in his earlier years in the Syrian deserts! Now I will go in and make your presence known first, then call you if he is ready to receive callers.”

Rutilius glanced at Hyacinthus, and shook his head, but the man slipped through the hole and was gone, leaving them to think whatever they wanted.

A part of Rutilius was for going away at once. All this flummery and secrecy in the man's manner seemed preposterous. How could a nobleman dwell in a mere hole in the earth? Was he turned completely back into a monk or eremite? What a barbarous thing to do with himself! This indeed spoke of a most intractable, strong fanatic strain in him, that spared nothing humane and reasonable that any civilized man of letters should have sanctioned.

Their guide stopped, and turned to face them solemnly as if he were standing at a palace’s portal. “Now whom do I inform him is here to inquiry of him?"

Rutilius knew this was coming, but he was still unsure just how much to reveal of his identity and purpose. He couldn't trust such a man as this, he thought it better to give him only the most general description.

"Say I am of an old family of Roma, owning some estates in Gallia and Sicilia and engaged in business of wine, olives, and such things, but I want to know more about the region hereabouts, so that in the future we may seek to buy some of its produce and market them in the West to supplement our own production. Further tell him that my library contains several of his books, and so I would like to make inquiries about them. My name you may give him is--" He bent over and whispered it in bar-Tratta's ear, as it was best not to be so free in public with it.

Their guide bowed, then replied, "Please wait here, sirs. I will go in and make your presence known first, then call you if he says he is ready to receive callers. Please be patient with him--he is old, very aged, and is used to having his way with inferiors, so that he has no proper manners to speak of, even for his superiors--though few superiors to him pass this way in this place, you might well understand!”

Rutilius glanced at Hyacinthus, and shook his head, but the man slipped through the hole and was gone, leaving them to think whatever they wished.

The time lengthened, and growing ever more restless, Rutilius was for going away at once, though he could have demanded entry and gotten it by imperial authority vested in him by the emperor. But this seemed worse than preposterous, it was mad! How could a nobleman dwell in a mere hole in the earth? Was he turned monk or eremite and eschewed all civil society, preferring a burrow in the earth to a civilized dwelling?

After a few moments of indecision, he soon had his answer. Bar-Tratta stuck his head out of the hole, nodding vigorously. “As expected, I found him hard at work on his translation with his Hebrew tutor and the Lady Paul and her daughter Eustochium. Normally he sends anyone away that would interrupt him like this. But he has chosen to do differently, which surprises me. After I informed him of your particulars, sir, he has agreed to see you now, rather than make you wait and detain you in a city strange to you. Perhaps he wishes to assist the viticulture and olive groves of this area--which would help the people for they are weak in marketing their produce abroad--and Constantinus's City lays such heavy taxes on us all here, making it almost impossible to gain a profit selling to them."

Bar-Tratta shook his head as he pulled at his small beard. "I have never heard him take such consideration with previous inquiring visitors, sir. You are being highly favored today!”

Rutilius expected their guide to enter first, but no, he stood aside, beckoning to Rutilius and his secretary. "I must go at once," he explained to Rutilius. "My shop demands my supervision--the workers I have are so undependable, I find, and might steal something if I tarry here too long. And there are too many eyes hereabouts watching who comes and goes at this door, rest assured!"

Rutilius, with extreme reluctance, realized he could not back out now, or appear very indecisive, which would be most unRoman, indeed.

“Very well, let us go in without him,” he said to Hyacinthus.

He crouched low and entered, and after a few steps into a dim entry, found a room beyond, quite cool compared to the outer air, that was more than a single room, but a series of large hollowed out spaces, looking much like cisterns carved into the bedrock, but with windows cut higher up that served to give them sufficient light most of the daylight hours . In one of the chief hollows, plaster covered the bare rock and some efforts had been made to make the area more habitable. There a long-robed man looking like a rabbi of the Judaeans quickly gathered his manuscripts the moment he saw Rutilius coming in. Two women along standing closest to an elderly man also turned to him as he approached.

Rutilius's eyes quickly took in the scene. Heaps of books and stuffed shelves and cupboards of books, and a writing table, ink, paper, lamps and candles, stools, all the usual things necessary for a true scholar for his work.

But it was not so bare and ascetic as he thought it might be. In the area where the walls were plastered, there were rugs on the stone floor and chairs, and some water and bread and wine on a low table.

A young woman present (for there were two women, one older and one looking young enough to be her daughter) showed him to a chair and the table with the refreshments.

Rutilius declined politely, and faced the old man instead as the one looking most like a Jewish rabbi showed himself out and took his bundle of manuscripts with him.

Now Rutilius could get a good look at his host, who stood only a few feet away.

"My tutor in the Hebrew tongue," the elderly man, apparently Eusebius, explained as Rutilius glanced at rabbi in passing.

"Never mind him, he is only a Jew with some knowledge of his own language. Now would you partake of our humble hospitality, sir, since evidently you have travelled a long way to reach this poor, little place?"

Rutilius had not come to talk pleasantries, and leastwise to eat, so he declined immediately, with what he hoped was not rudeness.

“I have not come for refreshment, good sir, but to ask certain questions that I wish answered satisfactorily before I leave this country. Would you be the man to indulge me? I take it you are Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus.”

The old man, his balded head and his spotty beard showing it was quite a long time growing, as it was wispy now and very white upon his chest, merely smiled. He said nothing at first. Then he extended his hand and took Rutilius’s arm gently, as an old man might his son.

“Please, I understand all that said by a young man such as yourself, but please indulge us elders notwithstanding! It is the custom of the ancient East to first take refreshments, and afterwards talk business, if that is what you wish to do. At least for a few moments of your time, do as the East does, or my Eastern friends will be most effronted. We shall not detain you any further after that. You may ask all the questions you like. you have encountered the weariness and tedium of much travel, I take it, so here are some little refreshments, which I am not in need of. You see, my friends would overly feed me at my age. They would spoil my body and starve my sprit! So I eat sparingly of such fine things--please you and your young friend are my guests today, sit and refresh yourselves! Sit down, children!”

Rutilius was taken aback by the man’s manner, which was so like a chiding father’s, it reminded him of his own lost father.

“Sir, really I—“

“Please sit, and when you have drunk a little and eaten something, then let us talk, as long as you like. I do think it will go much better then, if you feel you have a more strength and are less weary from your journey.”

Rutilius could not protest his hospitality, and sat down. Hyacinthus preferred to stand, being a servant, but Rutilius waved him down into the other chair, and his secretary sat down, though on the edge of it.

The young woman served them each a glass of wine, and they added water, and drank, and there was a little fruit and bread too.

But this was not the least of her ministrations. She came with a bowl of water and a towel, and Rutilius thought she was actually going to wash their feet as the custom was in households, but no, he was mistaken. Shocked, he watched the old man come and take the bowl and the towel and then begin to kneel down before Hyacinthus first.

Hyacinthus rose up away, but Rutilius shook his head, intending to let his servant be served in this way, but to go immediately if the scholar sought to do the same to him.

Just as he feared, when Hyacinthus’s feet had been bathed and dried with the towel, the scholar turned to Rutilius, who was determined to have nothing to do with this show of humility, or whatever it was.

“Nay, that is a servant’s work, not yours! What is the meaning of this?” he protested, backing away.

“What do you mean?” Eusebius replied, smiling. “My Lord and Savior thought it HIS duty to serve men, so am I to put myself in privilege and status above my master, when I am only his abject and wretched slave?”

Rutilius glanced at the older woman, then the young woman, for some kind of assurance this man had gone woefully mad in his dotage. But no, they too smiled at him as if he were spouting the greatest wisdom in the world.

The young woman piped up, her eyes glowing ecstatically. “It is so true, our Master came to serve, not to be served! He showed us by His own example, this is how we are to be, servants not rulers.”

Rutilius frowned. How like a woman to speak like that! All the high administrator and official in Rutilius could not bear the thought, but nevertheless the scholar was not going to be put off, he was kneeling now before Rutilius.

The scholar gazed up at Rutilius. “If I did not do you this service, I would have no part of my Master, just as he once said to the Apostle, Peter.”

“Oh, so he is indeed speaking of the Christus, for he mentioned his disciple’s name!” thought Rutilius, squirming on his chair.

Rutilius conquered his feelings, and relented. “Very well, since you insist, wash my feet, I wouldn’t wish to be the cause of your Master rejecting you!”

In the silence, there was little but the sound of the water in the bowl as Rutilius’s feet were each washed and then dried and his sandals replaced on his feet.

What an ordeal it was for Rutilius, he could not have expressed--but as a Roman he endured it without further protest.

Once that was done, the scholar rose, the bowl and towel taken away, and Rutilius was shown to the scholar’s own desk and given his seat there. The woman rose from her stool and stood a few feet away, watching them closely.

Eusebius returned, but did not sit.

Somewhat uncomfortable on the scholar's chair, Rutilius cleared his throat, then began. "I must ask you, sire, what you know of the Chris--"

He scarcely got these words out when he noticed the scholar was not listening, his eyes were closed and he was mumbling something. Was he praying?

Whether he was engaged in prayer or not, Rutilius was determined, and he chose to interrupt the scholar's prayers, if that were what he was doing.

"I wish to hear from you, sir, on some important questions, which I have come all this way to ask you!"

The scholar opened his eyes, and he smiled. "If you really desire to know, I will tell you the truth as I have learned it. But you must learn to sit and wait, my child--wait for me to begin at the proper time."

Rutilius was all for springing to his feet and stomping out of the man's presence, but he couldn't! He just couldn't! Only a child would act like that, and he wasn't going to let his offended Roman feelings dictate to him now that he might get some of his questions answered--which were questions burning hot in a distant emperor's troubled mind and heart.

Then the older woman stepped in, kneeling before the scholar.

"But, Father, how can you do this for him, a stranger, though a Roman like you and me and my daughter? What about the work, which is your sacred duty to God?"

The scholar patted her head, as if he viewed her too as a mere child.

"Oh, dear, dear Lady Paula! How silly, and female-minded you are becoming at your age! Lyddaeus can come again tomorrow with his exegesis for me to dispute with him, while tonight Bar Hanina will appear to ply me with more of his absurd Jewish fables, no doubt! Enough about these wretched Jews! And I will attend to my own work, Lady Paula! But as for this caller, I perceive he is not here of his own account! If he were, I would send him away at once, for the sake of the work that my Lord has put on my shoulders. But now I must tell him, the truth impells me to tell him all, for the sake of his inquiring master."

The woman lowered her eyes, rose, and went and stood with her daughter.

Rutilius was now excited, but showed nothing of it, for he knew he was in the presence of someone who either knew a lot, or was a great imposter if he didn't, deserving to be sent to the copper mines of Petraea and Pheneussus! In any case, he would know soon enough.

The desk was piled so high with manuscripts, that several now slipped down, and Rutilius caught one in his hand, while the others dropped to the floor. He glanced at it, catching the title, "De viris illustribus." He also noticed several names, which he recognized were authors defending the faith of followers of Christus.

"I see the name of Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantitus, the one who wrote about the Phoenix bird that died in the flames and then was reborn from the ashes, as well as some tractates against the critics and enemies of the Christus. How do you come by this?"

The scholar took it from him and set it aside. "I lay claim to it without apology! It is my own work, and it is the truth, but why should you interest yourself in a mere fable of his, though it purports to describe the death and resurrection of my Lord Christus?"

"You are so right, sir, I am not come so far to enterain mere fables or indulge such writers, though I know of his other works. They are quite serious, particularly the one, "De Mortibus Persecutorum," describing many of our emperors, by name, Gaius, Domitianus, Decius, Valerianus, Maximianus, Galerius, and so on, rightly calling them monsters and beasts who have gained hellish flames as reward for their attacks on the followers of Christus! Surely, you do not align yourself with this fractious and impious author.

"Am I set on trial in my own humble residence?" the scholar remarked amiably, though there was a hint of asperity in his voice. This book I wrote describes the lives and works of one hundred and thirty five of our defenders of Christus. I should like to be included in their roll of martyrs, but so far my Lord has not counted me worthy of that highest honor. Many of them suffered severely from, ah, the authorities, for their brave stand for the truth. But you know that quite well, being so informed a man of Roma and a man of the world! You know full well how many a noble, good man of Roma (and there were many over time of that sort), how each suffered for his convictions at the hands of certain powerful, greedy, venal, bloody rulers whose names are all well known and uncontested. Need I name them? But it would be tedious to present the list. I wish to be at your business too, now that you have indulged me and my Easterners."

"Yes, I am so informed of those one hundred and thirty five, though I would not agree to their severe punishments! If they questioned the deity of the emperors and their acts, many reasonable Romans have done the same. I myself entertain absolutely no certain belief in the divinity of men, and serious question the gods' as well. Now if you authored this work, it is entirely within your right to write what you think best. May I take a copy of it away? My secretary here can make me a copy, if I have a few days time here in this place."

"Oh, by all means, make your copy. Make any copy you wish of whatever I have here in my library, whether by my pen or by any one else's! My books, my library, are open to all of a mind inquiring after the truth!"

The scholar waved his hand indicating the hundreds of books and manuscripts. But then his eyes grew more serious.

"But you haven't come here to copy my tedious books, have you? They're mostly all available in the libraries of Roma and Alexandria, and even quite a few in Antioch and Nova Roma--not that anyone in those places cares to read them! Now what do you wish to know about the Christus? Lactantius is of no substance, really. I am able to help you more than a little, I think, as I know the Hebrew and the Syriac and the Aramaic, as well my native Latin and also the Greek.

Rutilius stared at the scholar. Lactantius was of no substance? Rutilius wasn't so sure. He had dreamed several nights now of the Phoenix, consumed in flame, then rising up from its own ashes reborn and magnificent in its fiery red and gold plummage! He couldn't quite put the image away from his mind even now, when confronted with the acerbic, witty, incisive man of letters, this strange old priest and desert monk called Eusebius Hieronymus!

Just the same, he did put the Phoenix aside for the moment, and tackled the burning questions in Honorius's mind that he had carried all the way from Ravenna.

Honorius had questions that dealt with the whole of Christus' life and acts, so it took some time, as Rutilius went through the list, without once consulting notes of course, as his memory was perfect in every detail.

Christus' was born in Bethlehem? Exactly where? Was the place marked? Could it be seen and proven?

His connection with the royal line of David? Was it by his father or mother? Or were both from that line? How is it that the Jewish scriptures said there would be no issue from a male producing the Messiah, and that he would instead be the 'seed of a woman'?"

The scholar had an answer for him on each count, quoting the scripture, relating the names of the personages involved and the places and times. If he did not remember or was the least bit unsure of some point, he sent Lady Paula and her Eustochium to the particular manuscript, it was brought, and he showed Rutilius the answer in it, which the best authorities or the sacred scriptures of the Jews themselves testified.

But that happened rarely, that he did not recall anything. His mind was amazing quick and accurate, with vast learning that astonished Rutilius as he rattled off names of authors, and quoted from them out of their books in rapid-fire Greek and Latin, and Aramaic and also Syriac, and even Hebrew--though in Hebrew he spoke more carefully, pronouncing the words as one who had been taught them more lately than the other sources.

He laughed after quoting a lengthly Hebrew passage to Rutilius, and translating the meaning. "The Hebrew has corrupted my Latin and Greek, that is the price I pay for studying it and becoming a master of it! Hebrew, you must know, is the original tongue, the mother of all languages, but surely that is all I can credit it--as Latin and Greek are greater than their mother, incomparably so!"

After hearing so many proofs of Eusebius's truly immense erudition and scholarship, Rutilius was by no means inclined to dispute the peppery scholar's contention about Hebrew. He had larger questions in mind than a scholar's vanity and reputation and his views on Hebrew vs. Greek and Latin.

So he pressed on, planning to make the most of this opportunity, and get to the real heart of his quest: the resurrection of Christus! If the resurrection were not true, all the prophecies in the old scriptures of the Jews were of no account, nor their seeming fulfilment in the birth and acts of Christus. If he did not rise back to life again like the Phoenix, if that were a fable, then all this was about his divinity was nonsense, the worst kind of claptrap!

But embarking on so momentous a topic was a delicate thing, nevertheless, he felt. Even as a Roman speaking to another Roman, sometimes practicality was not the best sail to go with when launching a ship. Too strong a wind might taken them right into a seawall, and too light a wind might let them remain harbor-bound. How best he approach this sensitive, tangled knot of a subject?

He thought of the many emperors who since Augustus Octavianus had claimed deity or been awarded it by the Senate, posthumously. No deified emperor, self-proclaimed or Senate-proclaimed, had ever been known to rise from the dead. And who would want any of them back, however well they had ruled? What purpose or good would it serve if one rose from the dead? There was usually a new emperor sitting within hours or days of the last emperor's demise. How would he take it if his predecessor reappeared to take back the throne death had taken from him?

Surely, it would be a disaster for all. Civil war would ensue, as somebody, whether the emperor recently enthroned, or a military commander elsewhere in the empire, would dispute the returned emperor's resurrection, and say that it was merely a usurper looking and dressing like the one that had died. Surely, blood would be spilled from one end of the empire to the other as the returned emperor's claim was contested.

Of a truth, it would be monstrous if a deified emperor returned from the dead. But how was Christus any different, even if had accomplished what his followers all claimed?

First, however, he must inquire, he felt, into the veracity of the claim. How true, how soundly evidenced or not was the claim?

Secondly, what good would it serve if true and evidenced?

Thirdly, what did Christus's resurrection portend for the Empire?

Unity or disastrous division that would plunge an entire empire into a bloodbath and barbarous anarchy?

Such were the two horns of a monstrous, raging Minotaur that Constantinus, like Theseus, had grappled with all during his reign and called church councils at Nicaea and elsewhere to resolve.

It did not help that Arianism was not going away, it was threatening to engulf both Empires, both from within through the bishopric and and without through the Arianized barbarians. Though branded as heretics by Constantinus and various councils, the Arians, called so after their leader, Bishop Arius, maintained that Christus was not divine, or co-equal and one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Eastern branches of the Church and the society and govenment were riddled with Arians, and they were spreading fast into the Western Empire, as so many barbarians subscribed to Arianism. Any Western Emperor must deal with this question or allow the state to be divided and his realm to break up in endless division and fighting of Orthodox and Arian factions.

Fourthly, where was the living Christus now? Why wasn't he ruling from either of the two Romas or Ravenna or at least from the former Jewish capital of Jerusalem, renamed Aelia Capitolina by Hadrianus using one of his own names?

Such questions of universal import, regarding which armies had already fought and thousands slain, might drive any man, however brilliant, to insanity, if he had to answer them himself without adequate help or resources!

Having observed and learned the lessons from his father's experience and handling of things, he knew he did not have to be an administrative genius to cut many a Gordian knot. His father had a wonderful ability to see through tangles of complex things to the heart of a matter, then pluck out the one thing needful or of value, however he could do it the easiest and quickest.

His father was like Alexander the Great in that trait. Alexander showed the world it did not take the world's greatest genius, no, just a sword and the will of a man of action, to resolve the seemingly impossible knot he found on a visit to Gordium, a city in Asia. After examining it for a few moments in the temple where the knot was kept on permanent display, he drew his sword and cut it in two instead of trying like everyone before him to untie it with their fingers and their wits.

Rutilius knew that famed story well enough, but he was a man of many known resources, too, and he knew where to seek out excellent help and scholarship. He himself could resort to a whole library of books that he carried effortlessly in his head--thanks to his inexhaustible memory and recall of the least thing he had read. But he knew all his information was not the answer, he needed the wisdom and guidance of renowned and proven authorities who could make the best judgments concerning the evidence. These lights were invaluable, and one light alone was not enough usually to illumine so vast a number of questions and matters involved with Christus. Who could draw all these things together and make the best judgment on them? It was wise to go to a number of luminaries, and then view them collectively, and as iron sharpens iron, so they would sharpen their conclusions and hone them to a single point where there would no longer be any viable question remaining as to Christus--the absolute truth about the man would be laid bare.

This was Rutilius's belief and rationale, and he had never known it to fail. Why should it fail him now? It had governed all his administration for the imperial power for years now, and his father before him had followed the same rule with great success.

So he was unshakable in his optimistic outlook. He would find the answer for the seeking, troubled, young Honorius, beset on all sides by Arians and Orthodox parties, who was obviously needing a rock of certitude on which to set his policy of state regarding Christus for the present and the future.

He had no doubt about this could be resolved, and soon too!

There was a scurry of hoofbeats and footfalls at the "door" of Eusebius's cave-domicile, and when Rutilius looked to see who was approaching, he realized it was an imperial courier.

He remained seated, and the officer bowed low, then proceeded to read out the message from the wax tablet he held.

"Greetings to Governor and Proconsul Rutilius Numantianus from Fulvia--"

The moment Lady Fulvia's name was out of the courier's mouth, Rutilius silenced him with a wave of his hand, then drew him aside. "I will take the message privately!" he told him.

Rutilius turned to the others in the chamber who were staring at him in the interuption.

"I am afraid I must take a message in private, and so I beg your pardon, Eusebius Hieronymous, for this interruption. Please allow me a private chamber if there is one hereabouts."

"Certainly, you may have my bedchamber, it is apart from this chamber and sufficient for your privacy. And since the light of the sun might become too much pleasure for me, there are no windows, and thus no opportunity for a busybody little town full of peeping eyes and listening ears. You see, I prefer the amenities of a troglodyte and bond-slave to Christus to the luxuries and indolence of a Roman prince!"

"And I suppose he means me!" Rutilius thought.

Rutilius and the officer were then shown the chamber by Lady Paula and her daughter, and found it as described--a true, self-denying troglodyte's, with no more than a rug on a stone bench for his bed mattress, a single lamp for light, a pair of slippers for the chill of the floor, a single thin blanket of felt, an earthware jug of water with a little vinegar in it to dispell the local contagions--and they were left alone.

The officer handed him the waxed tablet, and Rutilius turned his back to him so he could not witness any emotion he might betray in the reading of her words.

"My friend and benefactor, it has been too long a time since I last received any word of you or your whereabouts, but I have entrusted your care to the Almighty God, and so I am not afraid for you-- however dangerous the times and the places you are visiting. Sir, there is a greater matter on my heart, which I must write to you about. There was until his recent decease a certain official and then a great bishop in in the north of Italia, Ambrose by name, whom you would have learned much from. In your circles, he was well known, so I will say no more, except that he was most wise and well versed in the ways of the Almighty, and on your return would you seek out his library, if it is still held by his basilica, for in it you would find the scriptures and books that would aid you much in your quest for the truth about our faith. I feel sure his library would afford answers to the questions you might have, and I have one too, which I ask your forebearance to inquire into. I will not hazard my question in this letter, as I wish to find you well first and on your way home to Italia. Conditions here in Italia, north to south, are much worsened since your departure. We have lost many cantons to the barbarians, and Gallia Narbonensis is nearly all consumed by them. Is Hispania and Africa next to be attacked? Pretenders to the throne, which Honorius has had to deal with however he is able--military slackness on the borders which are daily shrinking, barbarians growing ever more insolent and belligerent and demanding of our remaining gold. Of course you know about such things. Roma's people live in terror that nothing will stop the barbarian advance and they will be attacked and the city burnt and leveled. But my question to you, before mine is given you concerning my own concern to Ambrose, is how will you fare, sir, if the power of Honorius's should completely fail us? Please look to your own interests, for the interests of the state are fast declining. Many will go down with the too youthful Honorius, if he is unable to control the barbarians and the various pretenders and usurpers--but why should you be among them? You have done more than your duty to Roma and the state. And You did my husband and I such kindness I am your servant always."

His hand was shaking unaccountably when he finished reading, but he grabbed it with the other and, clenching the letter, he turned and gave the courier his brief response to Lady Fulvia after the Lady Fulvia's letter was erased and he and took up an iron pointed stylus.

"Greetings to the Lady Fulvia from a town in Judaea of Syria Major. I am engaged in discussion with a well-known scholar here, and not quite finished. But soon I shall be, and will be on my way to Caesarea. Please send your letter with your question there, and I shall receive it at the Prefect's. I shall seek out those books and papers you refer to on my return. Best of health to you and your friends. I have little to report as yet, to my emperor, except that the military situation here is quiet and pacific at present, and he need not fear any major incursions from the East at the moment from the Arsacidics, as they are involved in dynastic quarrels at the present time. I say this to you, so that you and the people of Italia may rest on this assurance of mine that the Eastern limes are still the best bulwark we have remaining, and the Empire is strongest here and will remain so for a long time to come. Farewell, Rutilius--" "Is that all, Governor?" the officer said after slipping the tablet into his portfolio for safekeeping. Rutilius nodded, then thought and said, "But take special care on the way back, there are going to be many hazards."

The officer's eyebrows lifted a bit, but he nodded, and being discharged, he hurried off to his mount and his soldier escort, while Rutilius remained in the scholar's bed-chamber (though it was so rude a place, it scarcely could be taken for the abode of a human being).

He had to gather his thoughts for a moment without people staring at him. His emotions were playing wild with them, since this was not entirely a diplomatic message--it was, after all, sent by a beautiful woman who was now a widow but could do as she pleased. He too was a man, and not immune to the suggestions that might be contained in a brief word or phrase in the letter. He played it back in his mind, and thought his impression was only strengthened, that Lady Fulvia had conceived than a fondness or gratitude for him for past service. He sensed there was more to it... but how should he respond? His own heart, he knew little of it, being so buried in administrative duties as an envoy would be.

No, he decided, he had no time or opportunity to pursue that line of thought. Best return to the demands of the present situation! He thought how helpful this courier would be to him now. By naming Caesarea as his next place of call, he would further put off his enemies, as they would be forced to divide and plant people both at Caesarea and Aelia Capitolina and anywhere they could along those land routes. Also, he did not intend to even go to Caesarea, and would write Lady Fulvia again, and give her more accurate particulars, so that she could respond and entrust him with her burning question.

That was as it should be handled, he thought, as he left the bed-chamber and returned to the scholar in his public receiving chamber.

Let his enemies, Rutilius thought, if they intercept the courier, read how he was mostly all concerned with the military readiness of the East, and was not alarmed about anything there--which would be cause for them to assume that was Honorius's chief concern in sending him out there in the first place! They had no need to know Honorius was deeply troubled in a spiritual matter, particularly over Christus. That would give them a weapon to use against Honorius, and he would not be so unwise as to afford them the least advantage!

He had just rejoined the scholar and seated himself, when the strangest impression overwhelmed him. Is was if time had stopped, and he felt the whole earth move, not in place, but into a higher dimension. He looked about, and saw Eusebius and his female assistants were not even looking at him, they were busy with something having to do with a particular set of manuscripts brought out in a lidded basket.

What was he feeling? It was so strange he could not identify it. But the chamber seemed to be more than what he could humanly perceive, only a kind of deliciously soothing had dropped down into his innermost being--and he felt that he could not even rise from his chair, even if he had tried.

What is this place really? he wondered, gazing about. Why am I feeling this extraordinary way? It is wonderful, but what may it be or portend?

Almost beside himself, he wanted to ask Eusebius at once about it, but was hesitant, for would he think him a fool or a child?

Yes he must find out something! He was feeling as if he had been transported into a visionary existence like Plato had oftentimes described.

He heard his voice, and it too was not quite his own, asking Eusebius, "Sir, what is this cave? What do you know about it?"

Eusebius broke off his instructions to the women as to how to categorize the contents of the big basket of manuscripts, and smiled.

"I was wondering when you would get around to asking that. When I found this place, I had great trouble to clear out the offal and dung of my humble predecessors! You see, it was a sheep stable for long years into the past. Who knows how long? It is ancient, like all such places. The shepherds and their flocks come and go, and so nobody knows when it was first occupied by them. But now it is my study and home and library! I am quite pleased with it too. Nobody would want to dispossess me of it, or charge me high rent! They all feel sorry for me, in the town, in fact. How mistaken they are! It is a lovely place to me...besides..." Rutilius had been listening, half in disbelief all the while until he added "besides" and then he knew he was on to something of substance.

"Yes, sir, go on, what more is there to it?"

The women exchanged glances and shook their heads as if they did not share their scholar-priest's views at all on this point, but respected him enough not to say so, at least in his presence with a stranger visiting him.

"Well," Eusebius continued after darting a glance good-humoredly at his assistants, "others may gainsay me if they could, but as for myself, I am satisfied that Constantinus had it quite wrong about the site of the birthplace of our Lord Christus. It is not over there where the good Queen Helena built the great edifice you see standing, but here! Yes, here! Did you not feel it, my child? You would have to be a dead donkey not to feel something!"

Rutilius's head swam, as if he was in a state of shock from suddenly plunging into a very cold bath after just out of the very hottest one. He stared at Eusebius, slowly nodding. "Yes, I have felt something, so I am not quite a dead donkey, as you describe the insensible. But is it true? How do you know?"

Eusebius gave him a not so saintly, annoyed look now as he might give a bothersome fly. He waved his hand, and sent the women away with the basket. "Enough, I'll attend to those items later," he said as they went away. Then he turned back to Rutilius, his eyes locked on Rutilius's eyes, and with an expression of utmost gravity.

"The Supreme Master and Sovereign of the universe was indeed birthed here in human flesh!-- and you ask how I know? I know nothing except that the place shouts the fact at me every moment, every day I abide here by the grace of God, sir! Queen Helena listened to the wrong people, that's all. They did not know this town well--being foreign to the land, and trusting too much in certain authors, whom I have disputed and proven wrong in their conclusions. So they fixed on the wrong place, by two hundred or so paces. Is that so very important now, Governor? In time her edifice may well grow and enclose this site, if it comes out that my view prevails and is vindicated, that this is the true site--which I believe will happen in God's good time. Now enough of this quibble, I have no more time to spare on it.

Now what are your questions, or question, that I might answer you from the perfect and correct texts I have identified and studied and translated, that you and I too may go about our respective business?"

Rutilius's head was spinning. He hesitated. Just then there was a commotion, and bar-Tratta begged to interrupt. He had, it seemed, yet another important visitor for the scholar--a holy woman by the name of Egeria, traveling all the way from Hispania to the Holy Land to tour its principal holy sites. With her friends, among them the notable Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, the renowned anti-Arian Spanish Christian, she had just come from Megiddo in the north after visiting the church founded by a holy woman, Aketous, and a Roman centurion, built to honor Christus, which she wished to tell him about so he might add it to his forthcoming map of the Holy Sites he was working on for pilgrims such as herself.

Rutilius was very disappointd, deprived of Eusebius's undivided attention by this stranger from Hispania, and a woman at that. But he as a man of dignity recognized Egeria as a woman of note the moment he saw her--for she had a number of men and women in her train, most of them garbed in robes of various holy orders in the West and also the East.

He was now interested, as he had never met anyone quite like Egeria, the moment he laid eyes on her. In turn, she was taken equally with both Rutilius and Eusebius, and seemed delighted to meet both a scholar of the first rank and a Roman governor, as bar-Tratta introduced them to her. Seated with Rutilius in an adjoining chair while her companions stood (for there were not chairs enough), Eusebius called for more refreshments to be brought. But of course there was not sufficient on hand, as Lady Paula informed him, so she and her daughter hurried out to the market fetch what was needed for their many guests.

"Tell me, madam, about your journey to Megiddo and your reason for it, and I will see if the new church there warrants inclusion in my map," said Eusebius, getting to the matter at hand directly as he was wont to do. After all, he had many pressing scholarly tasks and inquiries on his mind to yet accomplish that day--once his guests were disposed of!

Egeria rose, then bowed deeply to Eusebius. "I am not worthy to be seated before you, sir! I have heard much good report of you in my own far country, and so I count myself an unworthy person at your doorstep. My friends too who have graciously accompanied me, they too feel the same. Prudentius here has a fine song for you and the churches that you might well want to hear sung. It upholds the full divinity of Christus, which I know is an belief dear to your heart."

"Oh, that is certainly true! I should like to hear some singing then about it! Do sing it for me."

Suddenly, the interlocking chambers of the cave resounded and echoed with Prudentius's song, the words of which expressed his full, unwavering belief in the divinity of Christus.

"Of the Father's love begotten,

ere the worlds began to be,

He is Alpa and Omega,

He is the source, the ending He;

Of the things that are, that have been,

and that future years shall see,

evermore and evermore.

O ye heights of heaven, adore Him;

angel hosts, His praises sing;

powers, dominijons, bow before Him,

extol our God and King;

let no tongue on earth be silent,

every voice in concert ring,

everymore and evermore.

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,

and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,

Hymn and chant and high thansgiving,

and unwearied praises be;

honor, glory, and dominion,

and eternal victory,

evermore and evermore."

"Come, come, is that all you've come this far, just to charm my ears with a nice song that avoids the dryness of my theology though it says the same things?" he chided her.

"But let us get down to the true threshhold of our communion. Daughter, we are all unworthy bond-slaves of the Lord--and equal to one another in that station. Your own estate is not lower than mine--I should rather be washing your feet and the feet your companions, for I am a mere scribbler of texts that nobody reads or wants to read, they are counted so detestable in the high places of Roma!"

Egeria shook her head vigorously, and as a rather stout woman she had a mass of hair to shake as well. The gold-threaded hairnet that held it all in place could not do it, and large locks escaped on both sides of her smiling, broad face.

"That is hard to believe, sir! You take far too low account of yourself, as everywhere I go I hear such praises of your work in all manner of worthy subjects. I can tell you of the Megiddo church later. Tell me, how along are you in the translations and the compilation of the Hebrew scriptures as you transcribe them into our mother tongue?"

Eusebius's eyes were keenly observing her now since she spoke of his chief interests (the Holy Land map being secondary), and he took her hand and led her and her friends over to his writing table, and was quickly showing them exactly where he was in the huge task when he must of recalled his other guest and glanced toward Rutilius.

He paused while showing Egeria and her friends more of his present labors and extended his hand to Rutilius. "But I am getting very forgetful in my old age! This fine fellow here, Lady Egeria, is a fine prince of the realm, come here on business for his estates in Gallia, and has honored me with his presence here today. Sister Egeria, and you too Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, do talk to him as well before you leave from here. Are you planning to stay, for I have lodgings in this town for you, Prudentius and the other men at the monks' house and the attached several houses for sisters that are open to shelter you and your sisters in the Lord?"

At the mention of Rutilius, Egeria turned back to him, and smiling, bowed. "I am not here on my own account, sir. I have come to view the places the Lord frequented, and that are the very places where he was born, lived, and was crucified. I have many friends in my native province who are waiting to hear my reports from this wondrous land. Would you also be visiting here for the same purpose, even if you serve some business interest of yours? If so, perhaps I and my campanions can be of help to you. We have been many places already concerning the Lord, and can give you advice on them, and any other particulars you care to know."

Rutilius inclined his head to her. Though he was not going to tell her or anyone the reason for his traveling in Palaestina, he was certainly able to act the role of a businessman inclined to look about the country for whatever interest it afforded.

"You are kind to offer this assistance to make my visit more pleasant. I and my secretary have journeyed alone for quite a long ways now, but we possibly have some use for the information you might have. Can you tell me--"

While Eusebius busied himself with his manuscripts and Lady Paula and her daughter served the other guests refreshments, Rutilius and Egeria talked, while Hyacinthus took notes of her travel advice and what she had learned along the way.

He mentioned a possiblility of viewing the crucifixion site. "What?" she exclaimed. "That is where we are going next! Would you be likely to leave in a day or so, when we will be going there directly? First, however, I must rest a bit here and see the Church of the Nativity and other things of great interest here. This after all is the glorious birthplace of our Lord! Are you a believer in Him, sir?"

Rutilius bowed. "I cannot say I am, but I am here to inquire about him, as I was doing with our host when you were announced. Would you like to join with me in my interview, or would you rather choose to meet with him separately?"

Egeria looked to her companions, and they commented to each, and then she turned back to him. "We would be honored, and accept your invitation. Perhaps I shall learn even more, as you will have questions perhaps I had not thought of."

Rutilius had thought she would decline his invitation. He did some quick thinking. Now she would be able to report on his questions to the scholar. Would she share them with the wrong people? He had preferred as much confidentiality as possible, and now that seemed to be out of the question. If only he had not invited her out of courtesty! But now the die was cast, he must accept her presence and her friends too. But would he learn what he wished to know, or was his whole purpose here spoiled? He knew it would soon be revealed, one way or the other.

But when they turned to Eusebius, he was gone! He retired to his chamber, Lady Paula informed them all, as it was time for his prayers and flagellations--for he customarily beat himself with a length of wet rope during his prayers, in order to help keep the lusts of his mortal flesh under subjection to his spirit. There was no set time for his return, but in the morning, very early, he would appear again in the writing room if they wished to inquire of him again.

Rutilius was profoundly disappointed. "Oh, the vagaries of a holy man's life--he should have known there would delays such as this! But what were they to do in the meantime? The scholar-priest's prayers might take some considerable time, as he had responsibility for many things, including a monasters and sisters' houses and various charities too, and, sensing his enemies were not too far removed from him, Rutilius felt he needed to be going soon if possible. To be held in a place like this too long, it was to give his enemies too much time to track him down and cause him yet more mischief.

He had a question for Egeria, however. "I thank you for your own gracious invitation," he told her. "But would you do me a service, madam? Inform our host that I will be touring the city while he prays, and then return in an hour or two or, if not, then the following morrrow?"

"Oh, sir, allow me to attend you! My companions would all like to do the same of course. While we are touring, we can continue to talk of our respective journeys in life and in this land. I would very much like to know how you came to take an interest in our Lord."

Rutilius realized now this sociable a creature was not going to be put off easily. What was he to do? He had no real interest in the other sites the miserable little Jewish town afforded, as she evidently did. But he was not going to be loitering in one place either, so he said, "Perhaps you can show me what sites there are that speak of your Lord, as I know nothing of these Judean hills."

Egeria beamed. "Oh, that would be my delight, Governor! For in coming here we stopped at a number already. But first I must leave a word for our host that we are going out and will return."

She spoke to Lady Paula, who nodded, and they were free to go, as Lady Paul informed her that the old scholar might not be open to further interviewing that day, so it was just as well they do as they wished in the town so as not to waste their time. If they required lodgings, they could go to the monastery that Eusebius had founded. The priests could reside there, and the Governor too with his secretary, and Lady Egeria and her women could retire to the sisters' houses that were attached.

They had just stepped outside, all together with the overly friendly, ubiquitous guide, bar-Tratta, when Egeria peered at Rutilius, then slapped her cheek with her hand. "Of course! I just now recalled your name is one I read, in the annals of Roma, in Tacitus! Are you not of the same lineage as Publius Rutilius--?"

Rutilius could have laughed, but checked himself. She certainly was well read for a woman! Yes, of course, he was! But the incident referred to was not generally understood, for Tacitus did not give minute particulars of the case, only mentioned him in reference to a petition made by the city of Massilia regarding an exile seeking sanctuary there, whom they wished to extend citizenship and haven to, while citing to the Emperor Tiberius the previous case as a precedent for imperial clemency, Publius Rutilius from Massilia, who had been exiled from Roma, but who was then accepted and given citizenship by the people of Smyrna, in the province of Asia, since he was accounted by them a notable man and wealthy too.

"Yes," he told her, "your memory serves you well. But the Annals of Tacitus are not going to tell you what the issue was in his case. I can tell you more. He was wrongly accused, and exiled from Roma by political opponents in a trifling matter, and therefore the citizens of Smyrna gave him safe haven, recognizing the unjustness of his exile. Was it all right for Massilia to give safe haven to yet another worthy man, who was exiled for offenses that were equally questionable? So Tiberius was petitioned."

"Oh, it wouldn't be of any wonder to me--if the man were innocent and were sent away due to vicious calumny spread by his enemies. We Christians were treated so frequently they cannot be numbered, and only since Constantinus have we enjoyed full protection of the state, the same protection afforded to others. So I give you my condolences, that your ancestor should have been mistreated in like manner as we have been in the past."

That was well said, Rutilius thought. His respect for her grew. He then added some details. "I personally was in charge of the imperial Archives and investigated the case of my ancestor Publius Rutilius and found that the charges were completely spurious, which were thrown out by succeeding judges who were questioned on the petition for his reinstatement to full citizenship and his rights and privileges in Roma and Massilia. I can assure you he was innocent, and suffered a great deal. We of the line of Numantianii have enjoyed advancement for the most part in Roma's imperial courts and governance, but now and then jealous men have charged one or more of us with venality and corruption and even conspiracy against the state--all untrue, as we have sufficient wealth of our own to satisfy us, so bribes can play little part in our administration. Publius Rutilius, my namesake, was not able to overcome the charges, due to immense bribes given the senators judging his case, and since he would not sink to giving bribes himself, he was condemned, unjustly, and exiled. But all that has been made known, so that there remains Tacitus's comment in his Annals, and that, as I have said, is given obliquely and not for its own sake. I only wish I could edit his volume and give posterity the whole account of it, so that the future generations can know the truth about my honorable ancestor, just as I have related it to you."

As they were talking, they were entering the public streets of the little town, and Egeria stopped.

"Now what will we see next here? If you have no objection, Governor--"

But Rutilius's attention was distracted. Hyacinthus had also touched Rutilius's shoulder, to alert him to something. And Rutilius saw what it was. There were far too many armed men in the street, not Romans, nor were they common villagers, as they were strangely garbed for Easterners but showed they were well armed with swords.

Whose men were they? And why were they there? Where they soldiers of fortune out to rob him? It did not look good, and they were blocking their way.

Egeria, however, either pretended she did not notice the armed men or was attempting to appear unafraid. For she continued walking, drawing Rutilius and Hyacinthus and her friends with her--straight into the lion's jaws, so it seemed!

When it seemed as if they would collide in another moment, and they all be put to the sword (though Rutilius had drawn his sword and was going to fight for his life), Egeria raised her hands with her full sleeves waving and rushed at them, chanting something at the top of her voice.

Astounded, the armed men all froze, and seemed to turn to statues--and the next moment was just as incredible, Egeria, followed by Rutilius and Hyacinthus, and Egeria's train of men and women, were free to walk right through the cordon of armed men blocking their path.

When she stopped and they all turned round, Rutilius saw the armed men had melted away, perhaps shamed by a woman and no longer possessing the spirit to attack them in that place.

Anyway, they were gone! And then Egeria turned to Rutilius, her eyes shining with humor. "What on earth did you say to them?" he said.

"Oh, I just use a holy prayer given me for protection, calling on the angels of God to make a way through the midst of my enemies-- and you see the result!--I have used it quite a number of times on my long journey--and the Lord is always faithful to protect us, as you can see!"

She continued walking, and Rutilius accompanied her, utterly amazed. "Was she a sorceress, or truly a follower of a god so powerful he could freeze armed men in their tracks? Was Christus really that powerful, though he was not even present on earth, according to their scriptures, having "ascended to heaven" after his resurrection? What proofs could she furnish that he was indeed alive and powerful, a divinity with great powers?

He called to her to stop.

She turned to him, and he was able to ask her his burning question.

"As long as I am in Roman territory, I have the authority to command those soldiers there, though I wonder if they would obey my authority without any of my own bodyguard present. Without such authority, how did you get the courage to confront them like that?"

She looked at him without speaking for a long moment, then she replied, "Because my Lord commands a greater kingdom than Roma's and yours, and he alone conquered the grave! Now there is nothing really to fear--Death and its power over us have been conquered by my Lord!"

Her words struck him like a thunderbolt. He was so stunned, he stood there, not realizing for a moment that she had left him and was again walking up the street, her friends quickly following.

He followed too with Hyacinthus, reflecting how she had spoken with such conviction, and evidently had no fear of assailants, known or unknown. With no fear, she could go anywhere, and not even bother to disguise herself. Could he say the same for himself, that he was as fearless as Lady Egeria? He had often resorted to subterfuge and disguise, had he not?

Somewhat wounded in his pride, he continued to tour the sites Lady Egeria selected, and he paid her a great deal more respect, listening to what she had to say, and seeing to it that Hyacinthus copied every word exactly. Later on, he thought, he would study her words most carefully and give them much reflection. He might well share them with the Emperor. After all, he hadn't gotten much from Eusebius Hieronymous and Lady Egeria seemed just as much an authority on Christus as a genuine believer in Him as the scholar was with all his books and learning and ascetic piety.

Egeria had stopped moving, and Rutilius and Hyacinthus caught up to her and her entourage. He had his chance to speak to her again.

She looked up at him, waiting when he approached her.

"Lady Egeria, what were you chanting back there. I did not catch the words, they seemed to be a language unknown to me. And I know many languages, so that is surprising to me."

"Then I will have to interpret them to you, Governor, for it was a heavenly language. I didn't make up the words myself, the Spirit of God imparted them to me to deal with those men. Wait a moment, sir, as I ask the Lord for the interpretation."

She turned to her women, spoke a few words privately with them, and one of the women stepped forward, Lady Egeria holding her hand.

"I see the interpretation has already been given to another. My dear friend here, Clementia, will give it, if you wish."

He nodded, and she stepped forward, her head bowed, and said,

"Powers of darkness, begone! You are bound, with the bonds of the Lord Christus, so submit at the foot of his cross, where all powers, of death and hell and Satan were defeated! And do no harm to this man nor his servant nor the lady and her companions!"

Rutilius had Hyacinthus take down the words, and he thanked Egeria, and she then turned to the business at hand, showing him the house where the Lord Christus lived as a young child up to the time of the massacre of the innocents by Herod the Great.

"You mean, he did not reside always in the stable in the cave?"

"No, his parents brought him to this house, as the accounts I have surveyed have all indicated. I am surprised Vespasianus and Titus, with Flavius Alexander acting for Titus as his chief commander in the seige of Jerusalem, left it standing. They have destroyed so many holy sites during the reigns of Hadrianus, Trianus, Julian the Apostate, and others like them! But perhaps this obscure little town has shielded it from the attention given sites in the bigger places."

As she was already seeking to enter the house, Rutilius went with her, and they found an old couple far advanced in age residing there, who were nevertheless happy to conduct their unexpected visitors through the two rooms of the little house.

It was nothing more than a place where the poorest of society dwelt, Rutilius observed. How could the Lord God allow his Son to reside in such a place as this?"

Egeria seemed to discern his thoughts. She said to him, "You may think this a mean hovel, unfit for a glorious Messiah and Christus, Governor. But he was born in a stable, which is a type of our human hearts, and as Immanuel, his name, thought it not beneath him to reside in human flesh, he also sought to share our human condition, even the poverty of the poor and oppressed. Praise to him!"

Rutilius felt checked, even humbled, by her remarks. No Roman Emperor or ruler would ever do this, demean his glory as to share the human condition of poor, abject people under their rule. Why should Christus do such a thing?"

He asked her.

He was told, "As I said, his name is Immanuel, announced at his birth, which means, 'God with us.' God sent His Son to become one of us, to share our common woes and infirmities, so that he could be our High Priest in heavenly places, and, not only that, know and feel our inmost thoughts and feelings in our hearts and minds and our frail flesh, so that he might officiate before the Majesty of the heavenly Father as our most powerful intercessor."

Rutilius's head was spinning. What god of Roma and Grecia would do such things? It was all unthinkable. But Christus evidently had done much of what Egeria described.

He was staggered by the very thought. What was God if he stooped to the very level of humanity like this, and not only that, submitted to a Roman stake and suffered agonies and died for mankind? Beside such a God, such an Immanuel and Christus, the gods of Roma and Grecia and this God of the Christians were total opposites! They held contempt for common people--and would never come down to their level.

How could he be sure there existed such a God as this? His people, his ancient progenitors, knew nothing about such a God. Their gods--his gods still--did not read men's inmost thoughts, and so they were free to think what they liked, feel what they liked, about the gods, while offering them gifts at the Temple and engaging in the various rituals in order to get the gods' favor for a certain advantage sought. But if there existed this God who saw into human hearts, sought to even reign there as Lord, everything was turned upside down! Everything!"

Truly, it was too much for a man to grasp in only a few moments. He leaned against the door lintel, unaware of the world around, he was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of these revelations--if that was what they were-- concerning Deity, namely Christus the Son and his Heavenly Father.

He grew aware, however, that voices were calling to him to return to the world of sense.

He struggled to regain mastery of his thoughts and feelings, though cast in such disarray he wondered if he had gone mad.

It was Lady Egeria speaking to him. "Governor, if you have had sufficient time here to meditate on the presence of the Lord so strong in this house--" Then it struck him. The "Presence of the Lord-- so strong in this house"? Yes! That was it. He felt the same here as he had in Eusebius's quarters, back in the cave he had made his home and scholarly study. Yet when he recognized this, something in him fought back. It refused to be mastered so easily. He summoned all his will and tore himself away from the place--and only when he was outside, with Hyacinthus by his side, did he feel he was free--or at least free of the overwhelming sense of Christus's presence. Not that it was odious or a terrible thing--it was just too strong for him to maintain his Roman balance and control, and so he fought it as fiercely as he would a barbarian attacking him.

Egeria and her party, seeing that he was now in the street, continued the tour of the city and its places held sacred to Christus.

But afterwards, when he thought about it, he could not recall what they were exactly. He had the vaguest recollections of various places and things she showed him and spoke to him about-- for nothing really mattered to him after feiueling the presence of Christus in the cave-dwelling of Eusebius and shortly afterwards, the house where the child Christus had resided for a year or so before the family removed to Nazareth in Galilee.

While viewing the last site of the tour for that day, Lady Egeria turned to him.

"I hope we have been of some small service to you this day, Governor! Would you be stopping here in the town? We have been offered quarters at the houses attached to the monastery, and as for the monks, they will gladly give you a good chamber there, the best they have for their guests. It is late in the day, would you consider doing them the honor of abiding with them tonight? You may stay as long as you wish too. I know that our host is most hospitable and what he has is yours."

Rutilius glanced at Hyacinthus, and thought quickly, but was resolved not to remain if he might still make Aelia Capitolena by nightfall. It lay, after all, only five miles distant.

He smiled and shook his head. "I must decline, for I am anxious to reach Aelia Capitolena by tonight, Lady Egeria. I had some other questions for the holy man--"

"Oh?" Egeria interposed. "And what might they be? I can ask him for you--and send his reply by courier."

Rutilius wondered for a moment if he ought to entrust his question to a woman, whom was unknown to him before this day, but she had proven her character in the confrontation with their would-be assailants, had she not?

"You may ask him one thing for me. Did Christus rise from the grave by his power. So far, I have seen, and felt, provocative things. But proofs? I still must have proof to believe that he is whom his followers say he is."

Egeria studied him for a moment, then inclined her head to him and walked away, her companions following her.

Rutilius stood watching her go, and thought how on this one thing everything was hinged. The door swung open so far to the favorable regarding Christus, but he must not be overly swayed by his personal feelings and the influences of the particular sites frequented by Christus in his natal city-- but if there had been no resurrection, if there was no certain proof available, then the whole edifice of belief in Christus fell apart and collapsed. And for those proofs, he thought no better place to go than Aelia Capitolena, where Christus had died and, reputedly, rose from the dead.

Rutilius looked around with distaste at the dismal, poor streets and dwellings, and the mostly barren hillocks that rose round the little, unwalled town, with evident relief, "Let us go hire horses," he said to Hyacinthus. "We must make good time, as it is soon growing dusk in these wretched hills and I do not wish to spend the night here."

Hyacinthus hurried away to the nearest stables where there might be horses.

And Rutilius had good reason not to tarry there, he thought, keeping a keen eye out on the occasional passer-by. He had not yet identified his would-be assailants. Whoever had sent them to detain him, or even attack him, might well be known by the Praetorian Guard commander of Aelia Capitolena. Surely, he would be in receipt of information about such a large band. There had to be forty, maybe fifty fully-armed soldiers. They looked to be Thracians, or Germans, being so tall and fair of skin, and long of head. Of course, the legions employed German auxiliaries by the hunreds and thousands, but he sensed these were not of that sort, they were accompanied by no regular centurians of Roma's. And they carried no banners identifying the legion to which they were attached. No, this was an independent band, sent by an enemy authority that Roma did not sanction. That made them particularly dangerous, and he determined to inform the Emperor in Nova Roma once he was clear of the area altogether. While he was still there, however, the best he could do was take guards from the garrison in Aelia Capitolena if he felt that was the only way he could manage while in the city.

It took Hyacinthus little time to find what was needed, and he came with two horses, while riding one of them. Behind him, a donkey held a rider, a small boy of about twelve years of age.

"Will these two do, sire?" he asked, holding out the reins to Rutilius of the second horse.

The stableman took the money you gave me for the two we need as far as the city, and for a small price is sending a boy along with us to return our mounts if we do not choose to buy them."

Rutilius looked led the mare to some steps, and from them mounted her. "No, I don't think they will do to buy them--but they will be good enough to get us to the city at least, and then the boy can take them back." He was glad, though, of the boy's presence with them, as it increased their party's size, and he would serve to be a witness of whatever happened to them, if things did not go well.

As they started out of the town, he called to the boy in Latin and got no response. He tried Greek, which was much more common in the area. This time he got a reaction to: "What is your name?" The boy looked surprised, but he stammered, "Gamiliah." "And your father's?" "Izak ben-Nahan."

Rutilius pressed him no further, as he knew the boy naturally feared to answer to a rich pagan and a foreigner too.

But as they left the town behind, he did have one instruction for Gamilial.

"You, keep a sharp eye out for robbers--you should know where they like to hide and then leap out on travelers like us. We depend on you to get us safely to the city!"

When he said that, he watched the boy's expression, and thought he could tell the boy knew well what he was talking about, as he suddenly tensed and started looking about more.

Not that there were many people on the road at that hour or laboring in the fields or few, scattered bits of vineyards or comleting various tasks in farmyards. Most of the travellers had either camped hard by Bethlehem, or lodged in the town, or had already reached Aelia Capitolena. They were latecomers, but still Rutilius was sure they could make it there before nightfall and the closure of the gates--that is, if nothing untoward happened.

Presently, Rutilius became aware of a large body of travelers gaining on them from the rear. He hesitated. Should he stop and allow them to pass them. If so, they would meet on the open but otherwise vacant road. Was that wise?

But they were moving faster, and he did not think the poor mare and the older horse that Hyacinthus rode would bear trotting the rest of the way to Aelia Capitolena.

What to do? He looked back, and saw the travellers were about twenty in number, and were on camels, which gave them speed that surpassed any he could muster.

Should he strike off across the countryside, and leave the road? But if these men were pursuing him, they could just as easily catch him in the rough country as on the well-paved Roman road.

He spoke to Hyacinthus. "What do you make of them?"

Hyacinthus had been aware of them too, and yet he could not decide. "I am praying, sire, for your protection."

"Praying for my protection!" thought Rutilius. "That is, I suppose, all a a monk and a secretary without sword can do for us!"

Rutilius glanced at Gamaliah, and saw he indeed very afraid and was wanting to hurry his donkey forward faster by jabbing it hard with his heels.

For a Roman, though, despite the seeming likelihood of imminent death, there was no question that he ought first to show no fear. So he continued riding as he had, as if nothing averse was happening.

They were soon overtaken. The leading camels passed them, however, on either side of the road, while the ones behind slowed and kept pace behind at the rear. In this way Rutilius found they were effectively surrounded, yet there was no sign they were trying to stop him.

It was the strangest thing he had ever seen, but he kept going, while gripping his sword with one hand, ready to defend himself if put to it.

In this way they continued, and before long Rutilius glimpsed towers and then walls of a city uphead--Aeilia Capitolena! And still the strangers who had joined him had made no hostile move! What could they be intending?

Just then the lead camels dropped back, and he proceeded forward and when he looked back every single one of the camels and their riders had vanished. Astounded, he drew up, and peered all around. It was dusk, hard by nightfall, when the shadowy landscape can play tricks, he knew, on the eyes, but here there was barrenness, hardly a stunted tree or thornbush broke the stony ground all around.

Where could they have gone so quickly and hidden themselves? It was if they had all fallen into a pit and the ground had closed over them!

He struck his mount with his hand and urged her forward. Whatever explanation could be had, it was not handy at the moment, so he pressed on toward the city in the remaining feeble light.

They passed through the gates just in time as the gatemen were engaged in drawing the doors close for the night, allowing some sheep and shepherds to exit just as Rutilius, Hyacinthus, and the stableboy entered.

"You are just in time, as I'd have shut you out a few moments from now!" the sergeant grumbled. He eyed Rutilius more closely, though their mounts, two aged horses and a donkey, did not seem to impress him overly.

"Were you late in setting out from Samaria?"

"Why, no, we came from Bethlehem, just a few miles away, only we had a late start due to many things to see there."

The sergeant gave him a queer look. "What? Why then did you come round to the Northern Gate if you fared, as you said, from that wretched little Judean desert town?"

Now Rutilius was confounded.

"Is this the Northern Gate? I thought we were entering the gate on the South."

The sergeant shook his head and gave looked all the more suspiciously at them.

"Oh, did you now! How can I believe such a tale? If you truly came from the south, you would have had to enter the Southern Gate! Why then did you go all the way round to enter my gate? Do you think you can be turned away from one gate because of some trouble of yours, and then go through my gate easily and without scrutiny? Is that it? What is it you are trying to get round--are you Jews atempting to sneak in? Jews aren't permitted in this city! You can be flogged for this offense!"

Rutilius could not believe what he was hearing. How in the world had he and Hyacinthus and the boy and their mounts been transported without their knowing to the opposite gate of the city?

He wondered if he was going mad. What with their strange encounter with the camel train, which vanished just as mysteriously as it had appeared, then this mixup over the gates, he did not know what to think.

The sergeant turned away and gave orders for the gates to be drawn and bolted, and while this was being done he turned back to Rutilius, with all the resulting screeching of hinges and the crashing of bolts. "And what might your business be here in the city? And why do you come in so late?" the sergeant challenged them. "If you don't answer satisfactorily, I shall send my man here to the opposite gate to find out just exactly why you were turned away--for that is what I suspect!"

Rutilius decided to put away his own misgivings for the moment and dismounted. He showed the sergeant his imperial legate's medallion given him by Emperor Honorius and an imperial scroll with the imperial seal he had in Hyacinthus's keeping, which had an immediate effect on the sergeant and his soldiers.

"You are mistaken, I was not turned away, sergeant. It is as I have told you. This is the first gate we have sought to enter. And since I have come on business I will only disclose to the Prefect of the Colonia and the Garrison! Take me to him at once. As for my servant, he is to attend me, as he is my secretary. The boy Gamaliah is returning these mounts to Bethlehem, in the morning. Let him go in peace, sergeant. Since you have a stable, let him rest there for the night, and give him food and drink, with some blankets, and provender also for his beasts. I will give you payment for it."

"No, sir, you need pay nothing. You are our most welcome guest! We will take good care of the boy!" the sergeant responded. The officer of the gate came out from the guardpost, spoke briefly with the sergeant, and then came and saluted Rutilius most respectfully. "It is my pleasure to welcome you to the city, sir! I am Marcus Farcus Ausonius, and my men are at your service! Sorry, for the misunderstanding. Sergeant Caninus thought you were but a common wayfarer, come at a suspicious late hour. I will escort you personally to the Commander. Please, this way to my chariot."

As they proceeded in the chariot from the plaza, with Hyacinthus riding with him, Rutilius observed the impressive colonnades of pillars and many shops that lined the broad, 60 foot wide western cardo, one of two main thoroughfares crossing the city.

The gate officer proudly commented on the main features along the route as they proceeded, most of which had been constructed by Hadrianus during his reign, but which had been embellished with huge churches and many smaller shrines for pilgrims by Constantinus I and his now much revered, saintly step-mother, Queen Helena, the chief of which was the Holy Sepulchre Church marking the tomb of Christus.

The officer turned from the cardo to a side street, however. They passed through an arched gate, and entered the Prefect's palace compound. News of his coming had already reached the palace and the commander by a gate guard on horseback, Rutilius found. The commander himself stepped out into the grand entrance porch of the palace to personally greet and welcome him.

"We are most pleased to welcome you, Legate! I hear you are here on some business for the Emperor in the West. What we have here is at your disposal! Please come with me, I will show you to your rooms at once, so you may refresh yourself.

Rutilius found the words of the Prefect were equal to what he could produce. He was given a lavish, many-roomed apartment all for his own use as long as he wished to stay, and many servants, men and women, to attend him, and his own private baths and terrace and garden. In such a setting he could relax as a civilized man and Roman, and forget all the cares of the world. But this was not his intention in the least, of course! He had only one reason to visit Jerusalem, he must milk the city of all the remaining greatest proofs it might still contain that would support the case of Christus and his exceptional divinity as "Son of God."

Could he divulge this to the commanding Prefect? It seemed far too risky a thing, if the Prefect let this plan of his out to others, and it spread afar. For Honorius's enemies to learn how anxious he was to settle this question might unsettle his throne ultimately--and it was already shaky, to say the least! And they would interpret this inquiry by the young Emperor as a further sign of his weakness and unformed mind--which would be cause to lead them to think he should be put out of the way and a stronger man set in his place.

The following day, at dinner, of course the matter of his coming came up for discussion.

Rather than cause undue confusion or suspicion, Rutilius faced the question that was on the Prefect's mind and answered it before it could be asked.

"You see I have brought my personal secretary, Hyacinthus, with me, as my purpose here is to review the archives and libraries the city may afford me."

"Oh, are you a scholar, Governor, pursuing the works of the learned authorites along with your other duties to your emperor? I am afraid the main libraries were lost in the revolt of Jews in the time of Vespasianus and Titus, but we have a few resources gathered since then that may be of interest to you."

"Yes, I would like to see them as soon as I can. They may give me some information about the Jewish Revolt and also the one after in the time of Hadrianus. Perhaps he left records here of it."

"Yes, I believe he did," replied the Prefect. "But is that all you wish to do here? We have other things of interest to travelers, the various edifices and temples, for instance, built since the restoration of the city."

Well, if I find I have time for them, I shall be happy to see them too. But first I should like to review any books you have. If you will point me to their locations, I can begin at once tomorrow morning. I should like an escort at attend me." The Prefect rose and bowed. "Anything you want, Governor, is at your disposal. Certainly, I shall furnish you an escort. One never knows about these Jews, Governor! We tried for a long time to keep them out, but now they are back, somehow or other--and they have so mingled with the citizenry that you cannot tell which is Roman or Greek and which is Jewish."

The Prefect sighed as he looked out over the city. "It comes with the territory, I'm afraid! This mountain city, despite its rather poor prospects for producing wealth and culture, has always attracted so many unruly races and tribes--you really cannot control that--they will come, to barter or do business, to live, or maybe even to do us some kind of mischief--it really can't be helped. We always have to be on guard. You see what happened in past times when we were too lenient. It took the full might of our legions to put down their insurrections, all centered in this city. Since it was rebuilt as the Roman city you see today, it has been quiet, but the Jewish population grows, I am informed, and that concerns me. With favor shown them, they are bound to take advantage of our relaxed leash."

The Prefect looked about him and the servants attending them. Then he turned back to Rutilius.

"We have even in the servant staff of this palace some Jews--though they will not divulge it, except under torture."

"Must they be excluded from the city now? Surely the fighting spirit of the Jews of former generations has been tempered by their sufferings due to ill-advised revolts. Surely, they see by now that Roman rule is here to stay."

The Prefect shook his head. "Oh, they see we are here, but they will never, never be resigned to it. Once their numbers grow strong enough in their calculation, they will attempt to overthrow us-- it is in their nature, which they cannot change. Nor can the gods change them! They follow their own god, and none other, and that is their chief problem-- that strange god of theirs! If they followed Christus, why, they'd be meek as lambs! Now I am not a Christian, but I can say this, having observed the many Christians in this city. But the Jews, why, they refuse Christus, as they repudiate the idea that their god could have a son. By Jove, they are a most damnable and ungovernable race, Governor! What is to be done with them? Kill them all, send the rest to the copper mines for life? What?"

"But, Prefect, you have already shown me this is a Roman city--and with many edifices too built by Emperor Constantine and his mother--all this is not possible for such a weakened people to overthrow. They would have to destroy the whole city, even if it were possible for them to defeat our legions and seize the city."

The Prefect rose from his couch and went to the edge of the terrace and looked down into the streets and housetops of the rebuilt city beyond the palace wall.

Rutilius wondered, while the Prefect turned away, if he should retire, but the Prefect settled that for him. So far he thought the Prefect had not divined anything of his true quest from his statements, and he wished to leave it at that point if he could.

"But all this talk about the Jews must be dull talk and most wearying to you, Governor! And after your journey here, no doubt you would prefer to retire to your own rooms where you have every comfort provided we can supply in this province. If you have any further need of me, I shall remain with you. I have some entertainments provided you here, some musicians and dancers and such from Aegyptus, but only if you feel up to them." "No, Prefect, you have been most gracious to an unannounced guest, and I do wish to retire, and so I will forego the entertainers. Besides, I have books to consult that I carry with me, and perhaps a letter or two to compose."

Rutilius rose, and saw Hyacinthus also approach from the edge of the triclinium. Together they went out, escorted by servants.

When they were back in Rutilius's suite, Rutilius sent the servants out but kept Hyacinthus close by for a private talk.

But in palaces the walls had ears! He wondered how much he could safely say to Hyacinthus, being in a place where there were a hundred or more pairs of listening ears and perhaps unfriendly ones at that place among the servants, some perhaps stationed behind walls with tubes set in them for hearing what was being said in adjacent rooms. That was the way it was in the imperial palace at Ravenna, so why should it be any different here? After all, a ruler had to know what his subjects were thinking and doing if he was to maintain control of the unruly elements and stop plotters in their tracks.

Fortunately, there was the large outdoor terrace and roof garden attached to his suite of rooms, and though the wind out there was brisk, it would serve as a place to talk more discreetly.

Taking his servant, he gave Hyacinthus instructions for the following day as they stood far enough from the palace to keep their words from being overheard.

"Hyachinthus, here is my plan. I want you to search out and bring to me only the books dealing with the Christus, and I do not care who the author might be. Any report at all will be useful.

Though the Prefect thinks I have only a scholarly interest in the revoluts, I am not interested in the Jewish revolts as such, unless Christus is mentioned. If Titus or Flavius Alexander or any such person mentions Christus in those reports, I want to see it, that's all. We all know what took place then, it is well documented. Rather, I think there must be accounts here surviving since the time of Augustus Caesar, not just from the reigns of emperors after him, copies of messages and reports sent directly from here to Roma, sent by various legates, procurators, and governors, and even some generals."

He paused to take a look around at the garden shrubbery set in massive pots, and eyed the various statuary--one couldn't be too careful about spies lurking in such places!

Assured it was still safe to talk, he continued: "The huge libraries of both Jewish kings and Romans were mostly destroyed when the city was taken and burnt and leveled by Titus, we know, but some parts of them might have escaped the conflagration, if they had been seized in time.

We know Titus was a young cultivated man who affected poetry and scholarship just as Nero did, so he might well have secured some of these books in the palaces he was sacking. After all, it was part of the loot, and he was entitled to it, as the city's conqueror in his father's name. I doubt if anyone has ever searched such surviving accounts out. They didn't even think of it, presuming they had all been destroyed. Now if Titus failed to secure all of these accounts, and some remained behind him here when he returned to Roma to be celebrated in a triumph alongside his father, we will not be disappointed! I have a feeling a city this old has many secrets yet to be revealed! Who knows what the keepers of the Temple treasures, for instance, might have hidden away in caves before Flavius Alexander, Titus's general, crushed the Temple's defenders and took the sanctuary.

It could be in those accounts we shall find exactly what our Emperor is seeking! As for the treasures of gold and silver, well, they may remain hidden forever if their locations were known only to men who have perished in the slaughters following the taking of the Temple and city. But for us, we shall be more than recompensed by such accounts as I have described."

Rutilius eyed Hyacinthus keenly. Well, that is my aim. Is it understood?"

Hyacinthus nodded. "I shall find them, master, if they are here."

"Good! We shall start early on the morrow, beginning with the palace library. From there we will go to the Antonio Fortress, and thence to the main edifices, and in one or more of those places I believe we will find something that will be very useful about Christus. The commander here has promised to give us entry to the entire city, so we shall not be impeded in any way, unless we are lied to, and I think I can tell a man is lying by now and doing whatever he can to put us off."

The following morning, just as the dawning light broke above the mountains of Moab in the east, illuminating their starkly barren, jagged-edged desolation, they rose early, and the servants who came in to attend them were surprised when they found them fully dressed.

Rutilius ordered a scanty meal, as he wanted to waste no time when he had more important things to do with the day.

Soon the Prefect, informed of their rising, appeared, and he called guards and they were escorted to the palace library. There Rutilus thanked the commander, then ordered the escorting guards and attendants to retire to the hallway, so he and Hyacinthus could work privately. The Prefect, seeing his duty done and that his guests had no further need of him, also withdrew to his own private quarters.

Rutilius sat down and watched as Hyacinthus went at the scrolls first, as they were older, generally, than the now more desirable vellum-bound manuscripts.

Combing through the scrolls, he selected only those he thought might suit his master's quest.

As he had proven able to do before, almost like a hunting dog sniffing out a hidden quarry among the big rocks of the wilderness, Hyacinthus expertly ferreted out the exact accounts Rutilius was hoping to find--going back to the Jewish Revolts of the generalship of Vespasianus and also the reign of Hadrianus.

He could hardly believe what he was handling. Such accounts were inflammatory, and if known to exist, would be burned by the authorities in both Roma and Aelia Capitolena! How could they allow such things to come to light, either re-published or proclaimed publicly--they were far too dangerous and incendiary to be allowed that chance. Dust covered them. Not a fingerprint on them until Hyacinthus touched them and drew the scrolls or books out of their cases. Obviously, Titus had never bothered to look at them, not even a brief glance had he given them-- being urged to return to Roma and his father's Triumph the moment he and his butcher of a general Flavius Alexander had wrapped things up sufficiently in Jerusalem.

Seized by soldiers from libraries of palaces, even while they were being looted and burned, palaces that belonged to the Temples' leading families and chief priests as well as the procurators' own archives and booty chests, these accounts were jumbled in amidst all sorts of unorganized manuscripts, army reports, letters, memoranda, from all kinds of official and private sources-- Herodian kings, Jewish princesses, various Roman authorities high and low grade, Syrian governors, rebel leaders, ambassadors of various kingdoms and free cities, spies, religious leaders, chief priests, leading rabbis, tradesmen, wealthy aristocrats, emperors, priest, literary men, philosophers, field commanders, leaders of various armed, fighting Jewish factions and parties.

In this great mass he saw he could find out exactly what Roma's generals and Roma's enemies in the city were thinking and doing in public and in private--it was priceless material, a multitudinous record that had inadvertently survived from those catastrophes and all the fires and pillage that completely destroyed the city as it used to be, thanks first to Titus's order to preserve what still could be preserved from the city's best things (which had survived the Jewish factions' own ransackings of Roman and Herodian palaces), and also Hadrianus's reign a number of accounts he had left behind and forgotten in the city after his vast rebuilding projects were mainly completed. Perhaps, they had been gathered to be forwarded to Roma's archives, but they never made it there. More important events intervened, and the accounts were forgotten, a mass of unassorted items that required much going through and sifting out the dross from the silver-- the very task he had set for himself and Hyacinthus!

Reading furiously fast and memorizing as he read, Rutilius digested one after the other, tossing them over to Hyacinthus as he finished each of them. He knew it was hardly worthwhile trying to get them out of Palaestina, or even Aelia Capitolena, as when he reached Ravenna or Roma, their contents might come to the attention of someone highly placed who might see the truly inflammatory nature of them--if they were ever re-published or made known publicly.

It was all so exciting, handling and reading these highly sensitive and forbidden documents of state, documents that the government in times of turmoil and great civil unrest had failed to appraise and then suppress, that he scarcely noticed the passing of time. Servants came in with covered dishes at one point, set a table for them, then retired when he showed no intention of touching them. Later, they returned and fetched them away, even while venturing inquiring glances at the two men who showed no signs they cared for such things as food and drink.

But finally, with his neck aching unbearably, and the muscles in his arms and shoulders beginning to cramp from being held in much the same positions for hours as he read, Rutilius broke off his reading, and turned to Hyacinthus.

"Oh! Let's stop for a time. Do you have some bread and cheese at least? A bit of watered wine too would help get it down, for surely it has gone a bit dry in your bag, and we need not choke it down."

Hyacinthus let down a huge armful of dusty scrolls on a table, and dug into his scribal carry-all, and after brushing his hands off from the thick dust from the manuscripts, handed Rutilius the cheese and bread he had wrapped with a napkin, saved from the scanty breakfast in the early morning.

Rutilius took half and handed it back. "Now eat, lad! Do not wait upon me to finish before you start. You must revive your strength before me, as we have some ways to go yet on these papers and books. There are still some unresolved questions on my mind. Later, we can resume life as normal men."

He watched Hyacinthus, though reluctant to begin before his master, quickly consume his share and sip a little of the watered wine from a small jug that carried little silver cups on a string, and he too ate, and then they returned to their labors for the rest of the afternoon.

It was deliberate how they handled the manuscripts, making no attempt to keep the ones of particular interest to Rutilius separate from the ones that were merely humdrum rubbish or known literary or philosophical works. Titus, then Hadrianus following up, had swept the Jewish capital clean of all Jewishness. They remade it from a clean slate into a model Roman city of some pretentiousness with its rather two imposing, pillared and curtained cardos crossing the city to connect the principal gates at opposite sides. Then the Christians under Constantinus I had joined to these efforts their own, erecting the big edifices, churches and saints shrines and such, that in many cases entailed the taking down of pagan edifices that Hadrianus had reared to his own glory. Of course, that did not make the city entirely Christian either. With so much built already by Hadrianus, it remained half pagan, half Christian, and was neither fish nor fowl. In any case, it was no longer Jewish, which was Hadrianus's principal aim in all he did in Judaea. Erasing Jewishness was the one certain thing about all the reconstruction of the last centuries since the Revolts. Not that the rebuilding was over. Much remained to be finished. Just one last supporting wall alone for the planned colossal temple complex on the former Jewish temple mount, where now a temple stood with golden images exalting the deities of Hadrianus and his lover Antinous--remained the biggest building project to be seen in the East after the building of Constantinus's City, Nova Roma. Whether it would ever be finished and the temples constructed, remained to be seen--as later emperors grew more concerned about themselves and various barbarian threats and less likely to pour money from their treasuries into a dead Hadrianus's pet projects that honored only him and Antinous.

If not for these "secret" accounts, he might not have been able to find out a thing in rebuilt city concerning Christus--everything from his time would have been wiped out, either by Titus and Flavius Alexander, or by the follow-up constructions of Hadrianus, and Constantinus I with his step-mother Queen Helena.

If anyone should examine these books and scrolls afterwards, they would have to dig hard to find them! They would be buried in admidst the rubbish of the greater mass of old books, papers and scrolls. Just to make it harder for spies, sent by whomever had an interest in what interested him most, he fingered a number of books, papers, and scrolls, as if he had read them. "That will confuse them!" he thought. "They will think I am interested in such subjects too, and miss the others, perhaps, when they give up in disgust after hours of search in all these collections.

When he saw they had finished what was available in the Prefect's palace, and it was most impressive and productive a hoard, Rutilius rose, rubbing his arms. He nearly staggered as he took a few steps and crunched a few manuscripts underfoot. Hyacinthus too was very pale in the face, and Rutilius saw the smudges of sweat and dust on the youth's face and arms, and how his hands were actually black with soot and dust from handling so many manuscripts that had, many of them, been wrenched out at the very last chance from already burning palaces and still smelled of those long-ago fires.

"We must stink of all these old books! It is time to wash it all off! To the baths at once for the both of us! They will revive the body like nothing else can!" Rutilius said. "And have some food and drink brought to the baths, not later to my quarters. I wish to think about what I have read, not attend any formal dinner and make polite talk tonight. Tell any servant sent to fetch us, that I am weary and will retire early."

Rutilius had good intentions to catch as much sleep as he could by retiring early, but it was to no avail. His head swarmed with the information he had gained all the previous day emmersed in the books. Book after book, passage after passage, ran through his mind on unending scrolls. Only at one point did the scrolling pause, and it was as if he heard voices, that made him toss on his couch.

"Behold the Man!" was one of the imperative declarations.

In the morning he rose groggy and feeling weak, but still determined to rouse his senses by a cold bath and get on with the day's business.

He hoped to forget about "Behold, the Man," which he recalled had to do with Pilatus Pontius's statement at his tribunal, called to decide the case of Christus who had been brought back to stand before him by his soldiers, after a courtesy sort of trial by King Herod who didn't want to do anything more than let his guards rough him up a bit. Thinking that a scourging of lashes with a whip corded with glass and metal, an ordeal that reduced a man's skin to mere tatters and even exposed his vital organs, would satisfy the Jewish mob that had come demanding the death penalty for Christus, Pilatus had him scourged. Now why had he been tormented by such a statement, out of the hundreds of others he had read? That was what bothered him even as he stepped down into the shocking cold water of his marble bath. Hadn't he decided the matter for himself, that Christus was, if divine, just another divinity? To accept that he was the only God, well, that was to upset the whole cart! It would have created an administrative nightmare, as well as a theological crisis for the cult of emperor worship. Even Constantinus had not dared to go quite that far--reserving the Sun God's attributes for his own image set on pillars throughout the realm all the while he reigned. Christian believers could grumble at that, but he knew he must not to lose the allegiance of millions of his subjects who remained loyal to the old gods of Roma and Grecia. They too must be given some share of the realm, even if the Christians and their Christus were dominant, thanks to his decrees.

Climbing up out again of the water after he couldn't stand it any longer, he felt his blood surge in his shuddering body. He took a towel from the bath attendant, dried himself and even with his teeth chattering felt as if he was restored to life-- the cold bath had indeed revived him wonderfully. All the weariness of his long journey, and the distasteful dust and smokiness of the old manuscript and books he had studied-- washed away! He oiled himself and ran the scraper over his limbs, to make sure no dirt remained, then rubbed himself with fresh towels, and he was done. Nothing like a cold bath to restore vitality! the old Romans said. And they were right! The only thing he didn't like was the scar on his arm--which looked like an untreated war wound. Fortunately, it had healed up, though the skin would never grow back decently as it was because of the big scar. In fact, it had a rough, cross-like shape--very unpleasant to see. To cover it he wore a wide gold arm band.

Dressed, he went and was led to sit at a small table set out by the windows where the morning sun struck first, and then he called for Hyacinthus to join him for breakfast.

Now where where they to search next? Rutilius wondered while they were eating. He thought on calling the Prefect, but since it was earlier than the normal palace hours for outings, he decided to go alone, with just Hyacinthus, and begin at the former temple mount which was not far off. It was only a climb up the hundred or so marble steps Hadrianus had laid, along which he had set marble lions and various sculptures he had gathered from various parts of the empire on his tour.

Leaving word to garison's highest ranking officer to inform the Prefect when he arose where they could be found, he departed with Hyacinthus, assured that the early hour was protection enough and that any would-be assassins were probably still be sleeping.

Occupying only a fraction of the vast temple mount platform, its imperial cult status protecting it from being Christianized, Rutilius noticed the obvious contempt the city's numerous Christians had for a place devoted to the long-dead, deified emperor. Hadrianus had clearly intended the temple and its grounds, nevertheless, to be the splendid centerpiece of the new city named after his family. If only he could see what became of it under succeeding Christian rulers! Rutilius thought as he and Hyacinthus climbed the grand staircase to the temple itself. From there they could take the view. As he did, he could see the whole pavement round about, and that it was in sad shape, being used mostly to serve as dumping ground for broken crockery and household garbage. What shrubs and grass the sheep and goats hadn't got, thieves had dug out and taken away.

Inside, Rutilius found only a few attendant priests about at that hour, who were eager enough to show him the temple's books when he explained what he had come to see, but a first glance at the shelves he found disappointing for so large and grand a place. They weren't on the subjects he wanted, being texts of the most absurd Aegyptian temple lore about hippopotamus gods and how to "feed" their images correctly, so while waiting for his escort to arrive he wandered about the premises, curious to see what Hadrianus thought was worth spending so much of Roma's money on. It was a strange place, he found, and he felt odd in it--a whole temple devoted to a man's strange and unnatural love for a handsome boy of some royal Greek bloodline that he had met in Grecia. The decadence of that obsession was so distasteful, and not at all dignified behavior in a world ruler, Rutilius thought. Yet the cult of Antinous, with the sanction and largess of his imperial patron, spread far and wide in a short time, and hundreds of temples were built all over the empire. Was it not all extravagant, emotional madness and folly? Rutilius thought. Why should he or anyone else try to make it appear respectable, when it was anything but the kind?

It was even stranger for him to think that the Jew's holiest place, the Temple of the Jews once had stood there, the immense edifice built by Herod the Great to curry favor with his Jewish subjects as well as extend his own fame and name to endless generations. How mistaken the king was, when it had not been standing more than 70 years in all its majesty when Titus and his general Flavius Alexander burnt and leveled it to the ground!

Soldiers came before the sun had got hot, and saluting, presented the Prefect's greeting as well as his orders to them, that they would be his personal guard as long as he wanted them.

"Good!" he said to them. "I want to see next the Temple of Venus Hadrianus built during his reign, which is said to be the Christian edifice of the Tomb of Christus now. Do you know the place?"

They led him there on foot, for it wasn't far, and he found it was much changed from Hadrianus's time, for the goddess Venus and many various statues of her young lovers had long been removed by the order of Queen Helena. The building housing them was also razed and a new edifice erected. A Christian altar was installed, and mosaics laid that covered up the ones of pagan scenes Hadrianus had favored. As for the tomb, the monks he talked to were not that sure of the exact place.

"The emperor did all he could to destroy the holy tomb," the abbot of the monks in charge informed him. "He first leveled it, then covered the site with huge blocks of stone, newly cut from the Jerusalem quarries Herod had utilized, and over that built the platform for the temple devoted to his favorite harlot goddess Venus. This he did to pollute the site forever with his pagan deities and thus keep it from ever being revered by us. But St. Helena overturned this intent of his completely, as you see."

Rutilius felt ashamed hearing this account coming from a Christian, as it was different reading it in many books and then hearing it said by a believer in Christus, who was evidently hurt and dismayed by the Hadrianus's action in covering up where his Lord's body had lain for three days.

"I am sorry to hear this," Rutilius replied.

The priest looked at him astonished.

"Why, sire? You too are a believer in the Lord?"

Rutilius shook his head. "No, I and my family hold to the old worship of Roma and their traditions and piety, but the emperor, if I must say so, acted most undignified and disgracefully. What did he have to hide here anyway?--a poor but learned, good man from the countyside who was the hope of his people, persecuted and hounded to death, crucified by our legionairies as a criminal--it is all so unbecoming to a man wearing imperial purple! I should hope we have changed since that time and grown in clemency and humane feeling! I see no reason why my gods and faith cannot live peacefully alongside yours. After all, what harm could there be in your Christus, the son of a carpenter who preached peace and goodwill and love for one's neighbor? He fits entirely within the spirit of the Roman ideal that governs our empire." The priest gazed at him sadly. "If you say so, sire, I would hope you would know, he is still our hope today, since men have not changed, nor have emperors. As long as there are these two opinions, how can there be peace? One or the other is bound to feel set a disadvantage."

Rutilius was now grown very uncomfortable. He glanced at the soldiers looking on and listening. What would they think of such seditious talk? And wouldn't they report it directly to the Prefect, who seemed not so tolerant of Christians, despite all the edifices constructed by St. Helena?

"Well, priest, you're entitled under Constantinus's laws to your hope, and I to mine. We must leave it at that, and don't we all pray for our leaders, as our sacred civic duty bids us as citizens? Let us then leave them with the gods!" Farewell."

He turned to go, thinking his statement would amend any damage done, but still not sure--you could never tell what his enemies would make of such an exchange.

"Wait, sire!"

Rutilius, surprised, turned back around. The priest came and handed him a simple thing he wasn't sure of, but it was the emblem of a phoenix and a rising sun.

"What is this?" Rutilius asked, not sure how to take it.

The priest and his helpers smiled. "It is something we give all visitors to this place, to remind them of it, that our Lord arose here from the grave, just as he said he would! May He return soon!"

Rutilius's hand clenched round the emblem of the Resurrection, and it seemed to burn and cut into his flesh.

He opened his hand, stared at the emblem, and when he did that everything he had read and everything he knew about life came togethe somehow, and were resolved. The moment might have been attended with a thunderclap, the revelation of it all, beyond reason, but nevertheless supported by all the facts available! There was no longer the slightest confusion or even doubt. "It is enough!" he said. "Enough! Enough for man, enough even for a frightened, confused boy-emperor in far-off Ravenna!

He could have shouted "Enough!" in fact in the grand temple hall for all the world to hear. Perhaps he did raise his voice, and did shout it.

Then, when he dropped his hand and handed the emblem back to the priest, they wouldn't take it, so he put it in the money pouch he carried in the lining of his inner garment. That was where he kept the emeralds too, and the moment he added the emblem of Christus, something extraordinary happened. He felt flashes of flame and pain where the pouch was located, and he clapped his hand over the area, trying to keep from groaning. The expression on his face of surprise and discomfort must have been plain, though he strained to keep his face expressionless.

But he just couldn't control or ignore the commotion in the pouch that had erupted the moment he added the Christus emblem to the emeralds! Neither could everyone around him ignore his own fidgeting and groping at his money pouch where he kept it.

The monks all stared at him. Hyacinthus stared at him, and the soldiers stared at him. Had he gone mad? Rutilius was in no mood to explain a word to any of them. He just wanted to get away, out of sight of everyone, and remove the pouch and see what was going on!

How could he do that with dignity? Regardless of his hasty withdrawal, he could not stand being in this condition a moment longer, so he announced he and Hyacinthus were leaving at once!

With a curt nod to the priest and monks, he departed, the soldiers marching with him, stumbling as they tried to keep formation and military decorum at such a fast pace as Rutilius kept up. Rutilius felt as though he could have run the whole way, he wanted to quit the city so much and rip the pouch out of his clothes. He ran into the Prefect who was going out just as he was entering, and that saved Rutilius going to find him.

"I am leaving at once for Caesarea Maritima, Prefect! Can you spare enough escort to see I reach there safely? You would know how many I need."

Startled, the Prefect nodded. "Why, yes, of course, Governor! But really I had hoped you would tarry here a few more days at least. We have some nice things to show you, some lovely pleasure spots in the countryside to enjoy--well, if you must go--"

"Yes, I must!" Rutilius said, trying with all his might to keep from shouting. "In fact, I am not returning to my quarters. I have no time for that. Anything you might find of mine there, send on to Caesarea. I am not to be detained by them now."

"Of course! I'll call the horses and a chariot!"

Orders flew, and within minutes the horses were led out, and a chariot, and some stores of food and water and wine put onboard, and the soldiers selected and given orders. They too were mounted and fully armed and twenty in number, sufficent to repel most any robber band.

Rutilius thanked the Prefect briefly despite the horrible state he was now in, then taking Hyacinthus climbed into the four-horsed chariot with their driver and a guard.

Soon they were off down the cardo leading to the gate opening to the nearest road to Caesarea. The first moment he could do so, he tore the pouch out of his garment's lining. It felt red-hot to his fingers, and the cloth actually smoked and was beginning to blacken. His skin felt scorched where the pouch had lain, and regardless of the charioteer, who was more concerned with his job than the strange fumbling movements of his important passenger, Rutilius emptied the pouch, grabbed the emblem from among the emeralds and handed it to Hyacinthus.

The moment he did that, the emeralds cooled, and no fire broke out. He was able to pick them up and put them back in the bag, which he then put with a bag of his books and papers.

After that, Rutilius collapsed on the seat provided in the chariot, his eyes closed as he slowly revived, while Hyacinthus stood, his body shielding Rutilius from sight of the curious along their route, though he turned a number of times to see how his master was doing after exhibiting such alarming symptoms of great distress in his chest area.

"I am feeling a little better now," Rutilius told his secretary as soon as they were on the open road and the noise of all the calvalry and their equipment covered their conversation, except for stray words, even from the charioteer.

"Some water, or wine," he rasped as his throat went suddenly dry. Hyacinthus gave him what he needed for his thirst from the water jug, some of which Rutilius wet his sleeve with so he might cool his face and brow.

The country breezes also helped considerably to cool him down. As for his chest, he didn't dare look now, as it might be so inflamed or burnt, from the feeling it had given him.

Best ignore it for now! Rutilius thought,and later get a doctor to tend to it. Hyacinthus, who had shown himself so useful in so many ways, might even have a idea what to do to soothe the area.

The whole trip down to Caesarea bored him, so he paid scarcely any attention, and just rested the whole way, though the chariot was not the most comfortable transport even on the fairly even surface of the road.

Three days later, after stops at the best inns, they arrived at Caesarea.

Thoroughly Roman, though constructed by Herod the Great who was Idumaean and half-Jewish, the city boasted all the amenties and refinements of civilization. Whatever could be had in Rome was here available, sometimes cheaper, sometimes more expensive, but still available. Baths, theaters, circuses, arenas, cardos, shops, markets, fortresses, palaces, good governance with a Judaean governor and plenty of legionaires to keep peace and order.

Once it had housed the residences and synagogues of a huge Jewish community, but they had all been either massacred or driven out centuries before after the Jewish revolts had been smashed by Vespasianus's legions. Consequently, it was not the most lively market city it had been, but it was stately and well-ordered and attractive to the remaining Romans and various Eastern peoples who called it home. At least the public parts he saw were impressive, and lately repaired or built anew after the severe earthquake of a few years previous that had nearly demolished the magnificent port Herod had built to his patron Augustus's glory, of which the magnitude and decoration of the marble, statue-lined piers and quays, lighthouses, sea-walls and jetties, etc, had once astonished the world.

Rutilius was driven straight from the main road that ran alongside the aqueduct that supplied the city its water to the Prefect's palace. They passed an arena that was packed with a crowd viewing entertainments of wild beasts pitted against beasts--as the latest Eastern Emperor frowned upon gladitorials and the shedding of men's blood for amusement.

At the Prefect's palace, Rutilius entered another world, the one cultivated by Roman arts and luxuries and supreme power. The palace was the seat for a provincial officer who was subservient to the Syrian Governor, and showed that lower status too in that some parts were not completely repaired since the last earthquake had shaken much of the city to pieces.

Despite that obvious neglect and decay, the Prefect went out of his way to show Rutilius all the hospitality of which Caesarea was capable, though Rutilius was only anxious to get to bed, and have his chest burn tended to.

Nevertheless, he felt he could not snub the Prefect, so he endured the next hours of him at a banquet, for the Prefect was prepared, having been sent word by fast mounted courier of his coming. The local dignataries were all present, along with the chief military officers and their aides as well--and Rutilius was obliged to take all their polite greetings and say a few words to each of them in return.

The Prefect informed him that official correspondence too awaited him. Inquiring about them, he learned they were mostly from Ravenna, but there was one that especially interested him, coming to him from southern Italia.

"They are all still sealed, Prefect?"

Rutilius asked.

"Of course, Governor! We have them all under guard day and night, and they are perfectly safe. I shall have them sent up to your room under escort the moment you retire!"

Naturally, Rutilius lost all interest in what was going on around him. He wasn't even hungry for the food. As soon as he could politely do it, he declined further attentions from the Prefect and his guests of local dignitaries and got himself and Hyacinthus to his suite, where he had Hyacinthus look at his burn and decide what to do about it while he took up Lady Fulvia's letter. As for the Emperor Honorius's heavily wax-sealed missives, they could wait a bit more!

Later, as Rutilius lay awake for hours on his bed, his mind still racing with the contents of Lady Fulvia's letter, he slowly came to a conclusion. As soon as he concluded his duty with the Emperor in Ravenna, he would beg off from any immediate new assignment and depart and head for Campagnia and the holy mount.

Hyacinthus had come up with a compress of soothing properties that were tied with strips of cloth to his chest, so the burn was not bothering him, or hardly at all; rather, the burning now was going on his his heart. He realized a new truth about himself--he would not rest until he set eyes again on the one he loved.

Loved! Yes! He saw no one so desirable as Fulvia, and dare he hope she might feel the same for him as he for her? Nothing the empire could offer him any longer interested him in the least. He had seen everything, and experienced the best of it in his own time and way, so the world had nothing to offer him that equalled her.

But there came a troubling thought: what if his beliefs in the old gods were a problem with her, a sticking point? She might not like that, probably would be unhappy about it, and then what? Could he change his beliefs for the sake of winning her? Wasn't that a lowering and cheapening of a man's principles regarding solemnly held piety? Would she admire that in him? He himself knew he would feel contempt for a man who did that sort of thing.

He very much doubted Fulvia would want a man like that--in fact, she would have nothing to do with him. Well, was he that sort of man, or was he not? What would he sacrifice for the sake of winning her, the love of his life?

Would he sacrifice his principles, his traditional piety, for her Christian ones? Were his gods to be replaced by her single Christian God, though he was said to be somehow a triunity that could not be explained or submitted to logic? How? It seemed impossible. On one hand, she would, he realized, reject a man who compromised his principles for gaining a woman, and on the other hand gaining her demanded he do that very thing!

Indeed, he was caught on the horns of a dilemma!

No wonder he got precious little sleep that night in the Prefect's palace in Caesarea.

He rose early, took a cold bath to revive his body and mind, and it helped, but still he felt as if he needed hours of dreamless sleep--which he knew was not going to happen, as he was determined to quit Caesarea as soon as practicable.

But what route was he to take? Caesarea had control of the main sea lanes leading to all the major cities of the Eastern Empire. Should he take ship and proceed to Achaea, and thence go by land along the Via Ignatia to Ravenna?

In the morning he left the palace with guards to escort him and Hyacinthus and he found his ship easily enough, down at the quayside dealing with ships arrived from Aegyptus--and he did not board or let anyone know it was his, he recognized it and that was enough. Turning away before anyone on board could possibly spot him, he proceeded on and sought another vessel immediately.

Without voicing his choice, he then returned to the palace, and had breakfast with the Prefect before declaring he was departing that very hour.

"Most urgent affairs in the north demand my hasty departure, Prefect," he said. "I cannot tarry here a moment longer, you must understand."

The Prefect said he understood, though he was sad that so much of the city remained to be shown to the Governor, and that the city would miss its opportunity to express its great delight at his visit.

Rutilius had heard all this before, and what could a provincial governor say to his superior? He nodded, and thanked the man for his gracious reception.

"My Emperor will be pleased, when I tell him how I was treated at your hands in Caesarea, your fair city."

The Prefect beamed at the thought. "Tell him I would have done far more too, if I had been permitted!"

"Oh, yes, I will tell him that. And now I must--"

He rose from his couch, and everyone else among the invited guests rose too, including the Prefect.

Under escort, this time an honor guard of the Prefect's top officers of the garrison, Rutilius with Hyacinthus were taken to the port, and there Rutilius pointed out the ship he had selected, and he was escorted on board.

The moment he was on board, he dictated a message and had Hyacinthus deliver it sealed to the captain, with the instruction to send it to the captain of his master's other ship. This ensured that they would be preceded on the same sea lane to Italia by a ship that had every appearance of carrying him on board.

The Prefect effectively commandeered the ship, and stationed his own soldiers on it for the duration of the voyage under command of Rutilius and his appointed captain.

The Prefect's treasurer paid out what was due the ship's owner and captain-- but the soldiers on board ensured that there would be nobody's authority on board that surpassed Rutilius's, and this was well understood by the time the Prefect was ready to disembark and allow the ship to proceed.

Provisions were inspected already, by the Prefect's own officer of commissary, and were supplemented by hurried purchases of wine, fruits, bread, preserved meats, etc., from the port's produce and meat markets.

The best quarters were taken aboard for Rutilius, the captain moving to a storage room--and fine linens and blankets fetched from the palace, along with cutlery and dishes fit for a governor. Anything else the Prefect thought was necessary for Rutilius, he had that brought too in a chariot.

At last, after two hours of these practical but tedious preparations, the Prefect saw that his guest was all the more anxious to depart Caesarea, gave him his last words of farewell, saluted, and left the ship with his officers.

Rutilius, via his appointed captain of the soldiers, was just about to signal the captain to order the anchor drawn when he saw several men dismounting from horses and then hurrying toward the ship as if to board. He paused, wondering if they were assassins, just in time to stage their attempt on his life, though he knew himself well protected and they were fools to think they could overwhelm so many guards as he had onboard.

The captain hurried down to see what the visitors were about, and then he turned back and came to Rutilius with the news that a man claiming to be a friend of Lady Egeria's wished to speak to him immediately.

Egeria's name gave him access to Rutilius immediately, of course, and Rutilius himself went to see the man who had come with two others in such a hurry, at the very last moment of his stay in Caesarea, to see him.

But when the man in the lead came up the gangplank, before he even reached Rutilius, he recognized him--the one who had written the impressive hymn to Christus! What could he possibly want now of him? Was Lady Egeria ill or in some kind of trouble or difficulty that only he was thought to be of possible help?

He stepped forward to greet the older man, in deference to his age and dignity (and also his former offices, being a lawyer and judge in Hispania before going to Roma to join the emperor's staff).

"Greetings, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius! But I am surprised to see you come here at this moment. Are you coming see me off, and why should you go to such trouble as to ride all this way? Is there some bad news to report perhaps concerning Lady Egeria?"

The old man shook his head. "Why no, everything is fine with her. She gave me leave to see if I might catch you at Caesarea and have a last word with you. We heard you were leaving the country after your brief visit in the Holy City. And since we first met in David's natal city, Bethelehem, which became the Lord Christ's natal city as well, I had to give you my song which I just recently completed. Would you hear it? I was so anxious that you should hear it. At my age, I know we shall not meet again in this life, as our ways are parting wide, and my way is drawing to an end."

Rutilius was confounded, but knew he would not withhold from this worthy old man what he requested, knowing it was probably true this was their last time with each other. And there was the additional reason the song, whatever it was, meant much to the composer and compelled him to want to share it with a fellow man of letters.

"I would be much honored if you would share it with me," Rutilius said. But where do you wish to do so? In my cabin? Yes, let us go to my cabin at once. My departure from here can wait a bit."

Ignoring the puzzlement on the face of the captain, Rutilius, followed by Hyacinthus, escorted his visitor to his quarters, and when Hyacinthus had Prudentius comfortably seated in his best chair, he remained standing with Hyacinthus to hear the song that had been brought expressly to him.

Prudentius removed a scroll from his cloak, which was dusty from the long ride by horse from Jerusalem, and after wiping his eyes with a cloth he took from his sleeve, he began, in a shaking but perfectly ennunciating voice, though Rutilius could detect the Hispanic accent.

"Earth has many a noble city;

Bethlehem, thou dost all excel;

Out of thee the Lord from heaven

Came to rule His Israel.

Fairer than the sun at morning

Was the star that told His birth,

To the world its God announcing

Seen in fleshly form on earth.

Eastern sages at His cradle

Made oblations rich and rare;

See them give, in deep devotion,

Gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Sacred gifts of mystic meaning;

Incense doth their God disclose;

Gold the King of kings proclaimeth;

Myrrh His sepulcher foreshows.

Jesus, whom the Gentles worshiped

At Thy glad epiphany,

Unto Thee, with God the Father

And the Spirit, glory be."

The song over, Rutilius thought it was a good poem, as he was a judge of poetry-- and its sentiments and thoughts were not overly emotional or florid, as songs of praise of notables and gods often were. He liked the way Bethlehem, that inconsequently little city, was compared to the empire's many noble cities and was said to outshine them all with the single greater glory it could claim, other than being a renowned Judaean king's birthplace--that of having witnessed the birth of Christus.

Rutilius thanked the old man, now turned pilgrim to the holy sites of the life of Christus.

"It is a fine panegyric you have penned, sir," he said. "Would you have a copy of it with you? Or Hyacinthus will copy it for me, if you give him leave. I should wish to study it more on my voyage to Ravenna, for it will give me pleasure and dispell the tediousness of travel."

Prudentius rose slowly, after twice attempting to leave his chair. He held out the scroll.

"No need of that! Take my song. I give it entirely to you! Do with it what you will, Governor. It is a little thing in my opinion, not even fit for a gift to you."

Rutilius protested. "Oh, I couldn't take your only copy. Please wait while my secretary makes a copy. He is quick at lettering, and seldom ever makes a slip of the pen."

Prudentius moved toward the door, after handing his song to Hyacinthus. "No, no, it is all yours! In Roma, or Ravenna, if you wish to share it with others, you may do so. You may remove my name from it too, it does not matter to me. Fame is of no interest to me any longer, now that I face the last of my days. But I must return to my Lady! Please see me out."

Rutilius made no further protest, and he showed the old man out to his attendant and his own horse.

Rutilius thought quickly, then said. "But no, I won't let you endure the discomfort of a horse a moment more. Not for my sake! You shall have a chariot!"

It was Prudentius's time to protest, but Rutilius would not be put off. He had word sent immediately to the Prefect, who turned back, and when hearing of Rutilius's request, stepped out of his own chariot, and offered it.

Rutilius immediately escorted Prudentius into it, then gave him a soldier to attend him, along with two mounted guards.

Prudentius suddenly called down to Rutilius. "Oh, I forgot one thing." He rummaged in his cloak, than handed over the chariot's rim down to Rutilius a tablet.

"I carried this from Italia, after we stopped to see some holy places there and met a certain noblewoman in a house for holy women who said she knew of you, and asked we try to give it to you should our paths cross. Well, they have crossed, indeed! Strange, how I forgot it until this moment, but I carried it so long, I didn't give it a thought any longer. Please see what it is. I can't tell you myself, as I don't read other people's letters!"

Holding the tablet, Rutilius exchanged farewells, and watched the chariot turn and head to the opposite city gate and the road leading to Aelia Capitolena.

He returned immediately to his cabin, then read the tablet with trembling hands. Was he surprised? It seemed it had to be miraculous, his receiving this forgotten letter in such a place and at the very last moment he had with Prudentius.

What if Prudentius hadn't written his song and felt so personally impelled to ride all the way from Bethlehem to render it to him? He would have missed receiving Fulvia's letter! But what in the world did she want to say to him that she hadn't already told him?

Forgetting Hyacinthus, forgetting the whole world, Rutilius read, and his amazement grew with each word.

"Governor Rutilius Numantianus, I shall dispense with the usual formalities of address. This is from my heart. I feel I must tell you the truth, so you can be sure how I feel in my inmost heart toward you. It cannot change, though I take a certain risk you will disdain this kind of openness from a woman. I love my companions dearly and the life we lead here. However, even if I am quite willing to continue it forever, there is no escape from the need I feel to share this change that has happened with me, with you. As for my past life, I shall say this: I felt more duty toward my late husband than love, our differences in age accounting for that perhaps. It was a good marriage, evenso. I do not regret a moment of it. His memory is one I shall hold sacred, though I fear the Senator never came to a true knowledge of my Lord--being a man of strong will and tradition- keeping temperament. Religion to him, even his gods, were to be kept at arm's length so he might conduct his official affairs unimpeded by piety, as he was a man of the world, and content to be so to the end. He was as fine a man as one could be in those terms, and he was faithful and loyal to me his wife--absolutely, for I knew everything that went on my household. Even when he took official trips by himself, my servants would have reported to me anything amiss if he had misstepped with another woman. No, he was faithful, unlike so many men in his station in life. I loved him for that, as he respected me, and I respected him. But now it is time, I feel, to tell you I am leaving my house of women to join you, if you wish. It is your decision to take me or not as your wife. I have merely put myself at your disposal. I would have waited for your to return to Italia, as you certainly shall in the months to come, but I thought, why should I wait for then, and keep you and this matter waiting unresolved so long? If you wish so, you may pass by, and I ask only that you erase this tablet. Your Fulvia."

UNCHRONICLE OF THE LAST SHIP TO MASSILIA, THE ROAD TO RAVENNA, PART VI, VOL. IV, RETROSTAR

Ravenna! But, closer to his heart, Fulvia! His body was sailing to Ravenna, but his heart had already made port on a certain holy mount in Campagnia!

This, indeed, seemed the most important voyage of his entire life! He had started out for Massilia, and now he was returning to Italia, to his emperor, after a strange tour of Christus's homeland with his findings and impressions. Only he was a vastly different man! His heart felt entirely different, enlarged and changed inside to a degree that was almost frightening! He cared little or nothing now for even the emperor and his spiritual quest! What he had found may or may not work for good in the emperor's mind--but that mattered so little now to him, it was Lady Fulvia's heart expressed openly to him that consumed him, head to foot!

He could scarcely think of anything else in the following days as the ship made its way northeasterly directly across the sea. They reached Achaea, the major port of Pireius that served Athens and most of that Aetolia, and he could wait no longer. He had a letter prepared, and sent it at once by courier on the Via Ignatia. In fact, he sent two letters--one to Honorius announcing the probable date of his return and his findings that Christus, though rejected by the Jewish authorities of the time as Messiah, was indeed the Son of God, and the other, the one that mattered most to him, to Fulvia.

Normally, with a good wind, five to six days would take a ship from Caesarea to Italia's southern ports. But the stopover at Pireius was necessary to speed the letters on their way by mounted courier, thus insuring they would reach their destinations should the ship founder and be lost. He was taking no chances.

To save the lengthly route around the Peloponnesus, the ship was landed opposite Corinthus on the east side of the isthmus, dragged ove the landbridge on logs by gangs of slaves, then relaunched in the harbor of Corinthus, and then proceeded on its way to Brindisium, the closest Italian port. From there he would speed to Ravenna, and after business with the emperor, he planned to turn immediately south and make for the holy mount where Fulvia resided. How he wished to speak with her of his heart change and his thoughts about Christus particularly! Ever since the moment when he finally concluded, after reviewing the huge mass of evidence, that Christus was whom He claimed to be--the Son of God and himself Godhead in equal degree with his Father--he could scarcely keep it to himself. In fact, he shared a few thoughts concerning his conclusion with Hyacinthus.

Hyacinthus seemed approving of what he said concerning Christus, but added no comment. Yet one morning Rutilius, upon rising, found a scroll opened on his sitting table, and he found it was Isaiah 53 that was inscribed--a copy of which Hyacinthus had made himself.

He read it through while having breakfast, and this scroll too he would present to Emperor Honorius, as it perfectly described Christus in the details of his suffering, humiliation, crucifixion and and death for the sake of his nation and all sinners.

He finished only a little of his breakfast, as he had no appetite, then felt as if he was too tired to rise from the chair--a strange feeling for him. He went back to the bed to rest a moment, and felt he could just lie back a few moments and would feel his strength return. But after he was lying there, he felt no stronger. What was this? he wondered.

He closed his eyes, intending to rest a little while. When he did awake, hw much later he did not know, he was feeling hot and thirsty. He struggled up to call Hyacinthus to fetch him a drink of mixed wine and water.

Hyacinthus came, looked at him, and then felt of his forehead, looking gravely at him. "What is it? Why am I feeling so weak and my head--it is burning?"

"You have a fever, I do not know what kind, sire. There is no doctor aboard to tell us either. You should rest in bed. I will stay with you and not go out, so you will have whatever you need."

Rutilius thanked him, then shut his eyes, hoping he would improve after more rest.

The day stretched into night, and Rutilius tossed on his bed, growing every weaker. Hyacinthus sponged off his brow, and moistened his parched lips in turn--as Rutilius was perspiring and then cold and dry alternately.

The next morning came, and Brundisium was not far off, but Rutilius felt he was not going to make landfall, not at the rate his vital strength was declining.

"Hyacinthus," he gasped through cracked lips, "I grow worse. I must have you write my last will now, or it shall not be possible later."

Hyacinthus got his pen and parchment, and waited.

Rutilius began, saying, "I had hopes of family yet, but it seems it will not be. Our name will die with me, should I die now, but it is of no matter. My estates and all their effects, with their slaves, and personal wealth (except that otherwise designated) go to Lady Fulvia, wife of the Senator to do with as she sees fit. My emeralds to Emperor Honorius, for they are state jewels. My gold in hand to my secretary, Hyacinthus, to furnish his livelihood and travel expenses both in Italia and back to Mount Masada in Palaestina Tertia. As for his civil and personal status, I set him free from any obligation to me, once he has discharged this final service. He is free to return to his holy man and shall not be restrained in any way. The emblem of resurrection will be buried with me, should I be buried on land. I, Rutilius Numantianus, sign this with my own hand..."

Rutilius had to summon all his remaining strength to sign all his names and titles, official and familial.

It was a costly effort. The pen fell out of his fingers the moment he finished.

His eyes, sunk in his head, showed no life, and gradually his lids closed.

But his shallow breathing, though rapid, continued, as Hyacinthus stood watch over him.

Finally, Rutilius's eyes opened, and they were clear and bright. "Hyacinthus! I have seen something!--oh, I see it still! There is a most beautiful country lying ahead! Peaceful, it is so peaceful there, I wished to enter it at once! At once! But a violence of storm is coming upon the ship. Do not despair--your life will be saved! Yours alone! You shall escape utterly unharmed, not one hair of yours missing. I saw this just now. Is this a dream? Am I losing my wits? I fear I have lost them."

"No, Master, I believe your words. God has sent you this dream. It is not the fever. Now please rest. The Lord Jesus will receive you, as you acknowledge Him as your only Lord and Savior, do you not, repudiating your false gods?"

"Oh, yes! But my sins, my sins, they are so many--I never was forgiven them, not in my entire life, for there was no real need for that before, as I believed myself a good sort of youth, not indulging in the excesses of drinking and orgies of other youth of my class, and later a decent and orderly man. But now I feel I must bear my sins forever and sink beneath them to my doom!"

"No, sire, you need not. Confess them to the Lord Christus now, those you can remember and those you cannot, for God knows all, and He will forgive and cover them all with His blood shed for you, and you shall be washed clean in the eyes of God."

There was no response from Rutilius. He sighed deeply. Hyacinthus leaned close to his face, seeking any sign that Rutilius's spirit had slipped away. But there were a few more rapid breaths, then a deep expiration, and no more breath was taken--the spirit, in peace, had flown to his God and Maker.

Hyacinthus wept. He had known him only a short while but had found him a most kind master, and a great man-- things he knew would seldom be found in a single individual, Roman nobleman at that. Not once but a number of times Rutilius had chosen to suffer with others rather than exert his privileges as a nobleman. Back on the long, hard road to Aelia Capitolena, still some miles yet from Bethlehem, all they had left on their journey by foot was a little in the water bag to moisten his master's mouth and parched lips. He handed it to his master, who pushed it away, saying he wouldn't drink the last drops, not if he died. "You take the remainder," Rutilius commanded.

Just as he placed the emblem of the Resurrection in Rutilius's hands over his heart, there was a booming sound in the distance, as if many thunderclaps had somehow gone off at the same time. Startled, he paused, then thought to go up and see what the weather might be doing.

He drew the sheets up over his master and went up to inform the captain that his master had expired. Just as he did so, he found the weather greatly changed as he had expected, from the sound he had heard. The sky was full of clouds, hanging low over the sea. But it wasn't the sky that the captain was concerned about. He was looking intently over the side at the masses of waterbourne planking and sail, most of it charred black, that blackened the waves. Shaking his head, he turned to Hyacinthus and then his chief mariners, but could give them no explanation. They too had heard the huge thunderclap, if that was what it was, and wondered if it produced what they were now looking at-- the remains of a ship that had seemingly been shattered into innumerable small pieces like a vase of glass thrown from a high window down on hard pavement.

Recalling the dream Rutilius had told him, he returned to the cabin, fitted the document of Rutilius's last testament in a wax-sealed copper-sheathed container together with the Isaiah scroll with the Messianic portion of the Suffering Messiah marked for Emperor Honorius's special attention, added the bag of the emeralds and the gold, and waited in prayer, praying for the safety of the ship and its mariners.

Suddenly, his prayer was interrupted by "Run and jump off the starboard side!" The voice was audible, and no one else was present but himself!

He left everything else but what he had attached to himself, and obeyed. The clouds were upon the ship, he saw at a glance as he bolted up the stairs and onto the deck. The captain was busy having the sail drawn in and furled, expecting a furious squall that could rip it away.

But Hyacinthus saw something else-- a vase conelike snout of something of shining metal protrude from the cloud, and there were blinking lights in the nose of it, that were emitting short rays, which seemed to grow longer as they moved toward the ship.

Without waiting for the meaning of this, Hyacinthus obeyed the Voice and ran to the starboard side and leaped as far as he could away, plunging into the water and then swimming as fast he could away upon gaining the surface.

Behind him there was a tremendous explosion that lifted an immense mass of water along with the wreckage of the ship that bore down upon the desperately swimming Hyacinthus.

He dove under just as the wall of water crashed over him, and then it was a swirling world of pieces of the ship and Hyacinthus, thrown about below the surface.

But a big swell brought him to the surface and there amidst the foaming surface he gasped for breath and spat out water at the same time.

How far was he from land? He couldn't tell just where he was either.

What direction should he swim?

He saw a big log not far off, and made for it.

It was the mast! he realized, as reached it and grabbed hold. The mast would save him as long as he clung to it, and so he stayed with the mast for some time, regaining his strength.

The clouds dissipated quickly, unlike any storm he had ever seen, and bright sun shone down upon the place where the ship was instantly destroyed.

Hyacinthus fully expected other survivors to join him at the mast, but not one man appeared. Then he recalled what Rutilius had said concerning his dream: he alone would escape and be saved.

It was awful to think about, all those men perishing in the blast and by drowning, so he concentrated on how he was to get safely to land.

He did not have to swim another stroke however.

A ship that was outward bound from the busy port of Brundisium hove into sight, then approached nearer and neared as this was the major sea lane to Achaea. Just as it came near, Hyacinthus cried out for help, and he was heard by a man up in the sail's rigging. Shouts, and a captain came to look out at him, and then orders were given, and the ship slowed and a rope was thrown out. As it came by him, Hyacinthus climbed on the mast and leaped from it to the catch the rope. In a few moments he was hauled aboard, wet but very much alive, and except for some scrapes on his arms and legs from the floating debris, he was unharmed.

It was difficult to explain, however, to the captain what happened to the ship. The mast was all that was left, besides a mass of broken up planking that said a ship had once been sailing there.

But Hyacinthus could handle the matter, being conversant in both Latin and Greek, and the captain took him to be an upper class Romanized Greek of some importance, and treated him with all the amenities that the copper trade ship was capable of producing for an unexpected guest passenger.

Besides his own education and fluency, Hyacinthus carried money, and could pay for his passage, and offered to do so, but the captain would have none of it.

"No, sir, your misfortune of losing your vessel is great enough for you to bear! You are my guest, and will be no trouble for us. Will you want to go to Brundisium here at close hand or over to Achaea? If you will pay a little something for our delay, I will gladly turn my ship around and bring you to port."

Hyacinthus was overjoyed, as he had expected the captain might not be of a mind to inconvenience himself so much for his sake, a total stranger.

"I am a Christian," the captain said, "and I cannot treat strangers and those in distress at sea worse than my Lord said to treat my neighbors."

Hyacinthus gave the captain three gold coins, and the man handed him one back, smiling. "Now I have your payment, which I can say I received from your hand for this service of our ship. The owner, Democratis of Corinthus, will think it rather good I helped you, as he likes gold! Oh, how he likes gold! If you had given nothing but maybe some copper or brass coinage, he might be displeased with my little delay. But as it is, we might get as good wind as the one we have now, and reach Achaea on schedule anyway."

The ship was turned and and tacked and reached the coast south of the harbor, but there Hyacinthus was able to be put ashore in a smaller port than Brundisium's, and more quickly too, as no harbor agents were involved in inspecting things and expecting bribes too.

Once on land, Hyacinthus waved to the captain on the departing ship and went looking for transport in the market just beyond the piers and warehouses. He was pleased when he found the little town could supply just what needed, a cisium for hire, that would speed him to Lady Fulvia. The captain had chosen the spot well! Here he would draw little or no attention.

How difficult this was to be, however, but he must give Lady Fulvia in person the very sad news!

In the privacy of the cisium's cab, as it was being drawn for him by a hired driver and his two horses, Hyacinthus undid the strap holding the scroll case, not sure what he would find.

The wax seal (which he had purposely doubled in thickness) had held! He opened the case and not a drop had entered to spoil the writing!

Putting the scrolls back, Hyacinthus rested, with a small lunch of water and wine, and bread and cheese to consume once he felt he could take anything down once his stomach recovered from the salt water he had gulped.

Driven up the mountain to the monks' dwellings on the top, Hyacinthus had a wide, panoramic view of the countryside, but he wasn't taken by its beauty, he was wondering how the Lady Fulvia would receive the sad news he had to bring.

The cisium halted in the square before an edifice that had once been an ancient Greek temple of Apollo but was now converted to a church. Monks came toward him, and he stepped out to ask for directions. He gave Lady Fulvia's name, and at first they shook their heads, and said they knew no such personage. But as some women happened to come closer, they overheard her name and one hurried to him and bowed. Before he could ask her not to bow to him, an ordinary person, she spoke. "Sir, you are come to the right place, for she is abiding here! She is our dear sister in the Lord! She goes by another name now, but I recall that was her name formerly in the world. Allow me to take you to her. But whom shall I say is calling?"

He gave her his name and why he had come-- as executor of his master's will. Now the men were interested, and they hurried to inform the bishop that a visitor of note was on the mount.

The three women did not wait for the bishop to come with his welcome, they led him directly to the small house that lodged the holy-living women of the mount. A wall surrounded it, with an attendant, so insure the privacy and protection of the women at all hours.

But he was escorted through the gate, and then led to a bench set alongside the entrance to wait, as they had no rooms for receiving male visitors.

Just as he was about to sit down, he heard the sound of slippers. He looked up to see a woman descending a staircase from the upper level without anyone with her. She was hurrying, and her expression was half expectant and half troubled.

The moment she saw him, however, she paused. Her head went down as if she had already divined what his call was about, and hope had fled.

Hyacinthus approached her, then bowed, and the began the difficult task of giving her the things she dreaded to hear.

When it was over, she did not leave him. She seemed to brighten, and escorted him on a gravel path back around the house to where it was shaded by trees and vines in the walled compound at the back. A few of the women were tending the plots of vegetables and herbs and they turned to smile at them. Lady Fulvia chose a vine-covered stone bench, which was a more pleasant place to sit and discuss things, secluded in part, but still visible to the gardening women.

When he was seated, she remained standing, as it was the rule there not to sit with any man, as they were all widows. "I am glad you came to our house of widows. Now I know the truth, for I see you are a man of truth, and you follow the Lord too. I was not sure my friend knew him, but in your account I am assured he did come to know the Lord at the last. That is my comfort, and I thank you for it. How should I have known otherwise? The Lord spared you for other reasons no doubt, but he also thought of me, it seems. I would have wondered and wondered, and he spared me that. God is so good!"

Hyacinthus also had the duty of reading the will to her, and she took it herself and read it.

"He places this burden on me of Executrix estates, of which I need nothing in income to sustain me while I abide here where we share all things in common, yet in deference to his honorable dealings to me and my late husband, I will be faithful to his last wishes, and see that they are properly administered to provide aid for the poor."

Hyacinthus knew this legality was necessary to be established, however, before he left the mount. The bishop's help would be most needed, and so he asked if the bishop would see him, if Lady Fulvia had no more need of him.

"Of course, your journey has been very long and hard, and you wish to conclude your business as soon as you can!" she replied. "I can take you through to him at once, as I don't wish to detain you any longer than necessary. You must have other details of the estate to deal with before you return to the East."

Together they went to the bishops's lodge set behind the temple in a grove of trees (being once the temple priest's domicile), and were admitted at once by the group of elders who sat and conversed in the shady, cool, vine-covered pergola of the entrance.

PLEASE GO TO CHRONICLES IN PROGRESS:

RETROSTAR CHRONICLES IN PROGRESS, PARTS I AND II

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