The First Coming
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<email@example.com>
Date: 7 March 2008, 4:11 am
A cold wind blew from the west. It carried with it the dust and debris of the desert, stinging the flesh left exposed between his cloak and his cap. The whirling detritus did not obscure the cloudless, moonlit sky above, however. Thankfully so; the glistening majesty of the heavens offered the only respite from the barren scene around him, and the only aspect of this dreary corner of the world held in common with his own home. A sight more barren and depressing to the spirits he could not readily recall. Even the blood-soaked field after battle did not evoke in him the same emptiness he felt now. Such a savage place should be left for savages to govern, he thought sullenly.
Centurion Marcus Cassius Varro struggled down the dirt road of the dreary Eastern town, becoming ever more convinced that he had lost his way. The settlement was not large, but lost what little distinctiveness it had with the darkness of night. He recalled stopping at a tavern when he first arrived, and that it had been situated on the thoroughfare down which he now stumbled. But he was sure he should have come upon it by now had he been going the right way. The buildings that surrounded him all looked the same: squat, mud-brick affairs, perfect little dungeons for the lives of these mountain dwellers.
At last he found what he had been looking for: a mud brick structure like the rest, a shade larger perhaps, and distinguished by a flimsy sign in whatever dialect the locals called their own. He pushed the door ajar and stepped in, the cold air without following him and disturbing a few nearby customers. One of them turned to say something, but upon seeing him, merely scowled and returned to his drink.
Marcus unfastened his cloak and removed his cap. He set out for the bar, but was immediately accosted by an unfortunately familiar face. "Salve, Centurion," the man said, throwing him a salute.
Marcus winced at his recognition, but turned and reciprocated in kind. "Legionary Galeo," he nodded to his unwanted comrade. Galeo was amidst a group of a half a dozen or so other legionnaires, the names of whom did not immediately come to Marcus' mind. They were the men of the Fifth Cohort of the Gallic Legion, sent south by that bastard Quirinius and dispersed across Judea as glorified babysitters for the censors. Uprooted from their comfortable posting in Anatolia, they were charged with protecting the taxmen from the hostility of the reticent natives. That is, if Galeo and his friends did not do them that favor on their own, Marcus thought wryly.
Of course, as a position as the censors held in a soldier's estimation, Marcus did not expect he now rated much higher to these men. They had invited him with all to make the best of their new station with the copious amounts of local wine appropriated on their march south. A Centurion ought to be close to his men, as he well knew. He had declined nonetheless, preferring solitude to the degradations of the legionnaires, and had quickly invented a report requested of him by the magistrate's office. His presence here betrayed his lie.
"You ride fast, sir, to have made it to Jerusalem and back in so short a time," Galeo said with a glint in his eye.
"I dispatched a written report instead," he replied, shrugging off the accusation. "I see in the interim you've made your way into town."
"Worry not, sir, we're not stirring the nest. Just came to sample the local fare." Galeo squeezed the shoulders of a woman he held in his arms. She smiled when he looked at her, but cast her eyes to the floor when he returned his attention to Marcus.
"Well, enjoy yourselves, Legionary."
Perceiving this as a dismissal, Galeo offered him another exaggerated salute. "Yes, sir!" he cried with mock seriousness. He jerked his head towards the door, and the men left with undue raucousness, their women in tow.
They were not his men. His century was left behind in Cappadocia. This godforsaken posting had been foisted on him as he had the undesirable combination of experience and low status. His family had money enough to buy his commission, yet not so much as to be recognized in any circle of importance. His uncomfortable position in command of men who had little respect and even less fear of him was the result of his inability to compensate his modest standing with a agreeable character.
The episode cast him in a foul mood. He strode angrily towards the bar, knocking the backs of several patrons' chairs. The barman observed him warily as he approached. Doubtless he had had his fill of serving these foreign soldiers with the recently absented carousal.
"Give me what's best," Marcus demanded of the man. He received no reply in words or action, however; the barman merely looked at him with a bemused expression on his face. "Gods help me," Marcus muttered aloud, running a hand through his thick hair. He strove to recall from the distant recesses of his mind the Greek lessons of his childhood, assuming at least that slice of civilization had reached this land. At length, he formulated a phrase which communicated his desire nicely: "Make me drunk."
The barman nodded wordlessly, and grabbed from the rack behind him a generously sized jug and a small terracotta cup. Marcus roughly seized the articles from the man and tossed a coin upon the counter, neither knowing nor caring whether it was sufficient recompense.
Marcus took a seat at a table near the door, securing for himself a quick escape lest the malcontents who populated the tavern decided to express the ire doubtless earned by Galeo's crew on a solitary likeness. He prepared to pour the unidentified liquid into the cup supplied by the barman, but upon inspection he pushed the grimy vessel away in disgust and drank straight from the lip of the jug. It was some species of beer, though far stronger than what he was regularly accustomed to. He coughed and blinked his eyes against a torrent of tears, grateful though he was for what he hoped would be a quick inebriation. Repositioning the sword on his belt for greater comfort, he settled back in his chair, closed his eyes, and held his evening's companion close to his breast.
He sighed to himself. What perversity in his nature drove him to the den of the enemy and away from the society of his own kind?
Some time passed, measured out in swigs and deep breaths. The heat which burned his gullet with each drink became permanent and diffused, and his troubles were forgotten, or made trivial. His thoughts drifted across space and time to his home on the hill and the family within. Of his wife's breath on the back of his neck in the morning, of the smell of her hair, and her perfume, and her cooking. Of his son—how changed his face must be now!—eager to follow in his father's footsteps and live the life of the legion. Of his daughter, who behaved precisely as a daughter should, blessed with the delicate beauty of a flower and the fierce pride worthy of her name. Would that home could come to him, for he was barred from it by turbulent times.
His musings were interrupted by a blast of cold air, startling him from his reverie so that he let drop the front legs of the chair with a sharp clump against the stone floor. The noise attracted the attention of the newly arrived figure in the doorway. It turned to face him and thereupon started towards him. Marcus set his drink down and gripped the hilt of his sword, hoping at least not to pitch forward if forced to action. With a few more steps, the light of a wall-torch identified the figure as a woman; one of especially slight build, for that matter. He relaxed once more, and paid her no more heed. He was not interested in her services tonight.
The woman insistently stared at him, however, prompting a more careful study of her countenance. Gradually his interest grew with this closer inspection; the clothes beneath her cloak were of fine quality and make, and despite a gaudy Eastern flair were clearly Roman in design. Her face, however, commanded his attention; her light skin and eyes suggested a birth far from this place, a quality endearing enough even without the excessive beauty of her features.
Her continued silence grated, however, and compelled him to speak first. "Greetings," he said guardedly in Greek.
"Salve," she returned in Latin.
"Good," Marcus exclaimed, righting himself respectfully. "You speak properly." He looked around. "Are you traveling alone, lady? These roads are not safe in daylight, let alone by the half moon."
"Best then to end my journey quickly. Tell me, which way is Bethlehem? I have come a long road, and greatly desire to rest where the sunrise does not make demands of another day's travel."
"You are on the correct road, though you have overshot your destination by some miles. But do not concern yourself with that now. You look travel-worn and in need of convalescence. Please, take a seat. You are in the company of a friend, now." She hesitated to move at first, but soon acquiesced and sat down in the chair opposite him. "I am Centurion Varro, by the way, of the Gallic Legion," he continued cheerily, his spirits curiously uplifted. "What is your name, my lady?"
"You may call me Librarian."
"I asked your name, not your occupation."
"I am what I do. Just as you are Centurion, so I am Librarian."
"I mean the name bestowed to you on your birth," Marcus said, irritated. "Though lest my eyes deceive me, or I have consumed more than I should have, I confess to doubt you to be the curator of books, or of anything else for that matter."
She ignored the latter comment, answering the former with an unsteadying coolness. "I have no name worth remembering. Call me instead by the name of my lover, as I believe is the style of your people: Didact."
"That is no better than before!" he cried, exasperated. "What sort of name is that? I have marched with the legion across all four corners of this world, I have spilt blood from the Channel to the Nile, and I've never heard its like." He pondered this enigmatic woman, still staring coldly at him from across the table. He decided on a different tack. "What land then gave you this name? From whence have you come to see this Bethlehem?"
"I hail from a land far distant from here, beyond the Nile."
Marcus snorted. "You make sport of me, lady. I've seen their kind, made servants in Alexandria; their ebon aspect and inhuman eyes. You've none of that; your skin is like mine or lighter still, and you speak the mother tongue with clarity and grace. Not like these savages!" he finished, raising his voice on the final word and banging the hilt of his sword on the underside of the table.
"Why do you denigrate your own people so?" she asked with a furrowed brow.
Marcus' eyes flashed with anger. "I will tolerate as a matter of exhaustion your evasiveness and untruths, but do not insult me again with such insinuations!" He calmed his nerves with a deep breath and another swig, noting his companion's utter lack of reaction to his outburst. He sighed and explained himself, in case of a genuine mistake. "My name is Marcus Cassius Varro. I am a Roman—a true one at that—born and bred upon the Esquiline. I call the Seven Hills home, as they were to my kin as far back as the founding."
"You share a common humanity with them," she persisted, a wavering consternation polluting the pureness hitherto marking her speech. "Can you not see that?"
"We hold no thing in common, madam," his own voice rising with anger. "We are as alike as men are to beasts, or as sunlight to moonlight. They grovel here in their mud dwellings, handing over their meager offerings when we demand it, as they did for their previous conqueror, and their conqueror before that. I would never submit to any man or nation, not 'til they carry the treasures of the Capitol over my dead body, encased in the ash of my burned city. What sort of men pass the yoke while they still have arms with which to fight and eyes with which to see?"
"'Woe to the vanquished?'" she asked sadly.
"Precisely." He smiled in thought. "You've read the works of Livius?"
"I have read as many works of man as have been written. I have witnessed all the vagaries of you nature. I have seen your kindness and altruism, and your cruelty and malice also. I am driven again and again to great heights of hope, then dashed to bitterness and disappointment, the inevitable conclusion of a thousand apogees."
Marcus simply stared at her, bemused to a temporary silence. "I have no idea of what you speak, but damned if I will pass over the attentions of a beautiful woman of Latin tongue. Let me ask you this, then: if you will not tell me where you come from, at least tell me why you are here."
"There is a child born tonight which sets my hopes highest of all. I must see him, to be sure. He is one destined to Reclaim that which matters most, though he is born to an age not ready for him. Would that he were; I can only hope further propagation will produce more like him, and in a time which necessitates him."
Marcus could make no sense of her. He looked down at his drink and wondered if it was the alcohol which robbed sense from her words. The drunk and the sober were two breeds forever at cross-purposes, communicating on two entirely separate plains which never converged. Perhaps the fault was his.
Whatever part of his mind governed his speech did not seem to agree. "You speak like a Jew, madam: in riddles and nonsense. It is most unbecoming in a woman of such obvious cultivation."
"I do not deal in prophecy, but in fact. He will be an extraordinary man. I am curious if it will be recognized in him by his kin, when his potential is not given expression. Alas, I will never know. Bethlehem will be my resting place, as it will be his birthplace."
Ah, Marcus thought, finding his explanation. Here was one of those unfortunates, with willing flesh but an addled brain. He felt sorry for his sharpness with her earlier. "What ailment numbers your days, lady?"
"None, in particular," she said dreamily. "Only that I've lived my life through to its end, most of it in the deep and cold dark of the long passing years."
"You look very young to my eyes," he said, in what he hoped was a kindly tone.
She smiled. "Now that I have told you my purpose, it is only right for you tell me yours. You are a far way from your home, are you not?"
"Is the answer not obvious?" He rattled the sword inside its hilt. "I am a soldier."
"That is not an answer."
"Is it not? The Legion tells me where to go, and I go. It is the life of a soldier, as it has always been."
"And why do you do it?"
"A man needs to be paid."
She shook her head. "That is not why, Centurion. Your garb, your speech belies your means. You could have pursued a trade, or earned your bread at commerce."
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Now he could understand her. "I do it for honor—for my ancestors, and posterity—and for love of Rome."
"Ah, yes. Rome. I have seen your city, and many before it. It is the greatest yet—greater still to come."
He shook his head with a laugh, no longer taking offence to her outlandish comments. "You are mistaken, lady. The Eternal City is no misnomer, nor any child of hubris. There have been none who have done what we've done. No Alexander, or Hannibal, or even the mythical Achilles could now stand to Rome when her anger is brought to bear. She will survive the test of the ages."
"Nothing is permanent, Marcus. They are but names; Rome, Athens, Alexandria. Just names. Only one thing may truly endure the fires and dust and blackness of time: humanity. The blood which is shared with all the men of this earth. You must see that, lest the demons of your nature overtake you."
He merely shook his head again, exasperation and drink lending a sense of mirth to her ramblings. "I share my blood with my family, and no one else."
"You have a family, Marcus?"
"I do," he replied warmly, closing his eyes in remembrance. "I have a home, near the southern edge of the Esquiline. From the second floor you can see the Tiber just over the Palatine and the city all around. My wife and I used to lie together on a bench in the atrium and watch the stars. On a clear night, we sometimes slept there, not waking 'til the sun, or our children, woke us. My wife kept a nice garden there, you see, which kept at bay all the stenches of the city and set about the whole a pleasing coolness, salubrious to the constitution and agreeable to a long repose."
"You love them, don't you?" she asked earnestly.
"With all my heart, yes." Clearly, the drink had loosened his tongue, though baring his heart to this woman somehow seemed a comfort to him. "If death would speed my reunion with them, I would fain march to it tomorrow."
His companion nodded contentedly, a faint smile on her lips. "That is what will get you through," she murmured, more to herself than to him.
He did not mark her expression or tone, occupied as he was with finishing the last of his drink. "Truer words I've not heard spoken," he answered blithely.
She heaved a sigh after a long pause, seemingly returning to the present. "I really must be going, however. I can not delay any longer."
"You mustn't go out alone, madam, and I'm in no condition to escort you. Wait 'til daybreak—there is not so great a rush that is worth risking bandits or highwaymen, surely."
"As I said, I must depart immediately. I appreciate your concern, but I will come to no harm, I assure you."
"If you will not listen to reason, at least let me walk you to the edge of town." Marcus rose and unsteadily lurched towards her seat.
"Do not touch me!" she cried, leaping from her seat and nearly sending the startled Marcus sprawling to the floor.
"By the gods!" he exclaimed, steadying himself on the table. Several of the patrons turned to glance at the scene, but their eyes did not linger long. "What is the matter with you? I am no thief, nor, I assure you, will I take anything that is not mine to have!"
"I'm sorry—I mean no disrespect to you, and I appreciate your courtesy. But I must go, alone. Farewell, Marcus; may you see your family again soon." With this hastened valediction, she flitted out the door, a blur to his eye.
Marcus sat back down, his mind a confused mess. He seriously considered the possibility that the strange woman had been an apparition of his drink-soaked mind. He had never handled spirits with either the aplomb of some or the cheerfulness of others. At times, especially when alone and far removed from his family, it effected in him strange thoughts, and actions stranger still. But an apparition?
He looked around for some sign of acknowledgment of the departed woman. Indeed, there was a buzz in the room, a reaction to her hasty departure. Good; his longing for home had not yet driven him to madness.
But there was something else, too. A look on the faces of the locals; not hostile as before, but
what? It was embarrassment, unmistakeably. Embarrassment for him. And the reason struck him with equal clarity: they thought themselves witnesses to a lovers' quarrel. A sense of understanding over the tiff had dissipated the animosity which had greeted him earlier. He laughed aloud at the misunderstanding.
Marcus did not wish to return to the camp outside of town. The way was too dark and cold, and no warmth awaited him there. Instead he stumbled towards the barman once more. "Rooms?" he asked in rough Greek.
The man nodded.
The man held up four fingers.
Upon the counter, Marcus carefully placed five coins. He gave the man a silent nod, and stumbled off to bed.