IF WE ARE FAITHFUL ENOUGH
Chapter VIII, where Nil meets a clever zealot and the zealot meets a stupid Roman
Galleys were essentially large boats. They did not have a keel, so beaching was much safer for them than for later ships yet to come in future centuries, at least if they are really put firmly aground and not thrown around by the waves. Captain Glap’s ship Glapos was firmly aground, so, except for a few broken oars and three missing slaves, it did not sustain any serious damage. Of course, it’s bottom had to be tarred soon again, but that was pretty much it.
Still, the captain had to wait until the weather got better before attempting to get it afloat again. Fifty oarsmen and the crew could provide enough horsepower to move the ship even if it is completely beached – galleys were light – but not during the storm. So the only thing Glap could do for now was to curse and wait. According to the captain, they were a bit to the north and really close to Caesarea – a Roman port in Judea less than a day from the Jerusalem. Nil considered going to Jerusalem before Egypt because he suspected that local authorities, especially the Roman procurator of Judea, might have some valuable information on the subject. So Nil waited until the morning light broke, said thanks to the captain and his mate, wished them good luck, and got on the deserted road along the shore.
The road was local and quite poor, but the important thing about roads is that they almost always go from one place where people live to another. This was what Nil was looking for – a place where people live and where he could get a horse and directions. He knew that these areas are much less hospitable to a lonely wayfarer than the well guarded and patrolled Via Appia, but he had some military training and experience and he was sure that he could handle a bunch of peasants who decided to try their luck on a highroad.
Before he got to a place where people lived, he met some people traveling in the other direction. A crowd of poorly dressed men, many with staves in their hands, were coming toward Nil, crying something in the local tongue, chanting, gesticulating, and showing other signs of vivid communication. Some of them were in ragged and patched rubbish that was probably a tunic-like dress sometime in the past. Others wore a simple loin-cloth. Many of them wore simple sandals made of a sole and a couple of straps to keep it on the foot, but some just wrapped their foot in a piece of sheepskin. That’s, of course, not to mention the few who were barefoot.
When the crowd and Nil met, people started to whisper some word in the local language, looking at Nil and pointing fingers at him. They were giving Nil the way with fearful covert glances at him. The whispers were getting louder and louder, until someone cried out something like “Ragal!” and the crowd attacked. Nil had military experience, so he crushed several jaws before he was overwhelmed by the mass. At some moment, somebody struck him on the head and Nil blacked out.
* * *
He regained consciousness in a small cave with an opening in the top. It was one of those caves that rains had washed out over centuries in the dull orange coarse-grained sandstone. There was only one man nearby and he was dressed completely differently than the road gang that attacked Nil. He was dressed in a Greek himation, somewhat similar to the Roman toga, on top of a chiton, both with embroidery. His feet were comfortably fit in a pair of good Roman-style sandals.
“Do you hear me?” he asked.
“Yeah…” Nil said. His head was heavy and he felt sick, besides, he had blood on the top of his head. Not enough to worry about, but it was not pleasant either. “And who are you?”
“My name is Temah the Samaritan, your honor. You see, I am a trader from the city of Samaria, which you call Sebaste,” the man said. “I was traveling by the road and saw you lying with a wound on your head. I took you to this place to hide you from the sun and waited for you to awaken. I trade with Romans so I know your tongue. Take some water, your honor, you need it,” the man gave Nil a cup with water.
Nil drank most of the water then soaked the edge of his cloak in the rest and wiped his face. Then he checked his possessions – no, nothing was gone, not even money. Those vagabonds were clearly not robbers. He touched the wound and winced in pain.
“Dirty sons of hyenas,” he said. “They’ll pay for this, if I can find them.”
“Who do you think did this to you?” Temah asked.
“How do I know? Some crowd of dirty beggars, filthy and dirty,” Nil said. “They were stepping aside and clearly feared me, so I did not expect them to attack. And then they cried something in local tongue like ‘Ragal’ and went on me.”
“Tsk-tsk-tsk,” Temah said. “‘Ragal’ means ‘spy’ in our language. Could it be because of your mission, you honor? You know, it’s none of my business, but I saw that they did not even rob you.”
Nil thought for a moment and it did not make any sense to him. Then he recalled the men who attacked him and said, “No, they don’t look like Christians.”
“Christians, you said?” Temah asked. “Tsk-tsk-tsk, oh my, you said they looked like beggars? That’s very much like them. We good Jews don’t like Christians. They are traitors. And you know, they hate Romans.”
“And you ‘Good Jews’ like Romans, right?” Nil chuckled and winced in pain again.
“Not much, I admit,” Temah said. “Some of us want to be free, that’s true. Who doesn’t, your honor? But we like to trade with you very much. Rome is rich and buys a lot.”
“Free from Rome? So you would prefer to bow to Parthians?”
“Oh, no, not the Parthians, for God sake,” Temah said. “Just free on our own. But we don’t hate Rome, oh, no. Not like those Christians.”
Something turned on in Nil’s head. This guy talks a lot about Christians, he thought, and he hates them, and clearly he’s met a lot of them.
“You say Christians hate Rome?” Nil asked. “Is it just hate or something more solid?”
“Everybody knows that they predict very bad things happening to Rome,” Temah said. “And really soon.”
“Looks like everybody does,” Nil said with a wry smile. “Do you think they seriously plan to do these ‘bad things’ to Rome?”
“Sure, I can easily believe that,” Temah said. “I apologize for asking you, your honor, but do you mean something solid?”
What the hell, Nil thought, it seems like everybody knows about it anyway except the imperial security.
“Did you hear of Christians planning to burn Rome on the third day of September Ides or some other day?”
Temah kept a silence for a few moments, then said, “Yes, your honor, I think I did. Not about burning Rome, but about something big and dramatic for sure. The man was not specific about what exactly will happen, he was more interested in the end of the world to follow. And I think he mentioned the date, although I thought that’s just one of their stupid prophecies.”
Nil sighed. It seemed like everybody really knew about that plan and had met this Benjamin at one time or another. This wasn’t even amazing anymore. Then doubt came after him. This Benjamin seemed to be too omnipresent for a mere mortal. May it be several different men? It’s hard to imagine such plans would be born independently at the same time, but even one plan may involve many people. If it was somebody else, it would be great to know about another conspirator in that group.
“Was his name by any chance Benjamin or was it some other name?” Nil asked.
“I think his name was Benjamin,” Temah said. Who cares, he thought, what the name of this character is. “He is one of these traitors, you know, Christians. He deals with Greeks a lot, and nothing good comes from Greeks. Well, it’s getting late, your honor. Can I help you get to your feet? I have a servant with me and an extra mule to spare. I am going to Caesarea and you are welcome to join me.”
“Yes, thank you good Temah the Samaritan.”
Nil sighed. Apparently, he heard again about that mysterious one and the only Benjamin. Anyway, getting to Caesarea was Nil’s objective for today, and there in the city he could get help from the head of the Roman administration and garrison.
* * *
When they arrived in Caesarea and Nil left, the servant asked Temah:
“Don’t ever make me pretend to be your servant again, Temah! And explain why you did not let us kill him?”
“Because, stupid, Roman officers don’t travel alone,” Temah said. “He was clearly on a mission, and if he disappeared, your whole village could be wiped out. How many times have I told you and your imbeciles not to attack Romans on your own? Even when you think that they are spies, like with this one. They endangered us all. Thanks Almighty, you brought him to me!”
“But you heard him, he was not on the mission,” the man said. “At least, he was not really spying on us, like the people thought. He does not care about zealots; he was after Christians.”
“And that’s the reason why he should go unharmed,” Temah said patiently. “He is after Christians, not us. Do you like Christians, Shaul?”
“Those dirty dogs? Traitors to our faith?” the man asked. “How could you even think that about me, Temah?”
“I don’t,” Temah said. “Just as long as this stupid Roman is against Christians, he does a good thing for us. So I wanted him to go free on his mission.”
“I think that you let him go because you like Romans,” Shaul said. “You are rich, and you trade with them. That’s the reason you don’t hate them as we do and as any true Jew must.”
“Tsk-tsk-tsk, rich, poor, why do you think this matters, Shaul?” Temah asked. “You see, being a zealot is not about being rich or poor, it’s about being a Jew. We are all Jews, true faithful Jews. And about my ‘love’ to Rome, did you hear what he said?”
“On the third day of September Ides Rome is going to burn, and they will blame the Christians for that,” Temah said. “You see, Shaul, I hate Rome. We all should hate Rome. Albinus is robbing us but he is the Roman procurator. He is sent to us from Rome. I’d love to see Rome burn.”
“And what’s here for us?” Shaul asked. “They are likely to raise taxes again to rebuild their precious capital, that’s all.”
“No, Shaul,” Temah said. “It’s not just our chance to strike back at the heart of the empire that oppresses us, it’s our chance to take care of those pesky traitors, the Christians, as well. And don’t forget, who missed those pests and let them go at large? Albinus! It’s likely that he will be replaced then.”
“Taking care of Christians?” Shaul asked. “Sounds good but what if Rome does not burn?”
“Oh, you look at the wrong side. What matters is that this stupid Roman will make sure that the Christians are blamed for it. That’s why he had to go free.”
“Temah, but what if it does not burn?” Shaul repeated.
“You see, if we are faithful enough, it will,” Temah said and raised a finger. “That’s our part, Shaul, to make sure it will.”
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