The creaking told her she was on a ship. She could smell pitch.
Suddenly her hood was removed, and a Captain of the Praetorian Guard stood over her.
"You are as beautiful as I imagined!" he said with a smile. "I am Ursus Maximinus! I apologize for the roughness of our men, but they have a job to do and they do it well! You are a very lucky woman!"
"Lucky?" asked Miri, her eyes checking her children. They sat, heads still covered, between her and Yusef, Martha and the hermit. Everyone appeared to be sleeping. The banks of the Nile slipped lazily by.
"Most enemies of the state are executed before they reach Rome!" said Maximinus, "You, however will have the privilege of being tried by the Emperor himself!"
"Tried?" asked Miri, "For what?"
"Who knows?" replied Maximinus, "I am charged only in retrieving you and your family! Alive!"
"Those people are not my family!" said Miri, "I was just travelling with them to sacrifice to Isis in Philae. We thought we would share expenses!"
"Indeed?" asked Maximinus, and he reached over to Akivai and with a quick slip of his dagger that made Miri's heart stop, cut her son's hood open. Roused from his sleep, Akivai saw Miri and his eyes lit up.
"Mama!" he cried out in delight, and Miri's heart sank.
"I admire your wit!" said Maximinus, "And your maternal tenacity is admirable!" He grasped Miri tightly by her jaw and his mailed gloved bit into her skin. "I have orders to return you alive to Rome! From the Emperor himself! These people are all going with you! It is worth my neck if I let any of your family escape! If they are, as you say, only strangers, then they will be of no use to me, and I shall gut them like pigs and throw them to the crocodiles! Do you understand?"
Miri nodded, and he released her.
"I have no doubt you will all be slain once you arrive in Rome, but your execution is at the whim of the Emperor, and my job is to deliver you alive to him! I have no more interest in you than I would for a leopard or an aurochs destined for the circus!"
"Could you remove their hoods?" asked Miri, "It is terribly hard to breath!"
"I think not!" said Maximinus.
"If the Emperor pardons me, then I may be in a position to return the favour," said Miri.
"Pardons you?" asked Maximinus in surprise, "Why would he do that?"
"You think he would keep me alive simply for a trial?" she asked. She was running a bluff, but it was worth a try.
Maximinus thought for a moment. "I will remove the hoods!"
And he untied the hoods from the prisoners. "You are still my prisoners. But because of your importance to the Emperor, I shall treat you as guests."
"I'm hungry!" complained Avikai.
"Could you undo out chains?" asked Miri.
"Not honoured guests!" Maximinus muttered. "The chains are assurance of your presence!" He walked aft to the cabin. Two soldiers immediately came up and sat guard over the prisoners on the forecastle.
The soldier grabbed by Sobek lay nearby. He was badly mauled, and his friends discussed his condition. He groaned and on of the guards got up to fetch the medic. A Roman military doctor called Lucius came and tended him, but Miri could tell he was not an experienced physician. From what she heard, the man, Quintus, was lucky. His armour had prevented the great teeth from penetrating the flesh, and it seemed the crocodile was not fond of chain mail. At one point, when Lucius' ministrations caused Quintus pain, Miri called out to them, and told them she was a trained healer. Lucius merely grunted, but Quintus, without saying anything, definitely betrayed his desire for a second opinion to the gruff bedside manner of Lucius.
Each time the ship passed a settlement, Maximinus became agitated. His demeanor did not change drastically, for his military training had caused him to damp down the fires of feeling, but Miri sensed the tension in him as the population density along the bank increased. The captain was under orders to remain in the centre of the river even when the current would have taken then closer to the banks. Maximinus paced the deck and kept his eyes on the nearest bank, and he roused his troops every time it appeared another vessel would cross their path.
As he paced in front of her, Miri asked him why he was so vigilant.
"It is my nature," he growled.
"This is a grain ship," said Miri, "Who would pose a threat to us?"
Maximinus, professionally taciturn, clenched his teeth.
"I have informants who have said that a terrorist group has been dispatched to assassinate you!"
"Me?" asked Miri in surprise, "Who would do that?"
"I have no idea," he replied, then turned to look directly at her. His eyes ground into her in search of the answer. He decided to share his thoughts in hopes of bringing her opinion into his pervue.
"I have heard that troops raided Bilbeis and slaughtered all the male children of five years olfThere is a theory that Herod Agrippa has hired mercenaries to eliminate you and your children! Adherents to your husband's cult have proclaimed he rose from the dead and is about to return to Palestine to lead a coup against King Agrippa! And an attack against Agrippa is an attack on Rome!"
"My husband has no cult!" retorted Miri, "He would be appalled by it!"
"Nonetheless, his followers have deified him. Now they see him as some sort of Hercules that will lead them to victory against Rome!"
"Moses!" corrected Miri.
"Pardon me?" asked Maximinus.
"The founder of Israel was Moses, he led the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt!"
"Greek Myth!" snorted Maximinus, "The gods do not descend to live on Earth. It is the domain of men! The many convinced that a Saviour will descend from the heavens, are just compensating for the lack of faith in themselves!"
"They are desperate," said Miri, "And Rome oppresses them!"
"We are defending democracy and the Republic!" said Maximinus fiercely, "These terrorists are destroying our civilization, and understand only force!"
Miri's hackles rose.
"You think we only understand force?" she asked incredulously, "It is the Romans who live by force of arms! It is not evil to wish to live with values other than Rome! You call yourself a Republic, and are ruled by a single man! He stands behind the army and his secret agents arrest all who criticize him! The Senate are afraid to vote against him, for they love the comforts of power more than they love democracy. They are rich men who think only to preserve their wealth and position. It is a capital crime to speak against the Emperor and your roads are littered with democrats nailed to crosses!"
The mind of Maximinus snapped shut. "I will not argue politics with a woman!" he declared and walked away.
Martha and the twins, aroused from their sleep by Miri's argument with Maximinus, slowly drifted back into dreamland, lulled by the smooth flow of the Nile that propelled their vessel downstream, and fell asleep in the arms of Hapi the god of the Nile. Yusef remained awake.
"You speak Aramaic?" He asked one of the guards.
There was no reply. "How about you?" Yusef asked the other.
Satisfied neither understood Aramaic, Yusef stared hard at Miri.
"We haven't had time to speak," he said to Miri. Miri raised her eyebrow, and Yusef cleared his throat.
"How is it you have such power?" he asked.
"Power?" asked Miri. His question perplexed her, for she felt that she no longer had any power at all.
"You send a message to the Emperor and he arrested Flaccus!"
"I held some papers from Agrippina implicating him in the death of Caligula's father Germanicus."
"It seems the world revolves around you, Miri!" Yusef was perturbed. "I cannot fathom the workings of God, but you seem to be chosen by him!"
"As a Messiah!"
"How could I be the Messiah?" asked Miri, "Is it not written the Anointed One would be a man?"
"You have a great power behind you," said Yusef, "You take a carpenter from Galilee, and transformed him into a great Teacher! You have the power to control even Caesar!"
"That's nonsense!" retorted Miri, and his words made her wish she could peel off her skin.
"I think not!" he insisted, "Hear me out! Notwithstanding the miracle of Yeshua, this thing with the Emperor frightens me! Not only did your letter stop Flaccus in his persecutions, but by it he was utterly destroyed! And the delegation to Caligula was thrown into prison! Then, Caligula dies before he can deal with Philo or place his statue in the Temple in Yerushalayim, and the new Emperor, Claudius releases Philo and the others we sent, and then issues a summons for you and your children to attend his court!"
"Germanicus was his brother!" said Miri.
"But now, Claudius has issued orders for your execution! The Alabarch has told me he thinks Herod Agrippa has swayed him. Your children are a threat to his appointment as King of Judea. He has not just the tetrarchy of his Uncle Phillip, but all of Edom and Judea and the Galilee. He managed to secure all of Palestine, and many in Yerushalayim have suggested that Yeshua will return to depose him!"
"How can they say that? Does Agrippa really believe that Yeshua will come back?"
"He was magistrate in Tiberias, and has seen the following he had there!"
"But Yeshua had no pretensions to the throne!" said Miri.
"There is a fever sweeping through our community! There are many who say they have seen him, and that he promises to return to deliver us from the Kittim! Even in Alexxandria! And along with his return, they say he will sweep the tyrants from the face of the Earth!"
"Yeshua would never do such a thing!" she complained, her heart splitting at the stupidity that seemed to be inexhorably closing like the jaws of a vise. "Why do they think that his call to remove the tyrants, is a call to replace one with another? Though he defied the Herodians and the Templars, he had no wish to replace them!"
"Nonetheless, a tyrant sees the world only on his own terms! To Caesar, his removal necessitates a replacement, and he sees himself as the guardian of the Empire, even though he only succeeds in being its jailer!"
They fell silent. The wounded soldier, Quintus, turned to them.
"In the woods where I was born there is a glade," he said. Both Miri and Yusef froze for he spoke Aramaic. He had heard everything they had said. Yusef cursed himself under his breath for being so lax.
"On the northern shore of the lake, below a steep cliff stands the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. Within the sacred grove a tree stands, and there the priest of the grove skulks with sword drawn always. He is sworn to protect the tree from which it is decreed that no man shall remove a single branch, save only a runaway slave who is allowed to break off one of its boughs. By breaking off a branch, he then can legally challenge the priest to mortal combat, and should he slay the priest, he is granted sanctuary there and is safe from prosecution by his previous owner. But he is then forced to become the new priest of Diana Nemorensis, and then reigns there with the title of Rex Nemorensis, King of the Woods!
But he must be ever vigilant from that day on for any other slave who can break a bough will then gain the right to challenge him This priest and murderer; is doomed to protect the tree from all challengers and adventurers for he knows nothing of who is and isn't a slave from his appearance, and every man who passed by might sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such is the state of the sanctuary. A runaway slave only can gain sanctuary there by slaying the existing priest, and having slain him, he retains the office until he was himself slain by a man slyer or stronger than he.
It is said Caligula, upon hearing of this custom and thinking that the priest of Nemi extant at that time, had held office too long, hired a famous gladiator to slay him, and that man, who slew the priest, walked away from his sacred duty to the grove of Diana caused his downfall. Claudius then released several slaves whose conditions were desperate to fight for the privilege of being the guardian of the tree. The fight was desperate and bloody, but after a great clash of arms, one man remained standing, and, in gratitude, he dedicated a perpetually burning lamp in a shrine at Nemi for the safety of the Emperor Claudius and his family."
The man coughed, and Miri moved closer. The two guards moved to prevent contact but she spoke to them in Greek, and told them she was a healer, and they consented to her examining their comrade. Her manacles were loose enough that she could pass her hands over the soldier's body, even though the iron bands and chains interfered with her touch. He had swallowed a lot of water, and some still lingered in his lungs. There were three wounds that were beginning to fester, and he was running a fever. She held her hands above his wounds to draw his energy into them, and the tension drained out of his and he relaxed for the first time since he had been injured, and as he sank into a deep sleep, for the first time since he could remember.
Yusef and Miri and the two guards stared in awe as the setting sun turned the white sides of the Pyramids at Giza a radiant pink. The eastern flanks turned mauve, and it seemed not of this world, but as if it had been placed there form afar, for it resembled no other building in the world. The radiance it reflected seemed to come from within the structure and not without. Dark patches showed on the sides, and Miri realized with horror that the Romans were removing the limestone facing in order to build villas in the Fayum. That such a sacred object should be taken apart to build houses for the Emperor's favourites was a sacrilege beyond belief, but their cruelty and barbarism had long since destroyed her credulity, and she sank into a deep depression, for she and her children were now sharing the same fate as the Great Pyramid. An Empire that could take apart the pyramids in order to build new houses, would destroy her and her progeny without even so much as a sigh of regret. She was doomed.
They passed Memphis in the dark and downstream of the citadel, the boat swung to the Eastern tributaries of the Nile. "Where are we going?" asked Miri in alarm, "The way to Rome is through Alexandria!"
The port of Tamiat had been a capital of the area for some time, and the Romans had upgraded the port in order to move troops back and forth through the Eastern Mediterranean. This was a base of operations for the Enperor's secret expeditions, and there was a substantial internment camp set up there. Miri and her family and their escorts were assigned a small compound away form the other forces there.
"So now what?" asked Martha.
"We wait!" declared Quintus, for after Miri's ministrations, he had recovered quite quickly. The wait was a long one, and the guards, without an order from Maximinus, had added five links to her chains in order to loosen her chain so that she could better tend to Quintus. She had become quite popular amongst the soldiers for they all felt she had a power to cure them of all sorts of general ailments, and some had even taken to asking her to bless their food and drink before they consumed it. That she was probably the most beautiful woman they had ever seen didn't hurt her influence over them.
Yuesef as well, had changed in his attitude toward her and treated her with a reverence that made her uncomfortable. But despite her discomfort, she wielded her authority deftly and with a surety of a goddess, and secured as many comforts for her children as she possibly could. For some reason, the longer they remained as a separate entity from the rest of the settlement, the captors and captives bonded and formed a relationship that was almost familial.
Maximinus could feel her influence undermining his authority, but had the sense not to interfere with it, for Roman soldiers followed their leaders only as long as their needs were being met, and for the time being their needs were adequately fulfilled, and their mission would be over, once they boarded the ship for Rome. The ship to which Miri's family was finally assigned was a terrible disappointment. It was a heavy transport ship with all the agility of a pregnant elephant, and even in the harbour, she seemed to balk at the sailor's attempts to keep her quayside.
The ship was loaded with the plunder of a hundred nations. The cranes lifted bronzes and marbles of conquered lands, and antiquities of long lost civilizations, and the ship groaned and complained of the load she was being asked to bear. Miri and her family were pushed on board, and herded into a cage between great packing crates, and they knew they had become trophies to be collected by the Empire. Rome lived on the back of her slaves, and the great society that slave labour spawned no longer really cared about the happiness of its population. People were commodities to be used and traded like animals, and the soul of the Empire had been corrupted by the cruelty of slavery and the dispassion that it engendered.
A huge cage was lifted over the deck, and Akivai cried out at the sight of it.
Wrapped tightly in rope, was the monster Sobek. Gemelus supervised the loading and he was extremely proud of his acquisition. So much so, he approached his prisoners.
"Well, what do you think?" he asked excitedly. "It is a gift for the Emperor!"
Miri had no answer. Statue. Crocodile. Magdalene. They were all entries on a ship manifest.
"Rome has no soul!" whispered Miri.
It was not the answer Maximinus sought and he turned on his heels and had the cage lowered into a specially sewn leather casing for Sobek's cage, that he ordered tied to the cage and filled with water. The children shook with fear, for the mood had changed drastically. As more treasures were piled about them, more cages were brought in and other captives squeezed into them. Each cage had a board attached that listed the names of the captives and their country of origin and their destination in Rome. That destination was a warehouse in Ostia reserved for the Emperor Claudius. They were now the property of the Emperor.
"God preserve us!" said Yusef, but he now felt as though his god had abandoned him.
They spent the night on board, unattended and without food or water. In the morning, just before dawn, a gruff and quite oily jailer dipped bowls of cold porridge and offered them each, in turn a tin cup dipped in a water jar, to quench their thirst. Maximinus arrived at dawn, alone. He informed them Quintus and the soldiers who had captured them had been reassigned, and only he would be aboard ship to travel with them. He left them to introduce himself to the first mate and present his compliments and passage to the captain. But as the ropes were being cast of and the ship hauled into the deeper channel, Quintus appeared on the quay to watch them depart, and at the last moment, he blew them a kiss, and waved until they were out of sight. Though they could not see it, he had tears in his eyes.
Thankfully, as they were lighter than most of the cargo, they were stored on deck, and the sea breeze was a welcome refreshment.
"Where are we going, Mama?" asked Sarai plaintively.
"Rome!" said Miri, "We're going to Rome!"